India's youth climate activists

We headed back to India from Bangladesh, where we met family and friends, played tourist in South India, enjoyed the Bangalore Queer Film Fest, and talked to activists in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. What a difference! When it comes to climate issues, India can sometimes feel more like the U.S. than it does neighboring Bangladesh. India's a nation of a billion people where 3rd world poverty coexists with 1st world affluenza--contradictions that shows up in climate policy.

NEGOTIATIONS: Bangladeshis wonder how they'll survive floods, cyclones, and crop failure. In India, the national question is how to survive the switch to a greener economy. Being outside the direct line of fire clearly changes things. In Bangalore, some friends opined that climate change isn't man-made, or that people couldn't do anything about it. Sadly, it felt just like home. The Indian economy is roaring for middle and upper classes, and GDP growth rates have been over 9% from 2006-2008. Going into the Copenhagen climate talks, India was the 4th largest carbon emitter in the world. The government announced that it was willing to make meaningful cuts in carbon intensity (i.e. increase emissions, but be more efficient about it), but without accepting legally binding caps. It was also trying to balance between teaming up with China to avoid commitments and allying itself with the often heavily-impacted G77. The Indian goverment was uncomfortable with the Copenhagen Accord, but signed on, supportive of the lack of legally binding caps.

YOUTH: In Vietnam and Bangladesh, folks kept referring to the work of the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), which works to shift public consciousness through youth organizing. We met up with IYCN members in Bangalore, and attended a working meeting, where the group debated pros and cons of corporate partnerships, discussed an upcoming green-your-campus contest, and engaged us as we shared what we'd learned in Bangladesh. We really liked IYCN's big tent; for example, animal rights activist Sowmya Reddy is working inside the group to help build public awareness about the climate impacts of animal agriculture, her particular area of focus.

19-year-old Ravi Muthu told us how he'd attended his first IYCN event as a climate skeptic, convinced that the planet was just going through a natural warming period. He asked questions, and kept getting reasonable answers, until he had no choice but to switch sides: in the last two years, he's done IYCN recruiting events at over 100 colleges, learning two languages along the way. IYCN members do presentations about climate change at schools and colleges, often speaking to the entire student body. IYCN returns in 2 weeks--after attendees' initial enthusiasm has flagged--to train the hardcore 3-5% of attendees who still want to follow up. Students finish their intensive one-day sessions with real action: practicing skills like public speaking and climate advocacy within their own community. Individual students and campus eco clubs are pulled into IYCN's national network, to anchor nation-wide messaging and action within their local communities.

Arun Patre from IYCN described his experience as part of the Indian youth delegation in Copenhagen. They networked heavily with other youth climate activists, while trying to push their own government's negotiators. Getting access to negotiators is always difficult, but in a democracy with a median age of 25, Arun explained how Indian youth delegates were sometimes able to get access to their nation's negotiators in ways other groups couldn't. "We're not 'civil society,' we're youth," a distinction that opened doors. After the disappointment of the Copenhagen Accord, IYCN's focusing on the distinct stake of youth as they push for more inclusion into the Planning Commission's review process, while fighting to get India to agree to legally binding international climate commitments by 2020. In the meantime, Arun's enjoying having left his job in the finance sector to work for the good guys, doing water work with Arghyam and the India Water Portal; "the same econometric tools I was using to make financial models can help make a difference in people's lives."

VULNERABILITY: Though India doesn't position itself politically as a global climate victim, it will feel very real impacts. We met college student and activist Rishika Das Roy in Kolkata, to get a better sense of what's going on in the hundreds of tiny islands in India's Sunderban forest, which face drowning and increased natural disasters due to climate change. We met Rishika after seeing her photos and writing about the Sunderbans, from when she was a high school student:

"Since the area is below high-tide level, to get fresh water for farming, people build mud embankments to store rain water. But due to climate change, low pressure troughs are increasing in the Bay of Bengal, leading to more intense cyclones destroying the embankments. Their other dominant source of livelihood -- prawn culture -- also takes a hit as the prawns thrive in water of a certain degree of salinity, not more. So if both agriculture and fishing get affected, how will these people earn their bread?"

Rishika described the long-term impacts of 2009's Cyclone Aila on the area, a preview of environmental disasters to come. Aila hit the area with 6 meters of water, leaving hundreds of thousand marooned. Salinity's been the killer. After Aila, there's been flooding every year; the salinity causes even new brand cement defenses to deteriorate. In some areas, the mud still hasn't dried, a year on, acting like quicksand. Children get strange lumps on their bodies, from consuming saline water; aid agencies distributed formula, but mothers are forced to mix it with saline water. Fishing provides food and livelihoods for many residents, but most of the local fish died after Aila. "Fish migration systems have gone haywire," she tells us. Larger fish have migrated further out to sea, and because of El NiƱo, fewer are heading toward India.

The human impacts have been hardest for her to process. Rishika described to us Sunderbans residents' collective PTSD after Aila, and the massive collapse of social structures in the weeks after the disaster while survivors were lost or separated. Residents seemed incredibly apathetic, having been driven to an extreme point; many exhibit no aspirations, desires, cometitive nature, or material needs. NGOs, local power structures, and "farcical politicians" only complicate the post-disaster situation. Sometimes middlemen will direct aid distribution based on caste loyalties; if an NGO can rebuild 200 homes, the middleman will help direct it toward favored communities. Many NGOs are also linked with political parties, and their corruption shows through. Rishika's been meeting with government officials about proposed solutions (e.g. tree-planting as a bio-defense, tarpaulins for every home), but she's deeply cynical about the process as she hits up against a mix of corruption and disinterest. They need to get it right, she says, because impacts will invariably spill over to other areas. "If Sunderban goes, Calcutta goes as well."

NEXT: We also met Bangalore civic activists working on transportation, transparency, and waste management. More in our next post.

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Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh were surprised to learn that their carbon footprint was bigger than 90 percent of Americans due to air travel and challenged themselves to spend a year without flying. Read More

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We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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