The inspiration, and limitation, of volunteerism

Signal victories by activists sometimes obscure the fact that only some people have the capacity and opportunity to engage in it, sustainable change requires these efforts to become inclusive

Climate Justice Now! (art by Nissa Tzun) [image: Vince Reinhart]

There is a famous quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It is particularly beloved of activists when confronting large, systemic problems. The scale of the challenge is often daunting, but without an effort at change, things will stay as they are. Bad systems will remain bad systems until and unless sustained efforts of change are undertaken. They will not fix themselves, because – by their very nature – systems benefit somebody or the other, and even if they are unjust to the vast majority, those that are benefiting are unlikely to give up their profits by themselves.

There are few challenges as daunting as dealing with the climate crisis. Not only has it taken centuries in the making, it is deeply linked to the economic and political systems that make the world run. Just as slavery in the US was not just about running plantations, but also a major part of the financial system as banks offered loans and other financial instruments based on the wealth of cotton extracted through slavery, the carbon economy is linked to things far more than just coal plants and oil rigs. To give just one example, China is currently the world’s biggest promoter of coal plants across the world, but since these are money making ventures which have a high and relatively secure rate of return, it is no surprise that money from the US, Europe and even Japan flow into these investments.

Disentangling these investments requires not just taking on large corporations and the way that they do business, but also governments that benefit from these investments, as well as large investment funds, some of them managing the pensions of retired individuals. These people are unlikely to change their minds merely because of a street protest.

And yet, activists are chalking up their successes. In this fortnight’s interview we feature the young students that make up the Yugma Network. Through little more than sustained outreach, and a willingness to raise their voices, they have managed to challenge the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification promulgated last year. Using the opportunity offered by citizen feedback to the law, they mobilised hundreds, if not thousands of responses to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell – of the biggest oil companies in the world – suffered a major setback when a court ordered it to cut its carbon emissions faster than it has been doing. These are major victories, which prove the optimism in Mead’s quote. Even if they are partial, rather than complete, changes, they highlight how organising, educating and agitating can have major impacts, including against governments and mega-corporations.

Nonetheless, there are challenges to these models of change. The first, and most important, is that such type of organising is easier for the rich and those least affected. The legal challenge to Royal Dutch Shell was in a court at The Hague in the Netherlands, where it is headquartered. There are other legal challenges that the company has faced, primarily over its practices in Nigeria. In its work in the Niger delta, it has been accused of everything from oil spills to spying, and supporting the torture and murder of environmental activists. In the end, Shell chose to exit Nigeria and was fined for some of its pollution, but the communities – particularly in Ogoniland – have had to deal with this issue for decades.

There is a similar change with the EIA 2020 protests. As the Yugma Network note, the draft was available only in Hindi and English. The communities most affected by environmental catastrophes through bad impact assessments, are also those that are least able to access the technology to respond to such notifications. Nor do they have the time and leisure to devote to these drawn-out fights. As the example of those affected by the Baghjan natural gas well blow out in Assam demonstrates, these are often people whose source of livelihood has itself been destroyed, and they are hoping for some help to start life anew.

The challenge of volunteerism is that it is affordable precisely to those least affected, and thus structurally excludes those most affected. This does not mean that those most affected do not care, it is just that they have to overcome larger hurdles to make their voices heard. This means two things: one, that organisations based on volunteerism, as the Yugma Network is, must take extraordinary steps to include these voices, and two, that for change to be sustainable and benefit the most vulnerable, we must find ways to incentivise their participation in such activities. Without that, we may continue to get climate solutions, but may still fail at anything like climate justice.

As my colleague, Shambhavi Madan, puts it, “there is a status quo where locally generated mobilisation does usually happen in some form when life and livelihood is threatened. To turn that into civic participation that is able to activate legal or political processes is tricky because only certain sets of citizens are equipped to institutionally engage.

In that space it is not just adding excluded voices so to speak, but ensuring/working for resources for impacted communities without totally distorting the actually experienced exploitation and knowledge systems in the process. [This] calls for forms of collectivisation to have to challenge orthodoxy. [Organisations like the] Yugma Network have capacities… to be a form of organisation that a) wouldn't turn extractive the minute it constructs incentivisation systems and becomes more heterogeneous/collaborative, or b) operate as an actual network that continues functioning even if the original organisers leave.”

The Interview

The Yugma Network is a youth-led social movement that kicked off last year, challenging the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification by the government. Since then it has expanded its footprint. Instead of sending their pictures, the network sent us their artwork, as they felt it represented them better, and due to the pandemic, a meeting together was impossible.

Q. What is Yugma? How did it come about? Where is it going?

A. Yugma Network started off in late July 2020 as a student-led campaign to withdraw the Draft EIA 2020 Notification. The Draft EIA 2020 Notification weakens many clauses of the pre-existing Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, thereby making it easier for corporations and industries to get an environment clearance for a project. Thus, it favours ease of doing business over environmental protection, although the latter is the very purpose of an EIA.

The initial idea was to get student unions, clubs and individuals to sign on to a letter addressed to Prakash Javadekar and the MoEFCC, asking them to withdraw the Draft and clearly stating why we thought the Draft was perilous for the environment.

By the time we sent the email, we had around 80 unions and clubs from across India standing in solidarity! This was our first experience of the overwhelming potential of student/youth voice. 

As we sent out that email and mobilized individual students to also join the campaign, the MoEFCC extended the last data for public opinion on the Draft to August 11th 2020. The iron was already hot and we chose to strike it by exploring ways in which we could build more awareness and reach, and mobilize more citizens to stand against the Draft EIA 2020. With an influx of volunteers who chose to help with the movement, we created graphic and video content on the Draft and parallelly to mobilize more people through social media interactions, writing a song (Wake Up, Yugma Network) and collaborating with other environmental activism groups like Chennai Climate Action Group and Let India Breathe.

An important realization was the strength of working as a coalition of groups towards a common goal!

With the content we created, we attempted to achieve two implicit goals. For one, we wanted the language used to be as simple and non-technical as possible and for the information to be presented with artwork that captured its essence (you can view these on our Instagram page!)

Secondly, we worked to produce all content in around 12 Indian languages (varying based on the content) with the help of volunteers who were well versed in them (all of them were youth!). We also worked to connect ongoing local environmental issues and disasters such as the Baghjan blowout and Vizag gas leak to the EIA Notification to argue that the new draft would worsen such issues. You can read more about the EIA movement here:

Since the deadline for public opinion on August 11th 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has taken cognizance of the lakhs of emails which were sent and CSIR-NEERI recently prepared a report (albeit flawed) on the trends of the objection raised. Environmental groups, including Yugma have now come together again for #WithdrawDraftEIA 2.0.

Our biggest takeaway from the initial month of Yugma was realizing and understanding the complexities of the movement for environmental justice, not just environmental conservation, and the potential and need for youth voice in the movement.

Thereafter, the Yugma Network, a collective of youth across the country passionate about environmental and social justice, expanded to experiment with other possibilities.

We think of the Yugma Network as a process. Through our campaigns we have realised that the environmentalism we have learnt in school is not complete. Yes, we should get polluting factories to shut down, but when the economy is in a decline, addressing unemployment and the poverty and inequality that comes with it is just as important. How can this be reconciled with the prevailing destructive idea of development? What is a utopian vision of an ecologically and socially just world towards which we can work towards, and who defines it? How do we ensure that environmentalism is representative and intersectional, led by those who are the most impacted?

With these questions in mind, we as the Yugma Network decided to broadly work towards the concept of environmental justice. The Yugma Network is a pan-Indian youth initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice through campaigns, language, education, legal and policy interventions, deeper understanding & conversations, and alternatives. Our aim is to broaden the definition of environment to socio-cultural, economical and political issues, and to include various perspectives of castes, classes, indigenous communities and genders in the discourse. ​We are made up of:

●      Language Society: 70+ youth working in over 12 Indian languages

●      Education Group: aims to supplement existing school curriculums with a more nuanced idea of environmental justice. Right now, we are also facilitating sessions on environmental justice, through a curriculum we developed, to 12 high school students in DLRC School, Pune. Parallelly, we are (albeit slowly) working towards developing a complementary environmental justice module for middle school students.

●      Campaigns, coordinated by campaign coordinators, and made possible through an artists society, a content creation team, and the language society. We work with other environmental and human rights/social justice groups in a collaborative manner to support and lead campaigns through art, local languages, educational content and on-ground strikes. Some campaigns have included Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA) - art & activism, Greens with Farmers (to support farmers movement through content, physical strikes, webinars), Khori Gaon Campaign (to prevent unjust evictions of 1 lakh+ people), #SaveAndamans (to prevent the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from being destroyed), Anti-Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi, and several forest and coastal movements.

●      Environmental Justice Clinic: run by law students - we have filed a successful legal petition against online public hearing for Peripheral Ring Road, Bangalore, instead demanding for a more inclusive, offline one post the pandemic. We have also worked on a lot of legal research, drafts for PILs, and filed several RTIs for the Andaman and Nicobar campaign.

●      Several short-term initiatives such as a 3 month research project on renewable energy, a thorough compilation of resources on caste and ecology, and an in-depth educational series on marine ecology.

Going forward, we hope Yugma Network can turn into a deeply democractic and representative movement strongly grounded in social and environmental justice.  As a decentralised process, the Network will be shaped by all our members and we are sure that several pertinent and essential conversations will be prodded and taken forward. We hope to continue being a space wherein people can question existing power structures, assess issues from an intersectional and interdisciplinary lens, reimagine new spaces and societies, and explore alternatives from a just and democratic perspective.  

Q. Why the focus on languages?

A. During the EIA 2020 campaign, we realised that a majority of India’s environmental discourse was taking place in English, at least in the online medium. There was barely any coverage in regional newspapers about the Draft EIA2020 Notification. The draft itself was only in English and Hindi, effectively excluding a huge population in India from being able to read it and also violating the constitutional mandate for the MOEFCC to translate the draft into regional languages. Hence, with the help of over 70 students from across India, the Yugma Network decided to try and put out some information about the Draft EIA2020 and it’s regional impacts in 12 Indian languages.

Over the past year, we have realised that language is not simply a communication tool - it is part of one’s identity. It is imperative to have conversations in different languages, not only to enable greater awareness and reach (regional languages are a very important tool to reach out and personalise issues to people) but also to ensure that the conversation is intersectional, not-coopted by the ‘elite’, savarna, and white-washed voices, and led by those from Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA), Trans, Queer, Muslim, and other marginalised communities.

We also noticed through our process that the environmental discourse was dominated by the elite sections of the society in India. The upper class notion of “preserving the environment” and creating a strong “binary between humans and nature” dominated the space. If change is pushed for by such an exclusionary group, the outcome and means both remain exploitative and do not actually benefit a majority of the population. Language is thus an important aspect of inclusion needed to push for more nuanced changes and to diversify the conversation to ensure the majority have a much larger say in issues.

Q. Why do the youth care? And why is it necessary to involve them?

A. The youth care because we are left with no choice but to fight for our future and to fight to preserve our democracy and a representative, empathetic and inclusive society. We think that the term ‘involve’ itself is somewhat inaccurate - the youth are the ones leading this fight and we have already been thrown into the deep by the inaction of our decision makers and those with the economic, social and political power.

We, as a nation, are drowning under the impacts of the second wave of COVID-19 and a lack of governance & planning. We are suffering from rising unemployment and job scarcity, agriculture and labour laws are being weakened, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones, those protesting against injustice are being persecuted, caste and patriarchy are still pervasive and oppressive features of society, numerous indigenous and local communities are being displaced, our environment and future is being ruthlessly destroyed, democratic values are being erased, our deeply flawed economic system is in shambles… If these reasons are not more than enough for youth to care, be involved and fight this battle vigorously, then what are we waiting for?

Since those in positions of power have failed us (and we want to emphasise that this has not impacted all youth equally - ‘youth’ itself is a diverse category with some communities being much more exploited and impacted compared to others), it is our responsibility to ensure we stand for environmental and social justice - we do not have the luxury to be apolitical and inactive.

It is necessary for the youth to lead this movement with the support and solidarity of all generations to bring in a new vision and imagination of what our world can be.

Q. How conscious are you that this is coming from an elite space (higher education, economically secure), and how does a voluntary organisation of such sort include and showcase the voices and experiences of those most hurt by environmental damage?

A. We think the term ‘youth’ itself is, incorrectly, often co-opted by upper-class and upper-caste youth who have the social and political capital to make our voices heard. Though the Yugma Network comprises a regionally diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, we are quite aware and conscious that our activism does come from an elite space. Almost all of our active group members do come mainly from economically and socially privileged, savarna backgrounds. The ability to access resources, networks, social media platforms (and social media literacy) to even start and continue working on something like the Yugma Network stems from privileged backgrounds and places in society.

As of now, all team members also work purely on a voluntary basis, with no monetary compensation and that itself leaves out many people with financial constraints and given the online mode of most of work until now, network constraints as well.

Keeping this in mind, our goal has always been and is to ensure that Yugma Network is a platform to amplify the voices of those most affected rather than co-opting more space or twisting the narrative to suit us. In all campaigns we take up, such as that for Khori Gaon Rehabilitation, EIA 2020, or Youth Action to Stop Adani, we ensure that the voices of those on ground are amplified and brought to the forefront on the Network platforms (through videos, quotes, interviews, art, music etc.) and try to minimise our own biases and perspectives. Yugma Network is not ‘our’ movement, but a tool and a platform to lend solidarity with those fighting for justice. Yugma being quite young and born within the pandemic does not have the funding and ground-reach yet to break out of the echo chamber completely. This is however, something we take seriously and are constantly seeking ways to achieve, whether it is through amplification, collaborations, or involving more individuals & members from affected, marginalised, and oppressed communities.

We also hope that in the near future, especially when we can move beyond purely digital interactions and work, the Yugma Network can be more inclusive and diverse in its team. We completely understand that our politics, environmental and social, are in no way perfect, and we are constantly committed to unlearning, educating ourselves and being corrected and called out, while continuing our battle against injustice and oppression.  

Q. What is the one big thing that is missing in the conversation about youth and environment, in your opinion?

A. We think that the intersection of environmental issues with economic, social and political issues, like caste, class, religion, is something that is mostly left out in the mainstream conversation of youth, climate change and environment.

Our school education also does not expose its students to ideas around environmental and social justice issues. Much of the mainstream discourse is largely shaped by an elitist, savarna perspective and envisions environmentalism as the protection of pristine nature from people.

We don’t think there is enough focus (if any at all) on casteism, land politics, and environmentalism. This easily demonises those who are directly dependent on natural resources, like Adivasis, or those who ‘encroach’ on resources or land. While there is a dominant conversation about not enough access to clean water, air, open space etc, there is not enough conversation about those who are denied access to these resources and are most affected by natural disasters and climate change because of caste, class, gender, and religious structures and power dynamics.

This lack of intersectional conversation again alienates a large population of people who are trying to ensure that their basic needs are being met- even though that IS a conversation that pertains to environmentalism. In order to look at access, distribution, impact of climate change on people and then protest for just, inclusive, and representative solutions, it is necessary to look at the environment movement along with social justice. It is not enough to stop climate change - we must ensure that the means are just and democratic too.

Critical reading

  1. Why the Haryana Govt Must Not Evict One Lakh Residents of Khori Gaon: The Supreme Court’s eviction and demolition orders (without rehabilitation) regarding the Khori Gaon basti on the Delhi-Haryana border falling within the Faridabad Municipal Corporation (FMC) jurisdiction, concluding that it is an encroachment on Aravalli forest land, reflect the precarious rights to the city that are extended to the urban poor. Cases involving informal settlements on lands held important for environmental reasons are typically polarised as a contest between housing rights and environmental conservation, with the latter being presented as public interest threatened by housing rights of the poor, when in fact it is state failure in regulating land use. High-end commercial establishments or religious enterprises in the same area thrive, whereas working class settlements, auto-constructed through dubious land dealings, continually battle legal discourses of encroachment and evictions fused with ecological justifications.

  2. India's Deep Ocean Mission: A Literal Race to the Bottom:The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs recently approved a Deep Ocean Mission proposed by the Ministry of Earth Sciences at a cost of Rs 4,077 crore over five years. Its objectives include to develop technologies for exploration of the ocean floor and ridges, and act as a precursor to deep sea mining (DSM) – strategic technologies that are currently at various stages of highly protected development and deployment by only a handful of mostly developed countries. India’s entry into deep sea exploration has grown from an initial motivation of technological self-reliance, to Mission objectives regarding ocean biodiversity and potentially utilising bio-resources being explicitly linked to aspects of the Blue Economy initiative, indicating a strong commercial and industrial thrust. While the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) regulatory mechanisms have globally prevailed in keeping extractive activities at bay, however as certain pressures and interests in ocean minerals mount, anticipated and unanticipated environmental hazards and ecosystem impacts lie on the horizon.

  3. Are Kashmir's New Hydro-Electric Projects Economically Viable? Since the 2019 abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A) of India’s Constitution and the bifurcation of the state into two union territories, the Union government has sanctioned multiple hydropower projects in Kashmir with the argument that these will make the region power-surplus.  However, while the ecological implications of hydropower projects are quite well known, the government may also have overstated their economic benefits. The projected earnings from the Ratle project in particular – under construction on the Chenab river in Kishtwar district – will make up less than 0.2% of J&K’s 2021 budget. This is hardly significant. Worse, most of the hydro power generated here is exported while the state faces energy shortage every winter. A Kashmir-based think-tank found that in 2000-15, NHPC earned close to Rs 40,000 crore by selling hydel power produced from J&K while the J&K government buys around 19-20% of the power generated in J&K from NHPC projects at market rates – the region’s indigenous residents pay both ways.

  4. Karnataka revives dying lakes: Why a decentralised governance was long overdue: The High Court of Karnataka June 15, 2021 passed an order calling for decentralised governance of lakes in the state, thereby recalling a 2012 order that had allowed centralised management of lakes. This was important to ensure biological as well as ecological security of water bodies across the state, as this HC order will allow local public access to lake restoration and revival activities, which will help preserve and rejuvenate the dying lakes in the state. Centralised management required by the 2012 high court order, along with the officials' unfamiliarity with technical matters related to lake rejuvenation, had allowed the destruction of lakes. As many as 40,000 lakes in urban areas were included in the 2012 judgement; and as a result, as many as 10,000 lakes in rural areas have since been lost. 

  5. As mining returns to Ballari, farmers have nowhere to turn: Land holdings of farmers in “unsettled” or “unsurveyed” villages in Sandur Valley, Ballari, Karnataka – villages that have not been officially surveyed by the Karnataka government – do not appear in government records. This lack of “complete” documentation leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by mining companies, who are returning to the region after the activity was banned there in 2011 for violating environmental laws. The unsurveyed areas overlap with Ballari’s most intensely mined iron ore reserves, and while mining companies have received survey drawings and land documents, and processes for their operations have been fast-tracked, there is little interest or political will to provide land security to farmers, or to people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities with respect to their land claims under the Forest Rights Act. Infrastructure is being augmented to handle mining projects even as farmland, being earlier encircled by the iron ore industry, now faces the threat of being subsumed.

  6. Is Uttarakhand abusing disaster management laws to allow rampant riverbed mining? In November 2020, a few months before floods ravaged Uttarakhand, there was an open auction of tenders to desilt the riverbed in Champawat’s villages in Tanakpur district. While government tenders usually seek the lowest bidder contractor willing to do the work at the lowest cost, in this case, the highest bidder would get the tender. It went beyond issuing a work contract – also auctioning the right to sell to the construction and building sector all the sand, gravel and boulders estimated to be excavated from the location. It was but one of several such tenders floated by district administrations since January 31 2020 under the government’s River Training Policy – a policy invoking the Disaster Management Act 2005 to auction desilting rights to private contractors, therefore allowing sand and boulder mining from river beds without seeking either environment or forest clearances for river training contracts, despite little evidence of such desilting reducing disasters.

  7. TERI suggests diversification of revenue sources for coal-bearing states to prepare for just transitions: Two recently released working papers by TERI underline the need for a just energy transition approach while shifting from coal to renewables. They find that as India plans to transition away from coal for its energy demand, it will have to look for alternative revenue and livelihood sources for those associated with the industry, especially states for whom coal forms a major part of their revenues. The diversification of revenue sources for such states and their workforce can be undertaken by establishing industrial parks, solar parks, and battery energy storage projects.

  8. Rural job scheme guarantees carbon sequestration: The world’s largest anti-poverty programme may also help India achieve its target of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent, through additional forest and tree cover, by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) captured 102 million tonne carbon dioxide (MtCO2) in 2017-18 through plantations and soil quality improvement, found a recent study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru). The researchers calculated carbon sequestration by assessing biomass in plantations and carbon stored in the soil of work sites in 158 villages spanning 18 agro-ecological zones of India to arrive at the conclusion. 

  9. As Dharamshala grows, the city eats into the forest: Dharamshala is a fast-growing municipal area. Between 2011 and 2015, new wards were added to the municipal corporation and its population saw an increase of over 70 per cent. The selection of Dharamshala for the Indian government’s Smart City project and its designation as the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh added to the pace of growth. But almost all the structures spread along its main road and back narrow alleys are over-built and multi-storey buildings are hanging over main roads, and on steep slopes, at precarious-looking angles in the region. Dharamshala’s haphazard development has eroded the region’s forest cover, with tree felling, although prohibited, being facilitated through other means. However, state response to forest violations is selective, disproportionately targeting small encroachments, leaving bigger encroachments unscathed – and violations continue unabated thanks to an alleged nexus between the government departments and the builder lobby. 

  10. Modi Govt's Policy to Reduce Oil Imports: Subsidise the Rich, Burden the Poor! The Modi government seems to be subsidising the rich at the cost of the poor by diverting food grains meant for the most impoverished sections of the population to private industries for producing alcohol for India’s ethanol blended petrol programme. There’s more: food grains will not only be sold to these industries at subsidised rates but units seeking to expand their capacities for the purpose will also no longer need mandatory environment clearances and will be provided financial aid for enhancing their ethanol producing infrastructure. All this, as per the claims of the government, is to increase production of ethanol which will ultimately be blended with petrol for use as vehicular fuel in order to reduce India’s oil import bill. However, the government food grain stock should first be used to universalise the public distribution system. “For any purpose other than that, like manufacturing ethanol, food grains need to be procured from the open market which will give a clear idea about the viability of the ethanol blended programme”, as Nikhil Dey of the Right to Food Campaign explains.