Photo: Fridays for Future Mumbai

How climate activism is fostering the next generation of participatory democracy

Recent police cases of young activists and new IT regulations that seek to throttle online campaigns reveal the Indian government’s discomfort with climate activism

From earnest pleas to save trees to being arrested for ‘dissent’, climate activism in India has come a long way in a short span of time. Twenty-two-year-old Disha Ravi’s arrest has brought to the fore the importance of climate activism, and its growing significance in the eyes of authority. It is hard to believe that it was a little more than a decade ago that the term ‘climate change’ began making its way into common parlance in India. Today, the country consistently finds itself at the forefront of this battle, which some believe is because of the growing voice of climate activists and groups. This voice has served not only to galvanise government efforts, but also to jolt major industrial corporations into more proactive climate action as seen through the forming of organisations such as the India Climate Collaborative (ICC).

A dialogue has definitely begun, with the young leading the way. But the hurdles they face are multifold, chief among which is the argument that they are ‘inexperienced’. But dig a little deeper and you will find that for many, the motivation for their activism is rooted in their personal experience with extreme events linked to climate change. For the previous generation, climate change is an issue for the future, but for these young activists, it is already a reality.

Young and restless

‘Never underestimate the power of a child” – this is what Licypriya Kangujam from Manipur tweeted last year. At the age of 8, she is already two years into her activism, and has spoken passionately about the effect the 2015 Nepal earthquake had on her young psyche. Her determination to make a change grew stronger in 2018, when she accompanied her father to a UN disaster conference in Mongolia.  

In an interview in 2019, Disha Ravi had spoken about why she chose to become a climate activist. It was the struggle she saw her grandparents, who were farmers, go through because of droughts, crop failures and flooding. For 11-year-old Ridhima Pandey – who was among the young activists who filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child against five countries – her motivation was the helplessness she felt as she watched the devastation caused by the 2013 Kedarnath floods in her home state of Uttarakhand. 

These voices are far from ‘inexperienced’. They actually have their ears to the ground unlike many in positions of power, and therefore their stories warrant a hearing. 

A new approach

The My Mollem campaign in Goa is another apt example of how participation has evolved over the years from including just ‘environmentalists’ or ‘green forces’ to now getting in the voice of the common man. The campaign brought together ordinary citizens from all walks of life – ecologists, artists, lawyers, students and teachers – to raise awareness about three infrastructure projects that threaten the rich biodiversity of Mollem. Each participant brought in their expertise, and creatively and peacefully presented their vision for Goa. The Save Aarey Movement in Mumbai followed a similar structure, and it was ably supported by leading NGOs to get the message across to as many people as possible. 

Such groups, however, are moving away from the tried-and-tested route of registering their movement, litigation and networking among government departments that established NGOs prefer. They are for the people and by the people, keeping interference of any authority to the minimum. This seems to be a conscious decision on their part, considering how taking the bureaucratic or litigation route has hindered progress in the past – for example, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case.

The rise of digital activism

Social media has always been a major driver for climate awareness, more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Platforms such as Instagram and even TikTok gave young activists a golden opportunity to get creative with their message and reach newer, younger audiences. Groups such as Fridays for Future have consistently hosted webinars and virtual talks that urge habitual screen scrollers to get involved.    

In India, however, things may get tougher for digital activism with the new IT rules that the government announced amidst the gathering momentum of the farmers’ protests. The new rules call for social media platforms with more than 50 lakh followers to set up ‘grievance redressal mechanisms’ to resolve user complaints and share with the government the contacts for the ‘grievance officers’ that they need to appoint. Smaller platforms may also have to comply with such rules if their content poses a risk to the sovereignty and integrity of India. India’s minister for electronics and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said the rules aim to make social media platforms more “responsible and accountable”. 

Ravi’s case centred around WhatsApp groups, Zoom calls and a ‘toolkit’ created on Google Docs. Last year, a nation-wide online campaign, heralded by these young activists, asked citizens to register their protest against a draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification – which minimises public participation in the decision-making process. The government’s response was to block youth climate groups’ websites and slap UAPA charges, only to withdraw them later.   

Through it all, however, digital giants continue to remain silent

Change is coming 

Even with the lack of resources and apparent government disdain, we have seen these movements work. The three projects that the Save Mollem movement was protesting against are now being scrutinised by a committee appointed by the Supreme Court. The Save Aarey movement resulted in the Maharashtra government finally moving the contentious Metro car shed to another location, away from Mumbai’s only green lung. The campaign against the draft EIA notification resulted in lakhs of responses from the public that the government is currently assessing. There is a stay on the final publication of the draft itself by the Karnataka high court. 

These may not be final victories, but they are significant. They are keeping the democratic process alive in a system that seems to be veering towards the opposite direction. Climate activism, especially in India, increasingly seems to be becoming a David versus Goliath story. But we all know how that turned out. 

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