Categories
Issue 8

Why making money isn’t the Recipe for Social Change: A response to Manu Joseph’s suggestion for youngsters

On the 14th of February, 2021, environmental activist Disha Ravi was arrested on charges of sedition for sharing a ‘toolkit’ and supporting farmers’ protests online. She was charged for being part of a ‘global conspiracy’ because she was associated with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. Following her arrest, Manu Joseph, a recognised journalist, and columnist for live mint magazine wrote an opinion piece, suggesting a plan of action for the ‘sound minded’ Indian youth, to truly bring about social change. Joseph not only critiqued various young Indians’ choices to be activists but also suggested they would serve the country better if they found jobs, started on a ‘doomed business’ and aided the economy instead of “fighting battles they do not understand”. 

While the opening lines of his piece truly baffle me as part of the generation he is addressing, I cannot overlook how these ideas resonate with the larger Indian public his age. The assumption that the only correct way to bring change in society is by becoming a part of the system which the youth believes needs to change is one of the primary differences between Manu Joseph’s generation and ours. Equating young protestors and activists to misguided and unemployed individuals with nothing better to do is an easy narrative most of us have heard over dining table conversations with our parents. However, the question we all must ask is why the ‘privileged youth’ of ‘sound mind’ choose to protest if the avenues for economic and political upheaval were an easy alternative. Manu Joseph, in his piece, writes that contemporary activism in India is influenced by the West, if not an extension of it and fails because it does not have the same humanitarian networks backing it as the United States does. But what this ‘practical’ advice and observation seems to ignore is that young activists in India choose to speak up despite the system and its flaws, and not because they are unaware of the lack of protection from non-state organisations and the consequences of their actions but to get rid of the pattern itself. 

Joseph argues that the most effective way for the youth to ‘serve their nation’ and ‘take care of the unlucky ones’ is through encashing on the for-profit world, rather than ‘choosing the easy option of festive grandstanding and do-gooding, which is often harmful, at best useless or an inefficient way to make the world a better place.’ When Joseph states that choosing activism is the ‘easy option,’ he contradicts himself and his point about state scrutiny for activists and the lack of a humanitarian organisational mechanism for the protection of these individuals. If protests and sharing a ‘toolkit’ was in fact ‘inefficient and useless’, and ‘an easy option of festive grandstanding’, a 22-year-old, unemployed youth would not have been scrutinised and subjected to charges of sedition by the government, and young protestors would not need a mechanism to protect themselves from state action. 

Another argument that Joseph makes, which is also commonly used against the youth in this country is that they do not understand their battles and are influenced by Western ideas and aspirations which often only work in the West. A response from the ‘young’ to these arguments would be to ask questions about their assumed naivety, address how the State, since its inception has borrowed several ideas from the West and continues to do so. Western ideas and aspirations are not merely being used by the youth today, but have been part of discourse across the country since its inception. Further, protest and activism are not merely borrowed Western concepts but have been part of the country’s political culture throughout history, be it Gandhi’s call to protest for Independence, or the ‘Jungle Bachao Andolan’ by tribals in Singhbhum. Joseph says that, “The young who hope to be “good trouble” can be ruined by the state, and their handlers, who use them to achieve political and ideological ends, cannot always save them”. The understanding that the young will be, and can be ruined by the state, and their ‘handlers’ will not be able to save them is premised on the belief that these activists have ‘handlers’ and are being influenced by people who will not be able to support them in the long run, completely negating the youth’s ability to think, reason, form opinions and then act.

The Court granted bail to Disha Ravi on the account of the contents of the toolkit being ‘innocuous’ and denied any account of her being part of a larger conspiracy to harm either the state or any particular community. However, the action taken by the government, and the article written by Joseph represent sentiments against the young and their actions, often misunderstood, simply because they are forms of direct dissent and expressions of freedom instead of the path that the youth has always been expected to follow. Maybe, the problem is not that activists are misinformed, unaware, gloomy individuals seeking a moral advantage as saviours for the ‘unlucky’ but that, the way they choose to bring about change is different, more spontaneous than the generations before them. Maybe, all of us truly believe that, ‘We have only one job: if we are lucky, we must take care of the unlucky; everything else is merely an argument about the best way’, as Manu Joseph puts it, and our generation’s way is different from his, possibly because of avenues like social media that connects us globally. Maybe we are not after the drug of ‘do-gooding’ alone but are only seeking different means to make the world a better place. 

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University, who is often found sketching or reading for leisure when not immersing herself in mandatory class assignments. 

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).

Categories
Issue 7

Activity, Art and Activism: Anjali Dalmia’s Experiences as an Environmental Activist

Anjali, why did you choose the environment over everything else that might have come your way?

I have realized over time that this question of why did you choose to work in the environment is actually a privileged way of thinking about it. We are privileged to be apolitical. And it’s the same thing with social or environmental work – social and environmental justice, in general, is very tied together. I would say in that perspective, it’s not a choice, it’s something that we all at this point need to be working towards because it is impacting everyone yet only a handful of people are working for it.

You talked about environmental justice and that brings me to my next question: environmental justice and sustainability are terms that are often thrown around. If you were to define these terms, how would you do so?

I don’t want to say that I have a very strong definition or a complete understanding of either of them. To address them or to start de-tangling them is like reorganizing the entire world from scratch. I think that’s why they are loaded terms. 

The way I have been trying to navigate environmental justice for the past few months has largely been tied to social justice. Who is the justice actually for? What does it mean for different communities? The term justice itself is very subjective – it means extremely different things to different people. For example, certain communities’ rights over the Commons is justice for them, but when you look at it from a caste angle, Commons are a place where there’s a lot of caste discrimination against Dalits. That is not justice in that case.

Overall, if I were to think of the term, it would largely mean local governance and self-determination of how people would like to use their surroundings, their resources and how they would shape their community. Another important part of environmental justice is looking at our economic structure, which is left out very often but it’s very much a root of our behaviours and the way the world functions right now. Looking at human desires and behaviour is also, I think, a very important part of environmental and social justice. That’s how I would begin navigating it, I wouldn’t say that’s a definition. 

When it comes to sustainability, it’s a term that I am trying to figure out because it brings into question – what it means to sustain and at what level does that sustenance happen? Sustenance for different groups of people are different, depending on their socio-economic, cultural background etc. and in many ways, I do feel that sustainability is a large buzzword. For example, sustainable development is another term to make ourselves feel good about the development that we are doing. I am not a hundred percent convinced by the word, so I don’t prefer to use it that often. It’s the bare minimum that we do to feel like we are working towards something, which is also good.. I think sustainability works at a largely individual level to that extent but it doesn’t address the fundamental socio-economic – class, caste differences. 

What motivated you to start Yugma Network? How is it different from other organisations working for environmental justice?

Yugma wasn’t something that any of us ever intended to start. The Environmental Impact Assessment Movement that we undertook is really what set off the plan for Yugma. We worked towards translating information and discussions into local languages with the help of young people in different regions, to have a broader reach. We realized the dearth of environmental organisations in local Indian languages since most of them are in English and only reach a small section of society. We met amazing people that genuinely wanted to contribute to the environmental movement and we decided to continue working even after the EIA movement. For us, the goal is always to bring out the voices of those people who are directly affected by a lot of the projects that are happening. 

To answer your second question, I think it goes back to the model of scaling-up versus scaling-out, not in the sense of within the organizations but as collaborations. I want to move back to doing things smaller within the community, forming strong bonds with people who are also doing related work. That is a value we try to imbibe in Yugma.

Mobilisation by youth organizations to ensure environmental justice has significantly increased over  time. What do you think inspires these movements?

One part of it is the community spirit. Secondly, I think a lot of it is awareness –  that motivates young people, especially because they feel they’re making a difference. The biggest thing for me and a lot of young people is the concern for the kind of world that we are going to grow up in. When you start internalizing it, it does get scary sometimes. There lies this concern for our rights, our present as well as our future, for other humans and non-humans both. Especially in recent times, I think a lot of movements have been shaped by a gradual disappearance of democracy in the country and I think there’s a lot of anger around the way that our rights are slowly being taken away; it has led people to mobilise and act on it. 

Why do you believe people look at the environment as an ‘issue’ distanced from their daily lives?

I think people fail to see the connection between their human conditions and the environment.I think a lot of it is shaped by common discourses, media and marketing in general. 

In people’s minds, cutting a forest is much more of an environmental issue than for example, destroying a wetland. And it’s just because we have grown up seeing the forest or the tree as a symbol of the environment. Even though destroying a wetland may have way more of an impact perhaps on the local ecology of that area. To answer what is an environmental issue, you also have to ask the question of, whose perspective are we looking at? Who is defining this issue? Discourse is shaped by those directly affected by it, and by what the media itself chooses to focus on. 

Yugma Network recently became a member of YAStA (Youth Action to Stop Adani), which had largely declared the week (27th January – 2nd February) as the Global Week of Action. Could you tell us a little bit about how Yugma got involved in the project?

Yugma was part of one of the organizations who conceptualised YAStA. The larger message that we are trying to address is the general corporatisation of our lives, resources and livelihoods. It privatizes a lot of what used to happen out of goodwill or through a community. It ties into the way our economic structure is tied to environmental and social justice because it gives a lot of power to a handful of people who are accumulating a lot of profit and that becomes their main motive to do things. Our reason for joining YAStA was to raise our voices against this injustice and this taking away of our rights. Despite communities not wanting certain projects, corporates go ahead with it. Coming from an urban space, I think we do have the privilege of having access to a lot of resources and tools which we can help to put out a lot of this information.

This Global Week of Action has listed down concerts and webinars as part of the programme. How do events like this and ‘Pass the Mic’ contribute to the movement?

Sessions of music, films, and art are mediums that make it easier for people to engage with issues that might seem daunting  at first.  The other thing is that art and culture bind people together and create a community, just like protests and movements do. 

I think it’s really important to pass the mic to those who are affected by these issues. The point is to let those who are working towards the issue, or are directly affected by it, talk about what they are facing and are working towards. That is largely what we mean by passing the mic. If we have the means to create a platform, we would like to create and share that platform with other stakeholders. 

Why do you think art and activism is the way to go about it when there are already various laws enacted and jurisdictions in the direction of environmental protection and conservation?

I would say the first question to ask is do we even have laws and jurisdiction to protect the environment. When I say environment, I am including communities, people, rights, everything in this. Because if you look at a lot of our laws, for example, the EIA, it is there to assess the impact that something might have on the environment and the local community. But the purpose with which the law was put out was to ease things for businesses. Unfortunately, that’s the case with a lot of laws in India –  they’re poorly formulated, go unrecognised by many, and are rarely upheld by courts. 

The other thing is that a lot of these environmental laws are built within the economic system. So they are looking at how to 5 acres of land so that we can use the 15 over there for something else. This is where art and activism become so important. It’s the way to hold these authorities accountable. I think activism is very often taken in the wrong way that it’s just holding up signs and protesting or marching to places, but I would say that even education is a part of activism, state policies are a part of activism, even having conversations is part of activism. Activism just means being an active citizen. From that perspective, art and activism can bridge that gap in our environmental laws right now. Is looking out for our surroundings and other humans and non-humans, only the states’ job? We can’t just say “it’s in the laws, so everything will run smoothly”. As individuals, we have a large part to play in ensuring that we have environmental and social justice. Even if the laws were good, I would say you still need activity, activism, and art in any community.

Anjali is a co-founder of the Yugma Network, The Project Amara (sustainable menstruation for all), and PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees. She also works with SAPACC (South Asian People’s Action for Climate Crisis) Maharashtra & Youth and was the Environment Minister of Ashoka 2020-2021.

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).