Environmentalists are the new Terrorists?

By Ashwin Tombat
26 July 2020 10:12 IST


The central government, through the Delhi police, recently blocked the websites of three environmental organisations run by young people. This happened after Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar complained to the police about receiving “multiple emails with the subject name similar to ‘EIA 2020’”.  

A notice sent in respect of one of these organisations – Fridays for Future India (FFI), the India chapter of the climate-change movement founded by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg – says the contents of its website [https://www.fridaysforfuture.in] were “objectionable” and “dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of the [sic] India”, and an “unlawful or terrorist act” which attracted Section 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA)!  

The other two websites are https://letindiabreathe.in and https://thereisnoearthb.com. What were these websites actually doing? They were not even spamming the minister.

The Environment Ministry had put the draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 in the public domain on 12 March for a period of 60 days for discussion and feedback as required by law. On 30 June, the Delhi High Court extended the deadline for public response to 11 August.

The websites had just put up drafts of a letter on their websites opposing the EIA 2020, and provided the publicly available email addresses of Mr Javadekar. They urged young people to send emails from their personal email IDs to the minister.  

Thousands of youngsters did just that, in exercise of their fundamental rights and duties. But it seems these completely legitimate expressions of protest made the Minister suspect that a sinister conspiracy was afoot.

What is wrong with the new EIA notification? Among the changes it proposes are removing public consultation entirely for defence and “strategic” projects (the latter is not even clearly defined), reducing the time for the public to submit responses for a public hearing from 30 days to 20 days, and exempting real estate mega-projects up to 1.5 lakh sq metres (approximately 21 football fields) from the EIA procedure. It also exempts public hearings for 35 highly polluting chemical industries in notified industrial estates.  Most shocking, it allows ex-post facto approvals for projects; this means that projects for which an EIA clearance was never sought or granted and construction was done entirely illegally, will be able to obtain environmental approval afterwards…!  

It is instructive to note here that two recent industrial disasters – the deadly leak of Styrene gas at LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant in May, and the ongoing fire in Oil India Ltd’s oil wells in Assam, which has been burning since 27 May and where three foreign experts were injured in a massive blast on Wednesday – were respectively in projects that had been constructed or expanded without any environmental clearance.

So, is facilitating opposing feedback to the draft of a new law that has been posted for public response now considered a terrorist act? Thankfully, not yet. After a nationwide uproar on social media, the notice under UAPA was withdrawn and the websites were restored.

The Delhi Police claimed that the UAPA section on terrorist acts was mentioned due to a “clerical error”. But the letter was not issued by a clerk. It was from Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) for Cyber Crime Anyesh Roy, a highly educated IGP-level IPS officer. Did he sign the letter without even reading it?

The Delhi Police may have dropped the mention of terrorism for the time being, but it is very clear that the government still wants the websites to be shut down. A fresh notice has been issued under Section 66 of the IT Act…

Is any opposition to the government – no matter how legitimate the protest – an ‘anti-national’ activity now?  

Writing on this very issue, Bahar Dutt (Barkha Dutt’s sister. She is also in the media, but is active mainly on environmental issues) says: “I reached out to several friends in the media, hoping someone would take on the story [of these environmental websites being shut down on terrorist charges]. It needed the immediacy of television news… but since the Environment Minister also happens to be the Information and Broadcasting Minister, I was told no one in the news television business would touch the story.” The mainstream television media carried the story only after the internet and social media uproar had compelled the police to withdraw the notice.

Ms Dutt also points out that the Environment Ministry in its affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court arguing against any extension of time for taking feedback from the public, admitted that it had already sent out about 78,706 e-mails to various ‘project proponents’ [those who proposed projects] registered on its ‘Parivesh’ portal with a request to provide comments / suggestions on the draft EIA Notification, 2020. Does it not seem ironic that while the Ministry itself sent out so many thousand emails to managements of big industries, mining companies and power plants seeking their support for EIA 2020, the Environment Minister should suspect a conspiracy when he gets opposing emails on this very subject?

In late 2014, a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) accused NGOs of reducing India’s GDP by a huge 2 to 3 per cent per annum, by campaigning against projects “integral for India’s economic growth”. That was the thinking in government circles about voluntary organisations then and, it appears, nearly six years later, nothing has changed. After so-called ‘urban naxals’ and students from JNU and Jamia Milia, will environmental activists be the next to have a target painted on their backs?

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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