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High Court Overturns Priya Pillai Offloading, Declares Government Move Undemocratic
NEW DELHI - The Indian government was handed a symbolic legal rebuke today as the Delhi High Court declared the decision to block Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from traveling to Britain in January 2015 was undemocratic.
Greenpeace India campaigner Priya Pillai said: “We are relieved that the court has cracked down on this undemocratic abuse of power by the government. The bar on my travel was a clear violation of civil rights. If this government is genuine about its promise of inclusive development that benefits all, it needs to work with civil society rather than to suppress it.
“We hope that this signals the end of the harassment that Greenpeace India and other civil society activists are facing. Clean energy, clean air, clean water, protecting forests and the rights of people – these are the issues that the NDA government must deal with, instead of trying to gag people and groups that raise these issues.”
Over the course of several hearings, the government failed to substantiate its claim that Priya Pillai was working against national interests.
Commenting on the ruling, Pillai’s senior counsel and former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising said: “It's a great day for the country. Decency and public morality have been restored. The right to dissent has been raised to the level of a constitutional right. This is the only right that matters when a majoritarian government is in power.”
“You cannot muzzle dissent in a democracy,” the court’s Justice Rajiv Shakder told the government Ministry of Home Affairs. He further ordered that the Look Out Circular in her name be quashed, the offload stamp expunged from her record and that she be removed from any Intelligence Bureau database.
Ms Pillai had been due to brief British MPs in London on coal mining but was barred from travelling, despite having the necessary visa and documentation, allegedly because her name figured on a ‘lookout circular’ issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Her passport was stamped with the word ‘Offload’ – an action seen as part of a crackdown against protesters by prime minister Nahendra Modi’s government.
Ms Pillai and Greenpeace India have been supporting tribal villages in the Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh opposed to the Mahan coal mine, which threatens a large forest area that many thousands depend on for their livelihoods. Prior to its de-allocation by the Supreme Court in the “coalgate” verdict, the Mahan coal block was allocated jointly to London-registered Essar Energy and Indian firm Hindalco. The growing fight to stop the mine is believed to be the reason Ms Pillai was singled out by the government as she was headed to the UK to give a presentation to British MPs on the issue, which she instead delivered over Skype. In December 2014, the Ministry of Environment informed the Ministry of Coal that Mahan coal block should be considered an inviolate forest area and not be auctioned for mining.
In June 2014, a leaked report from India’s Intelligence Bureau termed NGOs opposing the government’s energy policies as “acting against national interest” and suggested that action be taken against them, including blocking their access to overseas funding. Acting on this report, the government blocked Greenpeace India’s access to money from Greenpeace International. The Delhi High Court ruled on January 20 that this action was without justification or due process and ordered that the funds be released.
The Essar Group has since been in the news due to the alleged involvement of company officials in leaking confidential documents from the Ministry of Petroleum and for offering favours to politicians. The company’s role in the 2G scam is also being probed by authorities.
This week, former prime minister Manmohan Singh and five others facing allegations in a coal-mining scandal were summoned by an investigative court to answer questions about officials reportedly under-pricing coalfiels during auctions.
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