NEW DELHI —The website of LetIndiabreathe.in was blocked weeks after a sample letter criticising the new draft of India’s main law for environment clearance, posted on this site, was emailed over a thousand times to the union environment ministry, according to documents accessed by HuffPost India.
LetindiaBreathe is a collective campaigning on environmental issues. The website was blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India (NiXi), a public sector company controlled by the Narendra Modi-led government.
Two more websites involved in similar campaigns have been blocked as well. NiXI further blocked access to FridaysforFuture.in—the India chapter of the international movement led by climate change activist Greta Thunberg—and ThereisnoEarthB.com, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation.
The decision to block these sites has prompted fears among environmental collectives of an undeclared ‘internet censorship’ and ‘digital lockdown’, imposed by the Indian government, to prevent Indian citizens from accessing information that is critical of the Modi regime’s attempts to drastically alter India’s environmental laws and other green policies. Previously, HuffPost India has reported how environment minister Prakash Javadekar tried to give a very narrow window of time for public feedback on the proposed law even as a strict coronavirus lockdown was in place nationally.
NiXi’s decision to block access to the websites—and thereby curb the spread of information among citizens on the potentially adverse impacts of the new proposed law for environment clearances—was implemented a day before the Delhi High Court overruled Javadekar and extended the time period for public feedback on the law till 11 August 2020. NiXI is the official entity for routing domestic internet traffic within India and while it describes itself as a non-profit company “managed and operated on a neutral basis”, it is administratively under the centre’s ministry of electronics and information technology.
The events described below, coupled with the documents accessed by HuffPost India and interviews with a cross section of stakeholders, suggest that fears of an ‘internet censorship’ on government’s critics such as the environmental collectives campaigning against official policies remain unaddressed.
The events described below, coupled with the documents accessed by HuffPost India and interviews with a cross section of stakeholders, suggest that fears of an ‘internet censorship’ on government’s critics such as the environmental collectives campaigning against official policies remain unaddressed. Continued blocking of these websites will ensure that a vast section of Indians accessing information online may remain in dark about how the government’s changes to India’s environmental laws could affect their health and safety.
As of date, citizens have less than a month to register their objections and suggestions about the new draft law for environmental clearance—officially called the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 —which has become controversial because, in its current form, it proposes to grant environmental clearance to a plethora of projects without rigorous scrutiny, and to allow violators to get their projects regularised by simply paying a penalty. (HuffPost India has published detailed reports on the provisions of EIA 2020 here and here).
The Narendra Modi government has provided no reasons for why the LetIndiaBreathe.in website has been blocked.
Environment ministry secretary RP Gupta did not respond to a HuffPost India email and messages asking if there was any connection between the website being blocked, and the online campaign against EIA 2020 by the three websites.
An official from the union government controlled company NIXI said it had blocked LetIndiaBreathe.in on the direction of a law enforcement agency. The official, who sought anonymity as he isn’t authorised to speak to the press, said he did not know if FridaysforFuture.in and ThereisnoEarthB.com had been blocked as well.
Let India Breathe
Draft EIA notification 2020 was published online in early March and in the Gazette of India on April 11 — in the midst of India’s punitive coronavirus lockdown — and gave citizens till May 22 to respond with suggestions and objections to the draft law.
LetIndiaBreathe.in put up a sample letter on its website, and urged citizens to email a version of this letter from their personal email addresses to the official email address of the Union Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change. The letter criticised the decision to conduct public consultation during the coronavirus lockdown and asked that draft EIA 2020 be withdrawn.
Ten days later, versions of the LetIndiaBreathe letter were received at least 1144 times by the environment ministry, the documents accessed by HuffPost India show.
The LetIndiaBreathe letter was quoted in full and verbatim by ministry official Sharath Kumar Pallerla, in an internal note dated April 23, to alert officials above him of the nature of the feedback the ministry was receiving. But he did not name the collective despite quoting contents of the letter verbatim.
The main contention of the LetIndiaBreathe letter is illustrated in this paragraph of the email, also quoted in the internal ministry documents, “Now you are proposing to make regressive changes to the EIA notification at a time when we simply cannot respond to your call for public comments. Is this democratic? Is this fair? Is this even humane to make us more anxious about our environmental futures when we are struggling to cope with this coronavirus, this lockdown and the suffering of millions of our people?” It concluded by demanding that the draft of the notification be withdrawn till the time normal life remains disrupted by the pandemic.
File notings show the environment ministry’s Joint Secretary Geeta Menon suggested that the time for public consultation on the draft law ought to be extended.
“In response to the Draft EIA Notification put up for public consultation, a large number of responses requesting for the notification to be withdrawn/kept on hold/extend the timeframe for submission of feedback etc have been received,” Menon wrote. “Accordingly, as directed, a draft communicating extension of time for feedback by a further period of 60 days from the date of publication in the Gazette i:e 11th April 2020 till 10th August 2020 is placed alongside for approval”.
She also noted that other comments conveying feedback on various points were being compiled separately for the consideration of the expert committee which worked on the draft notification and which will be asked to draft the final notification.
As HuffPost India reported previously, environment minister Prakash Javadekar overruled Menon and abruptly set 30 June 2020 as the final date for public consultation without giving reasons for his decision.
The LetIndiaBreathe.in website was blocked on June 29, a day before the final date for public consultation — according to a statement by the Internet Freedom Foundation, a public advocacy group representing LetIndiaBreathe.
On June 30, the Delhi High Court overruled Javadekar and extended the date for public consultation to August 10. But the LetIndiaBreathe website remains blocked.
LetIndiaBreathe Campaign On Govt’s Radar
Yash Marwah, an active member of the LetIndiaBreathe collective, told HuffPost India that at least 1.2 lakh emails demanding the withdrawal of the draft notification were sent to the environment ministry’s official email address till June 29, the date till when their website was functional. He believes the actual number may be in the range of 2 lakh letters.
Senior officials handling the issue within the ministry and environment minister Javadekar were tagged on these emails as well, Marwah said.
“People are very anxious about this dilution and we all want a stronger law in this place, especially in times of covid pandemic. We’re not sure though exactly what caused the website to stop working, we have been provided no reason for it,” he said.
An official at NiXI with knowledge about the blocking of the website told HuffPost India that LetIndiaBreathe was not told why their website was blocked. When asked if this blocking was linked to the ongoing campaign of the website, this official said his company does not block websites based on their content. It was only following a directive from a law enforcement agency. The identity of this agency could not be confirmed.
When told about his campaign email being considered seriously by the ministry internally during the discussion about extending deadline, Marwah pointed out that, “while the secretaries and minister are discussing deadline extension, people have solely asked for a withdrawal because of how problematic the draft is and the project affected communities have been kept completely out of the loop. So the call for withdrawal is still on.”
On July 13, the IFF said they had sent a legal notice to the NIXI for blocking letindiabreathe.in.
“Such actions are violative of the existing ICANN and .IN registry guidelines as well as the fundamental rights of the collective who operate and the public participants who exercise their fundamental rights,” the IFF said in their notice, which is available on their website. “It is specifically asserted that no specific notice, hearing or opportunity for defence has been provided till date. There is no information of any legal order. Such actions smack of arbitrariness, secrecy and are prima facie illegal especially given that contact details and email addresses for the website are prominently displayed on the homepage.”
The NIXI official quoted above said a response has not yet been drafted to the legal notice. It will be done after consultation with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under whose jurisdiction NIXI falls.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.