How and Why India Subjects Environmental Activism to Political Violence

Praful Patel, the newly-appointed administrator for Lakshadweep, India’s smallest union territory, seems to have missed the memo on the impending climate crisis. Since February 2021, Patel has introduced a series of new laws that are in utter conflict with the region’s cultural as well as ecological past, present and future.

The Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, for instance, allows for the removal or relocation of people from their own property for land or resource acquisition to serve the purpose of infrastructural development. To add insult to injury, the prospect of any sort of dissent by the local residents has been jeopardised by the Draft Lakshadweep Prevention of Antisocial Activities Regulation, 2021, which allows anyone to be detained if they are “acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order”.

The administration’s intolerance for dissent was put on display almost immediately when a local filmmaker criticising the laws was charged with sedition.

Government’s indifference

The laws cement what many fear. India’s attitude towards the climate crisis has been adulterated by titillating prospects of infrastructural development and foreign investments. More so, those who criticise this reality are being promised a cruel fate.

The Indian government’s general indifference towards environmental subjects always was, and still is, in stark contrast with the global attitude to bog down the climate crisis. This viewpoint, or lack thereof, showcased by the current administration – or even its predecessors – is of long-standing and has been historically highlighted through the poor decision-making and the utter disregard for the ramifications of the same.

Taking a critical look at the situation in Lakshadweep itself, though the proposed laws have attracted criticism now, the plans to turn the islands into a tourist hotspot have been in the works for a while. In 2019, the Ministry of Trade and Commerce introduced an investment incentivising scheme titled, Lakshwadeep and Andaman and Nicobar Industrial Development Scheme (LANIDS). The scheme, which aims to attract investors to one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the country, glaringly lacks any sort of local participation in reviewing or approving industrial projects.

Also read: Lakshadweep: Tiny Dots on the Map for You, but Home for Me

Last year, in 2020, when COVID-19 first invaded our way of life, there were reports of how the lack of human mobility during the pandemic could curtail the otherwise rising levels of pollution in the country. With the piling up of reports detailing the urgency required to tackle the climate crisis, it seemed that this might be a faint silver lining.

The reality was disappointing. Be it the introduction of the callous draft Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 or the announcement of the outlandish Central Vista Project, it was yet again made clear that the administrative prioritisation of environmental issues was never to come.

Crushing voices of dissent

To accurately underscore the grim situation, one must look at how this lack of concern is compounded by the mistreatment of those who choose to address these issues. The spectrum of abuse suffered by environmental activists varies from being censored in public domains to being accosted on social media, to intimidation, imprisonment based on draconian laws and even death.

The recent censorship of the websites of three NGOs that objected against the newly proposed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 was a recent example of how the relevant authorities tend to crackdown on dissent. The websites were also given a notice under the infamous anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Law (UAPA), which was later abruptly withdrawn by the Delhi police, citing an error.

Although in this instance the authorities primarily sparred with the activists in a digital domain, there also exist circumstances that can prove fatal.

Also read: ‘This is BJP’s Patent Style’: Why Lakshadweep is Being Compared with Kashmir

One tragic instance of such extremity was in Dandeli, a town in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. Dandeli is infamous for its history of underhanded infrastructural and industrial leaps, backed by major corporations, political tools, and a functioning criminal system that has managed to ensure the ecological degradation in the region with any means necessary. The town garnered major media attention in 2018 when Ajit Naik, a local environmental activist, was ruthlessly attacked and killed in a parking lot by goons equipped with swords.

The abhorrent crime was reported to be motivated by Naik’s relentless and outspoken campaign against the many ecologically flawed projects such as the proposed construction of a seventh dam on the Kali River, the local river body in the region, which had already been diseased by previous constructions and incessant waste discharge by the local paper mill industries.

Naik’s murder added to an already long list of abused and subjugated environmental activists in the country. According to a report by Global Witness, India witnessed a threefold increase in the killing of environmental and land rights activists in 2016, promoting it to the fourth global rank in the countries infested by violent practices against environmental activists; ten out of 16 killings in that particular year were suspected to be at the hands of the local police.

Far beyond right-wing skepticism

The disproportionate crackdown on environmental activism can no longer be attributed to the mere right-wing skepticism towards the climate crisis. The issue is far more adverse.

The immense influx of investments by corporations over the past few years has incentivised the government to get in bed with them under the garb of infrastructural development. The subsequent demand to acquire natural resources or to water down certain restrictions to expedite “development” has thus become a priority.

From the period of July 2014 to April 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change approved a staggering 2,256 of the 2,592 proposals for environmental clearance for various projects. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Tourism Sector, and Coal India’s subsidiary had the highest number of given clearances.

This relationship with corporations comes at a heavy ecological expense which communicates in simple language that the government’s business interests trump the public interest. And this is the case after the numerous judicial reiterations pertinent to the Public Trust Doctrine.

Thus, when the trend has not changed, ecological dissent has become one of the most important voices in the country. This leads to the reason why activists often find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun – quite literally so in many cases – for they are adept at pointing out intricacies that can lift the cloche on the corporate-government nexuses and the unconstitutional practices involved in the accomplishment of their collective political goals.

This is another reason why crackdowns on activists cannot be allowed to be generalised as just mere violent acts but as acts of political violence. These acts are a way to sustain the corporatocracy that is extant in countless regions of the country.

To further aggravate the situation, these acts of political violence are often defended by local institutions by using the dirty old trick of distorting the narrative and slapping the dissent with the label of extremism.

Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), an NGO protesting the subjugation and killing of the members of Dongria Kondh, the indigenous tribal community of the Niyamgiri Hills region in the eastern state of Odisha, fell victim to this in 2017, when the Union ministry proclaimed their activities to be guided by “Maoist” outfits. The members of the Kondh community, along with the NSS, had been resisting the mining operations in the region – Niyamgiri Hills is known for its bauxite reserves – by major corporations which could lead to major ecological complications.

This controversy had first erupted in 2016 after Manda Katraka, a 21-year-old tribal, was shot down by the Border Security Force albeit explanation and was posthumously labeled as a Maoist. This was fervently protested by the NSS and the other tribal members in the region. Notably, four years later, in 2020, Manda Katraka was declared to not have had any connections to the Maoist group by Odisha Human Right Commission (OHRC).

The cause of worry that stems from these stories, as unfortunate as they may sound, is that they do not come close to encapsulating the dire situation we are in.

According to the Global Climate Index report based on the data from 2000-2019, India held a worrying seventh rank in the list of countries worst affected by the climate crisis. The report based on the impacts of extreme weather events and their associated socio-economic effects listed India to have had the highest number of casualties (2267) and a total of 1.8 million people displaced. Furthermore, the monetary loss incurred was estimated at $ 10 billion.

What needs to be done?

It immediately becomes obvious that there is currently an imperative need to re-evaluate the current unconcerned attitude and address the need for radical changes. The focus needs to be shifted to amplifying the voices of the indigenous communities in terms of environmental impact studies and resource acquirement processes. Furthermore, the traction that needs to be created around the subject of the climate crisis, and the damage done by the existing corporatocracies is contingent on the safeguarding of environmental activists. This translates to the need for safeguards, economic as well as social, which are equally vital. And most importantly, a stringent legal framework to ensure accountability for those involved in inciting, funding, and carrying out actions of political violence is non-negotiable.

There exists an overwhelming amount of evidence to illuminate the fact that we, despite being one of the fastest-growing economies, as well as one of the largest democracies, are trailing behind in acknowledging as well as taking performative measures to tackle the various facets of the climate crisis. The ongoing pandemic has already revealed how catastrophic events can cripple entire nations, exposing the underlying social imbalances and disproportionate effects caused due to them.

The warnings, however, seem to have gone unheard time and again. Therefore, we find ourselves in a disadvantageous position, where the question is now about affordability – of time and of mistakes.

Aryan Rai is a final-year undergraduate student and a freelance editorial writer.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty