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Licypriya Kangujam protesting against the deteriorating air pollution in Delhi in front of Parliament House. Photo: Special Arrangement

In India, young environmental activists say they are being silenced

With arrests, use of draconian laws and sanctions on organizations, the young environmental activists see the government setting a dangerous new precedent.
With arrests, use of draconian laws and sanctions on organizations, the young environmental activists see the government setting a dangerous new precedent.

It was quite an early morning on June 29, when Yash Marwah discovered that he couldn’t access his environmental group’s website anymore. The 25-year-old, a climate change activist and founder of Let India Breathe, an environmental communications collective in Mumbai, was confused and restless.

The website was inaccessible at a critical moment when the collective was actively spearheading an online campaign against the contentious draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification issued by the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF).

The latest notification opened for public comments in March and received stiff resistance from the people, activists and civil society groups across the country. Critics alleged it would enable approval to big projects without environmental clearance, centralisation of powers and reduction of public transparency.

It didn’t take Marwah long to realize that his website had been blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India, a public sector company, on directions of the Indian government to restrict opposition to the new draft.

“I didn’t expect such a backlash,” he said.

Coal agenda

Over the years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Hindu Nationalist government has been accused of throttling dissent, including the one coming from environmental organizations and activists to push its economic development pitch. The agenda is heavily reliant on coal production, neoliberal economic policies, and taking up big infrastructural projects that come at the expense of the environment.

Since Modi took office in May 2014, and until 2019, the country’s coal production has risen by 144 Million Tonnes, resulting in India contributing more than half of the increase in global CO2 output. The government has also opened 52 new coal mines.

In 2015, the Indian government barred environmental group Greenpeace from receiving foreign donations and froze its bank accounts, which the group alleged was retribution over activism against the country’s expansion of nuclear power, heavy reliance on coal for energy and the impact of deforestation.

“People who are new to climate activism get instantly demotivated because of such actions,” Marwah said.

Crackdown

Since his college days, Swapnil Pawar, 23, was actively involved in various forest preserving movements across the Indian state of Maharashtra. A hotelier by profession and activist by passion, Pawar never thought that he would have to pay by going to jail for his environmental activism.

On October 5, 2019, he was among the 29 people arrested by the police for protesting against the felling of hundreds of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey colony for the construction of rail metro. “I was stripped,” he said. “Later they kept me with criminals in the barracks of central jail just because I had protested against the felling of trees.”

Swapnil Pawar Photo: Special Arrangement

Pawar was bailed out two days later, but the trauma caused by the incident still haunts him every day.

“It’s very difficult to forget how I was treated by the state,” he added.

Licypriya Kangujam, 9, who is one of the youngest climate change activists in India and the world, was briefly detained by the Police in New Delhi on October 18, 2020.  Her only crime was protesting against the deteriorating air quality in front of the Parliament House. “They [the police] snatched my placard and bundled me in a police vehicle,” she said.

Kangujam, though threatened with action, was not taken to a police station but dropped a few miles away from the Parliament House at Jantar Mantar.

“They released me after detaining for about 40 minutes because legally they couldn’t arrest a kid,” she said.

Before dropping her off, the police officers took the picture of her mother’s government-issued identity card with phone number.

Climate of fear

Malaika Mathew Chawla, 23 is an aspiring wildlife conservation researcher. Lately, she has been actively participating in the Save Mollem campaign. 

A citizen’s led movement, the campaign raises awareness about the consequences of taking up infrastructural projects in and around Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary. Together they form the largest protected area in Goa.

Started in June, the campaign is opposing a four-lane highway expansion, railway double-tracking, and the laying-down of a 400 KV transmission line, which they allege is linked to coal handling and transportation in the state.

In November 2020, when Mollem residents and environmental activists went to submit a memorandum at the Chief Minister’s residence, scores of them were detained for hours by the police.

Chawla feels that pushback against climate change activists across the country including Goa has created a climate of fear among many.

“It creates fear, given that many times young people are in the frontline of these movements,” Chawala said.

Sriranjini Raman, a 20-year-old student and member of Fridays For Future India was shocked over the blocking of the group’s website and issuance of notices over the anti-EIA activism and believes that the government is going out of the way to curb dissent.

“The groups and activists talking against fossil fuels and deforestation have been under the scanner,” she said.

“Will it [the government] go to the extent of calling public participation a terrorist act?” she asked.

The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and its Minister of State, Babul Supriyo didn’t respond to our repeated emails, calls, and messages for comment.

In Mumbai, Pawar regularly follows up on his case with the lawyer. Recently, the newly formed coalition government led by Shiv Sena, a regional party announced revoking all the cases filed against 29 protestors but according to him, the cases haven’t been quashed yet.

“It was merely an announcement,” he said. “The cases are still there and the procedure is ongoing.”

Pawar still continues to divide his time between his hotelier business and environmental activism. Currently, he is a member of multiple plantation drives across various Indian states

“The government will use different tactics to silence and put fear in our minds,” he says.

“But, I’ll continue to ask for transparency and accountability when it comes to saving our planet,” he adds.