Disha Ravi: India is trying to criminalise climate activism – Financial Times

In 2018, inspired by the teenage activist Greta Thunberg, 20-year-old Indian student Disha Ravi began organising climate change protests, tree-planting drives, and campaigns against environmentally damaging building projects. But, a little over two years later, after farmers protested against new laws, she was arrested and held in a New Delhi jail on suspicion of sedition — a crime punishable by life imprisonment.

She was later freed on bail. But her detention, and the use of colonial-era laws to silence critics of Narendra Modi’s government, sent shockwaves through the environmental movement in India and abroad.

Here Ravi, now 24, talks to the FT’s Moral Money editor, Simon Mundy, about the climate change youth movement, her time in prison, and the impact it has had on young campaigners.

SM: How did you get into climate campaigning in the first place?

DR: Growing up as a young child, we lived in areas in Bangalore where water was not easily accessible, we’d get water in trucks and we’d pump it once a week or twice a week, depending on what we needed. Or my mom would actually go to a well and get it with other people in the neighbourhood . . . I thought this was quite normal until I moved to a region in Bangalore on the outskirts where water was more available. And I was like: ‘So why did we struggle all these years?’

That’s when I started questioning it. And it was so normalised to not have water that I didn’t get answers at first. It was only when I was 18 that I had access to the internet full-time. Once I did have access to the internet, I started researching why this is happening. That’s when I realised it’s because farmers and most people in India — I think around 60 per cent are farmers or higher — are dependent on underground water for their daily agricultural needs as well as their living needs.

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We’ve built concrete jungles in almost all of India right now. So the water isn’t going into the ground. It’s flooding cities, which is what is happening in Bangladesh. The flooding that’s happening is because of terrible city planning and the increase in the amount of rainfall we will see. We could have still prevented it. But we built very bad and unsustainable cities.

I think I started off with a very whitewashed version of environmentalism because that’s what the internet fed me.

SM: What do you mean by a whitewashed version?

DR: [It was] all focused on individual actions. It put the blame for the planet dying on individuals. It said, Go vegan, carry your own plastic bottle, carry your own tote bag, switch off lights. And I did do all those things but the climate was still getting worse. That’s when I realised that this is not going to be enough.

SM: You said that you started with a focus on individual action. Now that’s not the case. So what was the change? When and why did that change?

DR: I think it was being in Fridays For Future [the youth-led climate movement led by Greta Thunberg, which organised strike action by school children ] that made me change.

SM: So Greta started her first school strike in . . . 

DR: . . . in August 2018.

SM: Did you hear about it right away? Or did it take some time?

DR: In 2018, we were already going to other protests for environmental stuff . . . that’s when I recognised that there is a gap and there aren’t young people at the table.

That’s when I heard about the strikes taking off. And I’m like ‘We should do this! Yeah!’ I posted on my Instagram . . . and, then, out of the blue, one of my friends texted me [and said] someone else has posted the same thing. She connected me to her. And we got in touch with people from all the major cities like Mumbai, Delhi . . . 

It was like meeting a whole bunch of people who wanted to do the same things as you . . . where you all love the same thing and it was the planet. It was lovely.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg wit a placard reading in Swedish ‘School strike for the climate’ © AFP/Getty Images

SM: So, at that time, you did your first strike, right? What message were you sending in that very first protest?

DR: It was so chaotic . . . We just said, we want climate action now. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. Because you don’t need to know everything about the climate movement to be a part of it. We learned along the way.

I learned through organising, because these aren’t things that are taught in schools. They don’t tell you that when you’re organising a protest, you have to get banners and mics and you have to have demands, you have to have a press release. These are things we didn’t know, these are things we learned. And it was painful. It was a very painful learning. But it was essential to who I became and what I’m fighting for.

After that, we continued getting more people and doing more strikes. We learned how to do strikes better. We mobilised college students everywhere. There was a point when, in my home city, we used to have five to six strikes on one Friday in different locations. This was [the] peak time.

Then we had a national physical meet. It was amazing. People from the northeastern part of the country took a train for three days to get there. And, right after the meeting, the pandemic hit . . . Suddenly, we can’t do that anymore. So we had to come up with a new strategy. We had to learn how to work online.

We launched the first campaign digitally [about] environmental impact assessments. You have to make an environmental impact assessment before you take on an infrastructure project . . . it goes to a public consultation process. But, at this time, they were very sneaky about it: they put it up online and didn’t have the public consultation. They said ‘Email us your suggestion’ — instead of having it in person. And they [were meant to] translate it into the 21 or 22 official languages, [but] they didn’t do that, either. They didn’t make a public announcement, they put one in the Commonwealth newspaper, which is very small, no one cares. They essentially reduced accountability and participation and they did it in a very sly way.

So we came together, built coalitions with the larger environmental movement. They said send in your consultations by email — so we did. We set up an email template so that people could come on our website to read it and then choose to hit send.

It started taking off and influencers started posting and — one night before the deadline — there were 100,000 emails.

Our website crashed in the middle of the night. Then, the next morning, it crashed again. Initially, we thought it’s because of the capacity. So we tried to extend the capacity. We contacted the service provider and it got back to us after two or three days and said the site is blocked because the government asked to block it.

SM: The government intervened to block your website?

DR: The Ministry of Environment. We got a notice. The minister said that us sending them too many emails was a threat to “the peace and sovereignty of India”. Those were the exact words.

And that wasn’t the worst part. They put UAPA charges on us: this is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the most stringent of the criminal laws.

SM: Isn’t that law intended to be used for terrorists?

DR: Initially, it was supposed to be for organised terrorist organisations. But . . . now, individuals or organisations can be arrested under this law.

SM: Was it the first time that this law had been used in such a way?

DR: Is it the first time they used it against children sending emails? Probably — because I haven’t heard of another scenario.

SM: Do you have a sense of why they got so freaked out?

DR: I have no idea . . . We panicked and reached out to the lovely people at the Internet Freedom Foundation. We didn’t know any lawyers! They came in and said they’d be happy to help us. They wrote a representation in response to the ministry, before any of us got arrested.

We also shared the information with the press, because you can’t put one of India’s more stringent laws on children for sending emails. So everyone’s calling the Delhi police — all the journalists — asking why. Within two or three days, they were under immense pressure. This was a time when a lot of people were seeing the softer side of our work. We were planting trees, cleaning up, and hugging trees. And they had put the UAPA on children who hug trees!

All these things helped people understand that we’re not dangerous. And everyone was furious.

Then we got a call saying it’s just a typo, it was not under UAPA! And then they withdrew the charges entirely. But I believe it was the first time we had come on the radar.

SM: So you were getting on the radar of the authorities. How did it progress from there?

DR: I don’t think I realised that until I got arrested [in February 2021]. Because that was the first time that the police — the government — came to know about my existence.

Students protesting protest against the arrest of environment activist Disha Ravi in 2021 © AFP via Getty Images

SM: So how did you come to be arrested?

DR: Well, I didn’t know I was going to be arrested. I was [told] they want to ask me questions. I never thought it would come down to an arrest. So I was surprised when it happened. It was a fairly terrifying time . . . to come to a new city [Delhi] where the first thing you see is like a prison cell is very traumatising.

SM: Can you talk about what happened later in terms of how you got out?

DR: My lawyers are brilliant, and they pushed for bail immediately when I got judicial custody — which is like ‘prison’ prison. I was put in what is said to be one of the nicest jails in India. And it was still horrible. I can’t believe that’s the nicest. There’s a toilet inside the room. And there are three people or four people in one room. This is during Covid . . . We don’t get a bedroom, there’s rugs. And that’s if you’re lucky. We were in the Containment Zone. I don’t know how it was supposed to be a Containment Zone because there are four people in my room in this much space.

SM: This must have been a very distressing experience.

DR: It was very distressing. I felt like time moved so slowly, because we also had no privacy . . . They mentally drained you.

SM: And were you in contact with your family?

DR: No, I wasn’t allowed to contact anybody.

SM: Not even your lawyers. Is that legal?

DR: I think they usually allow contact after seven days.

SM: Can you talk about what happened? How you got out?

DR: So my lawyers filed for bail. There was no evidence to prove that I had done what I’m accused of. And I actually got bail in the first hearing itself. When they pronounced [on] it, I was actually at a simultaneous hearing to extend my prison stay! I got bailed before they could extend.

Disha Ravi leaving a New Delhi facility after an investigation into her activities, in 2021. © REUTERS

SM: When you got out, then what happened after that?

DR: Oh, I was in [for another] month — because they called us in for investigation. We were there from 9am to 6pm or sometimes even later. I spend almost every day there except Sundays. So I was arrested on the 13th, and I came back home on the 13th of next month.

SM: Why did they let you go? Did they say after one month: ‘OK, that’s enough’?

DR: I think they had asked every question that they wanted to ask. If they wanted me for anything further they’d call me and let me know. And I said I’d be happy to participate in the investigation and co-operate.

SM: So what is your status now? You’re on probation?

DR: Now I’m still on bail. They couldn’t find anything to prove what I was accused of. But they don’t see the harm of keeping a 22-year-old . . . just because she doesn’t agree with the state of politics.

SM: So how does that affect your life?

DR: I can’t get any government jobs. It’s not an option anymore. And it’s harder to just get basic things. I’m still scared to go to college and get my marks card, because I’m scared of what my college thinks of me. I have not picked it up. And to get a passport, I get just one for the year normally.

SM: What do you think this tells us about the complications around climate activism in India? And not only in India?

DR: India was in the top 10 countries that are most dangerous for environmental defenders, according to Global Witness. It is true, it is very dangerous. It was scary, honestly, because it’s true. Activism or dissent of any form — not just environmental — has been criminalised through legal frameworks. Sedition is obviously one of them. But there’s worse: there’s the National Security Act, or the Unlawful Activities Prevention (UAP) Act, which is also in the non-bailable category.

I think the earliest I know that someone has gone on bail was a year without trial. And the trial takes ages. There was, I think, a group of Muslim activists that were arrested [and] 20 years [later] they were all acquitted [for lack of evidence] . . . That’s just what the UAP is for: to criminalise people without evidence.

SM: Why do you think that is? Because many people would think environmental activism is all for the good of the planet. It’s not political.

DR: Environmental activism is very political because they have politicised air, they have politicised water. It has been done for years, for decades. They’ve been stealing land from indigenous people for decades . . . People are literally fighting for their land right now. Because they want to build coal blocks, they want to mine and get coal blocks up and running. And they’re just not just fighting by protesting over the world. They’re fighting with their bodies. They’re shot, and there are no records. They’ve been erased from people’s lives like they never existed. So it has always been political. They have commoditised the planet . . . They don’t see nature as something sacred. They only see water and land and soil as resources — something that they have to plunder. So that they dig out whatever is underneath it, and destroy whatever is giving life.

SM: What do you think they are so worried about? Why are they threatened by you?

DR: I have no idea why they are threatened by me! I described myself as a small fish to my lawyer. I do not know why . . . I truly cannot understand. I can think of so many activists who are doing so much more amazing work that does threaten the status quo. But my guess is I was used as the poster child for the youth movement, to threaten the youth movement. And it did work. We were scared. We were worried.

SM: They wanted to make an example of you?

DR: They did. And it was well done. Because it’s fairly easy for them to recognise people who are organising on the ground, and who have been at the forefront of organising across the country, as well. It’s not just me but I think I was just an easy target. They didn’t think arresting me would lead to so many repercussions.

SM: What has been the impact on the youth climate movement in India of your arrest?

DR: It’s not just the arrest, I think a lot of dramatic and sad things follow. First, it was my arrest and everyone put so much time and so much effort and all the resources they had with them to make sure that I was safe, and that I was out as soon as possible. I’m so grateful for the youth movement, the youth climate movement, to have that support and have that kind of love. I don’t think I’ve ever had that before. I feel like I finally found a community where I truly belong. I’ve never had that in school. I’ve never had that in college. I didn’t even have that with my own family. I finally feel like I have people who have my back.

But it was very traumatic for them as well, to see someone they know, they worked with for years, just get picked up and taken away. I think they were stressed out. And these are young children. These are children who are just 18; some of them were younger — we had some teenage volunteers. And their parents are like: ‘You can’t volunteer anymore because we don’t know if this is safe for you!’ So we’ve had to put a limit on what age people can join. We just made it 18-plus.

SM: Greta [Thunberg] started making her impact when she was 16 . . . 

DR: Yeah, when people are 16, they can make their decisions. They’re not influenced.

Indian students condemning police action against activists, in 2021 © AP

SM: And what would you say to an Indian 12-year-old? Let’s say you have a young 12-year-old friend or relative and they say: ‘I want to do something’. What do you say they can do?

DR: I would say that they shouldn’t do anything. They have more life to live. I don’t want someone who is under 16 to be coming into activism spaces in India, because it’s not safe here. And there’s so much for you to do as a child, you need to live that childhood — you need to get the joys of childhood before you get into this, because environmental and climate work is painful.

I know that there are a lot of kids who are 15 and really smart. But I don’t think they should be in these spaces. It’s not [a question of] understanding climate science . . . You don’t need to know the science. You don’t need to know the technical terms. But you need to know that this is going to impact your life forever — in ways you may have not expected., that are not necessarily good.

I’ve never thought anyone — friends, family, loved ones — should influence you to get into activism before you’re 16, or preferably 18.

SM: If India was a totally free and safe space for activism, would you still feel the same way?

DR: I think I would still feel the same way. Because I’ve seen a lot of young people, really young people come here and speak about climate. But do you actually know what you’re saying [at that age]? When I was 11, or when I was 12, I was eating mud, building sand castles! And that’s what you’re supposed to be doing . . . even though we are in a climate crisis, you still are supposed to find joy and community.

SM: After all you’ve been through, if you had the choice to start again, knowing what you know, would you?

DR: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think I could stop because the emergency is real. I would still do it because there’s so much that’s being destroyed. We have billionaires who go to space for fun, when they could be investing in protecting our planet instead. We have a responsibility to the earth to protect her and to coexist with her. It is a responsibility to safeguard her. There is that quote which says: ‘We didn’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children’. And, if more people realise that, we create a safer space.

SM: What’s your plan for the future? Where do you want to take your activism?

DR: This is the toughest question because . . . I want to do 50 things. So, in an imaginary world where resources, money and travel were not a constraint, I would want to study literature for fun, not because I want a degree, but because I am a nerd, I just like studying! And also I want to study law . . . I’d also want to study environmental science. If money wasn’t a constraint I’d like to own a shop, where I can sell coffee, and books and flowers — it would be perfect. No, I wouldn’t want to sell books, it would be like a library, but they also get coffee and flowers. Because this would be an ideal world — so the climate crisis is over!

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