The new face of environment activism

Rajeev Chaba, president and managing director, MG Motor India, walked in before guests with child actor Prachi Thakur as his company unveiled the ZS, an all-electric SUV, earlier this month. After being ushered into the car, Thakur waved at the audience at New Delhi’s Pullman Hotel from the car’s sunroof. During the show, the hall’s dome projected moving caricatures conveying the message that conventional vehicles cause pollution and going electric was the only way forward.

It was not without reason that the Chinese company roped in Thakur to unveil its high-end EV, whose battery can be reused for power generation. Whether such high end models will make much of a difference to air pollution remains a subject of debate but children and young adults have been at the forefront of movements across the globe demanding critical action on environment from governments and decision makers. These actions could be in the public space or within the confines of the family.

While the COP25 summit in Madrid concluded without drawing much attention in India and failed to get nations to speed up targets set under the Paris agreement, it is the likes of Thakur and those slightly older who would define climate change movements going forward. Daily Intelligencer, a website of the New York magazine group, in a December 16 write-up called António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, a “Greta Thunberg’s alarmist equal” for saying at Madrid that “the point of no return is no longer on the horizon… it is in sight and hurtling towards us”.

Though Intelligencer’s comment had more to do with the failure of COP25, it brings out the dichotomy of the times — that a 16-year-old girl is able to carry the message more forcefully while member countries failed to put an action plan in place. In September 2019, she addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York to warn about the world her generation would end up inheriting if nations failed to act now. 

Earlier in 2019, Thunberg spearheaded the School Strike for Climate (Skolstrejk för klimatet in Swedish), also called Fridays for Future (FFF). School students did not attend classes and instead took part in demonstrations to demand action to prevent further global warming and climate change. On March 15, more than one million were reported to have kept out of schools. This, however, went unnoticed in India except for some pockets in the major cities where students egged on by their schools held events to drive home the message of environment-friendly behaviour among urban citizens.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did try to wage a war on plastics but the government’s efforts at environment preservation have been peripheral, and is often confused with Swachh Bharat, the flagship programme for clean toilets and sanitised living.

There is another face of environmental activism that has emerged with the Extinction Rebellion. This movement has an India chapter as well. Though run by professionals and people much older than Thunberg, it practises civil disobedience and forces closure of what it perceives as environmentally harmful. Set up by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook and other activists in the United Kingdom in May 2018, the Extinction Rebellion is also called XR. Many do not support the antics of XR sympathisers because they coerce people rather than convince them to shun environmentally harmful activities. Nonetheless, it is true that the lack of global leadership among policy makers and influencers has been the main reason behind the emergence of sub-national forces this year.

Within India, getting those beyond a defined group to use less water or recycle waste or do less damage to environment in whatever small way they can is largely left to non-government agencies. This is despite the fact that damages caused due to climate change are more pronounced in smaller cities and villages simply because the infrastructure in both personal and public spaces is less disaster resilient. It is, therefore, important that the benefits of being environment friendly, having a smaller carbon footprint and being less of a burden on natural resources is built into public psyche. The first step is to shun complacency. For policy makers sitting in the national and state capitals, COP25’s failure should be no relief but a push for developing India’s own national environment framework with actionable triggers and urgent targets.

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