Bring on the hashtags: Online art and activism for India’s environment

Art by Shristisree Rajguru   | Photo Credit: special arrangement




Vedanthagal Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Dehing Patkai wildlife reserve in Assam, Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. You have probably seen one or more of these hashtags trend on your social media timelines over the past couple of months. You have seen Ministers on Twitter, cartoonists on Instagram, pop stars on Facebook, and standup comedians on YouTube bring them up, in conversations, via news reports, and most intriguingly, through art.

The protests that hit the streets in 2019, have moved online in 2020. And art is playing a huge part in these movements, particularly student-spearheaded ones, such as Dehing Patkai’s.

In May, Instagram in particular saw a barrage of artwork in support of the wildlife sanctuary, after reports came out of approval given to coal mining (which has since been put on hold) in parts of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. The reserve encompasses not only the sanctuary, but also a number of forest reserves and urban settlements.

Painting after painting began to be circulated: of elephants embattled by fire, confronted with mining equipment, or enveloped in nature.

Art by Deborshee Gogoi

Art by Deborshee Gogoi   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

A large number of them were created by students, but one of the earliest ones — in April — was by a teacher. Deborshee Gogoi, an assistant professor at Digboi College of Assam, has created a number of artworks since: some are emotive, while others focus on being informative. The latter category includes a series that lists the biodiversity of the park: a wide variety of primates, kingfishers, hornbills and cats.

Says Gogoi over a phone call from Digboi, “The news came on April 21, and I made the sketch on April 24. After that, a friend suggested we start a signature campaign on Change.org. Our initiative was to make people aware of the rich biodiversity of the Dehing Patkai rainforest.”

Organisations united by the cause include Northeast Solidarity for Environmental Justice and the Assam chapter of Fridays For Future India, which is connected to the global Fridays For Future climate change movement initiated by Greta Thunberg.

Their focus was mainly on Dehing Patkai rainforest and the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest: their online petition has received over 85,000 signatures so far, while tweets featuring student-held posters brought out responses from celebrities like Bollywood actor Adil Hussain (who has over 53,000 followers on the platform) and singer Papon (who has over 1.5 lakh followers, and is also using the platform to discuss issues like the recent, massive gas leak-related fire at Upper Assam’s Baghjan oil field).

They are not alone: cartoonists, comedians and others have been talking about these issues as well. Heavy Budget is a YouTube channel with 3.26 lakh subscribers, that usually posts slice-of-life comedy sketches. But it posted a conversational explainer of the Dehing Patkai issue in May; the video has been viewed more than 1.85 lakh times so far.

Then there are cartoonists like Rohan Chakravarty who regularly share easy-to-understand, animal-driven art explaining or opinionating on environmental issues. His Green Humour piece showing a pelican’s droll opinion about the Vedanthangal issue has also been translated into Tamil.

Comedian Abhineet Mishra’s candid, humour-laced IGTV video focussed on the hydroelectric power plant proposal in the biodiversity-rich Dibang Valley has been viewed by 17,000 of his 24,400 followers since mid-May. Clearly, when it comes to complex environmental issues, humour can be a powerful tool for education.

Bring on the hashtags: Online art and activism for India’s environment

Besides these, “At least 15 songs, including rap songs and soft songs with animated videos, have also been made as artistic appeal for the Dehing Patkai issue. People think art is just for entertainment, but it also has a greater purpose,” observes Arghadeep Baruah, a 27-year-old involved in the movement.

Online to on-ground

But online activism is not just about spreading the word: technology can be a tool for on-ground clarity as well, especially in times like these, in a world grappling with COVID-19 and lockdowns, where movement is limited.

Chennai-based Yuvan M, for instance, used Google Maps and GPS coordinates to check distances between protected areas and the location of factories, and to verify/challenge Government and corporate statements about the same.

“Recently, we — the Chennai Climate Action Group, Fridays For Future India and Madras Naturalists’ Society — arranged a Twitter storm and got the Vedanthangal issue trending at number 2 in Tamil Nadu,” says Yuvan. It garnered the attention of a number of leaders outside the State as well: one of the tweets explaining the issue was retweeted by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh to his 84,000-plus followers, with the line “this is very objectionable”.

Planned Twitter storms have helped bring environmental issues to the fore in the past, too “the idea is to improve the number of tweets per hour, since that is what will get it trending and potentially get more visibility than the same number of tweets spread over a week,” explains Yuvan.

Ideally they go hand in hand with online and on-ground petitions as well as awareness programmes. At the end of the day, as the national team of Fridays For Future India points out, no hashtag can replace solid groundwork. Field visits by experts, face-to-face conversations with affected communities, bearing witness to what takes place on site are all necessities. Online activism can only be the next step up.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 5:01:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/bring-on-the-hashtags-online-art-and-activism-for-indias-environment/article31803926.ece

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