The young environmental groups leading India’s new climate activism

Young environmentalists participate in a climate strike to protest against government inaction on climate change, as part of global demonstrations in the “Fridays for Future” movement, in Delhi on 20 September 2019. K Asif / India Today Group / Getty Images
15 March, 2021

On 19 January, Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and researcher, announced a week-long call to action against the Adani Group by over 25 environmental youth organisations across the world, on a website called Adani Watch. Jayaraman’s post was titled, “Youth Action to Stop Adani – 27 January to 2 February,” and stated that “YAStA is a call to action by youth groups from around the world to Stop Adani from subverting democracies, suppressing community voices, harassing its critics.” Four days later, the Adani Group posted an “open letter” on its official Facebook page, claiming it had been “targeted through false propaganda.” While it was unclear whether the conglomerate had posted in anticipation of YAStA or provoked by something else, it is indisputable that India’s young environmental groups have left an indelible mark on the nature of climate activism in the country.

YAStA was supported by a wide coalition of groups—these included, to name a few, Fridays for Future India, Chennai Climate Action Group, Extinction Rebellion India, Let India Breathe and Yugma Network. These groups mobilised the public for weeks ahead of the scheduled date, urging people to participate in the global movement through their social-media pages. The action week comprised various online events, including a video screening of statements by individuals affected by Adani project sites in India and Australia, a playlist of songs of resistance and hope curated from across the world, a masterclass on art and activism, a documentary film festival on corporate crime, and a Q&A session with the writer Amitav Ghosh on climate fiction.

In recent years, a new wave of youth-led climate justice and environment-focused movements has brought fresh vigour and new tools, such as online activism and social-media mobilisation, in the struggle against environmental degradation. “The fact that the Adani group had to put out these statements shows that they had taken notice of what we were doing,” an activist involved in the YAStA campaign, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. Jayaraman, who is a member of a Chennai-based environmental group called the Vettiver Collective, told me, “In recent years, there has been an uptick in politicised young people joining communities across the country struggling against coal mining, deforestation and wetlands destruction.” He added, “Youth activists helped amplify the voices and this is what the government is uncomfortable with.” As various movements led by such youth groups in the country have shown, young climate activists are very comfortable putting state and central governments as well as corporate giants under pressure.

For instance, the Vettiver Collective has been shining a light on the destruction of wetlands and loss of livelihoods in Tamil Nadu’s Ennore-Pullicat region due to the Adani-driven expansion of the nearby Kattupalli port, located 30 kilometres north of Chennai. “The involvement of young people in the Ennore-Pullicat wetlands struggle was from the perspective of marginalised groups,” Jayaraman said. “A central part of the push for further industrialisation of the north Chennai rust belt is for the Adani-Kattupalli port through wetlands and sea reclamation, which was being opposed by local communities.” The response among some political parties in Tamil Nadu has been to adapt to account for environmental concerns, he added.

In November 2020, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a party long associated with industrialisation and development, set up an environment wing. Party leaders have raised the issue of the Kattupalli port inside and outside Parliament. K Kanimozhi, a member of parliament and a senior DMK leader, has said that the plan submitted by the company contains “major issues,” and that industrial development cannot come at the cost of the environment. Two other DMK MPs, Kalanidhi Veeraswamy and Thamizhachi Thangapandian, have also raised the issue in Parliament. 

The scale of the mobilisation achieved by these climate groups first became clear in their campaign against the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2020. The draft law proposed to supersede the 2006 notification that currently governs the EIA process that is necessary for obtaining environmental clearance ahead of any development project. The 2020 notification came under heavy criticism for diluting the environmental protections guaranteed in the law. Among other provisions, the draft law exempted a long list of projects from public consultation—including inland waterways and expansion of national highways—and allowed post-facto clearance of projects in some cases.

The campaign to challenge the law, spearheaded by groups such as Fridays for Future India and Let India Breathe, led to the environment ministry receiving over twenty lakh responses during the public consultation on the draft. The central government seemed to have been caught off guard by the overwhelming mobilisation against the draft law, and has not yet released an updated draft of the law. But in a trigger-happy response, the Delhi Police issued a notice to Fridays for Future India under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in early July, and blocked its website, as well as those of Let India Breathe and There Is No Earth B. Shortly afterwards, the Delhi Police claimed to have mistakenly sent the UAPA notice and claimed that fresh ones had been issued under the Information Technology Act.

“The EIA mobilisation got FFF into the national eye,” a 23-year-old activist with Fridays for Future, who asked not to be identified, told me. “There was a debacle with our website and it wouldn’t be wrong to say we caught the attention of the government.” Another Mumbai-based Fridays for Future activist told me, on the condition of anonymity, that the movement has taken care in the past year to not name any political parties in its messaging. “We keep our message pro-environment,” the Mumbai-based activist said.

“You have to look back at the work we did on the EIA notifications,” Joel Kyndiah, an 18-year-old activist with the Shillong chapter of Fridays for Future India, told me. “All chapters of FFF India were involved in mobilising online. People could click on a link to a pre-drafted email and send it to the Ministry of Environment as part of the public-objection process. All of us attached the link to our social media pages,” Kyndiah said.

Fridays for Future India is the Indian chapter of the eponymous international movement for climate action led by the young environmentalist, Greta Thunberg—and the UAPA notice was not the last time it received an unusual response from the Delhi Police. In what is now popularly known as the toolkit case, the Delhi Police arrested Disha Ravi, a climate activist with Fridays for Future India, in mid February, after detaining her from her home in Bengaluru and bringing her to Delhi. The police charged the 22-year-old with sedition, accusing her of Khalistani affiliations and editing an online document—or toolkit—that it claimed fomented violence in Delhi, during a farmers’ rally against the controversial farm laws on 26 January. But as a district court’s order releasing her on bail noted, there was not “even an iota of evidence” to support the police’s allegations against her. Moreover, a toolkit is simply a package of information about specific issues and possible strategies to address them, which are routinely used by activists.

Apart from Ravi, the police also accused, raided and interrogated two other environmental activists, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, who are working with another climate-justice group called Extinction Rebellion India. The toolkit in question contained ways in which viewers could support the farmers’ protest in India. I asked the 23-year-old activist if there were any discussions within Fridays for Future to support the farmers’ agitation. She said she could not recall any such decision, before adding, “FFF is a movement and a lot of us volunteer with other groups. Decisions are not binding on any member and chapters are free to take up their own causes.” The median age of Fridays for Future volunteers is 15–20 years, she added. “Most of the kids and their parents are scared after the crackdown,” she said.

“The government has tried to portray the farmers’ protest as having a narrow base,” Ashish Kothari, a veteran environmentalist, told me. “Mobilisation by youth groups, especially in various languages reaching diverse youth across India, has shaken the government. This government is keen on maintaining a particular global image, and they would have been bothered by the global reaction to the farmers’ protest,” he added. Kothari believed that the targeting of particular corporate houses and their terrible environmental record by young activists and the role they played in opposing the EIA notification would have got them on the government’s radar.

Apart from the national mobilisation on the EIA, the youth environmental groups have also challenged local mining projects or other development proposals. For instance, the Shillong chapter of Fridays for Future India has focused on coal mining in Meghalaya. Despite a Supreme Court ban, Kyndiah alleged that illegal mining continues to take place. He also spoke about their agitation against the construction of a mall in Shillong. “We have to take into account urban degradation,” Kyndiah told me. “There has been a proliferation of gated communities in Shillong and the mall was part of the process of neo-liberal capital pouring into Meghalaya. We cannot look at climate politics in isolation of the wider socio-economic paradigm, and this is why the youth groups were playing an active role in local issues.”

Another group focusing on local issues is the Goyant Kolso Naka—which translates to “Goa doesn’t need coal”—a movement to prevent the transformation of Goa into a hub for transporting coal. The central government seeks to double the import of coal at the Mormugao Port Trust, in Goa’s Vasco de Gama city, from 24.7 million tonnes in 2020 to 51 million tonnes by 2030. As part of this, the government wants to build a railway track from Vasco da Gama to Karnataka, expand two highways and construct a power line. The three infrastructure projects will cut through the state’s Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, which cover around 240 square kilometres of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO heritage site. In December last year, dozens of young protesters opposing the projects were detained during a peaceful protest.

“The government broke the three projects into thirteen smaller projects to avoid holding a public hearing and environmental clearances,” Deepika D’Souza, the secretary of Goyant Kolso Naka, told me. “None of these projects benefit Goa, they are meant for Adani, JSW Group and Vedanta”—referring to mining, steel and power corporations that would benefit from the infrastructure projects. “But Goa will pay the price because they will destroy the biodiversity hotspot at Mollem,” D’Souza said. Goans have been mobilising under the banner, “Save Mollem” to protest against the projects. “Many young environmental activists got involved in the anti-coal movement,” D’Souza added. “We are not very familiar with social media and online mobilisation, but the young activists have been instrumental in spreading the message outside Goa.”

Malaika Matthew Chawla is one such “Save Mollem” volunteer. The 23-year-old, now based in Australia, got interested in the issue while doing her under graduation in wildlife conservation in Goa. She is part of the volunteer team that handles the Twitter campaign for the Save Mollem movement. “On ground mobilisation was not possible during the pandemic, so we started mobilising via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Chawla said. “We only post facts and scientific evidence. Instagram is for posting art while Twitter is for daily news, tweetstorms and tagging public figures and politicians,” she told me. “Fridays for Future and Let India Breathe have been doing amazing work to raise awareness about projects, like the Etalin hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh and coal mining in Dehing Patkai, Assam. We are keen to learn from them and improve our own social media campaign skills.”

This new generation of “click activists,” as they are sometimes pejoratively called by more seasoned environmentalists, has been active for around three years. “The earlier generation grounded themselves in local issues before going global,” Leo Saldanha, a founding trustee of the Bangalore-based Environment Support Group, said. “But with new forms of technology and communication, the new activists are aligning themselves with global trends first, for instance with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future,” Saldanha told me. “The issues that influenced FFF and XR”—Extinction Rebellion—“though global, are driven by Euro-centric concerns. Anchoring oneself in local struggles provides greater resilience. One reason the state can’t attack the farmers movement is because it is strongly centered in a local tradition. Not engaging locally means that the youth groups miss out on the class and caste nuances.” Saldanha added, “Maybe this is the realisation that led them to support Aarey, Mollem, EIA and the farmers protest.”

The Mumbai-based activist agreed in part with Saldanha’s assessment. “The older environmental activists have a point, in the sense that sometimes I feel our activism is mainly online,” the activist said. “But we are trying to change that. For instance, recently we did a beach clean-up, and there is a global climate strike coming up which will be both on the ground and online.”

Saldanha, too, acknowledged the importance of the growing climate-justice activism among the youth. “I wouldn’t use the term ‘click activists,’ because the youth are beginning to engage with environmental issues that will affect their future,” he told me. “It would be useful if caste and class consciousness played a more important role in the engagement. However, this is not yet a feature of the emergent youth climate activism.”

It remains to be seen how climate activism will grow in India, and whether the older generation of activists and the young environmentalists leading recent movements will learn from each other. But as the Save Mollem protests and the toolkit cases have shown, the state’s crackdown on dissent does not spare the young. The chilling effect was evident in the number of activists who asked to remain anonymous. When asked about the strategy going forward, the Mumbai-based activist told me, “The arrest of Disha is definitely a setback. There was nothing wrong with what she did, but we are being extra careful.”