There's a David vs Goliath battle underway in India, with Greenpeace in the role of the small but noble hero going to battle against the TATA group, a corporate behemoth and its army of lawyers.
Greenpeace India is being targeted by a SLAPP suit (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) filed by the TATA group, India's largest business empire in the Delhi High Court. The next hearing is on August 12. The suit seeks $2.1 million in damages for supposed "defamation and trademark infringement" as a result of a Greenpeace online game called "Turtle Vs Tata," in which players have to help a turtle "escape pursuing TATA demons." TATA is facing severe criticism for its role in the development of a massive port at Dhamra on India's east coast, dangerously close to ecologically sensitive areas.
Greenpeace India is TATA's most vocal opponent over the construction of the port and has been campaigning for five years against the Planned Dhamra deepwater port. We agree with leading scientists and local NGOs who point out that the proposed port site is dangerously close to Gahirmatha, one of the world's largest nesting sites for Olive Ridley turtles. It is also perilously close to the Bhitarkanika National Park (a large mangrove forest that is home to saltwater crocodiles and other species) and to a large subsistence fishing community, which relies on the area for its livelihood. Furthermore, government documents obtained under the Right to Information Act show that the port is in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Satellite images clearly show the existence of mangrove cover on the port site, something the promoters have often denied. Acting on these documents, prominent conservationists have challenged the project in the Supreme Court, where the case is currently pending.
The Turtle vs Tata game is a creative means of drawing attention to the plight of the threatened Olive Ridley Turtles; it is a way to inform and engage the public on this important issues. For more on the case see http://greenpeace.in/turtle.
Rather than respond to the ethical question of why it has chosen to develop a port in an ecologically fragile area of global significance, TATA has chosen to engage Greenpeace India and Greenpeace International in a SLAPP suit, a crude tactic employed to quash open discussion and the consumer's right to information.
SLAPP suits are used by industry to divert public attention away from an important issue to one of no real importance to the one filing the suit. TATA's case, which is being heard in the Delhi High Court, has on the face of it nothing to do with the main environmental issue under contention -- the construction of a major port in an ecologically sensitive area rich in biodiversity.
Greenpeace International's lawyers see several "SLAPP" suits every year, and this is not the first time we've had to deal with one in India. What's particularly worrisome here though is the sheer scale of the damages being sought by the TATA Group against Greenpeace: 2.1 million US$ in damages -- an absurd amount. While Greenpeace is used to dealing with these intimidation tactics, and has won many cases like this, the claim will almost certainly have the chilling effect of shrinking democratic space, and making individuals and smaller groups in India think twice before they expose wrong doing by major companies like TATA, lest they too be subject to such expensive legal proceedings and potentially bankrupting fines.
The TATA group has long enjoyed a reputation for philanthropy, progressive labour practices and charitable works (a reputation recently put in jeopardy by controversies over several of its projects in India). By trying to silence Greenpeace on the issue of the Dhamra port they aren't doing themselves any favours. Corporations have to be ready to face criticism if their actions fail on the sustainability front. Using legal pretexts to muzzle criticism and free speech, while ignoring the core issue, is not an action in keeping with a conglomerate that professes to be socially responsible and ethical.
Tsk tsk TATA, we expected more from you.
Follow Kumi Naidoo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kuminaidoo