Earth Day: How Jhatkaa.org is mobilising over a million Indians to take collective action against environmental change
The words ‘Bengaluru’ and ‘biodiversity’ may seem incongruent to the urban-weary citizens of Karnataka’s capital. This is why the Hesaraghatta Lakebed and habitat, which is less than 30 km away from the Vidhana Soudha, come as a surprise to those who visit it for the first time.
Home to 235 species of birds, 400 species of insects, and 100 species of butterflies, the area is under threat as the plan to build a Film City looms large. Environmentalists, activists, and concerned citizens have been vehemently opposing the move and have petitioned that the entire 5,010 acres of the lakebed be designated as the Greater Hesaraghatta Grassland Conservation Reserve.
Among those leading the campaign against the razing of the grasslands and the decimation of these species is Jhatkaa.org, a digital advocacy platform. Jhatkaa has successfully led numerous campaigns against key issues and towards realising their ‘vision of a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable India’.
Volunteers participate in a climate strike at Town Hall in Bengaluru in September 2019. Participants are wearing masks to draw attention to the effects of air pollution.
Speaking about the campaign to conserve the Hesaraghatta area, Nimisha Agarwal, Senior Campaigner, Jhatkaa.org tells SocialStory,
“In November 2020, the State Wildlife Board was reconstituted. Some of the members on this board are not even environmental. On January 19, 2021, a meeting was held to declare the area a reserve. However, the local MLA was made a special invitee, which is against the law, and swayed the decision against this move.”
Nimisha says that the matter is currently in court after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed challenging the nomination of some of the members on the state wildlife board and the presence of the MLA who is not part of the board. Jhatkaa.org is supporting the PIL.
Mobilising for change
The preservation of the grasslands is just one of the campaigns that Jhatkaa has supported since it was founded by Deepa Gupta in 2012. Since then, the group has mobilised over 1.4 million Indians to take collective and affirmative action against issues surrounding the environment, sustainability, gender, health, and education. In 2016, Avijit Michael took over as Executive Director and is working with 20 full-time team members and three interns. The volunteers are the key driving force behind Jhatkaa.org’s initiatives and join the campaigns in various capacities.
“A digital advocacy platform allows citizens to come together and take collective democratic action using digital technology tools. This is even more necessary in the wake of a pandemic where people cannot risk gathering in public or in closed spaces, such as in the decision-makers’ offices, to communicate citizen needs,” said Avijit Michael, Executive Director, Jhatkaa.org
“Volunteers join campaigns via social media, email outreach or by signing up at ongoing events,” says Jacob Cherian, Director of Engagement, Jhatkaa.org, explaining that people can sign up for a general task like cleanup or tree-planting drive to more specialised tasks and a communications specialist or researchers for specific campaigns.
“These are slightly more complex tasks. For example, research volunteers helped us get relevant information to support our campaign to preserve the mangroves in Mumbai and to petition against the smog towers in Delhi,” he adds.
The next level of volunteers are those who can establish contact and influence the decision-makers.
While volunteers in the age group of 20-30 years comprise the majority of their base, Jacob says that they even have volunteers in the 50+ years age group as well as college students as young as 18 years as colleges are increasingly stipulating community service as a criterion for graduation.
A comprehensive approach
Jhatkaa.org believes in approaching environmental issues in a holistic manner. Their campaigns range from macro issues like seeking sustainable modes of transport, and solar and renewable energy sources to more localised issues like garbage burning. “We work at saving and planting more trees as well as looking at issues and engaging with major policy decisions,” says Nimisha, citing a campaign around the 2020 change in the Environmental Impact Assessment laws.
“We had a massive campaign with more than about 25,000 people sending letters of recommendation on how the changes in the law would negatively impact the environment. We have interacted with a lot of policies at a national level and local level,” she explains.
In addition to signature campaigns, the team at Jhatkaa.org also reaches out to experts, seeking their feedback on a policy that is going to negatively impact the environment. Their suggestions are then put into a basic template which citizens can then send out to key decision-makers, citing why they object to the proposed policy.
A key campaign where Jhatkaa.org is among the first petitioners is against the felling of 8,561 trees by the Karnataka Road Development Corporation (KRDCL) for road widening. “We were alerted by some citizens that KRDCL was cutting trees despite the matter being in court. We filed an affidavit and KRDCL was not prepared to answer why they had proceeded in a sub judice case. The Karnataka High Court has actually ordered an inquiry into the tree cutting that happened,” she says.
Volunteers participate in a protest outside Town Hall in Bengaluru in September 2019.
Challenges at various levels
Nimisha says that one of the key challenges they have faced is with some decision-makers being non-responsive. “Even when we present arguments with logic and check if they have followed due diligence before taking on large-scale infrastructure projects, we are stonewalled by decision-makers.”
She says that government officials have also admitted to ignoring the process in the interest of ‘priorities’.
The pandemic has also brought its own set of challenges. “We are not able to do any offline activities. In our experience, an online petition is always supplemented by actions on the ground. For the last one year, we have not called for large gatherings or protests. So what ends up happening is that there is a lot of pressure to keep an issue alive in the media, because, after a point, no one is interested in taking up the same issue over and over again. That has been one of our biggest challenges.”
With campaigns moving entirely online, there are also challenges around creating awareness around the far-reaching impact of environmental violations. “For example, getting people to understand why cutting several lakh hectares of trees in a rural area is going to be a problem in Bengaluru makes it difficult for us to mobilise people,” she says.
Speaking about plans for the future, Avijit says, “Our long-term goal is to mobilise 3.5 percent of the Indian population to actively engage with their community and decision-makers for a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable India."
Further explaining, Nimisha says, “We are going to amplify the work that we are already doing and get more and more people to join the movement. Because of COVID-19, a lot of people who were initially opposed to online modes of protests are also participating, which gives us a real force. Getting on platforms like Twitter or Facebook, we can speak about the issues that matter, and people are starting to see the power of how an online protest or a campaign can change things,” she says.