In Conversation with Anjali Dalmia: A Young Climate Warrior

Vinay Agrawal

Discussing all things environment with Anjali DalmiA, Yugma Network, PLANT project, issues with EIA 2020 and how she views sustainability.

Climate change is one of the most pressing concerns today. It is a concern we cannot and should not ignore. It is a concern that deserves a priority on the list of agendas, not just at an institutional level, but on an individual level too. If you’re still scouting for a fitting new-year resolution, climate activism is one to consider. Make it a life-long commitment, and be an environmental crusader. 

“Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages.”

Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages. Committed to the cause, she eats, breathes and speaks environment. She was one of the force du jour in leading a national-level student movement in response to the problematic Draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020 through the Yugma network. 

Yugma Network now runs a language society with more than 70 students, an environmental justice clinic working on legal avenues, and a narratives and education program to build a space for youth from non-English backgrounds to further the discourse. 

Besides that, Dalmia also works closely with SAPACC Maharashtra (South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crises) where she is involved in reviewing the water section of Maharashtra State Adaptation Action Plan on Climate Change. She is also an Indian delegate at the international Mock COP26. 

Where do you see yourself in 2021? Any climate-specific goals?

In 2021, I would like to spend time understanding and experiencing realities at a ground level. I would say that the pandemic has ironically, helped me connect a lot more to the world and the political and environmental situation in India. However, I often feel I am speaking from an extremely sheltered point of view. Hence, I want to travel and understand what environmental justice truly means to different people in India. 

Additionally, I would like to start some research on urban centres and environmental solutions, delve deeper into environmental education in schools, spend some time to understand environmental laws in India, and further the PLANT project. I would also like to collaborate with people working in the alternate space and explore different forms of local governance and policy-making.

Since you mentioned PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees, how did it come to life? Are you following any checklist for documentation?

“The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution.”

PLANT started as a project for the Millennium Fellowship of 2020, in which Sowmya Vaidyanathan and I were fellows. The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution. 

The research for the project will be aided by eminent conservationists, activists, and academics. As of now, the project is in its early stages and hence we are looking at our communities to begin collecting stories. We don’t have criteria as such, however, we are focusing on exploring religious, social, caste and class angles to stories of plants. Our first few stories are mostly based in Mysuru. 

Can you share a few interesting knowledge paradigms you might have had come across during documenting PLANT?

An interesting plant story we came across was the way we, as environmentalists and urban dwellers, see the Lantana plant as an invasive species. However, for the locals, the Lantana was an essential medicinal plant they had deeply incorporated into their tradition. 

How can the inclusion of local languages & dialects broaden the discourse of environmental activism? 

“In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school.”

Language is a very powerful tool that not only helps in communication but also has a sense of identity and belonging attached to it. Many of us feel very proud to speak and hear our mother tongue, even when we can’t understand it. In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school. 

But even then, many people who do speak English don’t connect to it at a deeper level like they would in their native language. Therefore, if an environmental movement aiming for social justice is only in English, it prevents the flow of information from environmentalists and authorities to a grassroots level, and also prevents those who are most affected from speaking for themselves. This often leads to a very homogenous and top-down movement. 

“Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach”

Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach, and it would be very important not to only have Hindi in a country as diverse as India, to help the movement spread across many more people who can then make decisions for themselves and make the movement their own by connecting it to their daily struggles. 

On that note, I’d like to ask you what dissent means to you?

I believe ‘dissent’ is an extremely essential tool today considering the way our society is structured. In an ideal situation wherein people are in power at the local level and large scale, dissent could be seen as a difference in opinions. 

Unfortunately in India, there are very few avenues for citizens to comment on and influence policy-making constructively. Most of our laws have been heavily top-down and there has been very little room for citizens especially youth to raise concerns and suggest alternatives. 

“dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.”

In such a situation, dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.

Speaking of draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020, what are its key shortcomings and potential solutions to those? 

The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is a tool used by authorities to assess the impact of any developmental project on the environment, people, economy and infrastructure of an area before the project commences. It is also a public tool that allows people to voice their concerns and opinions. In India, a new draft of the EIA was released in March 2020. It severely diluted many requirements. Many projects classified as B2 projects (but still extremely destructive despite their small size) along with all defence and strategic projects as defined by the central government have been exempted from public consultation. 

Post-Facto clearance (which means that the project can begin by clearing and levelling land) has also been allowed for many projects, which has even been declared as environmentally destructive by the Supreme Court. Time for public consultation has been reduced to just 20 days, which means the public will only have 20 days to review the EIA report and give feedback amidst the pandemic, poor internet, and non-native languages; this is highly unconstitutional.

“EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice.”

EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice. It will lead to the exploitation of many marginalized communities and result in the mass approval of severely destructive projects.

In terms of solutions, I would say that the framework of the EIA itself is largely flawed. It has been criticized by many experts for creating a dualism between development and the environment. Additionally, since it is not a proper Act in the constitution, it is very easy to manipulate as it happened with the EIA 2020. Hence, we need a new framework based on public consent. If possible, the public should be given more decision making power. I would say that the entire EIA 2020 needs to be withdrawn and a new draft should be prepared. 

As someone who has designed and been a part of many tweetstorms, what is the right way to “tweet-storm” and what is a big “no-no”?

Usually sharing hashtags before the scheduled time is a big no. A successful tweetstorm from my experience should have a well-written tweetbank with tweets that include all the decided hashtags (usually 2-3 hashtags are perfect) along with tags of the relevant authorities. If the tweetbank has clickable links and images also, even better. This is usually circulated an hour or so before the tweetstorm. Having one WhatsApp group with all the dedicated tweeters helps. Retweeting is also extremely important.

How do you practice sustainability on a personal level?

To me, sustainability is definitely about the choices we make as a consumer. But it is also the mindset with which we approach our surroundings and society. As a consumer, I try as much as possible to live a zero-waste lifestyle. This means using a menstrual cup, natural soap and shampoo bars wrapped in paper, bamboo toothbrush, reuse and buying/borrowing second-hand clothes, using public transport like bus and trains over cars and flights, carrying my cutlery and tiffin while travelling, segregating my waste at home, and using biogas for cooking. 

Additionally, I am part of a wonderful initiative called “Pune Freecycle”, a WhatsApp group where people can give and take items based on goodwill. In terms of the mindset, I feel sustainability means interacting with people around me – talking to the akkas who clean the roads in the morning, having a conversation with the bhaiya running the corner grocery store, noticing individual trees near my house and sending and receiving positive energy, slowly walking around the neighbourhood. All of these are also forms of sustainability to me because they help me slow down and connect to my surroundings. 

Climate change is a reality we cannot afford to ignore. To safeguard the planet from any further degradation, each of us has to become a warrior in our own right. Our collective actions will determine the climate of the future. 

If we want to improve the standard of life, mitigate impending climatic disasters and preserve the planet for posterity, it is time to lead, make changes for the larger good and act accordingly and sustainably so. The time is now before it is too late.  Each one of us can be a climate crusader like Anjali Dalmia and can start young or old. 

An introvert by nature, Vinay believes in the strength and the beauty of vulnerability. He likes to read about arts & culture and has worked full-time as a features writer, and has contributed for various publications. Vinay is a staff writer at Bol Magazine.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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We refuse black coal, save Goa!

Suparna Chatterjee

An insight into the movement that seeks to protect Goa from becoming a coal hub and save the biodiversity of the state.  

The sea, sand and beach shacks along with some parties are what we have in mind when we think of Goa. But beyond that, the West Indian coastal state of Goa fosters rich biodiversity and dynamic cultural and political histories that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people and the ecology. All of this is currently under threat from a massive industrial onslaught. 

Goans are protesting against three infrastructure projects that will facilitate the transport of coal through the state. If allowed to proceed, as the protestors deem, Goa will turn into a “coal-hub” for the benefit of private players. 

Coal corridor through Goa? Environmental and socio-economic impacts

“Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects.”

The three infrastructure projects, namely the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line, a four-lane expansion of the NH4A, and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line, will all pass through parts of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and lead to a loss of 170 hectares of protected forest land. Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects. The forests in Goa are home to around 721 plant species, 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species and many other creatures, some of which are endemic to the area. The projects will result in forest fragmentation, habitat destruction and disturb the ecosystem stability of the area. It will directly impact the life of the communities that reside in these forests, and will have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of a large section of the population from across socio-economic classes. 

These projects are part of the Sagarmala program which the director of the Goa Foundation, Claude Alvares describes as a scheme of turning the state of Goa into a dedicated coal corridor and says: “[..]..not designed by Goans for Goa by the Goa government” but is planned by a set of foreign actors. As part of this program, coal is to be transported from the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) which is located in Vasco, Goa, and is well connected through the railway and highways, to the neighbouring states of Maharashtra (via roadways) and Karnataka (via railways). It currently has a handling capacity of 12 MTP (million tonnes per annum), which is projected to increase to 51 MTPA for increased coal supply to the thermal plants and the steel industries of the neighbouring states. Coking coal is scarce in India and is imported from countries like Australia and South Africa into Goa via the MPT. Three public-private partnership terminals run by JSW, Vedanta, and Adani Group handle coal at the MPT.  

“A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area.”

A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area. The three projects were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife governed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in April this year through a video conference, along with 30 other projects, which essentially cut down scope for public engagement in the process of providing these clearances. 

Goans against Coal: protest movements in Goa against the infrastructure projects

The protests against the three projects started soon after they were passed. In the early stages, there were petitions, letters to the Central and State governments from citizens, civil society organizations and Goan youths. In July, the Goa Foundation filed a PIL at the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on this matter. The protests slowly gained momentum with the involvement of larger sections of people through the use of social media. Several individuals as well as groups like SaveMollem and GoyantKolsoNaka started trending the topic on social media platforms to educate people and gather attention on the environmental issues in the area. 

On the night of November 1, at around 10:30 pm more than 5,000 people gathered near a level crossing at Chandor village in South Goa. These people were opposing the construction of railway tracks being carried out despite the Bombay High Court staying the double-tracking project in the protected area until the next hearing scheduled in December. Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the people held a peaceful protest till 4 am. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: ‘[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.’” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: “[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.” For this activist and many others like her, the beautiful association developed with Mollem over the years, along with the love of its rich biodiversity and communities is what has driven them to be a part of the fight to protect it. She is concerned about biodiversity: “[…]..Slender lorises, Mouse deers, Hornbills and so much of life in the forest”, are all currently under threat. 

The midnight protest included the middle classes of urban and rural Goa, civil society members, activists, indigenous communities and large numbers of the youth. Fernandes describes the protest as “[..].. something so beautiful and peaceful despite the agitation amongst people which had forced them to come out, risking their lives amidst the pandemic.” The immediate response to the protests was an FIR filed by the Goa Police against the six convenors of the two NGOs – Goyant Kolso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, for unlawful activity and wrongful restraint. Fernandes says that the news of an FIR being filed was shocking, mainly because of the extremely peaceful nature of the protests which displayed varied forms of Goan culture, and there was no rioting or damage to property. 

The protest at Chandor was covered by leading online media outlets, and a buzz was created on social media. Following this, several email and signature campaigns were launched in which people from across the country participated. However, large parts of the country that often dream of a vacation in Goa are still silent on the issue.

“This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception.” 

This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception. Groups like the National Fishworkers Forum and several fisherwomen groups from the region protested against the Sagarmala project and the autonomy granted to the MPT in 2016. There have been protests in 2017 and 2018 opposing the infrastructure development and increasing coal handling permits at MPT. 

“The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands.”

The response of the government to such movements has not changed over the years. In the current situation, following the mid-night protests and media-outrage over the destruction of the environment, the Minister of Environment & Power in Goa, Nilesh Cabral while speaking to the media said: “Goa will not be a coal hub.” He also suggested afforestation in other parts to counter the effect of the felling of trees. However, there is an absence of a plan regarding such afforestation which has been cited as an ineffective mitigation measure to counter the carbon loss due to the felling of 200-300-year-old trees. The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands. 

What are the stakes? Who benefits? 

Urban environmental movements of this kind are here to stay; the movements to Save Mollem and Save Aarey forests prove this fact. It becomes essential to study the nature of these movements to understand how the dynamics of environmentalism are playing out in India. 

“Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as ‘environmentalism of the poor’, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements.”

Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as “environmentalism of the poor”, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements. Another form of environmentalism which is gaining popularity is “bourgeois environmentalism” where the middle-class seek environmental protection through institutional machinery. While environmentalism of the poor emerges out of concerns for immediate loss of livelihood and habitat as a result of environmental degradation, the bourgeois environmental movements are usually shaped by health concerns and loss of beautification due to environmental degradation. Street action against such forms of degradation is usually viewed as a means used by the poor, who do not have access to other forms of protest, while the urban or in rare cases the rural middle class usually resort to court petitions and other institutional means to further their goals. 

However, movements led by the middle class have often been criticised as rooted in a feeling of contradictory consciousness among them who, unaware of their own contribution to the problem seek end goals that try to secure environmental justice for them while negatively affecting the livelihoods of the poor. They sometimes have an elitist undertone and a blatant disregard for the poor. 

“Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels.”

Essentialist arguments by conservationists are sometimes made to gain political support for environmental protection in India, and it is often suggested that challenging the premise of such movements has a probability of weakening the larger political discourse around environmental protection. However, it is equally important to study and critique the premise of such movements regularly to improve and redefine the ways of environmentalism to suit the needs of the marginalized. Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels. The incorporation of interdisciplinary professionals into environmental conservation has started the dialogue for maintaining an effective balance between ecological conservation and seeking social justice and livelihood protection for the marginalised.

The movement in Goa tries to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers by taking into consideration the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised and by targeting the Central government’s backing of a few private corporations in bringing coal into Goa. It is an amalgamation of the two forms of environmentalism- the protestors mainly belong to the urban and rural middle class, with some representation from the economically marginalised groups. They are using petitions and other institutional means as well as mass mobilization to secure environmental and social justice. Concerns of ecological sustainability and life and livelihood protection form the basis of this movement, unlike other middle class movements driven by elite notions of ‘beautification’ or ‘cleanliness’. 

The infrastructure projects in concern will have severe environmental and social consequences and the current movement is backed by scientific claims, giving due recognition to the dynamic cultural and political history of the state.

“‘National integration’ and ‘benefit’ have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.“

On the other hand, the government-corporate lobby supporting and pushing for the project is evidently disregarding concern for the environment as well as the livelihoods and habitats of the people. They are either hiding facts and making false claims to pacify the protests, or suggesting unrealistic mitigation measures such as reforestation to counter the claims of irreversible environmental and livelihood damage. “National integration” and “benefit” have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.  

“Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future.”

Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future. Therefore, it is very important to define the nature of environmentalism and the intellectual and political premise of such movements, to effectively counter such detrimental developmental projects and further the cause of environmental protection along with social justice. 

Suparna is an early-career researcher working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore. She likes to explore and work on issues concerning the environment, society and gender. 

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