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At FridaysforFuture ‘climate change is worse than homework’

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on May 31, 2019 Published on May 31, 2019

Tough question: At the protest march, some questions leave one fumbling for answers

Indian teens are out on the streets to turn the spotlight on the environment

A teenager’s voice has been echoing all the way from Sweden to India. “You need to listen to us, we who cannot vote. You need to vote for us, for your children and grandchildren. What we are doing now can soon not be undone. To do your best is no longer good enough,” said Greta Thunberg. “It’s okay if you don’t listen to me; I am after all a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden. But you cannot ignore the scientists, or the millions of school-striking children,” she told the EU parliament in Strasbourg.

The child activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Sweden has been making headlines in a world grappling with a climate crisis. The address to the EU on April 16 came after a prolonged protest. Thunberg demonstrated for three weeks outside the Swedish Parliament, demanding climate action while the Swedish elections were on in August 2018. After that, she took to striking from school every Friday — a movement that is being followed across the world, including India. The FridaysforFuture protest is taking root in 52 cities across India, though missing school is not a part of the campaign in most places.

“We were just watching TV when Greta came on, and gave her impassioned speech. She didn’t speak about hope. She spoke about the crisis that is on us, that we are choosing to look away from, and we decided to do something about it,” says Veer Khanna, a Std X student of The Shri Ram School, Gurugram. He was one of the organisers of a protest held in the Haryana city on May 24 along with rallies worldwide.

Going green: Snapshots of the protest march held in Gurugram on May 24, seeking administrative action to combat climate change

 

The movement has been gaining ground. On March 15, there were at least 1.6 million student-strikers in 2,000 places in more than 125 countries. In Delhi, 500 students took to the streets to make themselves heard. “There is awareness among children, who are worried about their future. This is an emergency, and more and more people are realising this,” says Asees Kandhari, the 15-year-old organiser of the March protests in Delhi.

The protests have been organised in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Leh, Udaipur and other cities. While they are being led by students, parents and environment activists often support them — as in other countries. The campaign, with marches in prominent urban locations, seeks to spread awareness and bring about policy change.

The students have environmental facts and figures on their fingertips. “Did you know 2,000 species are going extinct every day,” asks Manya, Veer’s twin. “We’ve been given a chewed-up world that’s been spit out,” adds Veer. Manya points out that the United Nations has warned the world that countries have only 11 more years to take steps to battle climate change. “After that, things will be irreversible, it says. This is not the time for baby steps; this is the time for leaps and bounds,” she adds. “We need to educate ourselves, and organise so we can force our governments to take action.”

Movements by school students have been influencing policy decisions in India in recent times. The ban on firecrackers in parts of India was spearheaded by schoolchildren protesting against pollution. Now students are hoping to raise their voice and force the government to act on other such issues.

“I can’t cycle half the year in this city, thanks to pollution levels. Does anyone care? Why do we need so many 16-lane roads, and not enough bus tracks? Why are there so many cars on the road with one person driving in them, when they are all going in the same direction,” asks Manya.

The campaign is mostly being run on social media, and each protest is organised within a matter of a few weeks. Once a decision for a march is taken, the message is forwarded to groups cutting across schools and areas. “Volunteers came to our house every day for seven days to make posters. We avoided flex and put into use bedsheets instead, and carried our own water bottles,” she adds.

The protest carried on for 90 minutes, as the students marched from a popular square in Gurugram. The organisers obtained police permission and carried posters with slogans that clearly appealed to the young. “The planet is getting hotter than Shawn Mendes,” said one placard, referring to a popular Canadian singer and model. “Climate change is worse than homework,” said another.

Helpful guidelines have been provided by FridaysforFuture for strikers across the world to enable them to protest peacefully, to ensure safety and on ways to mobilise local NGOs and activists in case of trouble from authorities. In many cases, the protesting students have been guided by parents and teachers concerned about environmental degradation.

The Gurugram students say that they are working on future protests. “We want to do a smaller march every second Friday, and hope to participate in more international marches and make this a movement. We are doing this for ourselves; we are not looking to escape to another country if things get worse. We are here, and we will fight,” says Manya. Are they hopeful about the future? Veer hesitates, and then replies, “We’re hopeful, but we’re also uncertain.”

The students, however, stress that they are not going to miss classes, as many are doing across the world, but hold their protests after or before school hours. “If you know any set of Indian parents, you would know how that (bunking school) cannot really be our reality,” Manya quips.

Meanwhile, they have a poster that poses a question few would have an answer to. “Are we the last generation?” it asks.

Published on May 31, 2019
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