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Issue 15 Issue 7

Connecting culture to climate change: The many WIPs of Vinod Nambiar

The 2nd Edition of the Nila International Folklore Film Festival of India (NIFFFI 2021) is on. Hosted by Vinod Nambiar and his folk culturist group, Vayali, you can join a conversation with culture revivalists from across the globe and see documentaries on vanishing cultures. These films are made by, among others, India’s own adivasi filmmakers.

Vinod, for the past eighteen years, has been exploring every medium that gets youth up close with folk art, tradition and a knowledge system in touch with nature. A software engineer by training, he grew up by the river Nila in Kerala and saw first-hand how a living culture can begin to end, if another generation does not connect with its land. A creative response was an all bamboo instrument music band who engage the young to play, perform and experiment away.   Another is to have an ongoing cultural calendar, where the local flavour of dance and pottery, weaving and drama, bring a once dying river’s bedside, alive. Determined to be creative in tackling the cultural loss caused by climate change and migration, he shares the challenges in a video chat with Anushree Pratap.

Part of  Open Axis, Issue 15 focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians, responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min.

Cover image is taken from Vinod Nambiar’s Facebook page.

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

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).

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Issue 15

Issue XV: Editor’s Note

Adapt to restore ecosystems and protect communities. Mobilize major climate finance. Collaborate and accelerate actions that keep the 1.5-degree target within reach. These are the COP 26 focus areas at Glasgow’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), between October 31 – November 12, 2021. As global leaders discuss the doable, we feature interviews with doers. Ordinary Indians responding with urgency to climate change. Each of them has worked on one particular aspect of environmental consciousness in India for over a decade and in some cases, decades. All of them with one thing in common – a can-do spirit that is creative, resilient, and inclusive. Meet them in Issue 15 of Open Axis.

In a 15 min video chat with Right Livelihood 2021 Award winner, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, Meera Anand’s interview helps us understand what social justice means in the spirit and letter of the law. With some granular details of cases fought by him that might leave you bemused.

For Mongabay – India, S. Gopikrishna Warrier interviews conservationist and environmental journalist, Bittu Sehgal, the founder of Sanctuary Asia, a leading magazine for wildlife science and conservation.

Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and social entrepreneur Harish Hande, since the 90s has been implementing ways in which sustainable energy and poverty reduction can speak for each other. Cefil Joseph Soans catches up with Harish to ask about his effort during the pandemic, what SELCO Foundation’s first Integrated Center is doing after a decade and the possibilities of solar.

After 5 years of community conservation with rural youth across the 8 states of the North-East, the Green Hub fellowship programme is in Madhya Pradesh in 2021. Devanshi Daga in a video interview with award-winning wildlife filmmaker and Founder Green Hub, Rita Banerji, finds out how this empowers youth from far-flung areas.

From animal rights to mining bans, activist, lawyer, and co-founder of the eco-action group, Goa Foundation, Padma Shri Norma Alvares speaks with Ishita Ahuja on climate change and a growing animal rights movement.

Rohan Chakravarty mixes green humour, with his love of films, in a new book: Naturalist Ruddy: Adventurer, Sleuth, Mongoose. But how did he come up with it during the pandemic? In a video chat with Devanshi Daga, he opens up about his artistic journey, a love of birds, and drawing people to the wild.

With heatwaves and floods, water shortages, and power cuts, India’s cities are witnessing governance challenges in the time of climate change. Rishita Chaudhary speaks to Pradip Krishen, who has led eco-restoration projects on degraded urban landscapes, working also with municipal corporations in state capitals. The latest one, opened just this October to the public. 

Linking climate change and culture through youth-led action, Vinod Nambiar has been leading a revival initiative from his village home in Kerala. This includes potters, percussionists, and an ongoing film festival on vanishing cultures. Anushree Pratap chats with him to understand the links

Science administrator and biologist Dhriti Banerjee, speaks to Mongabay-India on becoming ZSI’s first woman director. The 105 yr. old Zoological Survey of India is the nation’s premier taxonomic research organization.

Sonal Dugar’s interview with Probir Banerjee inaugurates the Open Axis Podcast. With more beaches receiving the “blue flag” certification in India as a mark of cleanliness and safety, he talks about his work in environmental management and protecting clean water in Pondicherry.

Paromita Roy, an urban planner who has worked across continents and state governments, talks to Aritro Sarkar about her experience working on making our streets more pedestrian and renewable energy-friendly. Until recently, she was also helping lead the transformation of India’s railway stations.

– Devanshi Daga, Meera Anand, Ishita Ahuja, Rishita Chaudhary 

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Issue 13

Mapping a Movement: Two Activists Tell-All

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).