No real will to protect activists'

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Sumaira Abdulali: "Thesystem needs to encourage a high degree of citizen activism."-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sumaira Abdulali: "Thesystem needs to encourage a high degree of citizen activism."-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Sumaira Abdulali of AWAAZ Foundation.

SUMAIRA ABDULALI is a well-known environmentalist who has achieved her goals using the courts and advocacy programmes. Her interest in the environment started in 1998 when, following a request from local fishermen for help, she undertook to agitate against encroachments and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations. Following an assault on her by the sand mining mafia in 2004, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called MITRA Movement against Intimidation Threat and Revenge against Activists was set up with membership from several NGOs. She is a managing trustee of the AWAAZ Foundation, an NGO for environmental initiatives. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

How do you react to the threat from the courts to not admit frivolous public interest petitions?

While there is little doubt that PIL petitions have been misused for private interest and personal vendetta and that genuine commercial interests have suffered because of frivolous PIL, scaring potential complainants away from filing petitions will only further help keep illegal activity in the dark.

It would be better to put in a system to stringently vet PIL petitions administratively on defined parameters before filing is allowed than to impose penalties which act as a deterrent to even those who might have filed genuine PIL petitions. The system needs to encourage a high degree of citizen activism using all available tools, not discourage it further. The existing level is extremely low compared with most developed countries.

Public killings have a terrible impact on the mind and morale of citizens, making prosecution even more of an imperative.

Some of the violence is actually aimed at keeping potential activists away. So, in that direction Amit Jethwa's murder has actually benefited vested interests.

Also, it is generally perceived that nothing ever happens even in cases that are high profile and that there is little effort on the part of the police to ensure convictions. The judicial system does not have any provision for speedy disposal of cases and where an activist has been working alone there may be no one to follow up on his behalf after he is eliminated.

Even (as in my case) when there is follow-up, the entire system is united to make prosecution difficult in terms of time commitment. After fighting for six years to secure prosecution in the first attack against me in 2004, I feel quite discouraged. In the meantime, all parties are out on bail and continuing the illegal activity. This is representative of what happens where arrests have been made. In many cases, it never even reaches this point.

Why is there no action to stop harassment of activists? Is it a good idea to give them police protection?

There does not appear to be any real will to protect activists. I do not believe formal security, as accorded to politicians, is the answer, except in cases where an immediate direct threat exists. With round-the-clock security, activists would not be able to function and would become a burden on the system. The difficulty of identifying individual activists worthy of such security would also arise. Instead, quicker police response, delinking of politicians from the police (through police reforms) and more public participation in preventing illegalities would be better.

Also, quicker judicial processes and encouragement of PIL, RTI and other tools. I believe that if there is a genuine effort from senior levels of government to protect activists, the message will go down very quickly to the grass roots and the attacks will reduce significantly.

You were attacked by the sand mining mafia in Bankot recently.

The extent of the underworld and governmental connections of the sand mafia was not fully understood until this recent attack on me took place. It is clear that the sand business is controlled by politicians across party lines and is active in almost every area near enough to Mumbai to supply sand to the construction industry [which is largely controlled by the underworld]. It is also unregulated, and the profits are not disclosed to any formal government agency. Profits from sand mining appear to be a major source of election funding and all politicians have huge stakes in protecting it. [After the attack on me] Revenue Minister Narayan Rane said in the Assembly that activists were blackmailing the sand miners!

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