UAPA Invoked Against Site that Promoted Dialogue on Draft EIA With Javadekar, Later Withdrawn
File photo: Union Minister Prakash Javadekar addresses the cabinet briefing on Monday. (Image: Twitter/ANI)
The cyber crime unit of the Delhi Police had invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against persons controlling the domain of environment collective website Fridays for Future to block the website, earlier this month, based on a complaint filed by Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar. In a notice sent to the website domain host – Endurance Domains Technology LLP – the Delhi Police had alleged that fridaysforfuture.in depicted objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of India.
However, the Delhi Police clarified on Thursday that the initial notice dated July 8, which was being circulated on the social media, has been withdrawn.
"It is clarified that the notice in question was sent over email inadvertently with unrelated sections of law. Immediately upon getting the knowledge that the appropriate section has not been applied during its electronic transmission, the Notice was withdrawn on July 12, 2020, because the relevant sections of law needed modification. Accordingly, modified Notice under appropriate section of law (Section 66, IT Act) was sent to the concerned entities," DCP Aynesh Roy said.
He further said that even the correct notice under IT Act was withdrawn on July 16 as the issue has been resolved.
Cabinet Minister Javadekar had filed a complaint after he received multiple emails on his email address with a similar subject name, ‘EIA 2020’, according to the notice of Delhi Police. “After the investigation mainly below mentioned website is sending emails to him. Their unlawful activities on this website may disturb peace, sovereignty of India. The publication and transmission of such objectionable contents is a cognizable and punishable criminal offence under Section 18 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,” the Delhi Police notice read.
The emails Delhi Police mentioned in its notice are actually linked to an online environmental campaign run by Fridays for Future (FFF), an informal collective of volunteers who trace their roots to the international climate change movement, largely run by youth and teenagers, including Greta Thunberg. FFF had launched an online campaign in June pertaining to the consultations on draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020. The campaign intended to spread awareness on the issue and also provided a template for concerned citizens to send an email letter to Javadekar on the ‘dilutions in the EIA norms’.
For this, the campaign provided publicly available email address of the environment minister and the ministry’s email address created specifically for sending public comments on the draft EIA notification.
The draft EIA notification, 2020 seeks to overhaul the existing 2006 EIA notification. The EIA notification is one of bedrocks of environmental regulation in the country that drives scrutiny of infrastructure and developmental projects as part of the process of project clearances. The 2020 draft notification has been criticized heavily across the country for allowing only 60 days for public comments and the criticism was echoed even by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
Among the key criticisms against the draft notification include proposed reduction in period for public consultation of industrial projects, institutionalizing post-facto clearances for cases involving violations of green laws, weakening of compliance mechanisms and provision of relaxations for project expansions.
Javadekar’s complaint and the subsequent action against the website under UAPA came to light after Fridays for Future (FFF) and Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) made public details of the case and FFF’s response to the Delhi Police notice, calling it factually inaccurate, outrageous and the allegations as baseless.
Responding to a query on the issue of the minister’s complaint, a spokesperson of the union environment ministry said, “Draft EIA notification, 2020, is in public domain. Any suggestions and public comments can be sent at the official mail provided for the purpose i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org till August 10, 2020, as mentioned in the notification. How is spamming the Hon’ble Minister’s personal mail with a lakh mails justified?” (sic). The minister though did not respond to specific queries mailed to him.
Javadekar’s complaint also drew criticism from former environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
C’mon @PrakashJavdekar I too received multiple emails when I was Minister and took them in my stride. I thought you had a slim streak of liberalism, but quite clearly I was wrong. You are EXACTLY like those TWO! https://t.co/SHqZtMz16a— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) July 23, 2020
FFF is not the only website that has faced censorship from the government. Last month, two other websites – LetIndiaBreathe.in and ThereIsNoEarthB.com – were also blocked. According to IFF, the National Internet Exchange of India (NIX), had put a domain hold on the website. IFF said that NIXI had not informed the operators of LetIndiaBreathe.in about the reasons for the domain hold and neither were given a chance for a hearing. IFF is providing legal assistance to these websites and had sent a notice to NIXI on the issue on July 10.
As per its website, NIXI is a not for profit Organization under section 8 of the Companies Act 2013, and was registered on 19th June, 2003. It was was set up for peering of Internet Service Providers among themselves for the purpose of routing the domestic traffic within the country, instead of taking it all the way to US/Abroad, thereby resulting in better quality of service (reduced latency) and reduced bandwidth charges for ISPs by saving on International Bandwidth.
What was the campaign run by FFF and what has it said in its response to Delhi Police?
With legal assistance from IFF, Fridays for Future has sent a detailed response to Delhi Police demanding that they rescind their orders to block the website and rebutting the allegations mentioned in their notice.
FFF clarified that the website was merely providing a template to make to facilitate public participation and consultation on the issue of the draft EIA notification 2020 and that it did not send any emails received by the minister. A part of this template read as follows, “In March 2020, during the COVID pandemic and under your leadership, the MOEFCC had released the Draft EIA 2020 Notification, and I am writing to you today to unequivocally request that this draft be withdrawn on account of how destructive it can prove to be for the ecology and the people of our great nation. Though the notification states that it seeks to make the EIA process ‘more transparent and expedient’. But several renowned organisations, experts and the public have raised serious questions and concerns about the consequences, if such an amendment came into force.”
The campaign sought withdrawal of the draft EIA norms for its ‘apparent dilution’ of environmental safeguards.
FFF also sought to clarify that it had no control over who was sending emails to the minister. “It is apparent that the FFF Website did not send any emails as is wrongly alleged in the Notice, nor did it retain any degree of control over the actual act of sending emails itself. The emails in question have been sent by persons who are concerned about the apparent dilution to the EIA norms and the incalculable harm that such a move might result in to India’s environment,” FFF’s respond to the Delhi Police notice read.
Questioning the allegations of Delhi Police with regards to the objectionable content, FFF said that a perusal of the content would confirm that it was exemplary in its decency and was wholly moderate in its tone and tenor. It did not level threats, raised no outrageous demands, but objectively raised a note of concern regarding India’s environment and climate justice. “We assert that said conduct does not meet the legal standards justifying blocking the website via exercise of powers under Section 79 of the IT Act,” the representatives of the website said.
“It is very shocking how they are going out of the way for something that is anti-people from the beginning. The draft EIA notification has not even been published in any of the 22 languages mentioned in the 8th schedule of the constitution. We are within our rights to carry out this campaign,” said M Yuvan, a Chennai-based volunteer of Fridays of Future and a naturalist.