South Asian youth raise a collective voice for climate justice across borders

The event platformed youth environmental activists and entrepreneurs from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who have been working to educate, mobilise and organise people to combat climate change, obtain climate justice and move relevant policy regimes to these ends.

Malinda Seneviratne Sep 01, 2023
Photo: Sapan News

The core resource of those who demand climate justice and work towards sustainable livelihoods is “a voice of conscience,” asserts Binod Deuba, a climate activist in Nepal. Deuba, the co-founder of Harin Nepal, a youth-led grassroots organisation promoting intersectional climate justice, was speaking at a recent webinar organised by Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network, on ‘Youth Initiatives for Climate Justice and Sustainable Livelihoods’.

Maysoon Khan, reporter for the Associated Press in New York state and a recent graduate of Emerson College, Boston, moderated the discussion, asking critical questions to draw out the young participants. The event platformed youth environmental activists and entrepreneurs from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who have been working to educate, mobilise and organise people to combat climate change, obtain climate justice and move relevant policy regimes to these ends.

Held on the last Sunday of August, this was the 19th of Sapan’s monthly discussion series ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace.’

Opposition to Nepal airport project

Introducing the virtual event, hosts Sarita Bartaula, a youth activist from Nepal, and human-rights activist Kavita Srivastava in Jaipur noted the success of Nepal's community-based forest management programme that has over the years empowered local communities.

Deuba described how women, indigenous communities, LGBTQ+ activists and youth have got together to protect biodiversity, promote sustainable livelihoods and hold accountable those responsible for related intrusions in Nepal. His organisation is among those opposing the government’s planned Nijgadh International Airport project, which if allowed to go ahead will destroy the last remaining sal forest in Nepal. Some of its 2.4 million trees are over 400 years old, and it is home to 500 species of birds and 77 mammal species, besides 1,500 indigenous families, said Deuba.

“Nepal is a small country but this airport is planned to be the biggest in South Asia. There was no transparency. The EIA was copy-pasted from a hydropower project,” he explained, adding that the project contradicts Nepal’s stated plans to be a net-zero carbon country. The ecological health of Nepal impacts all of South Asia. Many of the rivers of the region flow from ‘the Roof of the World’.

The country, already impacted by massive earthquakes, is itself tremendously vulnerable to climate change, particularly 80 per cent of its population. Nepal has promised to ensure that this 80 per cent will be risk-free by 2030. The Nijgadh airport project contradicts these pledges and the pledges to increase forest cover, pointed out Deuba.

Citizen-led initiatives 

In nearby Bangladesh, Dhaka is one of the world’s five most polluted cities where “people are generally breathing poison,” said Bareesh Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association. “This has reduced life expectancy by seven years.”

Chowdhury stressed the importance of creating access to justice not only in relation to climate change but human-generated pollution and misguided development.

A major initiative he has been involved in is petitioning the courts to compel relevant agencies to resolve the chronic air pollution problem in Dhaka. “Poor air quality is causing visual and physical issues for elderly and children.” His group researched, compiled data, collected anecdotes and submitted the case to the High Court. They told the court it has a responsibility to tell the government on behalf of the citizens, “You have to fix this and lay out a time-bound action plan.”

The initiative has got things moving. Following an interim order issued by the court, relevant state institutions have started working on developing an action plan. While the implementation process is slow, it highlights the need to collect high-quality data and find the real root causes of air pollution in Dhaka.

Citizen-led initiatives are pushing the government in Pakistan as well. Instead of ignoring the problem or looking for someone to pin the blame on, Anusha Fatima, a recent graduate of Habib University, is among those who decided to look for a solution.

She co-founded TrashIt, a startup in Karachi that aims to create awareness and engage residents on how trash is managed, focusing on recovering organic waste and making nutrient-rich compost.

“We are encouraging residents to reduce their waste footprint by adopting more sustainable practices and starting composting in their own houses,” she said. TrashIt recovers over 500,000 kg of waste daily from the landfill. The biggest challenge initially was to get people to segregate waste at the source. Participants have now come to recognise that even their small decisions can have a positive impact, she said.

“Almost 70 per cent of Pakistan’s population are youth but they are not involved in the decision-making process,” commented Hafiz Jawad Sohail, a climate activist who focuses on policy-making and climate, and works with WWF-Pakistan Freshwater Programme.

“Climate justice is a North-South issue, but it is a problem within countries too, not only in Pakistan but all of South Asia,” he said. “We are facing a climate crisis in Pakistan. Youth can bridge the knowledge gap and play a leadership role at all levels, local, national and international”.

The policy-making framework needs to be broadened to incorporate youth from various communities, with better representation of local communities and indigenous peoples. There needs to be more capacity-building and dialogue — “especially intergenerational dialogue”.

Youth to drive change

His thoughts are echoed across the border in India, where Karthik Gunasekar works with organic farmers in Tamil Nadu and advocates for “localised climate resilience, local knowledge, local livelihoods and a local economy.” “There’s unbelievable exploitation, hunger and malnutrition,” he says, adding that it is largely the current economic model of development that lies behind climate change.

The assets of the 21 wealthiest Indians are equivalent to what half the population of India owns, he says, citing an Oxfam report.

“We need to re-think development because the concept of economic growth is skewed. We need to build forward,” he said. This has to be done by building on the positives from the past, but ensuring fresh initiatives are in line with current concepts of social and economic justice.

Mitranshu Gamut, an Adivasi rights, social and environmental activist in south Gujarat, spoke about the importance of protecting the adivasi way of life which is entwined with nature. The people themselves are trying to stand up for their rights, but they need support, he said. An example is how over 7,000 people, more than half of them women, came together to protest Vedanta’s zinc smelter plant because it would affect land, water and forests.

From the southernmost tip of South Asia, Shamla Saleem of Sri Lanka, founder of Global Youth Climate Connect, highlighted the importance of climate education. Her organisation developed and implemented interactive sessions for children aged 11-16 years, “encouraging them to develop action-oriented thinking processes. They mapped the effects of climate change and learned that the impact is not only environmental but economic and social.”

Most importantly, the initiative in two districts involving 200 students resulted in children deciding to do something positive, for example pledging not to use polythene and plastics. “These informal educational initiatives are very useful because when children change their behaviour they can influence their elders as well,” said Saleem.

The webinar highlighted the importance of evidence-based case studies, intervention at the policy-making level, ethical entrepreneurship, the meaningful participation of youth in policy-making processes, the involvement of all stakeholders and localised engagement, noted Kavindu Ediriweera, presenting the closing remarks.

The director of youth programs and deputy director of programs at SLYCAN Trust, a nonprofit think tank in Sri Lanka, Ediriweera recognised and appreciated the incredible potential of young individuals to drive positive change. Commending the participants on their consistency and persistence, he commented that these traits are critical in getting policymakers to hear and incorporate the knowledge, views and concerns of those who advocate climate justice and sustainable livelihoods.

Participants of the event have pledged to come together to work across borders on these issues, with the South Asia Peace Action Network providing them a platform. 

(The author is former Editor-in-Chief of The Nation, Colombo, a well-known columnist and a prize-winning poet.  Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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