Indian Fishermen Sue World Bank for Environmental Damage

Image courtesy ERI

By The Maritime Executive 05-22-2018 07:25:00

An association of traditional fishermen from Kutch, Gujarat is suing the World Bank in American courts over a new coal-fired power plant that is allegedly hurting their livelihoods. On Monday, they won an important victory when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case. 

The fishermen's group, Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangatha (MASS), contends that the 4,000 megawatt Tata Mundra coal-fired powerplant in Kutch has led to saltwater infiltration of the groundwater table, displacement of existing local communities, contamination from airborne coal ash and damage to the health of marine fisheries. The World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) provided a $450 million loan for the power plant's construction, and MASS contends that the bank failed to follow its own standards in evaluating environmental risks and social impact, thereby causing harm to the fishing community. The IFC's own Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) agreed in part, concluding that IFC had not followed its own guidelines for evaluating the project's risk and impact. IFC disputed the findings and did not take remedial steps. 

“The IFC promises its projects will reduce poverty, but this project has only made things harder for us,” said Budha Ismail Jam, a fisherman from Kutch and the lead plaintiff in the case. Among other alleged impacts, MASS contends that thermal pollution – hot water released from the power plant – has also damaged the local marine environment and the fish populations that fishermen like Mr. Jam rely on to support their families. A 2015 law required all Indian power plants to install cooling towers by the end of 2017, to minimize thermal pollution, but the Tata plant has not done so. 

In its defense to the lawsuit, the International Finance Corporation has argued that it cannot be sued in American courts, regardless of any alleged fault, because an international organization like the World Bank is fundamentally the same as a foreign government. This defense succeeded at the district and appeals court level. On Monday, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, the first time that it will means it will consider international organization immunity - a unique status that applies to few organizations. 

 “The IFC believes it is above the law and accountable to no one,” said Michelle Harrison, staff attorney at nonprofit legal advocacy group ERI. “Our clients disagree and the law is on their side.”