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Green gadfly

There are no full-stops in green activist Subhas Dutta’s life. The tireless Dutta should be revelling in his recent victory over the government forcing them to implement the ‘15-year-old automobiles off the road’ rule.

But his environmental work is far from over yet and he has miles to go before he sleeps. On his radar are 15 separate public interest litigation (PIL) suits — six in the Supreme Court and nine in the Calcutta High Court. These include high-profile cases like the shifting of Esplanade bus terminus and combating air pollution in Calcutta. Also, he’s fighting a long-running court battle to save the Ganga in Bengal.

“The fight is not over. When it comes to saving the environment, there is no victory yet,” he says firmly. If all that scattershot blast of environmental cases isn’t enough, he has also filed a case demanding the setting up of a security force to guard historical monuments and items like the Tagore Nobel Prize.

Dutta has enough cases before the courts to keep him occupied all through the year. But he has set his sights on much higher things — like starting his own political party. It’s still at a pre-start-up stage but Dutta’s made the first tentative steps to get it off the ground by heading off to Europe on a fact-finding mission to see how the Green parties there function.

“I thought that instead of demanding and protesting, we could do better justice (to issues) if we could be a part of the decision making process,” says Dutta.

Can one man make a splash in the political arena? Dutta is smart enough to know that popular support for environmental issues won’t necessarily translate into political support at the hustings. But he insists that he has hordes of supporters. “I get letters which are only addressed Subhas Dutta, Howrah,” he says, grinning with satisfaction. And environmental worthies like the Chipko Movement’s Sunderlal Bahuguna are encouraging him too, he says.

How does he wage the never ending environmental battle? The answer to that lies in a lot of detailed fieldwork and careful preparation so that his arguments can stand up in the highest courts of the land.

Dutta is a familiar figure both in the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court in Delhi. That’s because he always argues his own cases even against the most high profile opponents. He appears before the court smartly dressed in a white shirt and black trousers — and he always gets a respectful hearing. “Since I am extremely thorough I get adequate attention,” says Dutta.

He insists that he has never lost a case on merit even though he isn’t a lawyer and that this is not as tough as it might seem because PILs are based on facts and not written legislation. “Also, I go to the spot, verify facts, interview people, take photographs and submit them to the court,” says Dutta.

What makes Dutta tick? Partly it’s a worry about the environment and partly he’s a natural crusader, who’s programmed to fight against wrongs of all kind. But he’s no Don Quixote tilting wildly against windmills.

Says Gitanath Ganguly, executive chairman, Legal Aid Services: “Dutta has faced a lot of opposition — be it from the political parties or the media, but he never gives up.”

“His cases are socially relevant. He is reasonably good when it comes to arguing the cases and is very well- informed,” says lawyer Kallol Basu who’s seen Dutta in court.

Dutta calls himself a ‘scavenger’ of the cities of Calcutta and Howrah. “It is not a question of priorities. It’s a question of necessities. I am a Protestant, not by religion but by practice. And I have channelised my resources to fight social and environmental disorders,” he proclaims calmly.

The sense of fighting against the odds was instilled in him from the time he was a child. He’s from a very poor family and saw a lot of poverty around him. “I felt that I should protest,” he says.

Initially he was a Socialist, but more importantly he always had an anti- establishment streak in him. His first job was at the Calcutta Port Trust and he soon protested against the rampant corruption that he saw all around him. As a result he was transferred to Haldia and quit soon afterwards.

He’s a practising chartered accountant but spends only about 10-20 per cent of his total working hours on his practice. “I still don’t like CA practice. I took it up because I had to run my house,” he says, ruefully.

He fought his first case before the Supreme Court back in 1995 and has never looked back since then. He had compiled a 500-page dossier about the ills that afflicted Howrah, forcing the court to take notice.

The Supreme Court finally transferred the case back to the Calcutta High Court with the directions to set up its first Green bench. Since then, he has taken more than 50 cases to the courts.

“I felt that movements hardly yielded result, and that the judiciary is an important and effective forum through which I can stop some of the bad things against the people,” he says.

Dutta has a team of six-seven assistants but he’s the fulcrum around which everything revolves. He reckons he has spent several lakhs from his own pocket to fight his causes in the last four or five years. “We are not very financially sound,” he says, with a sheepish grin.

The activist’s day begins as early as 5am. He works out every morning and his fitness chart includes walking, jogging, Yoga, free hand exercises and meditation. There’s no Sunday or any holidays for him. “I become restless if there is no work,” says the self- confessed workaholic.

Music while on the move is Dutta’s key to relaxation. And he adds: “If I can get any work done for people I feel happy and relaxed.”        

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