On the famously busy Ranganathan Street in T Nagar, sandwiched between daily shoppers and flustered vendors, are a few youngsters walking around donning oxygen masks. The masks are connected to water canisters, with plants inside them, labelled OXYGEN. The sight is decidedly uncommon, and so is the response. Only a few walk up to them out of curiosity to talk, the rest only stare; most dismiss them despite the oddity. This is what the Chennai chapter of Extinction Rebellion — “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse” — aims to change.
“There is no time for awareness anymore, action is what matters at this point,” believes Madhav Nair Ramesh. Barely a month-and-a-half old, the Chennai chapter was started by a group of youngsters, including Madhav, with a shared passion for working towards saving the environment, identifying themselves as part of the global movement. This is not the first time XR has spread its wings in the country — Mumbai, Delhi and cities in Kerala already have their own chapters.
In simpler terms, XR Chennai’s initial aim is to mobilise people in the city to non-violently “rebel” against the government’s lax approach to environmental problems. And local issues seem to be of priority for this young group which has six to seven core members. They believe that they have to start small and make a change, to graduate to issues that plague the entire world, like for instance, climate change. “The idea is to connect with the people in the city and work on pressing local issues that directly affect them, and parallelly work towards global issues,” says Madhav.
“We are still looking to mobilise and get more people to attend our meetings, in order for them to know of what we do,” he says, adding that in Chennai, this is a Herculean task.
Non-violent demonstrations form a major part of what they do and the Save the Oxygen walk in Ranganathan Street was one of them. Last month, in Thiruvanmiyur beach, they had presented Dying Act, another demonstration where members would fall flat on the ground unexpectedly, while going on about their business. This did create quite a stir, says Madhav, adding, “In the beach, people came to us and asked us what we were doing. Some of them immediately joined our social media group and expressed an interest in taking part.” The people who show interest are inevitably youngsters — including young adults, working individuals and college students.
Under the guidance of environmentalist and activist, Nityanand Jayaraman, the group has been actively involved in the former’s campaign Save Chennai Wetlands. “Fortunately, he was our first point of contact,” says Madhav, adding that this ultimately led to them joining the global climate strike rally on September 22 in the city.
Madhav says that the rise in sea level and the livelihood of the fisherfolk is also one of the subjects they are trying to focus on. “Though we have about 85 people in our Whatsapp group, only two or three people turn up for meetings. Though many are interested, they are hesitant about making some noise. This has to change.”
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