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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

How Agnes Kharshiing uses RTI to battle illegal mining in Meghalaya despite the risks

A voice in the dark: Agnes Kharshiing remains undeterred as she awaits a response to her latest RTI application with the Urban Affairs department about land acquired for an upcoming medical college in Shillong.

Written by Makepeace Sitlhou | New Delhi | Updated: December 4, 2019 1:57:36 pm
Meghalayan activist Agnes Kharshiing, 2019 International Hrant Dink award Meghalayan activist Agnes Kharshiing’s efforts were recognised with the 2019 International Hrant Dink award for speaking out against corruption. (Source: Suvajit Dey)

I didn’t know of Madalyn Murray O’ Hair until a feature film on her life, The Most Hated Woman in America dropped on Netflix. She was irreverent; she had a mind of her own, questioned the practice of blindly following social norms and took on those in power. In her case, it was the American government imposing the Lord’s prayer in public school classrooms. For America’s democracy, this was a huge win, as it was for O’ Hair. But for the dominant Christian electorate of 1960s America, she was an anarchist.

When I meet 59-year-old Right to Information ( RTI) activist, Agnes Kharshiing in Shillong, she reminds me of O’ Hair. Kharshiing, who was still bound to her bedroom, had survived a blunt force trauma 7-9 cm deep on the scalp by a mob a year ago when she had been investigating the illegal transportation of coal in Meghalaya. The attack pitched the spotlight firmly on the danger posed by the coal mafia in the state to those who dared to speak up against them. But far from deterring her, the near-death experience only emboldened Kharshiing. She had been investigating the illegal mining of coal in the state, known for its coal reserve of about 640 million tonnes, for five years, after the National Green Tribunal took cognisance of the many complaints filed against the industry and ordered the sealing of the mines in 2014. In July this year, the Supreme Court of India passed an order that allowed mining to resume in Meghalaya, in compliance with central mining laws.

Despite her condition, Kharshiing filed a RTI query in June at the Directorate of Mineral Resources on all the challans issued to mine owners on the direction of the Supreme Court in December 2018 for which, she says a reply is still awaited. She was also itching to be taken around in a taxi back to the coal mining depots in Jaintia hills, where, in November last year, she and her colleague Amita Sangma had been waylaid and beaten up by a mob of about 40, when they were there on a surveillance trip. “I love investigating,” she says, breaking into a sheepish smile. “I always want to get to the root of any matter. Maybe, it’s because I used to read a lot of thriller novels growing up,” she says.

Her brothers Robert and John have both been part of mainstream politics but Kharshiing always chose to work outside of political affiliations. Her NGO Civil Society Women’s Organisation works on women’s rights, taking up cases of domestic violence and abuse in the region. When she started taking on cases of forcible acquisition of land for mining and eventually took on the coal mafia in the state, things took a turn for the worse.

When they were attacked, rumours started circulating on local WhatsApp groups that the incident was really an extortion deal gone wrong. In this narrative, Kharshiing demanded money in exchange of the evidence she had on her against some prominent mine owners like Nidomon Chullet, one of the accused in the First Information Report and the chargesheet subsequently filed in June 2019. Chullet, a member of the ruling National People’s Party in Meghalaya, is currently out on bail.

It came as vindication then, when three months later, her efforts were recognised with the 2019 International Hrant Dink award for speaking out against corruption. Given in honour of the Turkish-Armenian human rights defendant Hrant Dink, who was shot dead by a teenaged fanatic in 2007 for speaking up against Turkish ultra-nationalism and the country’s clampdown on the press, the citation of the award lauded her willingness to take on “the risk to her life as she makes the years-long illegal mining known to the public.”

While in solidarity with Kharshiing, not all activists in the state believe her approach to crisis resolution is effective. Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network that has been working on child trafficking in Meghalaya’s coal mining belt, said that while Kharshiing’s courage is appreciable, posting photos of criminal activity on Facebook is a futile exercise. “As one of the petitioners in the case before the NGT, we asked her to send us the evidence she’d collected. We also asked her to accompany us on our planned investigation trips. But she just never responded,” she says.

Kharshiing’s brother, John, says she has a mind of her own and doesn’t care about the consequences for speaking out against anything she feels is wrong. “When I was in a political party, she would often lambast it left, right and centre, which would put me in a difficult position,” he says.

Kharshiing remains undeterred as she awaits a response to her latest RTI application with the Urban Affairs department about land acquired for an upcoming medical college in Shillong. The controversial amendments to the RTI act this year has rendered it a lot less effective, but it remains her primary weapon of choice. “Even though I don’t get a response to most of my RTIs, I see it as my democratic right to question the government,” she says.

The writer is a 2019 National Foundation For India fellow. 

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