Who is Agnes Kharshiing?

November 17, 2018 08:23 pm | Updated 08:23 pm IST

On November 8, Meghalaya’s Agnes Kharshiing and her associate Amita Sangma became the latest among 18 Right to Information activists in the northeastern region to have been either killed or assaulted or harassed. They were — as the police said — assaulted by a group of criminals at Tuber Sohshrieh in the coal- and limestone-rich East Jaintia Hills district. The spot where they were waylaid is not far from where another RTI activist Poipynhun Majaw, 38, was killed in March for exposing a nexus between the local tribal council and cement companies that were allegedly allowed to mine limestone without permission.

Who is she?

Ms. Kharshiing, 58, is one of the most well-known activists in the State. She belongs to a political family: her elder brother Robert Kharshiing represented the Nationalist Congress Party in the Rajya Sabha and her younger brother John F. Kharshiing is a Congress leader. But she has been avowedly apolitical and a long-time crusader against domestic violence, child and sexual abuse and deprivation of beneficiary schemes in rural areas. She formed the Civil Society Women’s Organisation to take her fight against corruption to the grassroots and educate rural women on RTI. Her organisation took on village chieftains and local councils for ostracising RTI activists. But her activism took an adventurous and risky turn when she began sniffing out illegal coal trade after the National Green Tribunal in 2014 banned unscientific rat-hole mining and restricted coal transport. Armed with a camera, she began documenting illegal mines and trucks carrying coal by travelling across the the State.

What ails Meghalaya’s coal belt?

Meghalaya has a coal reserve of 640 million tonnes, most of which is mined indiscriminately by private and community landowners. Besides the adverse effect of mining on rivers, activists found that miners employed children to crawl into rat-holes for extracting coal. If that were not enough, coal was being exported to Bangladesh and sent to other States on overloaded trucks, depriving the government of ₹300 crore in revenue a year. Complaints finally made the NGT ban coal mining and order sealing of coal pits. It, however, allowed transport of 3.4 million tonnes of extracted coal. Ms. Kharshiing documented illegal mining and transport of coal over the last four years, thus earning the wrath of the coal mafia.

Why was she attacked?

Ms. Kharshiing and Ms. Sangma were on a surveillance trip to East Jaintia Hills when a woman stopped their vehicle near a wooded patch. About 40 people swooped down from nowhere and began raining blows on them with blunt weapons. The two activists were dragged into the woods, but Ms. Sangma managed to crawl out and call for help. The police found Ms. Kharshiing unconscious and had them both shifted to a super-speciality hospital in capital Shillong. The police caught two suspects they referred to as criminals, but the rights group Achik Indigenous Justice Initiative Forum said the attackers were without a doubt associated with the illegal coal trade. It asked Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma to let either the Central Bureau of Investigation or the National Investigation Agency probe the case. This was ironical since Ms. Kharshiing had taken up the case of sub-inspector P.J. Marbaniang, who was killed in January 2015, hours after detailing 32 coal-laden trucks close to the police outpost he was in charge of.

Why has it created a flutter?

The attack on Ms. Kharshiing, stable but not out of danger, has attracted the attention of activists and rights groups across the globe. The Meghalaya High Court has asked the government to ensure her security and bear the expenditure of her treatment. The Congress, which was at the receiving end of her activism until losing power in March, has thrown its weight behind her. The present BJP-backed government is feeling the heat since the attack has undermined its effort to reopen the coal mines that have allegedly funded politicians and elections in Meghalaya.

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