At 1:30 pm on 23 July I got a desperate message from a student activist. I was told that a bunch of students from Fridays for Future India wanted to speak to a journalist as they were worried about action being taken against them by the police.
What had the students worried was a notice which had been served under the dreaded UAPA - an anti-terrorism law - as they had been accused of challenging the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’. This notice incidentally was in response to a digital movement being led by this student body in relation to a proposed change in the environment laws, referred to as the Draft Environment Assessment Rules, 2020 .
As part of their digital campaign Fridays for Future India, they requested people to send emails to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asking for the amendments in the law to be reconsidered.
Over the next 30 minutes, I reached out to several friends in the media, hoping someone would take on the story. It needed the immediacy of television news and could have been carried in the next news bulletin but since the environment minister also happens to be the Information and Broadcasting minister, I was told no one in the news television business would touch the story.
And they were right. All I got was radio silence.
No one in television or print media wanted to do the story. And with no option left I put the story out on social media. The impact was swift. Within a few hours digital platforms had picked it up, so had the international media. The story had gone viral on twitter. A journalist reached out to the cyber cell of Delhi Police for a reaction. They said that the notice under UAPA was inadvertent and it was withdrawn. The website of FFI has still not been restored.
What Were the Students Asking For ?
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) put up the draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020 for public comments on 23 March but it was published in the Gazette of India on 11 April. At that time, a 60-day time frame, ending on 23 May, was set for the public comments. This was extended till 30 June. Later, following an order of the Delhi High Court, it was further extended up to 11 August with a direction that it must be published in all the regional languages mentioned in the Constitution.
The draft EIA Notification 2020, the students along with several environment groups argued, could be a major setback for environmental justice as it weakened public consultation and diluted compliance norms for polluting companies.
Among the controversial amendments that have been proposed in the draft notification are exempting a range of activities from the requirement of EIA including public hearings, legitimising violation by allowing for post facto approval, and reducing the time period for public comments on EIA Reports from 30 days to 20 days.
It is for these reasons that the draft EIA notification has encountered opposition from environmental experts, activists and common people. And as a part of this process of sending feedback, three environment advocacy groups had released a draft mailer addressed to the environment ministry requesting them to withdraw the draft EIA notification.
The Delhi Police issued a notice to the website hosts of the India arm of Fridays For Future, the international movement led by climate change activist Greta Thunberg, to take action against the website for allegedly sending multiple emails about the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020, to Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar.
What was shocking about this notice was that the cyber crime cell of the Delhi Police used the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to justify its order. For those not familiar with the UAPA, it is used against terrorist organisations .
In this case a bunch of students who were sending emails to the environment minister had been slapped with a notice under this draconian law.
And here's another shocker. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, in an affidavit submitted in Delhi High Court while arguing against an extension of time for taking feedback from the public, admitted that they had already sent out about 78,706 e-mails to the various project proponents already registered on the "PARIVESH" Portal, regarding issuance of draft EIA Notification, 2020 with a request to provide comments/suggestions on the draft.
It seems ironic that while more than 78,706 emails were sent out by the Ministry to project proponents which includes big industries, mining companies, and power plants, in the notice issued by the Delhi Police, the Environment Minister had complained about getting multiple emails to his id.
After digital media rallied in support of these environment advocacy groups, the website of Fridays for Future India has now been restored.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)