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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.

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