In Conversation with Anjali Dalmia: A Young Climate Warrior

Vinay Agrawal

Discussing all things environment with Anjali DalmiA, Yugma Network, PLANT project, issues with EIA 2020 and how she views sustainability.

Climate change is one of the most pressing concerns today. It is a concern we cannot and should not ignore. It is a concern that deserves a priority on the list of agendas, not just at an institutional level, but on an individual level too. If you’re still scouting for a fitting new-year resolution, climate activism is one to consider. Make it a life-long commitment, and be an environmental crusader. 

“Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages.”

Anjali Dalmia is an inspirational climate warrior. She has resolved to fight for climate justice throughout her earth years. She is the co-founder of Yugma Network – a pan Indian initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice by broadening and contextualizing the discourse through local languages. Committed to the cause, she eats, breathes and speaks environment. She was one of the force du jour in leading a national-level student movement in response to the problematic Draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020 through the Yugma network. 

Yugma Network now runs a language society with more than 70 students, an environmental justice clinic working on legal avenues, and a narratives and education program to build a space for youth from non-English backgrounds to further the discourse. 

Besides that, Dalmia also works closely with SAPACC Maharashtra (South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crises) where she is involved in reviewing the water section of Maharashtra State Adaptation Action Plan on Climate Change. She is also an Indian delegate at the international Mock COP26. 

Where do you see yourself in 2021? Any climate-specific goals?

In 2021, I would like to spend time understanding and experiencing realities at a ground level. I would say that the pandemic has ironically, helped me connect a lot more to the world and the political and environmental situation in India. However, I often feel I am speaking from an extremely sheltered point of view. Hence, I want to travel and understand what environmental justice truly means to different people in India. 

Additionally, I would like to start some research on urban centres and environmental solutions, delve deeper into environmental education in schools, spend some time to understand environmental laws in India, and further the PLANT project. I would also like to collaborate with people working in the alternate space and explore different forms of local governance and policy-making.

Since you mentioned PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees, how did it come to life? Are you following any checklist for documentation?

“The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution.”

PLANT started as a project for the Millennium Fellowship of 2020, in which Sowmya Vaidyanathan and I were fellows. The goal is to create a repository of cultural and social narratives around Indian indigenous plants through a living archive method while also detailing their uses and distribution. 

The research for the project will be aided by eminent conservationists, activists, and academics. As of now, the project is in its early stages and hence we are looking at our communities to begin collecting stories. We don’t have criteria as such, however, we are focusing on exploring religious, social, caste and class angles to stories of plants. Our first few stories are mostly based in Mysuru. 

Can you share a few interesting knowledge paradigms you might have had come across during documenting PLANT?

An interesting plant story we came across was the way we, as environmentalists and urban dwellers, see the Lantana plant as an invasive species. However, for the locals, the Lantana was an essential medicinal plant they had deeply incorporated into their tradition. 

How can the inclusion of local languages & dialects broaden the discourse of environmental activism? 

“In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school.”

Language is a very powerful tool that not only helps in communication but also has a sense of identity and belonging attached to it. Many of us feel very proud to speak and hear our mother tongue, even when we can’t understand it. In India, any movement based solely through English automatically becomes an elitist movement as it is only accessible to those who have learnt English in school. 

But even then, many people who do speak English don’t connect to it at a deeper level like they would in their native language. Therefore, if an environmental movement aiming for social justice is only in English, it prevents the flow of information from environmentalists and authorities to a grassroots level, and also prevents those who are most affected from speaking for themselves. This often leads to a very homogenous and top-down movement. 

“Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach”

Broadening the movement to include official state languages is a one-step better approach, and it would be very important not to only have Hindi in a country as diverse as India, to help the movement spread across many more people who can then make decisions for themselves and make the movement their own by connecting it to their daily struggles. 

On that note, I’d like to ask you what dissent means to you?

I believe ‘dissent’ is an extremely essential tool today considering the way our society is structured. In an ideal situation wherein people are in power at the local level and large scale, dissent could be seen as a difference in opinions. 

Unfortunately in India, there are very few avenues for citizens to comment on and influence policy-making constructively. Most of our laws have been heavily top-down and there has been very little room for citizens especially youth to raise concerns and suggest alternatives. 

“dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.”

In such a situation, dissent has played a key role whether it is physical protests (farmer protests or CAA/NRC) or online (EIA 2020). Dissent, therefore to me, represents the voices of the marginalized and most affected, who are rarely involved in the decision-making process.

Speaking of draft EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) 2020, what are its key shortcomings and potential solutions to those? 

The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is a tool used by authorities to assess the impact of any developmental project on the environment, people, economy and infrastructure of an area before the project commences. It is also a public tool that allows people to voice their concerns and opinions. In India, a new draft of the EIA was released in March 2020. It severely diluted many requirements. Many projects classified as B2 projects (but still extremely destructive despite their small size) along with all defence and strategic projects as defined by the central government have been exempted from public consultation. 

Post-Facto clearance (which means that the project can begin by clearing and levelling land) has also been allowed for many projects, which has even been declared as environmentally destructive by the Supreme Court. Time for public consultation has been reduced to just 20 days, which means the public will only have 20 days to review the EIA report and give feedback amidst the pandemic, poor internet, and non-native languages; this is highly unconstitutional.

“EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice.”

EIA 2020 has also reduced the frequency with which industries need to submit environmental reports from twice to once a year. Many environmental clearance durations have been increased e.g. for river valley projects, a clearance that earlier had to be reviewed every 10 years now can be reviewed every 15 years. They are designed to help business and industries rather than to act as a tool for environmental conservation and justice. It will lead to the exploitation of many marginalized communities and result in the mass approval of severely destructive projects.

In terms of solutions, I would say that the framework of the EIA itself is largely flawed. It has been criticized by many experts for creating a dualism between development and the environment. Additionally, since it is not a proper Act in the constitution, it is very easy to manipulate as it happened with the EIA 2020. Hence, we need a new framework based on public consent. If possible, the public should be given more decision making power. I would say that the entire EIA 2020 needs to be withdrawn and a new draft should be prepared. 

As someone who has designed and been a part of many tweetstorms, what is the right way to “tweet-storm” and what is a big “no-no”?

Usually sharing hashtags before the scheduled time is a big no. A successful tweetstorm from my experience should have a well-written tweetbank with tweets that include all the decided hashtags (usually 2-3 hashtags are perfect) along with tags of the relevant authorities. If the tweetbank has clickable links and images also, even better. This is usually circulated an hour or so before the tweetstorm. Having one WhatsApp group with all the dedicated tweeters helps. Retweeting is also extremely important.

How do you practice sustainability on a personal level?

To me, sustainability is definitely about the choices we make as a consumer. But it is also the mindset with which we approach our surroundings and society. As a consumer, I try as much as possible to live a zero-waste lifestyle. This means using a menstrual cup, natural soap and shampoo bars wrapped in paper, bamboo toothbrush, reuse and buying/borrowing second-hand clothes, using public transport like bus and trains over cars and flights, carrying my cutlery and tiffin while travelling, segregating my waste at home, and using biogas for cooking. 

Additionally, I am part of a wonderful initiative called “Pune Freecycle”, a WhatsApp group where people can give and take items based on goodwill. In terms of the mindset, I feel sustainability means interacting with people around me – talking to the akkas who clean the roads in the morning, having a conversation with the bhaiya running the corner grocery store, noticing individual trees near my house and sending and receiving positive energy, slowly walking around the neighbourhood. All of these are also forms of sustainability to me because they help me slow down and connect to my surroundings. 

Climate change is a reality we cannot afford to ignore. To safeguard the planet from any further degradation, each of us has to become a warrior in our own right. Our collective actions will determine the climate of the future. 

If we want to improve the standard of life, mitigate impending climatic disasters and preserve the planet for posterity, it is time to lead, make changes for the larger good and act accordingly and sustainably so. The time is now before it is too late.  Each one of us can be a climate crusader like Anjali Dalmia and can start young or old. 

An introvert by nature, Vinay believes in the strength and the beauty of vulnerability. He likes to read about arts & culture and has worked full-time as a features writer, and has contributed for various publications. Vinay is a staff writer at Bol Magazine.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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