In the matter Re: Rights of Nature

Editor’s note: Khoj is an ORA Research Grant recipient. This is the foundation of their art-engaged inquiry. In this work, they sough to: “Further our understanding from the first three episodes of Does the Blue Sky Lie? and to complete episode four which interrogates the blame that is squarely placed on the farmers from the state of Punjab for the escalation of air pollution in Delhi due to their practice of stubble burning. Through a performative staged hearing, we seek to ask whether a single (entity) can be blamed for the poor air quality in Delhi, moving outwards into questions of the sustainable development paradigm; colonial histories of land use; agriculture and pollution, and how we may think of agricultural ecosystems in legal terms – what rights does nature have, if any.”

In the matter Re: Rights of Nature: A Staged Hearing was the fourth iteration of Khoj’s 3- year-long project, Does the Blue Sky Lie?: Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities which explored the troubled, toxic ecologies of Delhi’s air. 

Episode Four took the form of a fictional National Green Tribunal (NGT) hearing that explored the relationship between the air pollution of Delhi / National Capital Region (NCR) and the stubble burning phenomena which occurs annually in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. The project foregrounded Rights of Nature as an expansion of Right to Life as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. 

The National Green Tribunal, India (established 2010) has been set up under the National Green Tribunal Act as a statutory body to deal with environmental cases and speedy implementation of decisions relating to it. The project employed the laws and protocols of the NGT in order to explore “principles of natural justice” in the context of environmental justice. 

The fictional case, filed by Khoj International Artists’ Association, Zuleikha Chaudhari, and Maya Anandan, represented by her Legal Guardian (mother), Ms. Radhika Chopra, New Delhi, indicted the Union of India through the Ministry of Environment, the respective State stakeholders, and a fictitious Farmer’s Union for their inability to stop stubble-burning in areas of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The hearing staged the arguments put forth by the three parties considering fundamental issues that place both the human and non-human in polluted ecosystems. 

The hearing included three practising lawyers Manmohan Lal Sarin, Mannat Anand, and Harish Mehla; three subject expert witnesses Kahan Singh Pannu, Manish Shrivastava, and Tarini Mehta; three retired judges Justice Rajive Bhalla, Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal, and Justice K Kannan as well as three artists Shweta Bhattad, Thukral and Tagra, and Randeep Maddoke. It followed the protocols, procedures, and laws of the NGT. The project was grounded in current environmental laws in India which exist within major central legislations. The hearing therefore entailed opening and closing statements by the lawyers, examination, and cross examination of witness testimonies (along with evidence), and the final judgement on the matter. 

The final judgement stated that it is urgent to recognise and uphold the rights of nature as per the arguments and evidence presented to the bench. However, stubble burning is a dynamic issue, and a complete ban on it is not an equitable solution. It is important for all stakeholders to come together and work towards upholding the Rights of Nature. 

The project followed on from Khoj’s earlier project staged as a Commission of Inquiry under the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952, Landscape As Evidence: Artist As Witness, 2017 with artist Zuleikha Chaudhari. Landscape As Evidence: Artist As Witness looked into the merits of an enlightened perception of justice and how to measure loss, premising art as valid evidence and artists as valid witnesses.