Categories
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).

Categories
Issue 12

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Stolen cars, dirty cops, a body dumped in a creek, and India’s richest family. These may sound like the elements of a thrilling Bollywood movie, but actually form the basis of a case that gripped Mumbai earlier this year. On 25th February, a Scorpio SUV containing 20 gelatin sticks (low intensity explosives normally used for construction) was found outside Mukesh Ambani’s 26 story residence in South Mumbai. A few weeks later, the owner of the car, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead in a creek. The high ranking police officer who had been leading the case, Sachin Vaze, was arrested by India’s main counter-terrorism body (the National Investigative Agency) for his involvement in the case. Vaze, a member of the famous ‘encounter squad’ of the Mumbai police, active in the 90s and early 2000s, has been suspended from his role as Assistant Police Inspector and is currently in custody of the NIA. Once revered by the media as a top cop, every facet of his life is now under scrutiny. As things got even murkier, warring political parties BJP and Shiv Sena quickly co-opted the story to hurl accusations at the other. News media were equally fascinated, and every new twist in the tale dominated headlines and primetime debates. 

Bombay is no stranger to twisted crimes and long drawn out investigations. Nor is the involvement of police and rapid politicisation of the case a new phenomenon. The city of dreams has had its fair share of nightmares, with three horrific terror attacks that killed hundreds of people in the past thirty years. One of the main accused in the first of those attacks was Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious gang-leader and designated global terrorist. The underworld of Mumbai was his playground in the 70s and 80s, but he fled to Dubai in 1986. The pervasive presence of these gangs and the bureaucratic roadblocks surrounding legal procedures led the city police to take matters into their own hands.

In the 90s Mumbai police formed an encounter squad to deal with growing gang violence and extortion cases. The judicial process was lengthy and it could take several years for a case to even reach the court, and ‘encounters’ were seen as an effective, if slightly controversial solution. An encounter generally involved the police cornering a gangster who would then attack or try to escape, and the police would use the opportunity to shoot him dead. Sachin Vaze was one of the original members of the squad and is alleged to have been involved in the encounter killings of around 63 gangsters. However while some appreciated this quick and brutal method of delivering justice, others were horrified and questioned the legitimacy of some of these encounters. There were also rumours that the cops were trying to outshine each other, and getting involved in gang rivalries in the process. Many members of the squad were dismissed from the force but later reinstated. In 2004, Vaze was suspended and charged with murder for the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he resigned when his request for reinstatement was denied by the Maharashtra government. He then joined the Shiv Sena, and was later reinstated as a cop in 2020. But things quickly went wrong just a year later, when he was named the prime suspect in the murder of Mansukh Hiren. On 11th May, Vaze was dismissed from the Mumbai Police.

The tale kept many readers hooked for months, reminiscent as it was of a good Bollywood gangster film. In fact, many famous entries in that genre were based on the lives and cases of the encounter squad. That our desire for these fast-paced and intriguing stories is now being fulfilled by the news is a worrying trend, but in a year unprecedentedly low on movie releases it perhaps makes sense. Journalist Suketu Mehta has spoken about the curiously close relationship between Hindi cinema and the underworld gangsters: “The Hindi filmmakers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground, to the don-in-exile at the top watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves, their dialogue, the way they carry themselves- on their on-screen equivalents.” 

The connection between the two worlds runs deeper still, as gangsters used to finance major Bollywood projects, and actors like Sanjay Dutt have been arrested for ties to the underworld and terrorist groups. In 2000, an assassination attempt was made on the producer Rakesh Roshan, allegedly in relation to an extortion threat made earlier. The shooting followed a string of attacks on Bollywood actors and producers. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi and Bharat Shah, producer and financier of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, respectively, were arrested for aiding and abetting the don Chhota Shakeel’s activities. Preity Zinta, who starred in the film, later testified against him, saying that she had received threatening calls from the underworld. Mumbai’s underworld turned to the film industry as a target for extortion when the property business dried up in the nineties. 

If this was a mainstream movie all the loose ends would have been tied up and the good guys would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie and the difference between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when politics enters the mix. News readers eventually moved on from the case, distracted by the ongoing pandemic and newer scandals. Sachin Vaze has been in jail since March 13, potentially wondering how he fell from grace. If we’re lucky, a biopic is already in the works.

Photo courtesy: Shambhavi Thakur, Newslaundry

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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).