India blocks websites of young green activists

Fridays for Future (FFF) India, a student-led climate action movement inspired by 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, found its website blocked. The Delhi police also charged the group under an anti-terrorism law after the Indian environment minister complained that he was getting too many e-mails from the FFF site about draft environment rules the government is seeking public responses for.

After a public outcry, the police said the charge was "inadvertently" sent and filed a new one under the Information Technology Act. Two other environment collectives, Let India Breathe and There is no Earth B, also found their websites blocked.

All three green groups have been mobilising people online in opposition to a draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, which environmentalists say is heavily diluting protections and shrinking ways in which affected communities can question pollution and ecological destruction. The website blocking and police charges are further obstructing democratic engagement, they say.

"We have been let down by seeing the discourse stoop to this level. We want the government to be transparent, and together we can fix things. A fragile or polluted ecosystem will not make for a good business environment," said Mr Yash Marwah, a Mumbai-based writer and member of Let India Breathe.

The Environmental Impact Assessment was first notified in 1994, under India's Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It provides a legal framework for safeguarding forests, rivers, the air, and soil from industrial and infrastructure activities that might access, use or pollute them.

Every industrial project is required to go through the EIA process and obtain an environmental clearance before it begins. The EIA was modified in 2006, and a few times since.

The new 2020 rules would exempt more kinds of projects from having to consult people whose lives they could affect. Approved projects would get clearance permits for longer durations and be monitored less frequently.

The new rules also say that projects that have violated environmental rules can continue to operate after paying a fine. Environmental activists fear that this would reward violators and weaken already fragile environmental protections.

"The 2020 draft is more regressive than the 2006 version it seeks to replace, and just wants to legalise destruction and pollution," said Ms Bhavreen Khandari, who works closely with FFF.

The new EIA rules will not be discussed in Parliament but the government needs to consult the public before they are made official. As soon as the draft law was published online, environmentalists decided to create wider awareness and get more Indians involved in the consultation.

Groups like FFF, with mostly student volunteers, and There is no Earth B, with students and professionals of all ages, joined forces with experienced environmentalists to create social media material, memes, infographics and videos about the new EIA. A major campaign encouraged people to send e-mails to the ministry.

"It's not easy for everyone to write long e-mails, so we built a tool so that from our website, in one click, a person can send an e-mail to the environment ministry from their own e-mail ID, in a fixed format," said Ms Khandari. Those who had more time and understanding could edit the text.

These were the e-mails the police referred to, which appear to have flooded Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar's inbox. The exact complaint from the minister to the Delhi cybercrime unit is not publicly available.

A statement from There is no Earth B said they were "bridging the gap created by a lack of translations and wide dissemination of information, by enabling public discourse on the Draft EIA 2020 in not just English but nine different Indian local languages".

The Delhi police said it lifted the suspensions on July 16. But the websites are still inactive under some Internet service providers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2020, with the headline 'India blocks websites of young green activists'. Print Edition | Subscribe