The young environmental groups leading India’s new climate activism

15 March 2021
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
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

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. 

Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.

Keywords: environmentalists climate Disha Ravi Toolkits Environment Impact Assessment government crackdown Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
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