On February 14, as the Delhi Police arrested 22-year-old Disha Ravi for her alleged involvement in preparing a Google document that Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of farmer protests in India, many young climate activists like her felt alarmed, but then came to see it as a validation of their work. In a short time, they say they have achieved enough to rattle the Indian State.

“It frightens them that young people are aware and want to call out the government for inaction on climate change,” said Joel Kyndiah. “So they claim the climate movement is propaganda against India.”

Kyndiah is just 18.

He lives in Shillong and is a national coordinator of Fridays For Future, a global organisation that grew out of Swedish teen activist Thunberg’s climate change campaign. Ravi is among its founders in India.

Since 2018, inspired by Thunberg and a global youth climate movement, informal groups of young Indians like Ravi and Kyndiah have mobilised vocal public campaigns against government projects and policies that threaten the environment, most notably the controversial draft Environment Impact Assessment law of 2020. With over a million letters landing in the inbox of India’s environment minister asking for the draft law to be scrapped, the police served notices under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to three youth climate groups and blocked their websites in July. Fridays for Future was one of them. The charges were later withdrawn after a strong public backlash.

But this year, the stakes have risen higher. Ravi was arrested from her home in Bengaluru on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. In court, the police claimed she was part of an international conspiracy to defame the country and spark violence in the capital during the January 26 farmer protest.

The police are hanging their case against her on the tenuous evidence of a Google document briefly tweeted out by Thunberg. The police claim it was a “toolkit” that Ravi drafted in collaboration with “Khalistani” or Sikh separatist groups abroad, with the aim of waging a social, cultural and economic war against India and “certain Indian companies”.

It may sound ominous but a toolkit is simply a campaign document used by mass movements to mobilise and raise awareness on social causes.

Apart from arresting Ravi, the Delhi Police have also filed non-bailable arrest warrants against two other young climate campaigners: Shantanu Muluk from Beed, Maharashtra, and lawyer Nikita Jacob from Mumbai. Jacob is a volunteer with Extinction Rebellion India, a branch of a global climate advocacy youth group founded in the UK in 2018. The Bombay High Court has granted Muluk 10-day transit bail, while Jacob has been granted protection from arrest for the next three weeks.

Ravi’s arrest has triggered widespread outrage across India, particularly among youth climate activists who believe the “toolkit” case is a pretext to target them, since they have become an influential force in India in the past three years.

Campaigners like Kyndiah are aware that their youth movement is distinctly different from traditional forms of organised, institutionalised climate activism. Operating through informal networks without the safety-nets of a structured organisation, these youth groups are consciously trying to create a new, global language for mass movements on environmental issues.

Despite challenges and risks, they have been successful so far – not just in taking on both central and state governments but even large private corporations like Vedanta, JSW Steel and the Adani Group.

Disha Ravi at a climate protest in Bangalore. Photo: Disha Ravi

Leaderless movements, global outlook

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the current youth-led climate movement in India is that its inspiration is more global rather than local. Greta Thunberg’s international fame stirred school children, college students and young adults to research, educate and voice their views on climate change.

Kyndiah and his friends, for instance, started the FFF Shillong chapter in late 2018 because they had free-time after their exams and wanted to contribute to the global conversations on climate change. “Meghalaya has a lot of different student bodies, but they tend to be populist and ethnocentric, we wanted to be different from them,” said Kyndiah. “We wanted to connect with a larger audience and belong to a global fraternity, since the climate crisis is a global issue.”

FFF has 45 regional chapters across India, and their most prominent activity has been to organise local, peaceful sit-in protests every week in like with Thunberg’s school strikes. But young campaigners from FFF and other groups have also been motivated by local cases of projects threatening natural resources, be it illegal coal mining in Meghalaya, a metro project in Mumbai’s Aarey forest or railway and power lines planned through Goa’s Mollem wildlife sanctuary.

Their work to oppose such projects involves raising awareness and gaining widespread public support through social media, petitioning and writing letters to government representatives and mobilising protests on the ground whenever necessary. This is achieved, say young activists, through decentralised, democratic and “leaderless” coordination that all youth climate groups are proud of.

“We don’t have designations, but a few people do take the lead in coordinating activities,” said Kyndiah. “For example, if we want to do a protest on the ground, one person takes responsibility for getting police permissions, another for posters, and others for media outreach, research, etc.”

Most of the campaigns are simple and do not require funding. In Goa, a young activist on the Save Mollem team points out that committing time to work for a cause is the most important, and often most difficult, part of informal, voluntary activism. “But our group has always focused on the mental health of the campaigners,” said the activist who did not wish to be named. “We encourage people to step back and take a break when it gets overwhelming, and they almost always come back with a fresher perspective and new ideas.”

A young boy at a Save Aarey protest in Mumbai in September 2019. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

The young and the old

For most youth climate groups – FFF India, Extinction Rebellion India or the Save Mollem group – it has been a conscious choice to not register themselves as formal non-profit organisations.

“By registering, we would just be giving the government more ways to trap us,” said a 29-year-old climate activist from Mumbai who coordinated with youth from different environment collectives to help mobilise support for the Save Aarey movement in 2018 and 2019. “Organisational structures have traditionally restricted NGOs from doing what they want to do, which is why a lot of young people are coming together informally. It is hard to carry out bold ideas in an organised structure.”

The Mumbai activist also pointed out a generational difference between the working styles of the new climate campaigners and older environmentalists who have been involved in formal activism for years.

“That difference, according to me, is the NGO ego,” said the Mumbai activist. “A lot of older, successful activists don’t get along with other people or other ways of doing things, and they sometimes don’t talk to each other even if they are co-petitioners in the same litigation on an environmental issue. But younger people are more understanding, more willing to cross collaborate.”

For Claude Alvares, a veteran climate activist and the director of the Goa Foundation, the difference between the young and the old is more about method. “Older activists visit government departments, lobby there, file legal petitions and use a more interpersonal approach,” he said. “The government also takes us more seriously because we have a standing for so many years.”

Recent youth campaigns, said Alvares, have been largely online, with the aim of reaching out to thousands of people. In Goa, Alvares believes the Save Mollem campaign has been successful in achieving this goal. “I have been pleasantly taken aback by the quality of the campaign. Even all these years, the Goa Foundation could not have pulled off something like that, because our reach is more limited,” he said.

According to Kyndiah, “millennials and people from Gen Z” have a stronger sense of urgency about climate change than “the Gen X or baby boomers who are in Parliament”. “For them, caring for the environment often only means planting trees,” he said. “They lack an understanding of how immediate the problem is, or why environment, politics and government policy cannot be separated from each other. We are trying to underline the implication of politics on the environment, as in the case with the EIA.”

The successes

The Environment Impact Assessment or EIA 2020 is a contentious draft law prescribing the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed projects before they are approved by the government. Environmentalists, however, have strongly criticised the draft EIA for doing away with mandatory public consultations for several types of projects, and creating conditions for faster approvals of projects instead of focusing on assessing their impact.

In mid-2020, youth climate groups that had largely focused on local campaigns began coordinating at a national scale to snowball and amplify public opposition to the draft EIA, successfully urging hundreds of citizens to send emails to the environment ministry with objections to clauses in the draft.

The Centre’s knee-jerk response – blocking the activists’ websites, slapping them with UAPA charges and later withdrawing them – was a sign of how much the youth climate movement had succeeded in unnerving the administration. Activists believe that groups like FFF have been under the police’s radar ever since it was targeted in July 2020.

While the Centre is now assessing over 20 lakh public responses to the draft EIA, youth climate groups have enjoyed a number of small, incremental successes at local levels.

In Jammu, for instance, a group of volunteers – many of them children – spent weeks cleaning up the River Tawi, a tributary of the Chenab, in late 2020. They coordinated this campaign on the ground despite limited Internet availability, almost no support from the government and apprehensions from the volunteers’ parents.

In Shillong, FFF campaigners organised strikes, human chains and online campaigns in November 2020 to stall the construction of a mall on land earmarked for a public park.

In Goa, the Save Mollem campaign succeeded in drawing national attention to three infrastructure projects planned in the state’s ecosensitive Western Ghats. One project is a 10-km power transmission line through a protected forest inhabited by large indigenous birds and other wildlife. The second involves turning a 12-km stretch of NH4A into a four-lane highway, cutting through a wildlife sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. The third involves doubling a 120-year-old railway line cutting through 128 hectares of the Ghats, which would make it cheaper for large steel and power companies like the Adani Group, Vedanta and JSW Steel to transport coal and ore to their plants in the Deccan Plateau.

The projects are now being scrutinised by a Supreme Court-appointed committee, thanks to campaigns and protests by the Save Mollem youth and legal petitions by organisations like Goa Foundation.

The challenges

But organising informal youth movements comes with challenges too, since most volunteers are urban teens having their first brush with activism.

“We don’t have resources at our disposal, so if somebody is arrested or charged, campaigners struggle with who to go to, how to save themselves,” said a Mumbai-based climate activist who did not wish to be identified.

Some groups have recently set up a board of mentors and seasoned climate activists to guide them in difficult situations. “We really rely on them to let us know when to speak and when to shut up,” said Tamanna, a volunteer with FFF India who did not wish to reveal her full name or location in the aftermath of Disha Ravi’s arrest. “All of this is mentally taxing so they have told us to take breaks and step away.”

Among older activists like Claude Alvares from Goa Foundation, there is a greater sense of acceptance about the political realities of the day and the risks involved in activism of any kind. “In the present climate of the country, there is no safety net for anybody. The authorities are targeting people at random,” said Alvares. “Today you have to recognise that if you get into activism and use your voice, you are going to get into trouble. Because the people on the other side are not democrats.”

But among young activists and their families, Ravi’s arrest has triggered a wave of fear and uncertainty. “Parents have been pressuring their children to stay away and not be a part of the movement,” said Tamanna.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the fear among the youth has been more widespread. “I can see a demoralising effect all over my organisation,” said Anmol Ohri, a young climate activist in the region who led the coordination for the drive to clean River Tawi. “They [government] can easily turn the narrative around in Jammu. We could be delegitimised.”

After enabling a movement to gather so much steam in a few short years, young activists are now worried about its future. “It would be disastrous for India’s future if this whole climate movement gets delayed,” said Ohri. “If we are politically vilified then we will be categorised as ‘urban naxals’ or ‘anti-nationals’.”

Tamanna too said she felt similarly. “Until this dies down, there could be a stigma associated with FFF,” she said. “We just hope people understand that we are a bunch of youngsters who are enthusiastic about the climate movement without any malicious intent.”