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June 22, 2020

The Kids Are All Right

Illustrations by Priyankar Gupta

Children are holding adults accountable for both the grim future they are facing and the toll this is taking on their mental health. Madhumita Bhattacharyya initiates conversations with families of young climate activists and observes the extent to which parenting has changed in the face of catastrophe

There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to remind us just how interconnected we are. Not to mention, vulnerable. The world has come together to stem the spread of the coronavirus, and this is just the kind of coordinated effort that is needed to address another calamity looming over us — climate change. But for some reason, when it comes to the environment, the urgency is absent. And it is not our politicians but our children who have emerged as the loudest voices.

“How dare you?” thundered Greta Thunberg at the United Nations General Assembly during the Climate Action Summit in 2019, then all of 16 years old. Arguably the most famous teen today, Thunberg founded the Fridays For Future movement, in which children skip school to drive home the point that world leaders are only paying lip service to what is a full-blown existential crisis. She has inspired hundreds of young people in India, who have been striking every week since last September.

But why has this job been left to kids like Thunberg in the first place — why have they been saddled with a disproportionate burden of care, and what is the effect it is having on them?

“I became depressed. I saw that everything was just so wrong, and nothing mattered,” says Thunberg in the I Know This To Be True book that profiles her and was published by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in collaboration with Blackwell & Ruth. “How I got out of that depression was by thinking to myself, ‘I can do so much, one person can do so much. And so I should try to do everything I can to change things, instead of just doing nothing’,” she adds.

Ridhima Pandey is only 12 years old, but she is already a veteran climate activist. She was one of the 16 children, including Thunberg, who filed a complaint at the UN in September 2019, calling out the inaction of governments in relation to the climate crisis. She was nine when she filed her first PIL — before the National Green Tribunal against the Indian government’s failure to act — with help from her father who works for an environmental NGO. Now, she is conducting an awareness programme by giving talks to students across India on the state of the planet. It is all-encompassing and time-consuming. “Her school allows her to continue her extracurricular pursuits thanks to her strong academic record,” explains her mother Vinita Pandey, a forest department officer in Uttarakhand. Her mother and father have never attempted to stop Ridhima — who was “always curious about everything” — from doing what she wanted. They even put aside social engagements to ensure Ridhima can attend talks and events. “If our children want to do good, we should support them.” And that is Ridhima’s advice to all parents: “Give children the freedom to do what they can do for the environment, as long as it is safe. I often hear from kids that their parents won’t let them do anything because they only want them to study. Parents should teach kids that the environment is the most important thing”.

Ridhima has no intention of slowing down any time soon (for exams, “maybe”, she says) even though it does exact an emotional toll on her. She feels frustrated and helpless about our unwillingness to accept reality. “Sometimes, I encourage her to carry on because even if one person changes through our efforts, it is worth it,” says Vinita. But there are times when all her mother can do is urge her to accept what is out of her control.

But not only are many other adults unhelpful, they can also go out of their way to hurt. Thunberg has regularly been the object of derision, as have many young Indian activists. “When I speak to my friends around the world, we talk about the trolls,” says Ridhima. “Why do we have to deal with this hate when what we are doing is for the benefit of everyone?” To counter the negativity, Ridhima tells herself one thing over and over again: “Just do it”.

With over 600 million Indians under the age of 25, the young in our country are doomed to pay the price of inaction today. In 2018, it was estimated that one lakh children under the age of five die annually due to air pollution in India alone. After his daughter Sara started showing the ill effects of NCR pollution around Diwali 2015, Kanak Gupta, a Delhi-based father, was prompted to join the My Right To Breathe movement. “We realised it was imperative to help her become aware,” says Gupta. So the family installed air monitors at home and Sara knew that when the Air Quality Index (AQI) went above acceptable levels, she would have to stay indoors. Her health improved.

Now, the 10-year-old is the one holding the family accountable. “When we were thinking about buying a second car in 2018, just before the seasonal pollution debates for the year had begun, she researched electric cars and the use of coal in the electricity supply and convinced us against it,” says Gupta who feels the way to keep children positive is to help them “be a force of good”. “The more time we spend blaming others, the less time we have left to help our cause,” he says. And while no parent should “push an agenda through children”, says Gupta, there are pragmatic reasons for getting kids involved. “My Right To Breathe has been working with the government and they have told us clearly that to make clean air an election issue, we need to get more people involved,” he says. Kids, with their natural interest in climate and their powers of persuasion, are a valuable part of these efforts.

The young have an instinctive connection with the world around them. And that was one of the main reasons Iftekhar Ahsan, parent of six-year-old twins Sheharazad and Isa, opted for “unschooling”. When Ahsan started Calcutta Walks, his walking tour company, he rapidly discovered how little he knew about the world around him. “I didn’t learn anything useful from my long and expensive education, and I didn’t want that for my kids,” he says. Now the twins play outside, feed the birds and dig in the ground, learning lessons from their surroundings in the process. “It is amazing how naturally they understood, for instance, that water is a precious commodity that shouldn’t be wasted. They are very conscious about turning off the taps,” he says. As a parent, his approach toward environmental issues has been one of “optimism and positivity”, and he encourages children to live in harmony with nature.

“Children care about the environment because they care about their future,” says Lalitha Mondreti, a Bengaluru-based environmental activist and parent. Her son Vikhyath Mondreti was just 15 years old when he, along with three students in the US, designed a drone-based lake-pollution monitoring system, winning an award from the New York Academy of Sciences in 2017. He had become interested in pollution thanks to his mother’s work in the area of solid waste management.

“I leveraged my involvement with the community for a more quantitative approach,” says 17-year-old Vikhyath, who was due to appear for the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma exams this year. He has gone on to work on a rainfall data analysis project and an audit of the user-friendliness of Bengaluru’s public transportation system. To him, the recent Australian bush fires are urgent evidence that we need to “act before it is too late”. “Schools are addressing climate change, but it is when parents reinforce this knowledge through practice at home that we really see a transformation,” says Lalitha, who has been working with young people across Bengaluru as part of her advocacy. “When we start reading about what is happening to the oceans, it can be depressing. For kids, it can get overwhelming but it is important to inform oneself. When they continue reading, they get a better perspective,” she adds. Rather than thinking of their task as “saving the planet”, which can be pressurising, they should focus on “what they can do to achieve results as individuals”, she says.

And whether their personal goal is taking the UN to task or simply changing the consumption patterns of their own families, kids are rising to the occasion. Now, if only the adults in charge would do their bit to emerge as the role models the children need — and deserve — in this crucial moment.

PLAY BY THE RULES

  • Be a good role model. Integrate small acts into your everyday life. Keep the message specific. Small, achievable goals will spur action and curb despair.
  • Connect with nature. Plant a garden, go birdwatching with children or feed the birds on your windowsill.
  • Reserve judgement. The message should be that we are all imperfect and trying to do better. If parents start judging others, children will too.
  • Talk the talk. Make civic issues and climate a topic of discussion in your home.

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