Cross Posted from PostNoon
Brikesh Singh was all over the newspapers recently when he spent a month atop a tree in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, to protest rampant coal mining. Postnoon catches up with the young environmentalist.
How did you get into environmental activism?
I joined Greenpeace 11 years ago. At that time, I had just dropped out of college and joined the organisation as a part-time fund raiser. It was just a job, but it was very interesting from Day 1.
I got involved in direct action programmes in 2002. We were protesting the Kodaikanal dumping issue at Birla auditorium near Bombay Hospital. The police came and warned us for protesting. After that, I never looked back.
What prompted you to spend a month on a tree to protest coal mining in central India’s forests?
We did have a similar protest last July in Bangalore, when the corporation was cutting down trees for a road widening project on Sankey Road.
A local NGO had filed a PIL against the tree felling and the result was expected on a Monday. We thought that if we get the attention of people, they could make an informed choice. Two of us climbed a tree in the area on Sunday afternoon and spent 24 hours up there. On that one day, 3,000 people signed a petition to save the trees.
The coal mining issue is like a macro version of the road widening scheme, only at a much larger scale. Over 10 lakh hectares of forest land are threatened by coal mining, and people aren’t aware of that. I figured that by spending a month on a tree in the threatened area, I could get people to sit up and take notice.
Do you think such acts would get the government to change its policies?
The thing is, if you don’t do anything, nothing will get done. The 2.5 lakh people who signed the petition are those who heard about the issue and took action. The Coalgate scam has brought the problem into the mainstream.
When ordinary people do extraordinary things, the government is forced to take notice. It’s always going to be a David vs. Goliath struggle.
Here in Hyderabad, CoP-11 has been discussed widely, as much for the issues it raised as for the City’s beautification projects. Do such conferences serve any purpose?
Such conferences are not pointless. Yes, there are debates on whether the conference could have been more sustainable, but that is another issue. The point is that such conferences allow media and civil society to keep an eye on government policies.
These conferences offer a platform for NGOs to raise their voices and be heard. At CoP-11, MoEF minister Jayanthi Natarajan’s stance on NIB (National Investment Board) was applauded, while environmentalists slammed most of the government’s other schemes. It is a powerful platform.
What’s the environ-mental activism scene like in India today?
Middle-class citizens are educated and they are voicing their views. Social media is being used widely, and you hear many stories of small victories. There is a growing group of aware citizens, and that is important for any movement.
What plans for the next few years?
Coal and forests are our big campaign. The forests in central India are still under threat. Our demands are that there be a moratorium on any new coal mining in forest areas until Coalgate is probed and the government takes stock of the amount of coal it has.
What can people do to help save the environment?
The environment is probably tenth on people’s priority lists in India. Saving some forest somewhere is not going to interest them. From signing a petition to liking a page on Facebook to sacrificing a weekend to come out and protest, people can participate in many ways. The point is that people should join in any which way possible. Otherwise, it’s going to be the same old story — very few fighting against many powerful people.
When they hear about some policy that might harm the environment, they should raise their voices. This will inspire a few people like me to sit on a tree for two months!