Bhavreen Kandhari was closely watching the climate change rebellion unfurl on Twitter. An environmental activist based in Delhi, she was following the peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR), a global community of climate change activists fighting against human extinction.
She actively tweeted during XR’s first mass civil disobedience event in October 2018 in London. This was the time when Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, had begun to stock up masks and air purifiers for the annual onslaught of winter toxic air. “I wondered why Delhi was not a part of a global movement talking about pollution,” Kandhari says. Her tweets caught an XR member’s eye and a few email exchanges later, Extinction Rebellion India (XR India) was born.
XR India’s aim, much like that of its global parent, is clear: “Aiming for radical change, through nonviolent resistance, in order to avert climate breakdown, halt biodiversity loss, and minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.”
In plainspeak, it wants people to stop thinking of floods, droughts, air pollution, and rapid deforestation as normal. But here’s how it operates differently from NGOs: XR India is not a registered organisation or trust, does not have employees and does not seek any tax rebates or funding from the government, unlike NGOs. XR’s global-funding principle is to not seek donations from large corporations or governments since these are exactly who it is “rebelling” against.
Its spread in India comes at a time when the effects of climate change have begun to manifest in almost apocalyptic terms across the country: Chennai, a metropolitan southern city, ran completely dry a few weeks ago. Shortly afterwards, states like Assam and Bihar were flooded. NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s think tank, has warned that 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030. Last year, a once-in-100-years flood devastated the entire southern state of Kerala.
Yet, XR cannot be blindly replicated in India. To this end, it has tweaked its blueprint to suit the country’s social, political and cultural scenario.
“Children are a big part of our climate change strikes. But unlike in Europe, parents don’t like to send their children to events—let alone public protests—unchaperoned,” explains Kandhari. To solicit their participation in its first global strike on March 15, 2019, XR India reached out to schools across the Delhi National Capital Region.
“This was exam season and we were first wondering if we should postpone the strike. But that’s the point—climate change has to become priority immediately,” she says. Despite being in the throes of a demanding exam season, over 200 children bunked school to protest against government inaction towards acknowledging the seriousness of the climate change crisis.
This is, of course, in line with Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg’s sensational “skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate), the success of which has also won her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, this year. “Thunberg’s name is a great draw for children because they see a role model their own age,” says Kandhari.
Interestingly, though, both XR and Thunberg’s Fridays for Future (FFF) India don’t have “founders.” In essence, these are people’s movements, with members like Kandhari only offering support to organise events, mobilise people, and draft an India-specific reckoner for climate change.
At the core of it, those who have come forward to support XR India’s initiatives are environmental activists who have been working in their respective locations for specific issues. Kandhari, for instance, has been rallying against the sustained felling of trees in Delhi. Kaajal Maheshwari, FFF India’s member from the southern city of Hyderabad, has been associated with the Citizens for Hyderabad, a people’s initiative that focuses on making the city more liveable, for nearly five years. Several other such citizen-centric movements have joined forces to organise strikes in tandem with those that happen globally.
“The money is crowd-funded, though at this stage a lot of us are paying out of our own pockets to organise events,” says Brishti Chanda, a member of XR India’s chapter in the eastern city of Kolkata.
However, XR India’s uptake has not been as exponential or groundbreaking as in the West.
This is partly due to the different cultural ethos in India and partly due to middle-class apathy to issues like global warming. “Unlike abroad, there is a strong culture of fear among Indians. And this is expressed through a language of silence,” believes Maheshwari. “Fortunately, children don’t subscribe to this fear and can be much more vocal with their demands,” she says.
Kandhari recalls how the Delhi police was supportive and even protective of the protesters because they were children. Yet, given how even large organisations like Greenpeace have been viewed with suspicion, XR India is being careful with its strategy. While its global focus is on blockades and civil disobedience, the India chapter is not yet ready for a drastic rebellion. “There is not much scope for non-violent direct action in India. Our aim is to first raise awareness and XR and FFF India are working together towards this,” explains Chanda.
Social media engagement has also been slow to come and XR India is still a while away from achieving peak viral status. Its Facebook page has over 5,400 followers (XR global has 220,000) while the Twitter and Instagram handles are too nascent.
“The reach of XR India is still very limited. The low frequency of public events and political engagement is also a sign of the shrinking public spaces in India,” says Vimlendu Jha, founder of Delhi-based Swechha, an NGO that works in the field of environmental conservation and waste management. “I feel the average apathetic, busy middle-class Indian still doesn’t care about such issues. And XR is probably a distant, foreign phenomena,” he adds.
Jha also believes that India needs unique solutions to its environmental issues more than lessons in street protests. “These, I feel, should be locally owned rather than globally controlled,” he says.
Maheshwari believes FFF India is conscious of not replicating the aggressive stance of its global counterparts. “Here, we try and engage only with children over the age of 12 because we are sensitive to how impressionable young minds can be. Children much younger than 12 participate in the strikes abroad,” she says.
Jha also points to the fragmentation among NGOs and climate change activists.
For instance, Chittranjan Dubey, a Munich-based engineer who participated in XR’s European strikes, created the first XR India Facebook page. Dubey and a few of his associates in Delhi also engage with the government, though independent of XR India’s unstructured yet official channel. He was not a part of the March 15 climate change strike in Delhi, but runs a parallel Facebook page for XR India that he set up in December 2018.
Anil Sood, a Delhi-based lawyer who also runs Chetna, an NGO that fights for conservation in the courts, believes the only way forward is educating through art. This is inherently incongruent to the principles and methodology of XR and FFF.
The only way movements like XR and FFF can thrive in India is through that elusive unity. Till then, the mantle of leading India’s climate change battle will lie with ground-level NGOs.