Ajit Maneshwar Naik, popular environmental and right to information activist, and well-known lawyer, was brutally murdered in Dandeli (Uttara Kannada Dt., Karnataka) as he was returning home on the night of 27th July 2018. Ajit was a key campaigner of the Kali Bachao Andolan and the Dandeli Taluk Horata Samithi (Dandeli Taluk Struggle Committee). He also led the Dandeli Civic Initiative. Naik was 57 years old when he was killed.
Even as several of us tired in struggling over decades against the reckless destruction of the Kali river and her fantastic forests, Ajit trudged on, working tirelessly, embracing the struggles of the poor and tribals, and exposing the reckless pollution of the Kali. He fought against sand mining in the river, tackled the timber mafia, reckless tourism development in the Kali valley by real estate developers, and espoused the cause of tribals and other poor communities.
As part of the Kali Bachao Andolan, Naik was a key participant in stopping the Dandeli Mini Hydel Project (promoted on the basis of a plagiarised EIA by Ernst and Young), a project that would have effectively dammed the last flowing stretch of the Kali. He helped spearhead the Andolan’s efforts in exposing decades of pollution of the Kali river by West Coast Paper Mills, which is based on reckless (and illegal) extraction of Kali river water and forest produce.
He was part of the campaign to call for accountability of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation which financed the mill’s expansion disregarding grave environmental violations. Of late, Naik was involved in advancing the mill workers’ cause for just wages, better working conditions and in tackling workplace harassment. In addition, Naik was preparing a case to be filed in the National Green Tribunal against the establishment of an illegal power plant by the paper mill and also in tackling land grab at Moulangi, a pristine riverine forest near Dandeli.
The police have apprehended a suspect. The individual who committed the brutal crime must be punished. But it is even more critical now, more than ever before, that the sponsors of Ajit Naik’s killing are brought to justice regardless of their political power and financial clout.
We must not forget that Ajit Naik is only a recent victim of the State Governments’s failure in ensuring that rule of law prevails in the thickly forested and resource rich Uttara Kannada district. The vicious cycle of violence that has become all pervasive in the region must end. The people of Uttara Kannada, and those who worked with Ajit Naik in exposing and tackling the destruction of the Kali River ecosystem, must be protected. The climate of fear unleashed by vested interests must be tackled frontally.
Given this grave situation, we demand that the Chief Minister of Karnataka Shri. H. D. Kumaraswamy must take steps to constitute a Joint Legislature Committee that will:
Oversee ongoing investigation into Ajit Naik’s murder and bring to light forces responsible for this death.
Identify clear steps to end the cycle of violence in the district and suggest ways for safeguarding the social and ecological security of the people in this district.
Hold public hearings in Dandeli and other parts of the district to gather evidence of the environmental violations rampant in the district and prepare a report on lines of the AT Ramaswamy Committee.
Identify specific ways of extending protection to environmental and social activists advancing public interest causes across Karnataka.
Only such steps will bring peace to Ajit Naik’s soul, and reassure us all that Karnataka is a region where rule of law and democracy has not yet been forfeited.