Agnes Kharshiing is a woman human rights defender who has long advocated for victims of domestic violence, child and sexual abuse and corruption in her home state of Meghalaya, India.

She is also vocal in advocating the environmental issues surrounding the illegal coal mines in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills and its dismal working conditions. 

The notorious mines they dig are referred to as ‘rat holes’ because they comprise a warren-like network of treacherous tunnels requiring workers to crawl in tight spaces. They both trap and kill miners—including children—and allegedly pollute the surrounding air and soil. 

Though the Indian government banned rat hole mining in 2014, it continues to be practiced. The illegal transport of coal, especially across the border into Bangladesh, also persists and is allegedly operated by what has been called a ‘coal mafia’. Many local officials seem to be directly involved in or indirectly profit from this group and their illegal trade. 

On 8 November 2018, while documenting cases of illegal coal transportation, Agnes and her colleague were brutally attacked by around 30-40 people.

Agnes suffered serious injuries and spent around a month in the intensive unit of a hospital for her injuries to heal. One month later, a leader of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) and the president of Jaintia Hills Truck Owners and Drivers’ Association agreed to cooperate with the police and investigate the attack.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, devoted a report to the increasing attacks on environmental defenders like Agnes. 

“I am extremely worried and appalled by the growing number of attacks and murders of environmental defenders, but also by the continuous resistance of States to act in front of egregious human rights violations,” he said. He called on States and the international community to empower and protect—not repress—these defenders, who raise the alarm against environmental disasters, climate change and irresponsible resource exploitation. 

For Agnes, the threat on her life was not a deterrent.

“The attack has made me even more sure of what I am doing and why I should continue. My fight is for the poor people, for the survival of our people and the environment. If the government does its duty, there is no need for people like us,” she said. 

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