What inspires these young activists in Chennai to involve themselves in human rights and environment protection causes?

Who’ll bell the cat? Mice would be the default answer! But can mice actually fight the cat? It seems they can. Now, replace ‘cat’ with human rights issues and ‘mice’ with young advocates of human rights and environment issues. Times have changed from the days of aggressive criticism about the irresponsibility of youth and their lack of social commitment. What we see today is a surge of young adults addressing human rights and environment issues. We catch up with some of them here.

For Shreela Manohar (23) and S.V.E. Eswaran (24), highly-paid corporate jobs didn’t seem attractive enough when it came to making a choice between a socially insensitive job and social injustice. Shreela, a member of ‘Community Environmental Monitoring’ group, is involved in mobilising opinion against corporate accountability and corporate crime. “Our collective activities are mostly against corporates with political backing and which wield power in the rural areas of the state,” she says.

Inspired by an organisation’s relief efforts for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy, Eswaran quit his corporate job and took to social activism. The youth outreach campaigner with ‘The Other Media’, says, “I wanted to join the Army. I had passed the qualifying examination for the NDA and attended the training, but due to an unforeseen personal crisis I could not join the academy. Patriotism does not end with the Army, does it? I am serving the country in my own way and it is very satisfying,” he says. Among the movements he has been part of is a successful campaign against pollution of the Cauvery by industrial waste.

Pivotal role

Campaign for Justice and Peace (CJP) is yet another group that has been making its presence felt. For Venkat, pursuing his PhD at Madras Institute of Development Studies, joining the CJP was a continuation of his AICUF activities in college. He has been playing a pivotal role in the planning and execution of most of the CJP campaigns, including those addressing human rights violations of the Bhopal gas tragedy victims, civilian deaths post ‘Operation Green Hunt’ against the Maoists in Central India, and the violation of the rights of migrant workers.

Archanaa Seker (23), also a member of CJP, works with the NGO Banyan. Citing the success of their efforts, she says, “When the company that bought Union Carbide Corporation (responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy) sponsored an intercollegiate meet in 2010 at a university in Chennai, our protests led to social debates which had a positive repercussion.” She says she was inspired to take up social activism following a public meeting she attended at Chhattisgarh where she met activists such as Medha Patkar and Sandeep Pandey, apart from getting a first-hand experience of the chaos caused by Maoist activity there.

K Saravanan, an RTI activist from the fishermen community of Ururkuppam, Besant Nagar, and a youth volunteer of ROB (Reclaim Our Beaches), has been working in close association with organisations that take up issues faced by the locals. “With their support, and by filing RTIs and petitions, we were able to stop some projects and activities that threatened livelihoods, including the elevated expressway and illegal sand mining in the Adyar estuary,” he says. Another activist, J. Muthuvel (23), gave up a highly-paid job to become involved in a theatre group that performs street plays in Chennai to educate people about the Koodankulam issue.

On being quizzed about reaching out to youngsters, Saravanan Karunanidhi, Treasurer, state PUCL, says the organisation has been conducting camps and workshops to educate students on various issues. Venkat adds that the CJP which holds an annual festival every December, commemorating Human Rights Day, is also planning to suggest the inclusion of a semester-long module for college students in their curriculum.

Looking for quick solutions

“One problem is youngsters seem to expect quick solutions to social issues but quit when they realise that change is gradual and the process onerous,” he says. “They are carried away by a materialistic society; we can expect a positive change only if they are urged to reflect on social issues,” says Eswaran.

What do their parents feel about their activities? While Archanaa attributes her sense of social responsibility to her parents who have supported her throughout, Eswaran’s story is different. He says, “My mother and relatives were sceptical when I gave up my job and took to social activism. But they have come to terms with it now.”

“We are not looking for fame. We are just like other youngsters. We do have fun. But it is our duty as responsible citizens to address the problems confronting society,” they say in unison.

Ongoing campaigns

1. Against the upcoming Special Economic Zone in Cuddalore that is causing displacement of farmers and posing a problem to their livelihood.

2. Safeguarding the rights of coal-yard labourers who work in hazardous conditions in Mettur.

3. Selective profiling of tenants and students from outside Tamil Nadu following the recent encounter killings (CJP).

4. Against the proposed Michelin tyre plant in Thervoy Kandigai, 40km from Chennai (CJP).

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