The websites of three environmental advocacy groups in India, which were opposing the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 and running an online campaign against the notification, have been blocked, the groups said through separate statements issued on July 13.
As per a HuffPost India report, the website of Let India Breathe was blocked on June 29, just a few 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.
The other two websites that have been blocked are Fridays for Future, the India chapter of the international environmental campaign led by Great Thunberg, and There is No Earth B, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). As per reports, the websites have been blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India (NiXI), a public sector company which even though describes itself as a neutral organisation, is chaired by the Centre’s Secretary of Information Technology.
LetIndiaBreathe.in said in a public statement uploaded on social media, “Today, the domain LetIndiaBreathe.in remains inaccessible for reasons not disclosed to us. We have not been informed why this was done, nor have we been given a chance to present our defence.” The statement further added, “This is very worrying and impacts the hopes and aspirations of many young environmentalists who conduct digital activism to grow awareness as a part of their fundamental rights.”
The blocked websites have been raising questions about the draft EIA, which seeks to introduce changes to the EIA law 2006. As per the draft EIA, it was proposed that post-facto project clearance be given to industrial prokets. This will allow industries to be set up projects before they get an environmental clearance. Activists worry this could legitimise projects that already violated environmental conditions.
The draft EIA 2020 was proposed and made available in the public domain by the Environment Ministry in March this year. The ministry had invited suggestions and feedback for the same within a period of 60 days. Following this, the now blocked websites had launched online campaigns opposing the draft as well as the short period given for feedback, especially while the country is in the grip of a global pandemic.
Documents accessed by Right to Information Act applicants had shown that Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar overruled senior ministry official’s recommendations to extend the time frame for public feedback on the draft Environment Impact Assessment notification.
Even though the date for sending in objections and suggestions was extended first to June 30 and then to August 10 by the Delhi High Court, the websites remain blocked.
Meanwhile, the blocking of these websites by the public sector NiXI, which falls under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, has led to the fear of an undeclared ‘internet censorship’ and ‘digital lockdown’ among the environmental collectives, according to the HuffPost report. These groups believe that this is part of an attempt 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, the report added.
It is also to be noted that so far no reasons have been provided as to why these websites have been blocked. The HuffPost report, however, said that “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”.
However, he refused to disclose which ministry gave the block order and when.
Responding to the block, the IFF said in a statement, “On June 29, 2020 it was noticed that the website “LetIndiaBreathe.in” was inexplicably inaccessible. IFF conducted extensive technical tests and discovered that the problem was not at the end of the users.”
The statement added, “As per all information provided by the domain registrar this was due to a domain hold placed by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI). It is important to consider that till date NIXI has not informed the operators of LetIndiaBreathe on the reasons for this domain hold, or provided them an opportunity for a hearing. Based on this we have sent a notice to NIXI on July 10, 2020.”
The notice said, “We submit that 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. 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 facia illegal especially given that contact details and email addresses for the website are prominently displayed on the homepage.” IFF also threatened legal action if the website is not immediately restored.
IFF has also filed RTIs on the censorship of environmental activism websites. In context of the website of LetIndiaBreathe.in being blocked, RTIs have been filed on July 15, 2020 and July 16, 2020 with the Ministry of Forests and Environment, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Electronics and IT, National Information Exchange of India (NIXI), and the Cyber Crime Cell of the Delhi Police. For FridaysForFuture.in and ThereIsNoEarthB.com, RTIs have been filed on July 15, 2020 and July 16, 2020 with the Ministry of Forests and Environment, Department of Telecom, Ministry of Electronics and IT, and the Cyber Crime Cell of the Delhi Police. All the RTIs can be accessed here.