Report of the workshop series
3rd – 5th March, 2023
(Download the pdf version of this report here)
In the backdrop of floods, droughts, forest fires, heatwaves probably caused by climate change, wreaking havoc globally, Environment Support Group (ESG) and Art By Children (ABC), an initiative of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, came together to organise a three workshops for school children, college youth and the general public on Building Imaginaries of Hope & Inclusivity in Tackling Climate Change. Organised based on interactive, informative, introspective and insightful conversations, these workshops built on the idea of community as critical to tackling disempowering anxieties due to evolving climate crises, and discovering intelligent and inclusive pathways to respond with resilient adaptations to impacts.
Transformation to Sustainability – Can We Do It?
The first engagement was with college youth in the historic Hall of the Government Law College in Ernakulam on 3rd March (it is now called the Moot Court Hall). The grandeur of the place and the fact that it is also here that Kerala’s first law college began in 1874, and that prior to this it was the Legislative Assembly under the Maharaja of Travancore, was an awe inspiring experience. In this august house, over 100 students from the Government Law College and St. Teresa’s College gathered and engaged in day long conversations about what entails transformations to sustainability. These conversations built on discovering interdisciplinary, intersectoral and intersectional interpretations of existential crises, and focused on collective approaches as key to build successful transformations.
Premsy P .N., Associate Professor at the Government Law College, gave a welcome address in which she introduced concepts of sustainable development and enquired about the need for a critical relook at such assumptions in responding to climate crisis. Program Director of ABC Blaise Joseph then shared how the Biennale as a special initiative is responding to such challenges. He explained how Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a conscious effort to inclusively support engagements on ideas of transformations to sustainability, and some of the media are exhibitions, guided tours, seminars and workshops.
Bhargavi Rao Senior Fellow and Trustee of ESG introduced Environment Support Group’s efforts over 25 years with vulnerable and marginalised communities who face the worst of prevailing paradigms of development, such as environmental pollution and displacement, and of methods the organisation employs to build positive outcomes from such despairing landscapes of suffering and disenfranchisement. For instance, she cited the experience of Dalit communities impacted by landfills on the outskirts of Bengaluru resisting dumping of the city’s waste in their commons. While their experience held a mirror to the high tech metropolis’ ways, revealing its ugly and violent underbelly, especially due to the recklessness of its consumption, their struggles in organising and resistance resulted in unprecedented transformations: not only were the landfills shut down in Bangalore, but the effort inspired the Karnataka High Court to issue directions to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to rewrite rules governing solid waste. The outcome was the relatively progressive Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. In this manner Bhargavi brought to focus the enormous positive power of concerted action by a small group of people. Which she argued was also a convergence of science, humanity and law to address complex challenges the world now faces.
Leo Saldanha of ESG invited students to wonder about debates that would have taken place in that very hall over a century and half ago. What issues did elected representatives of the time have discussed? And asked students to introspect in a comparative framework the issues of the place that were debated over a century and half ago in that very hall, and what issues now confronted the region. He shared how environmental degradation, which once was a gradual process, has turned rapidly transformative now and this demands a heightened sense of responsibility and effective response. This is particularly crucial for Kerala given that its pristine coastal and forested environments are under serious threat of collapse due to sea level rise and heavy rainfalls during monsoon. Such extreme weather events exacerbate the prevailing vulnerabilities, he shared. “The issue with the concept of sustainable development lies within the word ‘development’ itself” highlighted Leo, as he explained much of the current forms of developmental activities are extractive and socio-economically structurally unjust. This leaves the larger majority, who still constitute traditional and natural resources dependent communities, in the lurch, and worse, facing the brunt of the adverse impacts of maldevelopment. In this landscape, youth have a crucial role in redefining relationships with power and setting the pathways to development within frameworks of sustainability.
Suprabha Seshan Trustee at ESG and who co-governs Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, engaged students in an exercise where she asked them to name ten plants on their campus which they could pluck and eat, as an effort to help them appreciate their interactions with and understandings of nature. “Civilization has scooped out spaces and created infrastructural wonders at the cost of the living world. Who died so we could live today?” she asked. Stepping out of the world of policies and governance, she encouraged students to take time to reflect upon the wildness of nature around them and so enrich their relationships with the living world. Touching upon her experiences working at the Gurukula, where over 2500 Western Ghats species have been cultivated – an unprecedented effort globally, she emphasised that nature is willing to regrow and survive, and all that is required in assisting this process is humane, ecocentric collective action.
Bhargavi then got the students to engage in a peer to peer learning session discussing environmental issues that affect their daily lives. The resultant list of concerns was quite comprehensive: waters in canals stagnating resulting in bad odour, becoming breeding ground for mosquitoes and contaminating drinking water sources; rising sea levels resulting in destruction of entire villages and coastal infrastructure; ineffective governance of solid waste and management of sewage causing extensive pollution; widespread burning of waste, especially plastic, causing toxic air pollution;. Students also brought into focus the uncontrollable fire at the Brahmapuram landfill, which then already was into its second day and acrid smell of burning plastic was everywhere across Kochi. The successful struggle of Dalit communities in Mavalipura in Bangalore stopping landfills, and the legal efforts that helped improve the situation, were recalled. Students also watched ‘Nagara Nyrmalya’, a short film which highlights possibilities of transformations in waste management.
As the complexities of climate change scenarios were being discussed, a student explained how she is a victim of climate change and the State and Banks have jointly worsened her situation. She narrated how her plans to pursue education abroad had to be kept in abeyance as her family house, which was collateral for the loan, was held unacceptable by at least four banks on grounds that it was threatened by sea level rise. Which Leo Saldanha held was a clear case of a climate victim being punished further, and her future jeopardised, with Banks and the State abandoning her cause. This, he explained, is a direct outcome of the lack of safequard policies applicable to with Indian banks, whereas those that apply to International financial institutions are weak. Climate victims fall within these cracks, he said, and encouraged students to organise around this cause.
In a remarkable shift from stressful anxieties due to climate change, students then organised themselves to write a letter on behalf of the climate change impacted student, addressing all Banks which denied her education loans and also to the Kerala State Secretariat. Their demand was to ensure that the student would receive the full loan she needed, and that the State would stand collateral given the family house was hit by sea level rise. The group organised themselves into a Kochi Climate Collective to see through this issue into a transformative possibility, and thus drew to close a day engaging with climate change impacts and the transformative possibilities of collective action.
Is There a Planet-B?
Kids playing with gay abandon at St. Mary’s High School, Chellanam, was clearly not the space and time to bother them with weightier issues such as climate change. But once they figured it was time to gather in a meeting hall to address the issue, they seamlessly transcended into a reflective mode. So on Saturday, 4th March 2023, 5th – 9th grade and their coordinator Mr. Amerzlin Louis engaged in conversations, fun activities, art work and more with the ESG and ABC teams in addressing how to respond to climate change realities .
Working on the theme “There is No Planet B”, the thought that Earth is all we have, and it is extensively and brutally hurt and damaged, what with most floral and faunal species facing imminent extinction if prevailing modes of development was persisted with, was the grim background in which the day progressed.
Blaise Joseph of ABC/Kochi Biennale starting the session, engaged students in movement-filled exercises focussing on reconnecting with each other, becoming alert of and to their senses. Instantly transforming, thereby, the group into a tightly knit compact of children willing to work as a team. And so they lurched into a conceptual game to understand the impact of rising sea levels in coastal areas of Kerala.
Amrita Menon of ESG then engaged the students in an interactive discussion, relating to tactical observations of various elements of nature. The learning group was encouraged to identify how these elements were being polluted, and the children began to relate with plastic burning, floods, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, human-animal conflict and the rising sea levels – noticing how they were all inter-related. In this way, they were assisted in drawing connections between local issues and global warming,
Mary Margaret of ESG then touched upon the necessity to reimagine our planet as a functional and equitable space, in contrast with the prevailing unsustainable and unjust world that is. In groups, students then discussed and identified possible causes and solutions to various structural and systemic environmental issues: air pollution, water pollution, waste management and biodiversity loss. Nidhi Hanji, Sachin P. S. and Akshita Raghawa from ESG and volunteers Hanuna and Rafael from Art by Children facilitated these group dynamics. When summarising, each group came up with ideas for transformation to sustainability: they seemed relatable to them, such as reducing the need for energy guzzling air conditioners; replacing old fridges that contain chloro-fluoro carbons with efficient and CFC free ones; building appropriate greenery everywhere, and not merely trees; ensuring segregation of waste at source is practised in every home; arguing for a ban on consumer plastics; etc.
With this consciousness, the group was united to artistically depict their idea of a reimagined Planet Earth – Planet B. The results were not only insightful but also absolutely amazing!
The conclusion drawn was that since there can never be a Planet B, it is critical to ensure functional ecosystems are protected and the only way to ensure that is to reimagine prevailing forms of development and work towards sustainability with the thought of future generations in mind. A student enthusiastically exclaimed, ‘Let’s give them (animals) their home back!’
Building a Secure Tomorrow with Hopes from Today
The Art Room in Cabral Yard in the Fort Kochi area, a sylvan space amidst art and culture which is constantly created, dismantled, recreated and revived, was the perfect setting for a reflective final session with the wide public on “Building a Secure Tomorrow with Hopes from Today”, and held on a relaxed 5th March, which was a Sunday. The broad focus was on understanding struggles in securing environmental justice and building solidarity essential to tackle emerging challenges due to climate change.
Blaise Joseph set the stage by drawing attention to the rarity of free spaces available today to engage with such matters of crucial importance to life and living sustainably. Anchored by Suprabha Seshan, the interactions were sustained with thoughtful and high energy interventions of participants, and ran for over three hours. Describing her efforts conserving native flora and fauna in Wayanad, Kerala, Suprabha emphasised the importance of reconnecting with everyone’s immediate environment: land, water, wildlife and more.
As a rainforest conservationist, what drew her to ESG, Suprabha said, was the possibility to grow a community and build a sense of belonging through stories and collective strategies of resistance. She reflected on how environmental consciousness compels us to feel responsible for the prevailing environmental chaos, which in reality has more to do with inherent systemic structural incoherence and cannot be remedied by individual action alone. While encouraging people to come together as a community to find solutions to such disempowering and flawed structures of power that cause nature’s destruction, she articulated how expanding conversations beyond mere artificial spaces into active spaces of lived realities is critical to dismantling such structures.
Thereafter, Bhargavi Rao and Leo Saldanha shared narratives of various engagements of ESG in what seemingly were impossible environmental and social disasters, but with persistence, coordinated efforts and solidarity action with impacted communities were transformed into positive accounts of protecting nature, natural resources and defending human rights. Bhargavi shared how ESG worked with multiple communities in protecting Handigondi, a large monolithic rock located between Bangalore and Mysore, from benign destroyed Sanghamitra Foundation which intended to carve a 1000 feet tall Buddha statue as compensation for destruction by Taliban of Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan. Drawing hundreds into the resistance despite regulatory authorities having already permitted the project, seemed an hopeless cause. But the testimony to peoples’ persistence is in the fact that the project was not only abandoned, but the region was also protected as a Sloth Bear Sanctuary, and it is here that the critically endangered Long Billed Vulture populations bounced back, thanks to the habitat being saved without disturbance.
Similarly, ESG is involved in drawing attention to the largely unnoticed consequences of promoting renewable energy, particularly on local environment and communities, Bhargavi said, and invited the gathering to engage in deconstruction of ‘clean energy’. Critical appraisal of such projects is essential, she argued, describing how fertile, but drought affected, landscapes are now plastered with solar panels spanning over 13,000 acres as is the case with the world’s 3rd largest solar power plant located in Pavagada, Karnataka. She remarked, “Just like how you go out to the end of Fort Kochi and see a sea of water, we see a sea of glass in Pavagada”. The effects of such mega solar parks on local agro-pastoral communities is devastating as they lost all their cultivable lands, as the energy generated was supplied to cities hundreds of kms away. When there is every possibility of transitioning to distributed and localised solar energy generation, such as rooftop solar parks, the push for utility scale solar parks is essentially to support mega developers and their profits, with no major benefit for people and the earth, she said..
The issues ESG has worked on in the past were used to address a variety of questions that came up in local contexts. One participant reflected on the dire situation that people find themselves in, where they are made to give up land which has a history of 100s of years to make way for development projects, and that based on fraudulent claims of public benefits and plagiarised EIA reports. She emphasised that nowadays this trauma has become normalised to such an extent that people are unaware of its effects. Another participant spoke about the issues in Kerala such as ongoing road development in the coastal area which did not abide by the Coastal Zone Regulations, yet was given a go ahead without actually considering the needs of the affected communities. Their worries were why there was not sufficient collective urges and demands for a change at the national governance level that such concerns are addressed bottom up, and needless destructive developments do not see the light of day.
Leo Saldanha built on these concerns and invited the group to critically examine prevailing notions of development which are quite often imposed than arrived at through deeply democratic decision making. The lack of any discussion on identifying who the so-called development is intended for and whether such development is actually needed was addressed. In this context, he shared the story of ESG’s efforts in questioning the expansion of Mangalore Airport, which was dismissed by the Government and every Court. And the risks foretold turned out true in every detail almost, when an Air India plane crashed in May 2010, ten years after ESG’s PIL had warned of the possibility, killing 158 and critically injuring 6 more. While there are environmentally sensible ways of living, we choose the most destructive pathways. He drew focus to the way in which fishers live on and off the Loktak Lake in Manipur, but which the Government was keen on disrupting such ways and installing in their place a massive tourism destination which would irreversibly destroy the lake itself. He called on fishers of coastal Kerala to work with fishers in Manipur to contest such paradigms of destructive development.
“Conversations like these should take place in parliamentary halls, corporate houses and as well as in everyday life” stressed Saldanha. Yet, there is hardly any focus on such critical issues. This is possibly why we have a situation where 85% of India’s financial wealth lies in the hands of the top 1% of the population, which is akin to the times when we were subjugated by the East India Company, he emphasised. He wondered why people often justify such crassness and unintelligence in gathering power and wealth as essential development, when we have every possibility of living with high thinking and minimal impact, and within environmental limits. He encouraged the audience to interrogate existing paradigms of consumerist culture for what it is – “a glorified trash culture”. This creates an amnesia which prevents us from engaging with the world as it is, he shared. He also brought to the attention of the gathering how this is ultimately based on rapacious extraction of bioresources, and shared how ESG is engaged in various efforts to prevent biopiracy.
Suprabha brought the session to a close with hope – as a community we should be inspired to work feeling solidarity amongst us, through which transformative possibilities are possible. She called for “Enlifenment” with Enlightenment.
This report was prepared by Amrita M. Menon, Nidhi Hanji and Sachin P. S. of ESG and Akshita Raghaw who interned with the organisation.
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