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Between Chipko Andolan and Fridays for Future: Global media practices, local repertoires and the gendered imagery of youth climate activism in India

Published onApr 27, 2023
Between Chipko Andolan and Fridays for Future: Global media practices, local repertoires and the gendered imagery of youth climate activism in India

Indian youth climate activism appears as a rather recent and mostly urban phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is simultaneously embedded in long standing local traditions of environmental concern as well as in a global conversation about climate justice. The emergence of global movements and their local franchises like Fridays for Future (FFF) signify a new phase in climate activism marked by an increased use of social media, increased youth participation, a strong emphasis of global interconnectedness and an emphasized feminized public image of the movements and their leading figures. The old oppositions between ecological planetary-scale interventions and local, situated environmental justice struggles have faded, argues Ghosh (2021), “returning spectrally in new face-offs between ‘top-down’ planning and participatory activism ‘from below’” with media as “the new seams for these complex interfaces” and as amplifier of purposefully communicated images such as the young female activists of the Greta Thunberg model.1

Young People’s Climate Politics

My conceptual understanding draws on Benjamin Bowman's (2019) suggestion that climate action is more than a response to a perceived crisis, but a ‘world-building project’ or what Monika Arnez (2022) describes as ‘decolonial worlding’. Colonial worlding is understood as bringing into the world and sustaining asymmetrical power structures, the circulation and exploitation of labour power and the overexploitation of natural resources. Gayatri Spivak conceives of worlding as the process of bringing the colonial powers’ claim to power to the world, based on the premise that the ‘Third World’ is an ‘uninscribed earth’ to be worked and shaped (Spivak 1985, 253, quoted in Arnez (2022)). Drawing on Spivak’s research on worlding, Arnez’s case study of environmental protest aesthetics in Malaysia analyzes how different local groups shape processes of ‘decolonial worlding’, i.e. re-appropriating their environment.

Bowman (2019) recommends exploring the “imaginations of future worlds” of young climate activists. He further stresses that young people’s politics is different and does not function within traditional binary approaches of political engagement and political disengagement or private and public. The term Do-It-Ourselves (DIO) citizens Bowman (2019) theorizes young people’s expanded toolbox for political action, which includes lifestyle politics, political consumerism, boycotting, issue-based politics and local and global networking. From this follows that relevant analysis has to include different forms of politics that go beyond typical action strategies.

In a big data analysis on FFF’s first global school strike in 2019, Spaiser et al. (2022) describe the movement as ‘norm entrepreneurs’ capable of changing discourses of climate delay and denial, particularly in that it is a movement of children and young people appealing to intergenerational justice and intersectionality.  The report stresses that it is precisely the intergenerational framing that makes the movement salient to the Global North. Although solidarity with the Global South continues to be a key factor, the impact of the climate crisis in the Global North has been denied for a long time and only since devastating floods, wildfires and other environmental catastrophes reoccur in recent years, have people in the Global North began to feel directly affected (Spaiser et al., 2022). Starting in 2018, FFF gained great mobilisation successes worldwide within a very short period of time. Its signature protest form, the school strike, a mild form of civil disobedience, is a collective norm violation that references the societal norm violation of inaction regarding the climate crisis and therewith children’s rights violation (Bleh, 2021). It is this powerful normative discourse that provides emotional and argumentative legitimacy for their protest.

“What gave Fridays for Future its great mobilization power is the perception of a moral wrong, of an injustice against young people in the world.” (Spaiser et al., 2022, p. 2)

The roots of these narratives have been advanced by international, often indigenous climate change protest movements. The occurring normative shift from environmental issues to human rights and global justice can be largely attributed to these earlier movements’ influences according to Spaiser et al. (2022).

Returning to contemporary youth climate groups, the media plays a crucial role here in promoting the visibility and mobilization effectiveness of these movements. To be successful as ‘norm entrepreneurs’, activists need to be particularly skilled in their communication practices.

Youth Climate Activism in India

In India, like elsewhere, older approaches of environmentalism and ecofeminism have made way for a global and increasingly medialized conversation about climate justice. Nevertheless, local and national concerns still dominate Indian activism. In 2019 and early 2020, the Indian government faced nationwide protests through mass flooding with emails that raised objections against the notification which intended exemptions of a long list of industries from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)(Tuli & Danish, 2021). This instance not only brought environmental concerns to the forefront but also rendered activists more visible and consequently put them at a higher risk of being perceived as threatening. Disha Ravi, the founder of Fridays for Future India, coordinated and co-organized the email protest along with other organizations. Critical voices allege that her arrest in February 2021 over a digital protest toolkit in the context of the Farmers’ Movement was just a pretend and that her role in the campaign against the EIA Notification was the real reason why the government perceived her suddenly as dangerous. The arrest of Disha Ravi in turn changed the perception of Indian youth climate activism as serious political engagement.

Online activism gained major importance during the pandemic in India given its long and strict lockdown. 2020 seems to be a crucial year since several hitherto active organizations ended their activities, while others started off with an initial focus on digital campaigning. Wilson (2020) documents the shift in online activism across the world. One of the earliest groups with international connections and participation in international events like COP2, the Delhi-based Indian Youth Climate Network, appears to be inactive since 2020. Extinction Rebellion India with 17 regional groups discontinued their social media channels in 2020/2021 as well. At the same time, Fridays for Future began to gain momentum on the subcontinent. From the inception of the Indian branch in 2019 they managed to increase their active membership through digital activism during 2020 and 2021.3 Another Delhi-based organisation, Youth for Climate India (YFCI) was founded in 2020 and after an initial digital stage, they run a climate justice library in South Delhi today, many campus campaigns across the city, conduct skill trainings and are very vocal on social media plus feature a website in Hindi and English. The offline activities will be expanded and more climate justice libraries are planned in different regions of India.4

Instagram posts by YFCI about their activities in 2022

YFCI Climate Justice Library in New Delhi

Whereas the pivotal role of youth climate activism from the Global North is being acknowledged in a growing body of literature on the role of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement as well as on climate action by other Europe or North America based groups, young people’s climate activism from the Global South remains surprisingly underexplored, even though scientists agree that climate change affects women, children and marginalized groups disproportionately and many regions of the Global South are directly confronted with severe impact. Except for journalistic publications, in particular around the arrest of FFF India’s founder Disha Ravi, a published BA thesis by Matilda Olstedt titled “Geopolitical or generational responsibility? A framing analysis of the Fridays for Future movement in Indian newspapers” (2019, Uppsala University) and peripheral mentioning in a few journal articles (i.e. Tuli & Danish, 2021) , no major research has been conducted on Indian youth climate activism to my knowledge.

As mentioned above, climate activism includes local chapters of large global movements like FFF as well as regional and local organizations. In many rural areas, tribal and Dalit communities have long faced the consequences of environmental disasters and climate change and have organized against the destruction of their livelihoods, against eviction and resettlement for grand development projects such as dams (Parameswaran, 2022; Omvedt, 1993). Along with Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement)5 and its leader Medha Patkar, the Chipko Andolan of the 1970s and 1980s has been a leading example of a nonviolent social and ecological movement by rural villagers in the sub-Himalayan region, particularly women, aimed at protecting trees and forests slated for government-backed logging. Young activists particularly cite these two movements as inspirational models for their own contemporary activism.6

Left: Instagram post by @fearlesscollective, 04.11.2022; Right: Chipko Movement in North India (1970s). Date and photographer unknown.

Fearless Collective, an India-based collective with a gender-specific agenda of artivism, announced their planned activities at COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt with this Instagram post. The imagery creates a direct link to the Chipko Movement by refashioning one of the iconic photographs that captures their signature protest strategy of “tree hugging”.

Following this inspiration, urban groups like YFCI increasingly attempt to join hands with tribal and/or rural movements such as the youth organisation Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan of the Van Gujjar Community in Uttarakhand, which is advocating for forest rights and the protection of their livelihood as nomadic buffalo herders.

In urban areas, local communities often organize clean-up drives of beaches, parks and other public areas.

Clean-up initiative in Bandra, Mumbai.

Clean-up drives have become one of the most important and common community actions people take to address growing environmental concerns in India. Millions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds are being diverted towards the beautification and cleanliness of parks, beaches and roads every year. (Srijani Datta)

YFCI activist Srijani Datta criticizes these clean-ups as “short-term fixes” that do not address the real problems of waste production and management, of inequal power relations and consumption, and of awareness. Instead, she claims it is “time to cover the entire cycle of waste generation, collection and dumping, and also question excessive consumerism by the affluent”.

Mediating the Climate Crisis: Mobilisation and Communication

In terms of social media work, Instagram and Twitter are the most used channels, with Instagram being the most popular due to the combination of images and text. FFF India consists of a nationwide umbrella group and 47 local chapters, some represent entire states or regions, most are city based. FFF India’s website simply features links to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and leads to the Instagram pages of the local chapters.

FFF India’s local chapters

FFF India usually shares images of activities and calls for action by the local chapters as well as general information about climate change and global events like the Global Climate Strike that took place worldwide on 3rd March 2023 (FFF Mumbai held its event on Saturday, 4th March). Mumbai, Delhi and Karnataka are the most active local chapters, both in terms of physical as well as digital activism.

Instagram Activity

            FFF India: 639 posts, 46,800 followers + regular “Stories”

            FFF Mumbai: 599 posts, 8773 followers + regular “Stories”

            FFF Delhi: 300 posts, 4531 followers + regular “Stories”

            FFF Karnataka: 214 posts, 4242 followers

All data derived on 05.04.2023

Nevertheless, the groups are rather small and even during larger events like the Global Climate Strike attract less than hundred participants. The reasons for that are manifold. Activists claim people are too lazy, too busy or too scared to come out for physical protest. The latter may be due in part to the lingering effects of three years of social distancing during the Covid pandemic, but more likely to a general atmosphere of repression. The Mumbai chapter was originally born out of the struggle to preserve the Aarey forest (Save Aarey Movement). The Save Aarey Movement did mobilize huge crowds for regular protests and several artists published songs and videos in solidarity.

Aarey Colony’s Rap Revolution
The Warli Revolt ft Prakash Bhoir | Swadesi | Azadi Records (AZR012)

Since the movement did eventually not succeed, many activists now face legal charges and are intimidated to further participate in physical action.7

FFF Mumbai Global Climate Strike, 04.03.2023.

For instance, FFF Mumbai has around eight to ten active members but more than 8000 followers on Instagram. Under these circumstances, the organizers feel that documenting and sharing their activities via social media is an integral part of their activism to ultimately mobilize more people. The Global Climate Strike organized by FFF in Mumbai that I attended as an observing participant at times seemed as if it was ostensibly about producing good content for social media. The group consisted of only 17 people but they chose a strategic spot for their agitation at Powai Lake Selfie Point right next to a major road during evening rush hour where many people passing by in buses, auto rickshaws and cars would notice them.

FFF Mumbai Global Climate Strike, 04.03.2023.

Apart from the documentation of local activities and calls for action (strikes, digital strikes during the pandemic, cycle rallies, clean-up drives), the content consists of shares (or retweets) of posts by Greta Thunberg, other international climate activists or Disha Ravi and Sriranjini Raman, both Indian spearhead figures from FFF Karnataka who are very vocal on social media as well as visible as representatives for FFF India on a global stage.

@fridaysforfuture.india: six most recent Instagram posts (23.12.2022).

The range of issues is wide and includes protest against local development projects or sharing of local grassroots initiatives such as the Save Aarey Movement (Mumbai) and Save Aravali initiative (Delhi), national concerns such as the environmental damage at Joshimath (Uttarakhand), national environmental and climate policies, broader global issues such as discourses of climate justice, eco-sisterhood, and international political debates on climate change. Overall, the social media content as well as the concerns that activists shared with me during interviews were rather localised and very specific to the cities or regions they lived in.

Following Bowman’s proposition to explore activists’ future visions and Arnez’ understanding of decolonial worlding, social media provides a rich digital archive to draw from. A digital discussion conducted by FFF Delhi on the occasion of Earth Day in April 2021 illustrates how decolonial worlding is imagined by young people in India. The quotes demonstrate how specific local issues are always intertwined with greater planetary concerns.

Climate activism’s feminised public image

European Studies about FFF emphasize two factors (Wahlström et al., 2019; Moor et al., 2020): One, the majority of the activists are very young with little experience in institutional politics or even below voting age; two, they emphasize the specific gendered nature with a relative dominance of young women activists and protest participants. Furthermore, the actual slightly disproportionate participation of young women is reinforced by recurring media images. Previous research has addressed the feminized public image and leadership role of the FFF resulting from the hyper-visibility of girls and young women in media coverage (Hayes & O’Neill, 2021; Sorce, 2022). International media coverage foregrounds gendered images of the global climate movement with an extensive focus on female icons, from the iconic Greta Thunberg to other female representatives in different countries, including Disha Ravi as founder of FFF India. This kind of representation is part of a current trend to stage women as icons of a (new) protest culture.

Google search results “Fridays for Future” in Germany

Google search results “Fridays for Future India”

It does not seem coincidental that FFF India’s representatives at the 2022 COP 27 in Egypt were both female.

Instagram post by @fridaysforfuture.india, 01.11.2022.

Keeping with the trend of foregrounding female climate activism, Fearless Collective as their major project at COP 27 created a mural at the children and youth pavilion in Sharm-El-Skeikh. It depicts female leaders from the Global South from three continents thereby emphasizing the intersection of gender and marginalized communities and their disproportionate share of being affected by climate change.

Shilo Shiv Suleman, founder and creative director of Fearless, painted the mural that depicts three young women from the global south who are vocal in the struggle against climate change. From left to right: Puyr Tembe, a campaigner from the Amazon for indigenous tribes; Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate; Pakistani environmentalist Ayisha Siddiqa.

Source: @fearlesscollective

Without doubt, climate activism includes a significantly high and visible number of female activists and the intersection of climate change, gender and power relations is integral to global and local struggles for climate justice. Nevertheless, the feminized and overly young public image of the climate movement does not always do justice to reality. In the limited context of my field research in India, the image was not confirmed. For example, the local FFF group in Mumbai was dominated by male participants and truly diverse in the age of participants (ranging from 14 to 78 years), the FFF group in Delhi was similarly male dominated and the spokespeople who got in touch with me identified as male too. YFCI on the other hand has a more equal split and also a focus on queer, trans and non-binary identities.

The mainstream media framing symbolizes Thunberg’s key role for the movement, also known as the “Greta Effect”. Drawing on interviews with young German activists, Giuliana Sorce (2022) finds that gender and age are overemphasized by media reporting and as the two key factors in Thunberg’s mobilization effect, ignoring other aspects of Thunberg’s identity – like class - that youth activists might actually identify with more. Through Thunberg’s framing as a young, female, middle class person with Asperger syndrom she emerges as an intersectionally-branded leader in the media. Her being middle-class is an important part of the narrative and offers identification: “she is one of us”.

Sorce’s findings are largely consistent with my findings in the Indian context, both in terms of the overemphasis on age and gender and the patterns of media coverage. As shown above, Google search results reinforce the dominant representation of young female participants and leadership. Prominent youth activists are mostly female, middle class, and relatively privileged in terms of religion, caste and education as well. The two FFF India representatives at COP 27, Disha Ravi and Sriranjini Raman, in their Instagram accounts regularly share everyday experiences related to their activism but also to friendship, travel and leisure activities. In this way, they similarly appear as “normal” young people of the middle class and establish an emotional closeness to their followers on social media channels.

Sriranjini Raman’s and Disha Ravi’s Instagram accounts.

Concluding observations

Generally, Indian climate activists primarily address specific local concerns such as the loss of urban nature or resistance to large infrastructure projects. They also mention indigenous and historical models such as the Chipko Andolan or Narmada Bachao Andolan. Urban activists increasingly attempt to create links to marginalized communities and advocate for Dalit climate justice and in support of tribal movements such as the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan.

Leaflet by FFF Mumbai, distributed during Global Climate Strike, 04.03.2023. The reverse side contains the same text in Hindi.

They do embed their localised claims within larger frameworks of climate justice and globally shared concerns such as inflation, food shortage and extreme weather events (as stated by FFF Mumbai’s leaflet) and call for unity and solidarity. Interestingly, the last appeal on the leaflet uses three different ethical-moral starting points to reach people: their concern for the environment, concern for a good quality of life or concern for future generations. The latter plays into the framework of intergenerational justice and the strong normative discourse on a moral injustice put forward by Bleh (2021) and Spaiser et al. (2022) . The ‘concern for a good quality of life’ is quite general, but also appeals to individualistic desires. It could mean a good life for all, but it could also speak to a limited understanding of securing one’s own good life.

In these discourses, including those found on social media channels, religious narratives are completely absent, even though earlier ecofeminist movements have often activated religious metaphors and discourses (Parameswaran, 2022). Other research on Indian social media discourses about environmental issues has emphasised recurring religious references made to the overall reverence in Hinduism for nature elements and certain animals (Tuli & Danish, 2021).

While some older Indian activists dismiss youth climate activism as a mere imitation of the European model, Indian youth activists have been for years engaging in a global discussion on climate justice by participating in events such as COP, building and maintaining international networks while advocating for local concerns. Local concerns - like the Save Aarey Movement in Mumbai - in particular have facilitated an alliance of activists that transcends age and gender and has brought together very diverse people. This complicates the understanding and theorization of FFF as a ‘youth movement’ to some extent. Nevertheless, the movement as such understands itself as advocates for the young generation and their future. Pramod Ranjan writes very enthusiastically about Disha Ravi and youth climate activism in India, “the new tech-savvy generation, which has broken free from the shackles of religion and caste and which is unwilling to compromise with its civil rights and personal freedoms, can give birth to a new kind of politics”. In the same article, Ranjan questions the Indian perception of environment-related issues as “harmless” as “they have nothing to do with religion or caste (though that is not true), do not affect the vote banks of the political parties”. He further states that the Indian middle classes do not fear that participation in such movements might “hurt the career of their children” and thus do not mind them “getting photographed wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with slogans or holding placards”. It was only Disha Ravi’s arrest in February 2021 that led to a change in perception and a stronger linkage of environment and climate with politics in the Indian public perception. This simultaneously led to a stronger risk for activists, which in turn is reflected in hesitant participation in street protests.

Youth climate activism in India is still a relatively young phenomenon and it will be interesting to see its development and impact in the near future. So far, it is still largely limited to an urban, middle class phenomenon that often addresses specific urban environmental questions. In terms of expanding the movement, YFCI is involved in an initiative called the Haiyya Youth Climate Resilience Network, which seeks to advance climate activism beyond urban geographies in India, particularly into non-urban regions and small towns. In the future, we will potentially see more synergies between the activities of the urban and rural populations, as well as the middle class and marginalised groups.

FFF Mumbai sings “Hum Honge Kamyab”, the Hindi version of “We Shall Overcome”, 04.03.2023.

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