On Tuesday, Nickly Lotlai woke up at his usual time and left his house in Venghlui at around 10 am for Vanapa Hall. It was a special day for Lotlai, a doctoral research student at the Mass Communication Department of Mizoram University, because for the first time in 28 years of his life, he was going to participate in a rally.
Tuesday was a special day not just for Lotlai but for over 2,000 thousand youth of Mizoram who participated in a first ever youth-led environmental rally jointly spearheaded by the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram and Aizawl City College Students Union in Aizawl.
The rally had the youth from all walks of life, including college students, school students and other concerned youth and citizens marching together from Vanapa Hall to Sikulpuikawn. Placards were held up amidst singing and dancing, a buzz of excitement ringing through the crowd as the environmentally conscious youth of Mizoram had a platform to express their concerns for the first time.
“What I first noticed is, most of the participants are youth, Gen-Z, so to speak. Environmental awareness and revolution has for sure found its place in the hearts of the youth in Mizoram. Having seen the rate of forest destruction by the on-going highway construction by the NHIDCL (National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation)and the lack of necessary action by the state government is what gave birth to this rally and also the reason for my participation. We need to act now, and act fast for future generations,” Lotlai told EastMojo.
The state of Mizoram is often in the spotlight for being a horn-free city and for its close-knit societal system. However, of late, the small hill state has taken the limelight for environmental damages caused as a result of alleged road construction activities by NHIDCL. The incidents were brought to light when an activist named Vanramchhuangi, popularly known as Ruatfela Nu, held a silent protest in front of the Environmental, Forest and Climate Change office in Aizawl in the last week of May. Ruatfela Nu in a memorandum alleged that the NHIDCL had completely disregarded and violated the Environment Management Plan (EMP) within the framework of the EIA. She said they had callously shoved down soil spoils causing huge damage to the biodiversity. She pointed out that the rivers and its tributaries were the worst affected as they were covered by muck resulting in the damage of 99.9% of seasonal and perennial rivers.
NHIDCL is currently carrying out widening works in four national highways- NH -09 (Seling – Zokhawthar), NH-102B (Keifang -Manipur), NH-302 (Lunglei – Tlabung) and NH-54 (Aizawl – Tuipang).
It was concern for the environmental damages allegedly caused by NHIDCL that led the youth to decide that it was time to take action and form a movement called the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram. While there are other environmental bodies in Mizoram, YEJM is the first association of its kind in the state, founded and driven solely by youth who are conscious about the environment.
“Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram is a movement not an organization. We are a bunch of enthusiastic youth of Mizoram who came together due to the concern and growing apprehension towards our environmental destruction. Our intentions and objectives will be saving the ecology of the environment of Mizoram. We will go as far as what needs to be done, whatever we can do, in every sphere of environmental destruction within Mizoram,” said Lalrinfela Khiangte, one of the founders of the movement.
It was a book 23-year-old Khiangte read 11 years back that triggered his love for the environment. “In the year 2011, Synod Center had a book sale. There I found a book about wildlife conservation where a man had noted down environmental initiatives that had been taken in Mizoram. After reading that, I started becoming aware of the environment,” he told EastMojo.
“This movement started with Vanramchhuangi. She and her ally were looking into the three years work of NHIDCL in Mizoram. They started identifying what they (NHIDCL) have done and what they have failed to do. Recently, she started the protest regarding the damage done by the NHIDCL so when we heard about that, me and some of my friends wanted to join the protest. We called Vanramchhuangi to enquire how we can help her, how we can support her and if she needs any assistance. We started this movement right from that moment,” he said. Khiangte met Michael Lalramdingliana, a co-founder of the movement in UPSC civil service coaching classes that they were attending together.
They found that they had a shared zeal for the environment. Michael, who has a forestry background with a Bsc in Forestry, had been doing a close study of the works of NHIDCL for a long time.
“My friend Michael has a Forestry background and he was very concerned about the NHIDCL projects from the start. He contacted Dr. Lallianpuii (a wildlife scientist) and enquired about the damage done to the forest by NHIDCL. She told him they had been researching the matter and were taking action on the same. So the next night they planned for a Zoom meeting. Michael suggested that some of his environmentally concerned friends should join the meeting. After our meeting, we decided to start a Whatsapp group for the youth who want to join the movement. We shared the group for anyone to join. At first in the group, there were around 10 of us, now there are over 200 of us. The majority of us are students,” said Khiangte.
On what motivated them to start the movement, Michael told EastMojo, “We decided that it was time to take action. If these people keep destroying the environment thinking that they are on the right path with no one speaking up against them, there will be no hope for our environment.”
As a result of the protests by YEJM and Vanramchhuangi, on May 25, the state environment, the forest and climate change department served a show-cause notice to the NHIDCL. Five divisional forest officers (DFOs) were also asked to conduct verification wherever national highways are being widened or expanded across the state.
While YEJM put up various points on the cause of the rally, Khiangte said their most important point is that the youth are in support of development but they are against development at the cost of the environment. “We want to spread awareness not just among the youth but among our parents and the public.”
He commented on YEJM’s future initiatives saying, “As a movement we will lookinto other spheres of environmental damage done to Mizoram and we will try to bring environmental justice with all aspects of environmental degradation that has been done. We got high moral support from every district that we have been to, especially from the youth since we are a youth movement. The movement is slowly gaining ground.”
Lallianpuii Kawlni, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India who has strongly supported YEJM from its initiation stages commented on the need for concerted efforts to save the environment saying, “When it comes to conservation, efforts can never be enough, it has to go on and continue. Not only that, only one direction approach does not suffice, we have to tackle all problems from all directions. The youth in Mizoram are slowly gaining interest and activism for the environment. One such example is the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram who has played a very large role in the recent shift in environment activism in Mizoram.”
The rally saw participants of all ages, and among them was K Lalmuansanga, the President of Association for Environmental Preservation (ASEP). Lalmuansanga had founded ASEP with a group of friends in 2003 at the young age of twenty-six. “It was a lonely road. There were tears along the way. We fought hard for the environment with little support. But being part of this rally today and seeing the youth shout out with all their heart for the environment almost brought me to tears. We have been to all corners of Mizoram for environmental causes, but I have never witnessed such a movement. This gives me so much hope and I hope that our little efforts in the past would have contributed in some way to today’s movement.”
“The rally might have consisted of youth who are environmentally conscious and some who are still new to the concept, however, this event will always have a mark in their lives. They will always remember that they had participated in a rally for the environment and this will impact their future decisions in one way or the other,” he said.
According to the Indian State of Forest Report, 2021, Mizoram lost 185.21 square kilometers of its forest cover in 2019-2020. In 2021, Mizoram was shown to have the highest desertification rate in the country as per the Indian Space Research Organization. A total of 0.18 million hectares (mha) underwent degradation/desertification in a fifteen year study period.
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