Disha Ravi's arrest make students engaged in fight against climate change anxious; fear career harm

Students fear that if they are named for participating in social media activity they risk arrest and chances of getting scholarships, admission to foreign universities and jobs are also hampered

Jyoti Punwani March 08, 2021 17:53:08 IST
Disha Ravi's arrest make students engaged in fight against climate change anxious; fear career harm

File image of climate activist Disha Ravi. PTI

Last May, in the middle of the lockdown, an online talk by the Swedish author and associate senior lecturer at Lund University, Andreas Malm, got more than 500 views. It was organised by Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC), an autonomous group of about 100 teachers, including a few scientists and activists, formed in October 2019. The group is not attached to any political party nor is it funded by anyone.

Many of those who logged in to listen to Andreas Malm were students.

How many of them would now log in for a similar talk?

"After Disha Ravi’s arrest, students are nervous that their posts and chats on social media can be used to implicate them in fabricated cases," revealed TACC member professor Amita Baviskar.

In the 18 months that it’s been in existence, most of them during the lockdown, TACC has, apart from having organised 23 talks, some by international experts, set up a website for those seeking knowledge on different aspects of climate change, and is preparing a report on Delhi’s environmental problems and solutions, to present to the Delhi government. They hope to convince AAP that going green leads to more jobs, as shown by at least two studies.

However, among TACC’s most satisfying activities has been talking to college students.

Nagraj Adve, one of the founding members of TACC, and an environmental activist for two decades found that the current generation of college students was more receptive than any other. One reason, he said, is that the extreme effects of climate change — the 2018 Kerala floods, or last year’s forest fires in California — are now being reported more and shown on TV news.

There is therefore less scepticism among students towards climate change, and a greater awareness that it would affect their lives. Air pollution in Delhi for instance is something they experience every day. A frequent response TACC gets from students is: "What can we do?”

Adve pointed to the launch of a state-wide campaign in Kerala on 1 January 2020, in which 5,000 students gathered under the banner Students for Climate Resilience, and the South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis. A total of 1,000 meetings were planned in the state that year, but then COVID-19 struck.

Students were also active in the campaign against the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, which resulted in the environment ministry getting 17 lakh comments in August last year.

An environmental studies course is now compulsory for first-year college students. It is generally taught as if it’s a school-level course, with sections on pollution, population, climate change, said Baviskar.

"While teaching it, some of us have tried to give students the tools that would enable them to analyse why we’ve reached this environmental crisis. It’s important for them to do individual acts like switching off the lights, but we help them make the connections between climate change and economic and political policies. They realise then that the issues are far larger and can only be tackled by collective mobilisation. This is why students have begun talking to others who are fighting `developmental’ projects that displace Adivasis and raise carbon emissions, for instance. They also realise that global entities are responsible for the crisis, hence the resistance to them has to be global," she said.

There is an international dimension to the students’ increased involvement too, finds Adve. Greta Thunberg’s arrival on the scene in 2018 catalysed the setting up of groups such as Fridays For Future (FFF) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) in India. "These groups got out on the streets to protest," pointed out Adve. "They had monthly strike actions, even protested in front of ministry offices."

After Disha Ravi’s arrest, suddenly all this seems dangerous.  Adve has found students withdrawing from WhatsApp groups comprising environment activists.

The 4 February FIR filed by the Delhi Police about the "toolkit" tweeted by Thunberg in favour of the farmers’ agitation, is against unnamed persons. If they come to be named in it for their participation in social media activity, students fear arrest of course, but also the effect on their chances of getting scholarships, admission to foreign universities and jobs.

All this is apart from parents’ anxieties and pressure on younger students not to speak up.

"Some of the more active ones have started seeking legal advice. The worst thing is that there’s no way of telling them they are going to be safe," said Baviskar. "We saw what happened to students who were active in the anti-CAA movement. With the farmers’ movement showing no signs of weakening, the government is only likely to get more vindictive."

Adve sees Disha Ravi’s arrest as a huge setback to the fight for the environment. "Being urban-based, these students were raising urban issues such as tree-cutting, water depletion, unsustainable construction... Their campaigns resonated with people.

"These are young people just beginning to explore the world, full of energy and enthusiasm, keen to make a difference," said Baviskar.

"Now they find that even coming together and exploring ideas and thinking of actions on social media, is going to be punished as being anti-national. This sends a strong signal to their families, who are now asking them to focus only on their studies. If students feel they will get into trouble for voicing their opinions, it has a chilling effect. Self-censorship in a university defeats the very purpose of a university where you are supposed to challenge each other’s views."

Baviskar felt one lesson that students may learn from Disha Ravi’s arrest is that the fight against climate change has to be taken matters as it threatens powerful interests. As the TACC statement on Disha’s arrest said: "Youth-led movements have campaigned against dilutions of the EIA, have spoken out against the destruction of ecosystems, and the expansion of coal use. This is the context in which they are now being targeted."

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