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Concerned about the disappearing bird species in Delhi this summer, Aman Sharma wanted not just a solution but also a commitment. Sharma, a high school student and birdwatcher, believes declining bird populations are connected to changing weather patterns. “I could see that climate change was disrupting birds’ migration patterns and that’s what really told me I should do something. And climate change is connected to pollution," says the 16-year-old.

Sharma knows that numbers matter, whether it’s birds or revolutions. With the support of like-minded friends, he launched a signature campaign, “Children demand declaration of a national climate emergency and tackling of climate change", in June on the online petition platform Change.org.

Photo courtesy: Aman Sharma
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Photo courtesy: Aman Sharma

Sharma was looking for an umbrella solution, one that pushed for better anti-pollution, anti-coal and renewable energy laws. He hoped for a thousand supporters. As of today, the campaign stands at more than 327,000 signatures. The five-point agenda that Sharma designed for the campaign demands that Prakash Javadekar, Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, declare a national climate emergency and get India to meet its commitment under the Paris Agreement, which aims at limiting Earth’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

When Sharma launched his petition, there were those who asked him to plant five trees instead. “What’s the point of doing that when these trees are cut because people are given the power to squander our resources? We need a better climate change deal," he says. At a time when digital media has propelled collective action for climate change, it’s no longer environmental organizations alone that are leading activism but individuals as well, some of them as young as Sharma. Signature campaigns have a prominent role to play in online activism—the number of online petitions launched in the name of climate activist Greta Thunberg is one such instance—but how exactly do they work?

Nida Hasan, country director at Change.org, says online petitions are redefining the world of campaigning. “Online campaigning has the power to show the constituency behind an issue in a way that traditional protests and petitions don’t usually allow. Seeing the true amount of support behind an issue impacts the decision-making of CEOs, elected officials, and others in power." Change.org has over 20 million users in India and helps petitioners form their campaigns in just four steps. The maximum number of petitions is for human rights, while the number of environment-related petitions is roughly as many as those for other causes like education and politics.

“With the effects of climate change now being visible as health hazards and affecting our daily lives, and with increased international attention on climate change, we have seen an increase in petitions on environmental issues, ranging from local issues like stopping the cutting of trees in a particular area to national-level issues like asking for better policies to address air pollution or declaring a climate emergency," says Hasan.

Often, online petitioners like Sharma are first-time activists. Children’s author Mamta Mangaldas, 52, helped launch a petition on behalf of citizen group Save Our Coast against the Coastal Road in Mumbai in February. Mangaldas, a resident of Breach Candy, became interested when she heard of impending changes to her seaside locality. Then she learnt how the 29km road, a project of the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), would extensively damage to marine environment. “I am good with tech and writing and thought I should volunteer for the movement," she says. “We knew that for our campaign to be effective, it was not just about legal matters but also communications. People deserve to be told how their environment would be changed by the coastal road." An online petition has little legal standing but is a great tool for disseminating information. The campaigners were vindicated when, in July, the Bombay high court set aside the clearances granted to the city’s civic body for the construction of the road, noting that there was “serious lacuna" in the decision-making process and lack of an appropriate environmental study.

When it comes to signature campaigns, environmental organization Greenpeace was undoubtedly a forerunner, migrating from manual signature campaigns to digital ones. At Greenpeace India, air pollution, sustainable agriculture and decentralized renewable energy have been the major campaigns in the last couple of years. Public engagement campaigner Ali Abbas at Greenpeace India believes online petitions and on-ground campaigns complement each other. “Online petitions help volunteers engage the public on a specific issue, which in turn spreads a petition among the masses," Abbas says.

Over the last couple of years, petitions on Change.org have pushed for a greener Mumbai Marathon, a reduction in plastic use in goods delivery by Amazon and Flipkart, and reduction in the size of water glasses in restaurants. All these petitions “won". For instance, the Mumbai Marathon organizers set a target of reducing the use of plastic bottles by more than 60,000.

But the success of an online petition can be hard to define. Avijit Michael, executive director of campaigning organization Jhatkaa, says: “A petition is an initial tool to mobilize public opinion around an issue. A petition will have a demand of a decision-maker. Once a petition reaches a significant number of signatures, we engage with the decision-maker to implement the demand. If the decision-maker is not responsive, we may use a number of other tactics to showcase citizens’ concerns, including pushing ads, running surveys, RTI (right to information) requests and legal cases," he says.

This is the case with the Save Aarey movement, which has been fighting to protect the green cover of Aarey Colony in Mumbai from the state government’s Metro project. Yash Marwah, a copywriter who is part of the citizen-led Aarey Conservation Group, says they launched their petition for 1,000 signatures on Change.org nearly two years ago. Jhatkaa, too, launched its campaign to save Aarey two years ago.

Despite the numbers—over 296,000 signatures on Jhatkaa and over 614,000 on Change.org—trees in Aarey were cut on October 4-6.

The day the tree-felling began in Aarey, petitions were re-shared across WhatsApp and social media, even as the State government enforced the law against the protesters on site.

The online petition on Change.org is managed by a group of 20 volunteers, young and old: Essentially, people who wouldn’t have the time or ability to be on-ground, but still wish to contribute to the movement, says Marwah. “A success means that the decision-makers (in this case chief minister Devendra Fadnavis) have taken note. However, their apathy does not mean that we have lost. I believe that if we motivate one person today, then two will be motivated tomorrow."

CRAFT A GOOD PETITION

  • Environmental activist Yash Marwah says it is important to update your petition page even as you wait for the end goal to be achieved. Supporters of your petition should be informed about interim milestones. Most signature campaign platforms allow supporters to view the updates, but Marwah recommends mailing and WhatsApping directly as well.
  • Avijit Michael of Jhatkaa notes that most citizens do not know who the appropriate decision-maker is. Often people direct a petition towards the chief minister or prime minister. Most often, they are not the right people to reach out to. “A good stakeholder analysis is necessary to ensure you are selecting the right decision-maker," he says.
  • Online petitioners stress the importance of how the campaign is worded. An online petition is less about legalities and more about communication. The title and the objectives need to evoke an emotional response. “The petitions that win on Change.org are most often those that have a compelling personal narrative, select the right decision-maker and have a clear ask," says Nida Hasan of Change.org.


Benita Fernando is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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