An attempt to silence environmental activism

Last Updated 10 August 2020, 22:07 IST

In late March, as India was preparing to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change introduced the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020. Through a number of seemingly benign provisions, this piece of ‘pro-business’ governmental work dilutes environmental safeguards and puts India on a pathway towards an unsustainable future – one that will threaten India’s economic security, and perhaps more importantly, Indian lives.

Thankfully, a democracy comes loaded with checks and balances that keep the government from acting in ways it should not. One such check is the public. By speaking out against such short-sighted moves and through collective pressure, the public holds the government to account. For added measure, our Constitution protects this right to speak out by preventing the government from arbitrarily restricting the voice of the people. Or at least, so goes the theory.

The reality, however, is different. Recently, when three youth-run organisations (Let India Breathe [LIB], Fridays for Future India [FFF India], and There Is No Earth B [TNEB]) attempted to mobilise public opinion and speak out against the Draft EIA Notification, they found their websites, and by extension their voices, shut down in a manner that can only be classified as arbitrary.

According to the law, the government can only restrict access to a website for the legitimate purposes of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of the country, security of the State, public order, decency, or morality, friendly relations with foreign States; or in relation to a contempt of court, defamation, or to prevent the incitement of a crime. The decision to censor must be authorised by a committee that evaluates the reasons offered by the government and any statements made by the party facing censoring.

Only someone with an overly developed sense of imagination could aver that the activities of these three organisations reached this threshold; yet, that is precisely what Delhi’s police department claimed. On July 8, Delhi Police’s Cyber Crime Unit ordered FFF India’s website to be shut down on the ground that it contained “objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of India”.

The statement, verging on the boundary of ludicrousness, is patently nonsensical. Perhaps it was this realisation that prompted Delhi’s DCP Cyber Crime, Anyesh Roy, to later contend in an interview with Firstpost that the notice was “inadvertent”. Far from being comforting, the admission casts serious doubt on the professionalism and competency of Delhi Police. Roy also claimed in the same interview that they had withdrawn all notices and that if the website is not running, it is not because of them.

To add to this painful comedy, the domain provider has said that they have received no notice withdrawing the July 8 order. If we are to believe Delhi Police, then we are left to conclude that the domain provider is either being dishonest or that the notice has somehow been lost in transit between the two mailboxes. Either way, the tragedy continues and this time with no one apparently to hold responsible. The websites of FFF India, along with those of LIB and TNEB, remained inaccessible for weeks, with the latter two having received no news whatsoever.

Internet censorship is not a new phenomenon in India. In the past, governments of all political hues have sought to curb freedom of speech and expression by censoring websites. There have been instances where courts have banned websites operated by whistleblowers, or ministers have asked social media operators to delete content that might “offend sensibilities”. One time, in a move eerily reminiscent of the British Raj, the Mumbai Crime Branch took down cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’s website, “Cartoons Against Corruption,” which he used as a platform to criticise the government during the nationwide anti-corruption crusade of 2011.

These instances of arbitrary internet censorship have harsh ramifications that run far deeper than simply hurting the sentiments of those whose websites are taken down. They paint a worrisome picture of a country in which the government considers itself to be above the law and that views the very foundations of a democratic system as inconvenient hurdles that can simply be pushed to the side. By eroding freedom of speech, the government chips away at that pillar of our democracy that supports accountability and transparency. When societies descend into such lawlessness, the pathway is cleared for corruption, suppression, or as is the case with the Draft EIA Notification, for recklessly exploiting our environment.

History teaches us that strong and inspiring speech is the catalyst for social change. Through the power of the internet, Let India Breathe, Fridays for Future India, and There Is No Earth B have attempted to inspire citizens of this country to mobilise against the government. They want to prevent the government from enacting a draft EIA that will damage our environment and threaten those who are most vulnerable. Their efforts are, however, being sought to be stymied by a government that cannot see beyond short-term political and economic gains. Now, more than ever, we must stand together against this creeping authoritarianism to protect our democratic freedoms and our environment.

(The writers teach at Jindal Global University, Sonipat)

(Published 10 August 2020, 21:10 IST)

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