Interview with Mr. Ritwick Dutta; leading figure in environmental law in India for the past 20 years and founder of LIFE (LegalInitiative for Forest and Environment)
14 maart 2024

Interview with Mr. Ritwick Dutta; leading figure in environmental law in India for the past 20 years and founder of LIFE (LegalInitiative for Forest and Environment)


Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer with over 20 years of legal experience in India, established his own organisation: the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) in 2008, with a specific focus on environmental litigation. 

LIFE, a non-governmental organization (NGO), engages in environmental advocacy, research, and training. It offers both paid and pro bono legal services to local communities and individuals affected by environmental harm, taking on cases spanning various aspects of environmental justice. The overarching objective of LIFE is to empower communities to actively participate in environmental decision-making processes. Furthermore, LIFE provides capacity building and training sessions to legal professionals and forest department officers on environmental law and the implementation of forest and wildlife regulations. In recognition of its innovative contributions, LIFE was honored with the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm in 2021, often referred to as the ‘Alternate Nobel Prize’.

Mr. Dutta and his colleagues at LIFE have encountered a series of challenges that tested their resilience and commitment to their cause, hampering their ability to fulfil their roles as lawyers.

On 7th September 2022, approximately 10 officers from the Indian Income Tax Department arrived at the headquarters of LIFE, promptly sealing off the law office. They went through Mr. Dutta’s records and confiscated not only his own devices but also those of his colleagues. The officers kept Mr Dutta and his colleague in his office for three days and two nights. Mr Dutta and his colleagues were not allowed to leave the offices and could not contact their family members. During these three days the officers made copies of documents present in the offices and duplicated their devices. Both the copied documents and devices contained confidential information in relation to ongoing court cases. Mr Dutta and his colleagues were also interrogated in relation to the cases they had recently taken up.

After the office raid, Mr. Dutta received several summons directed both personally towards him and targeting the NGO LIFE. On 13th March 2023, the FCRA license of LIFE was suspended for 180 days under Section 13 of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010. However, on 24th May 2023, the Delhi High Court intervened, highlighting procedural irregularities in the suspension process. Notably, the court underscored the necessity of initiating a comprehensive enquiry before revoking an FCRA license, a step that had evidently been overlooked in the case of NGO LIFE. Consequently, a stay was ordered on the suspension of the FCRA certificate. Subsequently, on 23rd August 2023, the court fortified this reprieve by unequivocally reinstating LIFE’s FCRA license, while also signalling the expiration of the 180-day investigative window without further extension.

Additionally, further complicating the situation for Mr. Dutta and LIFE, Mr Dutta was notified that both his personal income tax assessments and the tax assessments of LIFE were reopened for investigation from 2015 onwards according to Section 148 and Section 68 of the Indian Income Tax Act, 1961. The authorities alleged that Mr Dutta transferred foreign funds to the NGO LIFE to litigate against energy projects which harm India’s energy supply and economy. The authorities further stated that the FCRA prohibits the receipt of international money transfers for litigation and legal aid. However, on 1st June 2023, the High Court of Delhi interjected, affirming the legitimacy of the funds received by Mr. Dutta as compensation for bona fide legal services rendered to a foreign client. Additionally, Mr. Dutta had reported these earnings and paid income tax on them. Therefore, the Court stated that he had prima facie provided sufficient clarity regarding the funds received on his income tax report to meet the requirements under Indian tax law provisions. The High Court further stated that any allegations regarding Mr. Dutta’s purported efforts to challenge energy projects should not trigger consequences under India’s income tax provisions. Moreover, ‘legal aid and running Legal Aid centres’ are permissible activities for which one can receive foreign funds under the FCRA. Despite the interim stay on the reassessment of Mr. Dutta’s income tax, the proceedings concerning his tax liabilities remain ongoing.

Regrettably, the repercussions of these protracted investigations extend beyond mere legal ramifications. Mr. Dutta’s capacity to discharge his duties as a lawyer has been severely hampered, forcing him to withdraw from certain sensitive cases in the wake of the September 2022 office raid, where confidential information crucial to ongoing litigations was unlawfully seized.

In light of these events, Lawyers for Lawyers holds serious concerns that these procedures have been initiated against Mr. Dutta in response to his legitimate activities as an environmental lawyer.

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