2020: The Year In Review

Introduction

2020 was a year that brought unprecedented challenges for the whole world. The COVID pandemic not only upended lives, it also forced us to adjust to a new normal. It presses on, challenging us to live with a new world order replete with massive restrictions and constant adjustments that contest our assumptions of fundamental freedoms and rights.

Covid-19 has impacted the way we work at ESG. It has been a year of big learnings as we worked to find newer ways to work with challenges posed by the lockdown, and especially the restrictions imposed on the functioning of civil society organisations in India.  Through all this we halted our efforts in addressing environmental and social justice concerns that we have been engaged with, and the newer challenges that emerged.  Whilst the research collaborations we joined helped build critical intellectual  strengths in us, the engagements with communities we work with provide us renewed confidence and hope. 

Research initiatives

ESG is involved in a three year research programme about “Governance of Socio-Technical Transformations” (GoST) in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School (USA); Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (Germany); African Centre for Technology Studies (Kenya) and Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) – University of Sussex (UK). Year 2020 in fact commenced for ESG with the organising of the  GoST India workshop on January 14th at Bangalore. Critical governance challenges of our times are reviewed through the lens of Science and Technology Studies, and in the workshop ESG presented case studies relating to Challakere ‘Science City’ Project, the Pavagada Solar Park, Farming Futures and Smart Cities in India. 

As the world grappled with COVID-19 pandemic, ESG was invited to participate in a 23 country, 6 continent, 60 researchers collaborative study led by Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School and Prof. Stephen Hilgartner of Cornell University on Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, PoliticsCompCoRe Network for short.  ESG contributed the India case study in  the interim report of this initiative entitled Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, Politics which was released in the Futures Forum on Preparedness organised by Schmidt Futures early January 2021, a study reported by New York Times. We will be working through this collaboration through 2021 in helping build a more grounded understanding of the lessons learned from the 2020 pandemic, so the world can be better prepared for such challenges in the future.

In parallel we continue to work on researching the impacts of utility scale solar parks, particularly in the context of the promotion of Pavagada Solar Park and the 

Advancing deep democratisation of environmental governance

Our long engagement with environmental decision making processes in India brought us to highlight the consequences of the comprehensive amendment proposed by the Indian Environment Ministry to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification. As student bodies, civil society, mass organisations, policy research organisations, etc. engaged with the Ministry’s deeply problematic proposal to ‘reform’ the notification, ESG’s deep understanding with how the subordinate law evolved served as a critical advantage in exposing how the proposal was anti-constitutional and diver a deeply democratic exercise.  In that sense the proposed Amendment was anything but that.  Such collectivised arguments for a Constitutionally valid reformation of the EIA law appears to have worked for the Draft EIA Notification 2020 has not pressed forward with. The challenge remains, however, of persuading the Government of India to evolve an environmental jurisprudence that is truly focused on advancing environmental and social justice. About which ESG continues to work in collaboration with the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India.

As we continue working with communities to save lakes, forests and other commons; to tackle pollution and come to the aid of communities suffering from the worst impacts of pollution; assist in the building of resilient local government systems that speak to normative concerns and are at once ready to respond to disasters and pandemics; and in building community strengths in critiquing policies that are against human rights and environment on the one hand, we acknowledge it is equally necessary to work systematically and in solidarity with a variety of networks (media, academic, civil society, movements, trade unions, etc.) to strengthen the idea that vibrant democracies are built on functional and free civil society organizations which work intelligently and creatively with wide public in advancing Fundamental Freedoms and Directive Principles, in particular Article 39, embedded in the Constitution of India.

Conversations to build hope and positive action

As the pandemic caught communities and families in a miasma of uncertainties, and lockdown was imposed, hope seemed distant and distress was everywhere.  At this time we reached out to globally renowned scholars and activists to help imagine futures beyond the COVID pandemic. This was achieved through a deeply inspiring webinar lecture series entitled “Imaginaries for a Resilient and Inclusive New World.  So powerful were their messages that thousands who participated were inspired in their efforts for building a world of compassion and caring unsaddled by existential challenges. This series was followed by Deep Ecology Conversations where we helped frame contestations to the prevailing paradigm of development and peered into realms of understandings necessary to respect ways of Gaia

As the lockdown lifted, ESG worked in collaboration with Purpose and #BengaluruMoving to engage with leading researchers, urbanists, campaigners and public officials on what it would take to prioritise public transport and thus save our cities from chaos. This was achieved in a series of webinars under the theme Better Bus Bengaluru”.  As an outcome of this webinar series, a campaign report was released. This series was then followed by another engaging series of conversations with young researchers and activists on emerging trends in Interdisciplinary Action Research”.  We rounded off the year with a thought provoking webinar engagement on the theme: “Interrogating Governance and Financial Implications of Smart Cities, in collaboration with Centre for Financial Accountability and GoST, which once more involved participation from leading researchers, urbanists, public officials, trade unionists and others, and especially the wide public.  

Legal research and interventions

Our work through a range of Public Interest Litigations continue to advance an environmental jurisprudence that is based on the Public Trust Doctrine, Precautionary Principle, Principle of Intergenerational equity, Polluter Pays Principle, and other such progressive doctrines which speak to the need for a people centred decentralised approach towards addressing global and local environmental challenges.  

These principles are intricately linked to our work in advancing community protection of lakes of Karnataka, in which we work to ensure community engagement with lake management and rehabilitation becomes systemic to building water, socio-economic and ecological securities. The Karnataka High Court has supported these efforts through a range of progressive directions.   We are now utilising this experience and jurisprudence in working with communities of Loktak Lake in Manipur to protect traditional rights associated with this amazing wetland and in securing its wise use for the benefit of present and future generations.

Working with workers unions and a range of civil society organisations and local communities, we have helped shape a progressive Solid Waste Management Strategy for Karnataka.  The success of this effort  is serving as an example to various other states in India. There is resistance, however, from various vested interests who are intent on derailing decades of work in building solid waste management strategies that are deeply respectful of human rights and environmental limits to consumption and disposal cultures.  

A template  prepared by the ESG Team showing the mismanagement of Hebbal Lake, Mysuru

We continue to engage with the Supreme Court of India and National Green Tribunal in securing a resolution to the unprecedented legal challenge we initiated a decade ago exposing biopiracy by Monsanto et al whilst advancing B.t. Brinjal in India.  This effort also involves a challenge to the framing of Sec. 40 of the Biological Diversity Act as it is our contention that it is supportive of bio-extraction and bio-looting. 

Engaging in alternate dispute resolution mechanisms 

ESG is working with the congregation of  All Saints Church in saving the church as a living and biodiversity heritage of the city. In this process, a complaint was raised with the European Investment Bank (EIB) against Bangalore Metro insisting on running a section of the metro line through the sylvan campus of the church.  EIB  has entertained the complaint, and as a part of which an unprecendented conflict resolution effort was initiated.  This effort is underway and ESG is assisting the congregation in advancing their grievances, on the one hand, and building imaginaries of how the metro can function without having the destroy such incredible heritage.   

Response to the lockdown

By March the concerns surrounding COVID-19 had started to assume alarming proportions. Therefore, in the beginning of March, the ESG team worked with the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India  to develop a deeply democratic and inclusive response in handling the COVID situation in India.  The effort was to ensure civil and political rights did not suffer.  The way in which the pandemic was handled has been fundamentally contrasting to this expectation, and which has resulted in widespread distress to millions, especially those who are most vulnerable in caste/class stratified society.  We have been systemically involved in attending to such adverse fallouts which involved working with the Bangalore administration to establish BlCares, a citizen centric approach to tackling the pandemic.  

In collaboration with a number of other Civil Society Organisations and Trade Unions, ESG began engaging in relief work for those seriously affected by the lockdown: stranded migrants, urban poor, daily wagers, pastoralists and the rural poor. ESG worked with ‘Kareng-Do It!’ in distributing supplies to migrant workers all over South Bangalore. ESG also handed over provisions and extended support to communities from Mavallipura, Gandhibazaar and Subramanyapura Kere and Challakere to help them cope with the lockdown. In addition, donations made to ESG’s Disaster and Relief Fund were used to support migrant families and urban poor with two weeks worth of food and essentials.  ESG also supported communities in Challakere to help construct water tanks for sheep and cattle as the covid lockdown had affected the mobility and grazing routines of the local community in the peak summer season.

Bangalore Cares 

Leo F. Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao, Trustees of ESG were asked to be part of Bangalore Cares, an initiative involving concerned citizens, civil society organisations and government officials to build a comprehensive response to the pandemic in the city. 

Webinar Series

As part of our efforts to adapt to the emerging global order caused by the pandemic, ESG launched a global web talk series Imaginaries for a Resilient and Inclusive New World”. The aim of the series was to engage with pioneering thinkers, scholars and activists from across the globe to help us to look beyond the global crisis and imagine a better world for all. Inaugurated by  Prof. Sheila Jassanoff of Harvard Kennedy School, the series saw eminent persons deliver 90 minute presentations every Friday.

Speakers of the Webinar Series: Imaginaries for a Resilient and Inclusive New World

While we engaged with global thought leaders through the Imaginaries series, through the Native Dialogue webinars which were organized in collaboration with Native Picture, stories of indigenous peoples and their ways of life from across India were shared with a primarily urban audience. ESG also collaborated with Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary to organize a series of conversations which are critical to help humanity understand it’s relationship with the natural world in the age of the Anthropocene. These conversations involved ecologists, earth systems scientists and environmental activists. 

By mid-year, ESG along with Bengaluru Moving, launched the Better Bus Bengaluru webinars – a series of conversations on how mobility in the city can be revitalised and made sustainable through deeply democratic processes. The conversations involved representatives of governmental bodies, women’s rights organisations, citizens groups and student networks. They also included politicians, academics, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, street vendors, urban anthropologists and people with disabilities.

Towards the end of August, ESG collaborated with CFA to launch the Interdisciplinary Action Research: Conversations with Emerging Leaders series, a platform for young researchers and activists to showcase their work to a wider audience. These webinars were held every Thursday from 5:00 – 6:30 pm, over a period of ten weeks from 20th August 2020 to 29th October 2020. 

Environmental Decision Making in India

Amendment to EIA Notification

The year was also one of great upheavals in terms of the increased number of assaults on social, political and environmental rights of the people of the country. The Draft EIA Notification of 2020 which allows for post-facto clearances and brings public participation down to a bare minimum faced stiff opposition from the general public. To spread understanding of the implications of the EIA Notification with the youth, the ESG team conducted workshops and webinars for students from the Association for India’s Development, YUGMA Network and Apprenticeship in Ecological Nurturance. Mr. Leo Saldanha, coordinator of ESG, critically analysed the Draft EIA Notification 2020 at discussions organised by India Today, The News Minute, INTACH Chennai Chapter, the Mandate Project and the Impact and Policy Research Institute respectively and at the Janta Parliament

ESG also drafted a statement in collaboration with the members of the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India statement  and released the statement, demanding a Comprehensive New Substantive Environmental Law to Regulate Development in consonance with Environment Protection Act, 1986.  

Response to an Environmental Disaster

The disastrous LG Polymer’s Gas Leak took place on 7th May. The ESG Team played a key role in preparing the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India’s response document to this crime, questioning the lackadaisical approach by officials in monitoring safety protocols of the plant and calling for a number of steps to be taken before reopening industrial production in India.

Electricity Act Amendment consultation

In order to help democratise the process surrounding the Electricity Act amendment, ESG collaborated with CFA and Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) to organise a public consultation. Suggestions from this consultation were compiled into a report and sent on to members of the Indian parliament. 

Moving Forward 

Although much of ESG’s work was either forced online or restricted to the desk after the pandemic hit, the last few months have seen the ESG team begin to increasingly step out onto the field, interact with communities and assist them with the issues they face. 2021 promises to be a year of even more field work and community interaction, with the ESG Team planning to help a group in Challakere, Karnataka set up a Farmer Producer Organisation and in supporting the fishing community at Loktak Lake, Manipur. 

While 2020 has seen a global pandemic, political repression and social polarisation affect our work, it has also forced us to adapt, learn new skills and reimagine just how we can work with the communities that reach out to us for support. Undoubtedly, these are challenging times which we live in. But despite the difficulties, that has also given us an opportunity: to rise to the challenge. 

Our Team

Shubha, Dr. Sana Huque, Karthik Anjanappa, Ashwin Lobo, Leo F. Saldanha. Malvika Kaushik joined the team in December 2020. 

Our Board of Trustees

Ms. Bhargavi S. Rao, Mr. Leo F. Saldanha, Ms. Suprapha Seshan, Mr. Joe Athialy, Dr. Shirdi Prasad Thekur, Mr. Arthur Pereira, Dr. Rober John Chandran

Our Advisors

Dinesh T.B, Madhu Bhushan, Subbu Sastry,

Our Interns

Malvika Kaushik, Satvika Krishnan, Sreshtha Chowdhury, Siri Harish, Ayush Joshi, Sneha Ghosh, Himamshu Umesh 

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