In Disha Ravi’s farmer grandparents’ household, filling up every bucket in the house with water is a practice, “just in case.” When she was living in the coastal town of Mangalore, India, the monsoons almost always guaranteed a flooded home. However, like many young Indians, it was not until after she had full-time internet access at the age of 18 that she learned about climate change.
In a way, the internet launched her work in environmental activism, leading her to co-found India’s chapter of Fridays for Future. Ravi’s support for India’s sixteen-month-long farmers’ protests also got her arrested in 2021 for about ten days. Her arrest provoked the ire of her supporters and environmentalists across the country, thus turning her into a poster child of sorts for India’s youth-led climate justice movement.
They are angry and anxious about climate change, unafraid to take to the streets or work long and hard hours. They are girls and boys, women and men of action. They are the beating heart of India’s climate movement today.
There are good reasons for this development. India’s children are incredibly vulnerable to environmental shocks like cyclones, floods, and droughts. Globally, today’s children will see two to seven times more extreme weather events than their ancestors. Climate Action Network South Asia projects that 45 million people will be forced to migrate by 2050.
Children see this in daily news and can smell the poison in the air. Delhi has consistently ranked as the world’s most polluted capital city for the fourth consecutive year. Schools often close for days when the air becomes dangerous to breathe. As Disha Ravi cogently states, the climate crisis is about the Global South’s present, not the Global North’s future.
As a result, more young Indians are taking more active roles to change their world. 85% of all Indian youth are keen to work in green jobs. The sources interviewed in this piece are full-time or part-time volunteer environmentalists working for little to no pay.
“We’ve seen forests being destroyed, waste being dumped and burnt, animals becoming extinct, and birds dying because of plastic,” says Vishal Kumar, CEO of Waste Warriors, an NGO on a mission to clean India’s mountains of waste.
“It’s never-ending. So I think most of us (at Waste Warriors) realize that we can’t wait till we’re 60 to do this work. We have to do this now.”
Most people working at Waste Warriors are below 35. Many have given up lives of financial security and upward mobility to solve the mountains’ monumental garbage problem. It gets tough sometimes, but this is a choice Kumar and his teams are at peace with making.
Over 300 million depend on forests for their livelihoods. Most people, especially in rural and tribal communities, cannot afford to neglect the environment. They willingly take risks in a country that is the fourth most dangerous one for environmental activists and oppresses these communities. Youth in India are aware that positive climate action cannot happen without the support of these communities and, like Waste Warriors, involve them in their solutions.
“We are lucky as a country to have so much diversity in our topography, climate, weather, and people. Unfortunately, that also means different effects and outcomes for different parts,” notes Ujjwal Raaj Sen, a student, and the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) secretary. IYCN aims to build a cohesive voice for Indian youth and environmentalist groups across the country, especially in smaller regional areas, which hadn’t existed until recently. “Some are more vulnerable than others, but everyone is at the same time.”
The road to progress is uneven, and the obstacles are many. As we inch closer to the apocalyptic worst-case scenario waiting on the other side of 2030, morale is hard to maintain. However, India’s activists are far from hopeless.
“I believe that hope comes from people, and I see that every time there is a protest, every time people come together to celebrate togetherness and unity,” says Ravi. “My hope comes from those who have been resilient against all odds. It comes from love and community care.”
“It’s a real test of courage and belief. Sometimes we wonder if what we’re doing is right, whether it’s meaningful because change takes so long,” reflects Kumar.
“But actually, this propels us to work harder. Our teams are fighting this war with more rigor now, with more passion, because we’ve realized it’s now or never.”
Pratika Yashaswi is an independent journalist mainly covering design, lifestyle and culture. Her words have appeared in Vice, Huffington Post, Dezeen, and Seema. She’s passionate about canines and mental health and writes with a perpetually peckish golden retriever at her feet.