Talkpoint: Youth Climate Activism in India

In Conversation with The Yugma Network

Ques: The organization began as a response to the EIA Draft 2020. One of the first initiatives of the organization was to translate the draft and explain it in regional languages. Could you speak more about the motivation behind this? How do you see the lack of translated legislation in the larger context of democratic values?

During the EIA 2020 campaign, we realized that a majority of India’s environmental discourse, which occupied the center stage of media and was online, was taking place in English. There was barely any coverage in regional newspapers about the Draft EIA 2020 Notification.

The Draft itself was only in English and Hindi, effectively excluding a huge population in India from being able to read it and also violating the constitutional mandate for the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC)to translate the Draft into regional languages.

Hence, with the help of over 70 students from across India, the Yugma Network decided to try and put out some information about the Draft EIA2020 and its regional impacts in 12 Indian languages.

Over the past year, we have realized that language is not simply a communication tool – it is part of one’s identity and an essential part of holding up our democracy as it affects the inclusion and exclusion of communities in national policymaking.

It is imperative to have conversations in different languages, not only to enable greater awareness and reach (regional languages are a very important tool to reach out and personalize issues to people) but also to ensure that the conversation is intersectional, not co-opted by the ‘elite’, savarna, and white-washed voices, and led by those from Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA), Trans, Queer, Muslim, and other marginalised communities.

We also noticed through our process that the environmental discourse was dominated by the elite sections of the society in India. The upper-class notion of “preserving the environment” and creating a strong “binary between humans and nature” dominated the space.

Such conservationist discourse that severs human and nature is also seen in the recent Supreme Court order that has resulted in the brutal and violent eviction of residents from Khori Gaon (which is being arbitrarily demolished), based on the outskirts of the Aravalli Hill Range, in the name of ‘forest conservation.

However, large hotels, illegal mining, and farmhouses on the same forest land have been left untouched.

When change is pushed forward by such an exclusive and powerful group with inadequate knowledge, the outcome and means both remain exploitative and exclusionary and do not actually benefit a majority of the population.

Language is thus an important aspect of inclusion, needed to push for more nuanced changes and to diversify the conversation to ensure the majority have a much larger say in issues.

Ques: One of the criticisms of environmentalism in India is regarding the invisibility of caste or caste-blindness in some cases. How does the organization, or youth environmental activists in general, attempt at being more inclusive?

We think that the intersection of environmental issues with economic, social, and political issues, like caste, class, religion, is something that is mostly left out in the mainstream conversation of youth, climate change, and the environment.

Our school education also does not expose its students to ideas around environmental and social justice issues. Much of the mainstream discourse is largely shaped by an elitist, savarna perspective and envisions environmentalism as the protection of pristine nature from people.

We don’t think there is enough focus (if any at all) on casteism, land politics, and environmentalism. This easily demonizes those who are directly dependent on natural resources, very often, those from Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities.

While there is a dominant conversation about not having enough access to clean water, air, open space etc, there is not enough conversation about those who are denied access to these resources and are most affected by natural disasters and climate change because of caste, class, gender, and religious structures and power dynamics.

This lack of intersectional conversation again alienates a large population of people who are trying to ensure that their basic needs are being met- even though that conversation that pertains to environmentalism. In order to look at access, distribution, the impact of climate change on people and then protest for just, inclusive, and representative solutions, it is necessary to look at the environment movement along with social justice.

Though the Yugma Network comprises a regionally diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, we are quite aware and conscious that our activism does come from an elite space. Most of our active group members come mainly from economically and socially privileged, savarna backgrounds.

The ability to access resources, networks, social media platforms (and social media literacy) to even start and continue working on something like the Yugma Network stems from privileged backgrounds and places in society.

The ability to access resources, networks, social media platforms (and social media literacy) to even start and continue working on something like the Yugma Network stems from privileged backgrounds and places in society.

As of now, all team members also work purely on a voluntary basis, with no monetary compensation and that itself leaves out many people with financial constraints and given the online mode of most of the work until now, network constraints as well.

Keeping this in mind, our goal has always been and is to ensure that Yugma Network is a platform to amplify the voices of those most affected rather than co-opting more space or twisting the narrative to suit us.

In all campaigns we take up, such as that for Khori Gaon Rehabilitation, EIA 2020, or Youth Action to Stop Adani, we ensure that the voices of those on the ground are amplified in the way they want, are brought to the forefront on the Network platforms (through videos, quotes, interviews, art, music, etc.) and try to minimize our own biases and perspectives.

Additionally, while making sure we do not speak ‘for’ or ‘over’ anyone, we make a conscious effort to incorporate the social justice, especially caste, aspect within all our environmental campaigns or communications, and have also understood the power of dialoguing with, listening to, and learning from communities on-ground.

We also spend collective time every week to educate ourselves, whether this is through anti-caste reading circles, watching documentaries and films made by Dalit and Bahujan filmmakers and directors, listening to interviews of or going through the work of anti-caste activists and social media influencers & artists, or having self-reflective discussions among ourselves.

Yugma being quite young and born within the pandemic does not have the funding and ground-reach yet to break out of the echo chamber completely. This is, however, something we take seriously and are constantly seeking ways to achieve, whether it is through amplification, collaborations, figuring out a financial model, or involving more individuals & members from affected, marginalized, and oppressed communities.

We completely understand that our politics, environmental and social, are in no way perfect, and we are constantly committed to unlearning, educating ourselves, and being corrected and called out, while continuing our battle against injustice and oppression.

Ques: What are some of the challenges in organizing youth in India, especially concerning environmental justice? There are also some fears that students and activists may get arrested for protesting. How does one negotiate with the state and what are the organization’s strategies?

The framework of environmental justice has become much more widespread among youth groups in India over the past few years, and groups are slowly moving towards a more grounded understanding of the climate crises and of the humanitarian crisis we are faced with.

Some of the main challenges we have noticed in organizing youth around environmental justice issues in India are:

  •  Addressing the savior complex: with so many social and environmental issues present in India, it can be very tempting to slip into ‘savior’ mode and try to fix everything, simply donate and dust our hands off, or start a social enterprise to create an innovative solution. This savior complex is extremely important to address, as it tends to further marginalize, oppress and silence communities, and works as a ‘quick-fix or bandaid to the actual systemic issues which need to be tackled. It’s extremely important while organising for social and environmental justice, that we remove the ‘I’ from our work.
  • Integrating environmental and social justice – “Why should environmentalists look at politics? Just focus on environmentalism”. This is a line that is very commonly heard, and in many youth organisations, the focus on climate change is one that is still seen as separate from social justice. As mentioned above, this is a crucial gap to bridge, since environmental struggles and social justice struggles go hand-in-hand, and environmental/climate movements will remain elite if we do not understand this connection.
  • Creating deeper understandings around the power and economic structures that lead to environmental and climate issues and the differential impact they have on different people. Climate change will not impact everyone the same way, and this is an understanding that needs to be stressed upon.
  • Another challenge in organising youth around environmental justice is that there is no ‘single’ idea of environmental justice and no common vision. The idea of ‘justice’ itself is extremely subjective, and working towards a better future can be challenging at times without a cohesive vision.
  •  Loss of livelihoods vs volunteerism in environmental or social justice movements: tackling the immense loss of livelihoods and lack of jobs for young people is a huge task. Unemployment is the reality of millions of youth across India today. In such a situation, it is important too, one, bring out more conversations of environmental justice as we create new jobs and rebuild the economy. Two, it is a challenge to ensure that youth are able to find employment while also fighting for environmental justice – how can environmental justice movements themselves be more financially sustainable and inclusive?
  • Breaking out of social media: the past year has been especially challenging since everything has been online. While we have been able to reach many more young people and conversations have become more inclusive, aware, and diverse, many of us youth have also not had the chance to work on-ground, listen to, learn from and interact directly with affected and/or local communities, and build connections in person. So, while movements have grown tremendously, it has been more difficult to retain the personal touch, build a strong community, and engage in deeper, more grounded work.

Of course, moving online the past year has resulted in another issue: that of state clamp-downs. In 2020, during the #WithdrawDraftEIA2020 campaign, the websites of Let India Breathe, Fridays for Future India, and ThereIsNoEarthB were taken down, and Fridays for Future were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), though this was soon revoked.

This was just one such case – over the past year, many youth activists (especially Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim) have been booked under draconian laws such as sedition and UAPA, for protesting for their rights.

This suppression by the state is extremely detrimental for any healthy democracy and goes against the basic principles on which India is built. As young activists fighting for justice (which inevitably doesn’t sit well with those in power), we have been forced to stay constantly aware that our safety is at stake.

This has become even more apparent after the recent revelations by the Pegasus project, which brings to questions that if even the devices and privacy of large bureaucrats and media houses can be compromised, where do we stand, as common and active citizens? What can we do as youth activists and students? Some of the steps we have taken as a community include:

  • Being aware of our rights as activists
  • Being in touch with legal support
  • Being digitally smart and safe to whatever extent we can be
  • Understanding that we are living in an oppressive regime, and so, there will be a certain amount of clampdown if we are trying to fight for what is right – it upsets the power structures and bothers those with money. But we must fight anyway.

Ques: Could you talk more specifically about the role of litigation and law in environmental justice struggles in India, and some of your projects and/or successes in environmental litigation? You also won a petition in the Karnataka High Court. Who did you collaborate with on the ground and what was the approach you took?

Whether it is the Draft EIA2020 campaign, Mollem Campaign, Peripheral Ring Road Bangalore, or Khori Gaon, litigation and the role of the judicial system have played a crucial role in environmental campaigns.

India has several environmental laws, some of the more well-known, and more commonly appropriated, ones being the Forest Rights Act, Coastal Regulation and Protection Laws, Land Acquisition Laws, Environmental Protection Act (under which there are many laws, and EIA is a tool).

However, these are rarely implemented fairly, and many of the laws themselves have huge gaps and loopholes which are exploited by corporates and individuals trying to set up polluting industries, appropriate land, evict local residents, etc.

Furthermore, several notifications are issued time and again to change and/or dilute various provisions in the above laws, making it exceedingly difficult for already resource-constrained environmentalist groups to keep track of them, for environmental litigation and justice purposes.

Used correctly and in consultation with those affected, Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and Right to Information (RTI) become powerful tools for the public to ensure our rights are not completely violated and to uphold important aspects of our laws and constitution.

We file RTIs quite frequently within various environmental campaigns we are running as information regarding projects is quite sparse, and EIAs are also usually very poorly written (often copy-pasted from other EIAs!).

Yugma always welcomes enthusiastic law students and recent law graduates to join our environmental litigation activities and to produce a living document of ever-changing notifications, which is one of the primary activities determined for our nascent environmental justice clinic.

Our petition in the Karnataka High Court:

In 2005, the Bangalore Development Authority proposed the construction of a 65.5km, 8-lane-expressway called the Peripheral Ring Road to complete the other half of the Bengaluru-Mysuru NICE (Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises) Link Road. Since then, the project has been stalled for over fifteen years as it has been subject to a number of lawsuits.

Various farmers and landowners raised objections in the early years concerning the acquisition process of their lands. Environmentalists then raised concerns about the defective Environmental Impact Assessment carried out for the project where the environmental impact of the project was vastly under-represented.

In 2020, the Supreme Court finally rejected the Environmental Clearance granted to the project in 2014 and ordered the project proponent to conduct a fresh impact assessment. This was followed by a revised EIA in June 2020 and for the purposes of which an online public hearing on the Zoom application was scheduled on 23rd September 2020.

The time period between the notification and the hearing was less than four weeks, making it exceedingly difficult for a significant number of people to participate and be included in the public hearing process due to accessibility issues.

When we first found out about this issue, we conducted a detailed research assignment on the legality of an online hearing process, spoke to stakeholders on the ground, and senior activists such as Leo Saldanha.

Many of us, being from Bangalore, had seen the project site as well, and went personally to the location. We filed a representation with the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board on 10th September 2020, highlighting the various issues with the scheduling of the online public hearing.

Our representation demanded that the consultation be canceled and for other more accessible mediums to be used in a safe and appropriate manner. We also filed an RTI on 14th October seeking further information on the Peripheral Ring Road project.

Due to our PIL, the Bengaluru Peripheral Ring Road Project required a fresh public hearing for EIA. This ruling sets a new precedent under which, all hearings for any project across India going forward will require a physical hearing unless otherwise ruled by the Supreme Court.

Khori Gaon Issue:

We have also been working closely with the residents of Khori Goan, located in Faridabad on the outskirts of the Aravalli’s mountain range and on the border of Haryana and Delhi. The village is being brutally and violently demolished without any rehabilitation, transport, or basic amenities and food being arranged for the residents, who have no place to go in the middle of a pandemic and raging monsoon.

This is a classic example wherein environmental laws are being used to discriminate against and invisibilize the poor. The village is being demolished on the order of the Supreme Court, which sees the people as ‘encroachers’ on forest land falling under the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA).

However, various high-end hotel complexes built on the same land have been left undisturbed, and illegal mining activities have continued in the area for decades. Rich landowners and real estate developers continue to destroy the Aravalli Forest, the lungs of Gurgaon.

PLPA is a colonial law that was used to regulate land use in certain areas, and additionally, the 1992 notification which declares PLPA as Forest land will expire in 2022.

Besides highlighting the intersectional aspects of environmental movements, the continued use of colonial laws that were used to exploit the country’s natural resources by the British calls for decolonizing India’s environmental laws and protection regime.

It is indeed quite laughable and downright shocking that our environmental protection regime is based on colonial understanding and practices of environmental protection.

In the context of such overlapping legacies of colonial legal practice and marginalization of poor people, will this land which is currently Khori Gaon remain forest land after the eviction of its people? Who will benefit from this demolition?

To date, most of the residents have not been given any accommodation, and what is worse is that the Faridabad Municipal Corporation is misrepresenting facts in the court, stating that they have provided rehabilitation to affected families as ground realities state otherwise.

Unfortunately, environmental litigation doesn’t work all the time, though it can be very powerful when it does. It depends heavily on the judges and the court, the privilege of having access to good lawyers, being able to read and understand documents relating to projects, and a large amount of luck and people’s power.

We hope that through our work, we can make environmental laws more accessible, we can rethink some of the major laws of our country to make them more just, democratic, and environmentally secure, and we can use the law to support and fight with local communities for their rights.

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