On March 23, the pandemic pushed India to enter the first of its many lockdowns, which was not just the world’s largest lockdown but also its strictest. On the same day, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020. This is a proposed amendment to a 2006 draft that will easily give industries environmental clearance to go ahead with projects, even in eco-sensitive zones, by diluting the scope of public participation and expecting violators to self-report their violations.
Environmental activists have long argued that corporate projects in India are often approved through bribes, even when they could have a damaging effect on the environment. The irony in India’s Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar also being the Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises has also drawn eyeballs.
“I live in Kanpur, which is an industrial city, and even with the current EIA, industrial units rarely comply with environmental rules and regulations,” Kapildeep Agarwal, a 24-year-old lawyer, who is an active member of Youth For Swaraj, a socio-political dissent movement started by activist and politician Yogendra Yadav, told VICE.
When India’s lockdowns came into force, Indians rediscovered nature, the joy of looking at sunsets without smog clouding their vision, celebrating bird calls replacing alarm calls. But with everyone locked in, the government also used this time to clear infrastructure projects in protected areas, announce the auction of coal mining in forest areas, and push for the new EIA to govern environmental clearances—all the while it was obvious that dissent can’t be taken to the streets, and probably even salty from the unprecedented anti-CAA on-ground protests that went on for months before the pandemic hit, in a way that modern India had never seen.
But what they probably didn’t anticipate is how just like workouts and movie dates, protests could wonderfully migrate to online mediums too. And that these can be as powerful as taking to the streets.
While protests against EIA started off with basic explainer posts on social media, the movement slowly evolved across the country to harness new-age media to amplify these protest cries, incorporating new ways of digital dissent.
World wide webinar
The campaign kicked off with information dissemination, breaking down the most problematic points of the EIA 2020 proposal through IGTV videos and illustrated explainers that highlighted how it would drastically impact eco-sensitive zones, and the indigenous communities that called them home.
“About 30 environmental collectives and more than 500 volunteers have mobilised to regularly organise webinars by environmental scientists and researchers, as well as activists,” Yash Marwah, the founder of Let India Breathe, a youth-led environmental collective at the forefront of the campaign, told VICE over the phone. On June 5, World Environment Day, 10 webinars hosted by these collectives were presided over by eminent environmentalists like Medha Patkar, an Indian activist who played a crucial role in pioneering the iconic Narmado Bachao Andolan to protest a dam; Sunita Narain, the director general of the advocacy organisation Centre for Science and Environment; and Kanchi Kohli, an established environmental researcher and writer. Each webinar was attended by an average of 5,000-6,000 people. While most of us have seen a massive jump in our interaction with technology because meeting people IRL has been cancelled, these new ways of spreading information and mobilising people are a first for India.
The aggressive awareness campaign leading up to May 22, and later June 30, the initial dates proposed to send in objections to the EIA, managed to pressure authorities enough to get them to extend the date of public redressal to August 11. That’s when the efforts intensified.
Virtual human chains
One of the most innovative campaigns on the line-up was a virtual human chain, a form of dissent where people link their hands together in a show of solidarity. While people from the south Indian state of Kerala famously resisted the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act by forming a 385-mile long human chain in January 2020, EIA 2020 protestors were urged to follow in their footsteps and send in photos of themselves standing with arms extended on either side. The hashtag #humanchainforeia was used to consolidate the photos in a common place, quickly gaining clout by virtue of its inventiveness.
Crowding celebrities’ comment sections
Another interesting strategy has been to bombard the comments sections of celebrities and influencers on Instagram, urging them and their followers to support the movement. This comment bombing even led to popular actors, musicians, directors and content creators, including Konkona Sensharma, Bhumi Pednekar, Zoya Akhtar and Dolly Singh taking up the issue by sharing Instagram stories and creating humour-infused videos.
The perfect Tweetstorm
Meanwhile, Tweetstorms, or a string of impassioned tweets posted in immediate succession with a common purpose, emerged as another tactic. Using coordinated hashtags that screamed #WithdrawEIA2020 or #IndiaAgainstEIA, this overpowering strategy was able to capture the attention of Tamil actors Karthi and Suriya, who with their massive followings were able to strengthen the resistance amongst another language group.
And it wasn’t just the nationwide solidarity that trended on Twitter’s explore page. Localised hashtags like #AssamAgainstEIA also emerged as #2 in India’s Twitter trends on August 3, shedding light on the grave situation in the Northeastern state.
Facing the facts
“Through student unions of Guwahati University, we reached out to 300-odd colleges and selected about 40 people with the most reach on Facebook,” Lakhyajeet Das, a student from Gauhati University, and a representative of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), told VICE.
Videos breaking down how EIA 2020 would be lethal for the Northeast— which harbours a major chunk of India’s eco-sensitive zones and endangered wildlife—populated students’ Facebook feeds. “We asked everyone to also tag five friends on the video to widen its reach,” said Das, drawing parallels with the outrage against a gas well leak that has been raging since June 10, destroying wetlands and wildlife habitats of Assam’s Baghjan district. This recent gas leak that killed firemen, injured foreign containment experts and displaced thousands of locals became an important way to stress the importance of environmental clearances, since OIL India, the state-run company responsible for the well, reportedly skipped public hearings on expanding mining in eco-sensitive zones.
Students also highlighted the urgency of creating an EIA draft based on the feedback of affected indigenous communities, pointing out how two proposals—coal mining in the protected land of Assam’s Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and a hydro-power plant in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley—could spell doom for endangered species and tribal dwellers.
But Assam isn’t the only state with proposed projects that threaten to bulldoze biodiversity.
Three proposals threaten to take away around 55,000 trees and 185 hectares of forest cover in Goa. The widening of the existing National Highway 4A, a railway line and construction of a new power line are encroaching upon Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, a 240-hectare protected forest rich in rare flora and fauna.
The artist uprising
“We started writing letters to the environment ministry on how cutting away forest lands would lead to a rise in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19,” said Mithila Prabhudesai, a 20-year-old medical student from Goa, who launched the Mollem Memory Project with her classmates Saieshya Salgaonkar and Shruti Naik. The Mollem Memory Project is an Instagram page that uses art, poems, rap songs and dance routines to amplify their opposition through the emotional connection of nostalgia.
“It’s the EIA that allows us to voice our opinions against environmental destruction, so our movement is closely linked to protesting the EIA 2020,” said Prabhudesai.
In keeping with most anti-establishment movements, several artists across India are conveying their opinions on the controversial proposal through artwork that speaks louder than false promises.
The email explosion
While social media has been quite the game-changer amidst the pandemic, a pivotal part of this protest has been an email campaign.
Websites like Let India Breathe, Fridays for Future and There is No Earth B, initiated a targeted campaign to capture the authorities’ attention by urging people to email the environment ministry and its key figures by drafting a template that pointed out the drawbacks in the EIA 2020.
However, between June 29 and July 10, websites of the above mentioned youth-led organisations at the helm of the mail movement were inexplicably banned. On July 23, the Delhi Police issued a notice on this ban, slapping the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a controversial law designed to be used against terrorists, for sending too many emails. But in the face of massive public outrage, the UAPA classification was quickly and quietly retracted and replaced with India’s IT Act, after which the websites’ public advocacy pushed the government to unblock the websites, though they remain inaccessible on specific servers.
“The UAPA tag did intimidate a lot of campaigners, but it also brought in people with ideological differences, who said they didn’t mind the UAPA being used on ‘anti-nationals’, but saw how problematic it was in this situation,” Harsh Gupta, the Delhi coordinator from climate strike movement Fridays For Future told VICE.
Since the lockdown restrictions have now been eased, Gupta and about 14 other campaigners have made it their mission to visit the MoEFCC office building every Friday, while following social distancing norms. However, the sheer lack of numbers in their non-violent disruption doesn’t quite pressure the concerned authorities the way their massive global climate strike last year did.
“While online activism is a good way to reach a wider audience, it lacks the impactful visual imagery that 2,000 people protesting on the street communicates,” Marwah agreed. Both Marwah and Gupta pointed out how their email campaign didn’t get any official response from the environment ministry, reducing the scope for any dialogue on the issue.
“At the same time, we’re seeing so many new, young people engage with the movement,” says Gupta. “Lockdowns have made people active online like never before, and that has strengthened the mass appeal of the issue. So even while the essence of our strikes will always be offline, the world is adapting and we have to too.”
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