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The Striking 'Just Stop Oil' Protests & Why Indian Climate Activism is Invisible

Deviant methods of bringing attention to the ongoing climate crisis have spurred a debate within the climate sector.

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Climate Change
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'Just Stop Oil activists throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers'

'Girl with a Pearl Earring targeted by climate activists'

'After tomato soup, it's mashed potatoes at Monet'

In the weeks leading up to the COP27, these are some of the top headlines from the environment section of every news outlet.

In the western world, deviant methods of bringing attention to the ongoing climate crisis have spurred a debate within the climate sector. Meanwhile, this puts the relative invisibility of environmental movements in India into stark contrast.

The Quint spoke to activists and protesters from the climate sector, as well as an educator, a campaign manager, and those engaged with on-ground climate action to understand the unlikeness between strategies of climate activism in India and the west.

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The State of Climate Activism in India

As a subcontinent that finds itself in the thick of this cataclysm, environmental protests in India are often quiet, and rarely at a scale large enough to make it to front page news.

Dayamani Barla, a climate change activist from Jharkhand, has been involved in the fight to protect indigenous land, forests, and rivers for nearly four decades.

In 2008, she successfully agitated against the Arcelor-Mittal Steel plant, but her story was relegated to mere corners of the internet.

"When we fought against them we were able to save 12,000 hectares of land in one go. People say they are the steel giants of the world," Barla told The Quint.

Little has changed.

"In Kerala, there is a big protest against the Adani Vizhinjam Port  - where police barricades are being thrown away. Even as I speak, more than 350 families are living in a godown, who were displaced due to the port. However, these acts persist in being just tiny, localised issues," says Sanju Soman, CEO of Sustera Foundation in his conversation with The Quint.

Attention-grabbing campaigns have rarely characterised climate action in India, barring the Chipko andolan of the 1970s. Heralded by rural women, the mention of Chipko evokes striking images of women hugging trees to prevent them from being hacked.

However, as Soman evinces, even localised acts of resistance (ecological and otherwise) in India are being met with harsh state crackdowns, harassment and arrest.

Fear as a Deterrent & The Cost of Resistance

In 2019, the Delhi Police detained and arrested 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi in connection with a 'toolkit' on the farmers' protest, spurring several rights groups to outrage against her unjust seizure.

Speaking to France24 earlier this year, the young activist expressed, "a lot of criminal justice laws have been used to detain and harass activists across spaces. Right now, there is a protest going on in Hasdeo against coal mining and indigenous people who are raising their voices are being harassed and detained."

Ravi herself was arrested under sections pertaining to sedition and conspiracy.

In a conversation with The Quint, climate educator Heeta Lakhani underlined, "I think the aim of that (Ravi's) arrest was to make it a deterrent for young people to go out against the government and instil fear, and it has worked to a certain extent."

Lakhani, who is presently in Egypt for COP27 Summit, also emphasises the cultural, political and social disparities that impact individual acts of protest in different corners of the world.

"For example, in Egypt, it's going to be impossible to even protest here because it's a very severe crime to go against the government."
Heeta Lakhani

The Arunachal Pradesh police arrested Ebo Mili and Nilim Mahanta over a 'No More Dams' graffiti in March 2022. Arunachal and Assam have been witnessing decades-old resistance over imposition of hydropower projects since the early 2000s.

Bhanu Tatak, a co-accused in the case, spoke to The Quint and said,

"Imagine the harassment you have to go through on a daily basis. So, a lot of people have given up. There is always a breaking point, and such acts can be a breaking point for many people."
Bhanu Tatak

Even in Arunachal's Siang belt, there is opposition from the Adi and Galo people, however, Tatak claims that the government is now trying to "dilute the movement."

"The general secretary of Siang Indigenous farmer's forum, who is spearheading the anti dam agitation, have also been intimidated of arrest by the DC and the police," says Tatak.

The state labels you an 'anti-development' and 'anti-social' element, adds Dayamani Barla.

Barla, who also started a newspaper to amplify tribal voices, was arrested in 2012, and languished in jail for three months. She even received threats of death and kidnapping.

"The state views protests as hindrances, and traps you. I am still fighting the cases I was booked for in 2012, even though I have not done anything...today, people understand the cost of speaking out."
Dayamani Barla

However, radical climate movements like Extinction Rebellion in the UK, and now the gimmicks of the 'Just Stop Oil' protesters have also brought into question potency of these methods.

Protest as 'an Important Part of a Holistic Approach'

Sanju Soman believes that in backdrop of the destruction that is already being witnessed in the global south, people are finding various ways to grab the government's attention.

"I strongly believe that when the government is not taking action, then such disruptions are a way to make people think," he told The Quint.

Just Stop Oil protesters were harshly criticised for their methods - splashing soup on, and sometimes gluing themselves to timeless works of art to shed light on climate justice.

"What are they (the protesters) asking for? they are asking the government to stop exploration of any kind of new oil fields, and we cannot afford any more extraction."

He added, “It’s not about art, who cares about art if people are not able to live, people are not able to survive, feed their families, and have to migrate every now and then."

Soman asserts that these protests are vital considering the 'very less time' that governments have to stop their dependence on oil.

In order to achieve resilience against the crisis in India, as well as achieve climate goals, Soman stated, "there have to be nudges from different directions - climate activists have a role to play, scientists have the role to bring the data out, we also need campaigners who can communicate the relevance of the data, and the need for action to the public, and we need people who can build capacity for climate action on the ground."

As 'Adding Fuel to an Already Polarised World'

Meanwhile, Avinash Chanchal, who is a campaign manager at Greenpeace India said, "although I support the cause that these activists are behind, what they’ve invariably done is create a divide between the movement. I think they’re adding fuel to an already increasingly polarised world."

Contrary to the view that young climate activists in India are deterred to make radical acts of protests, he said, “acts like this are not going to mobilize the masses."

Chanchal emphasised the significance for collective action to combat the crisis, instead of individualistic gimmicks that grab eyeballs.

“I think it’s about how we approach the movement, and see the long-term impact. Climate movements in India have reaped incredible results. For example the movement to save Niyamgiri hills in Odisha... I think it’s important to note what got the most attention in case of the UK protests - was it the stunt or the issue? If you do a social media analysis, what would you find from that?”

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As an 'Expression of Overlooked Eco-Anxiety'

The world is already on a pathway to 2.5 degree temperature rise from pre-industrial levels, indicates a recent report by the United Nations.

"This is causing a lot of eco-anxiety in the climate change sector, especially in those who know the science of it. It’s also not just that it’s going to happen, but it's happening," added Soman.

For teenagers and young people who understand climate science in the western world, the disproportionate impact of the crisis, and their government's inadequate response to this looming existential threat has given rise to eco-anxiety.

Echoing this, Akshay Gupta, a climate activist and the head of campaigning for Haiyya, said:

"Before getting to whether these actions are right or not, we have to focus on why this is happening. We have to consider that these are young people, and they're frustrated."
Akshay Gupta

Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, who threw tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London's National Gallery, are both 21 and 20-year-olds, respectively.

They were video-graphed with strained faces earlier this week, asking the public, "are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?"

Speaking on this, Gupta told The Quint, "Amid inadequate government action, these actions are symbolic of them losing hope."

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