It is the year 2001. Nitya picks up the landline. His friend from Kodai is calling. Sensing his worry, Nitya asks, What’s happened? His friend lives opposite a factory making thermometers for export. In Tamil Nadu’s hill station, Kodaikanal.
The voice on the other side of the phone call is agitated. Shards of broken thermometer glass have been found in the nearby shola forest and dumped in torn sacks, weighing about 8 tonnes. Mercury waste from the factory is contaminating the Kodai lake and the Gymkhana marshland. The factory owner, Hindustan Unilever Ltd.
Twenty years later, Nityananda Jayaraman, environmentalist, journalist and founder of the Vettiver Collective, is recalling that phone SOS, from inside an autorickshaw sputtering through Tamil Nadu’s capital city. From breaking the news on mercury contamination at that factory in 2001, he is now on his way to give an interview – a task that he has done several times over since the story first broke that made him one of the most prolific journalists in Tamil Nadu.
A viral video and social media campaign, along with relentless protests, finally brought HUL to the negotiating table.While a case was filed in 2006, it took the company in question 11 years to offer workers compensation. Today, even as activists like him contest that leaching of mercury continues, well above permissible limits.“We’re fighting a losing battle,” he says grimly.
Nitya, as he refers to himself, cut his teeth in campaign work co-heading Greenpeace’s East Asia’s Toxic Waste campaign. Protesting the dumping of toxic waste by more industrialised nations in Asia, he recalls as, “a great learning experience, as I learned about the elements of campaigning, communication and media. It accepted no money from governments or corporations, which was good.” Leaving Greenpeace in 2004, he kicked off the Anti-Corporation Collective, which morphed into Vettiver (a name which refers to a native grass and, less directly, a collective in Tamil). “[In Greenpeace,] I learnt about making campaigns and relying on science, which I took back to Vettiver. But under it, I found it difficult to work with local communities, which I didn’t like. I didn’t want to do brand campaigning, I wanted to make new spaces that could be taken by communities in the margins.”
By 2021, the Vettiver collective has grown in and through group work. Many of them are youth-led and autonomous in thinking through their understanding of issues, engagement with local communities and creative protest work – all in support of what Jayaraman simply calls radical values – “When I say radical, I mean values that are extremely different from capitalist notions of how we see society work.” These have included groups such as Reclaim Our Beaches in the early 2000s, and most recently the Chennai Climate Action Group, which led nationwide protests against the EIA draft notification 2020 as well as the Thoothukudi based anti-Sterlite movement.
“We respond to campaigns where we are approached by members of the community,” says Nitya. “Most of our solidarity is extended by way of time, law, media and arts, in order to visiblise the community’s struggles, the values that they represent and the issues they wish to highlight.” One example of the way in which the arts have helped the goal of the campaign is the song ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’, written by Nitya and sung by Carnatic vocalist, T M Krishna in 2017 in order to raise awareness about the need for the restoration of the wetlands of Ennore creek.
Yash Marwah, too, as the founder of the environmental group Let India Breathe does both the read-talk-fight and the sow-grow-roam, as a mix of actionable protest. “Aarey was a big campaign, I was a volunteer for it for over a year, until we actually started the Aarey campaign under Let Mumbai Breathe,” he says. From the Save Aarey movement in Mumbai to representing eco-issues in Greater Nicobar, the trajectory has been transformative, from a Mumbai-based climate group to a pan-Indian environmental organisation. “We started with something called Save Mahim Nature Park, then it was about the wetlands of Mumbai, and then the Aarey campaign of course. We became what we became, because people from Gurgaon, people from Delhi, Bangalore, started reaching out to us,” Everyone brings their own skill and experience to the campaign. But in order to bring out effective change, whether by interrupting a developmental project in the forest dubbed as the ‘lungs of Mumbai’ or lobbying for the protection of adivasi land in the Hasdeo area of Chhattisgarh, it’s important to keep the goal grounded in material improvement. “It takes a certain amount of years and practice to learn how to navigate these things,” says Yash. “It came to me from my one and a half year of experience in the movement [in the beginning], which was all grassroot.”
LIB made news for their campaign on the draft EIA 2020 notification last July, as one of three organisations whose websites were temporarily blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India. “We see who is the affected community, and the affected biodiversity and natural ecosystem. It could be a wetland somewhere, a mangrove somewhere else, a forest. These two things are the very first things we do,” Yash elaborates. “Then we do a profiling right from species to flora-fauna, similarly indigenous communities if any, otherwise a social profiling because for instance, when it’s about evictions it’s about the SC and ST communities.”
But what about activism fatigue? “As you become bigger and more trustworthy, more people want to take your help, it becomes a little difficult to turn some campaigns down at times. So at times you have to say – I’ll help you out but I can’t take it up. I can make sure your cause gets the right attention, but I can’t drive it,” is his prompt reply.
Still, Let India Breathe officially lobbies for over thirty campaigns from all parts of India, ranging from the Save Mollem campaign in Goa to the Save Aravalli movement in the National Capital Region. A lot of the work LIB does involves keeping open channels of communication between its audience, the network of volunteers and activists on ground, so that simplified factual information can be shared with individuals who then respond to a call to action. “So while we do this, we basically make buckets of people to contact, because none of this can run without allies.”
Both Nitya and Yash keep the local communities as the focus of the work they do. Donation drives is one thing with allies, but giving voice to what’s getting swept under is the main focus as Nitya reminds, “It’s not like the groups are restricted to local issues, but something like the EIA notification cannot teach you about the politics of social struggles, which work on the ground can teach you a lot more about, like how caste and class and gender interface with issues of development, and so I think it’s important to have a foot in both worlds”
The UN announced its “We the Change” campaign on 27th September of this year with the names of seventeen youth climate activists from India, to lead it. A cohort of young climate-aware Indians are organising themselves into groups, under the looming shadow of climate change and its inequitable impact. So, when asked what he would say to budding environmental activists, Nitya thinks for a moment.
His reply is self-reflexive. “I’ll just repeat what Chico Mendes said – environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening. If we think of environmentalism as tree planting and solar panels then we are finished. Environmentalism is a social struggle that cannot be resolved without fighting and setting right inequality at all intersectionality. That’s something we need to be careful of, especially people from our kind of backgrounds, where the notion is of aesthetics instead of environmentalism, or cleanliness, beauty, trees, these are things that are filling in as environmentalism. I think it is very dangerous.”
Isha Pareek is a fourth year student at Ashoka University. She has a BA. (Honors) in History and International Relations, and is currently finishing her Media minor and an ASP thesis.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).