Criminalising ecological dissent in India

| 10th August 2020
Nate Village Ratnagiri
Sonali Huria
The targeting of environmental justice groups shows how the Modi government's criminalization of dissent is gaining pace.

India has paved the way not only for an impending right-wing majoritarian nightmare, but also ecological wastelands. 

The websites of three environmental advocacy groups in India – Fridays for Future, Let India Breathe, and There Is No Earth B – were blocked in July this year at the behest of the Indian Government.

Of the three, the domain name owner of ‘Fridays for Future’ (FFF), the Indian chapter of the climate change movement initiated by the Swedish environmental activistGreta Thunberg, received a legal notice from the cyber crime unit of the Delhi police under sections of the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). 

The notice accused FFF of depicting "objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of India" and directed that its website be blocked.

Outrage

The trigger for the legal notice was a complaint made by no less than Prakash Javadekar, the union minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, seemingly miffed at being swamped by “multiple emails” from these groups criticising the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020 (EIA 2020).

These platforms have been spearheading a public awareness campaign and are facilitating petitions against the drastic changes introduced by the draft notification to extant environmental clearance norms, which environmentalists argue, have further enfeebled the earlier 2006 EIA notification.

It appears that the public outrage and ridicule that followed on social media, prompted the Delhi Police to withdraw the legal notice against the FFF and clarify that the notice, the result of a "clerical error", had been sent "inadvertently with unrelated sections of law".

Apart from filing the complaint, the environment minister, known for an ostensible penchant for fatuous utterances on the question of environmental protection, is also reported to have overruled the suggestion by his own Ministry officials for extending the period for receiving feedback from the public on the draft EIA 2020 notification.

It took the intervention of the Delhi High Court, based on a petition filed by environmental conservationists, to extend the date for public feedback submission until 11 August 2020.

Clearance

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is tasked with devising regulations and procedures for environmental clearance for industrial projects, which it publishes in the form of "notifications".

The latest notification in this regard is the draft EIA 2020 which supersedes its already weak and widely criticized predecessor, the 2006 EIA notification. The EIA, an environmental clearance regulatory framework, formally initiated by India in 1994, came about as a result of concerted legal and political activism by citizens groups concerned with environmental protection.

In practice, however, the EIA has been reduced to a process through which industrial projects have been granted access to land, water, coasts, forests, wildlife reserves, and other environmental resources, paving the way for legitimising large-scale and often environmentally destructive projects, but also severing the long-standing interdependencies between local communities and their surrounding ecologies.

The draft EIA 2020 notification undermines the existing green clearance regime in at least four key ways – (a) it envisions a far diminished space for public engagement by exempting a long list of projects including inland waterways and expansion/widening of national highways, including roads that perforate forests and river dredging from public hearings/consultations, (b) limits the scope of EIAs by exempting certain projects from requirements of prior environmental clearance, (c) allows violators to go practically scot-free, and (d) provides for retrospective exemption by introducing provisions for post-facto project clearance despite the fact that in an order dated 1 April 2020, the Supreme Court of India had asserted that “ex post facto environmental clearances” are contrary to the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence.

Anxiety 

The palpable anxiety surrounding the 2020 EIA notification has been exacerbated by warnings from environmentalists and scientists that a further dilution of green clearance norms will spell disaster for India’s biodiverse ecological zones.

These zones include the ecologically fragile Western Ghats region, already under acute stress from a slew of large-scale eco-destructive industrial projects, including among others, projects for widening of roads, laying railway lines, building national highways, and the construction of the world’s largest proposed nuclear power park at Jaitapur along India’s western coast in Ratnagiri.

India’s northeast is also up in arms against the EIA 2020 notification “in view of the damage, which has already been caused by mining/drilling operations underway or sanctioned in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the region”.

A recent study by researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford on the impact of the increasing human footprint on regions that host "large concentrations of evolutionarily distinct and threatened (Edge) species" warns that the Western Ghats – a mountain range, older than the Himalayas that runs parallel to India’s western coast – are weighed down by ‘unprecedented levels’ of human activity which threaten more than 50 billion years of unique evolutionary history. The same is true for other ecologically rich and fragile regions across the Caribbean and large parts of Southeast Asia.

Dissent

A series of concerted changes to dilute environmental and forest laws without public consultation have been effected which in essence have made environmental clearance simpler for industrial projects, undermined the rights of forest-dwelling communities, and opened up forests to private actors in the years since the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended to power.

This has come as an accompaniment to an anomalous criminalization of dissent and attacks against environmental defenders. The Modi government brought out a ‘confidential report’ in 2014, soon after coming to power. The report had been prepared by India's internal intelligence agency and was selectively leaked to media outlets.

The report labeled Greenpeace India and other anti-nuclear and environmental citizens’ collectives and independent activists as "anti-national", accusing them of "negatively impacting India’s GDP growth rate" due to their opposition to large-scale industrial projects.

The report also made the ludicrous claim that these citizens groups and individuals had brought down India’s GDP by 2-3 percent.

Policing

This year, ever since the country-wide Covid lockdown, the MoEFCC has continued to recklessly push through with environmental clearance for proposed projects across national parks, sanctuaries and tiger corridors. 

The ill-reputed National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), supposedly India’s apex wildlife conservation body, has been unabashedly toeing the government line in fast-tracking such projects. Given the present government’s implacable attempts to water down substantive green clearance requirements to promote "ease" of business, the task of environmental conservation has largely fallen upon environmental activists, NGOs, advocacy groups, and members of civil society. 

These groups have often challenged such decisions in courts, as well as at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s only specialized environmental court. While environmental defenders, conservationists, and human rights activists have been under attack even during preceding regimes, the criminalization of dissent under Modi has acquired an unprecedented pace and urgency.

India found its way into the list of top contenders for the ‘deadliest countries for environmental activists’ according to a 2017 ‘Defenders of the Earth’ report which highlighted a spike in killings, increased threats, risks, and intimidation, including of sexual violence against land and environmental activists “against a backdrop of heavy-handed policing and the repression of peaceful protests and civic activism” in India.

There are countless other examples wherein not only environmental activists and organizations, but ordinary citizens protesting the loss of forest cover, pollution, and land grab have been arrested, criminally charged, and even fatally shot during protests.

Killings

Take for instance the agitation launched in 2019 by residents of the city of Mumbai for the protection of the Aarey forest, which is home to tribal communities and is popularly described as the ‘last green lung’ of the city.

The provincial government of the state of Maharashtra, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ordered the felling of thousands of trees to make way for a car shed for the Aarey metro, one among several other such projects in this ecologically diverse and wildlife rich region. Citizens' groups approached the state High Court for reprieve.

The court refused to issue a stay on the matter, so citizens gathered in large numbers at the site where the trees were being cut down. At least 29 protestors including students were arrested by the city police and charged with ‘obstructing public servants from discharging duty’ and ‘unlawful assembly’.

Protestors in Tuticorin in the Indian state of Tamil Nadub opposed Vedanta’s copper smelter plants for polluting their air and ground water in 2018. They were shot in the head and chest by sniper shooters of the state police, who killed thirteen protestors and triggered widespread shock and outrage. The actions of the police prompted comparisons with the use of sharpshooters by the Israeli army in Gaza.

Vedanta, the London-headquartered mining giant, is globally notorious for violating environmental norms and rights of indigenous communities. They are alleged to have been among the key donors for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which perhaps explains the abject silence of the Prime Minister on these killings.

Wastelands 

In place of urgent and concrete interventions on environmental protection, the Hindu majoritarian regime under Modi has advanced its own version of a ‘green ethno-nationalism’ which packages yoga and the worship of nature, including rivers, as its solution and unique civilizational contribution to addressing the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change. 

This, even as it bends over backwards to push neoliberal agendas and accommodate big corporations and multinational industrial lobbies.

India has paved the way not only for an impending right-wing majoritarian nightmare, but also ecological wastelands. 

This Author 

Sonali Huria is a PhD research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Her research is focused on the people's resistance in India against nuclear energy and the post-colonial state's repressive responses.

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