Issue 14

The Politics of a Climate Strike: Three Young Activists Talk Impact, Space, and Privilege

Ishita Ahuja

On September 25, FridaysForFuture called for a global climate strike, with Uproot the System as its theme, addressing climate problems faced by MAPA (Most Affected Areas and People). Ahead of the next strike on October 22, Ishita Ahuja speaks to three activists to understand the politics driving their protest.

With the 3 pm sun beating down on her, 19-year-old Rakshinda A. stood alone with her climate action placard at Gandhi Maidan, Patna. “We had enrolled 12 volunteers in our group and the 12 had confirmed, but they didn’t show up. Some people were saying that they weren’t in Patna, some were saying that there was too much heat so they couldn’t come outside,” says Rakshinda.  

The maidan, has, over the years, witnessed pivotal moments in the nation’s history, from Netaji Subhash Bose’s rallies during the independence movement, all the way to Jayaprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution movement in the early 1970s, during which, the maidan was almost an epicentre. Gandhi himself hosted prayer meetings at the Bankipore Maidan. It was renamed in 1948, after his assassination.

Therefore it is no surprise, Rakshinda found a group of social workers, curious to help her here too. “I was sitting with my placard there only and some people came up to me and asked what is this, what are you doing, and luckily they were social workers so it was helpful, ” she says

Rakshinda was one of the many activists observing the Global Climate Strike held worldwide on September 24, and across 51 such sites in India, initiated by the non-profit organisation FridaysForFuture. The theme for the strike was Uproot the System. Climate change may be a global emergency, but weighing its impact requires one to understand that it will affect different social groups on different scales. “That’s why the term MAPA arises, to make communities that suffer the most from the effects of climate change more visible”, says FridaysForFuture on their website. The next such strike is to be observed on October 22.

It is not easy. But these young activists know what they are up against. “These past 10 days we were very demotivated because people didn’t join us and along with that we had to hear lots of negative comments. [People said things like] if you’re striking plant trees, clean the place instead, rues Rakshinda. Echoing her sentiment, FridaysForFuture in the Narrative for the Next Global Climate Strike, argues that climate activism for underrepresented communities has become even harder over the last year and a half.  “The pandemic, on top of other long-standing political and socio-economic issues, continues to devastate MAPA and makes it difficult for local communities and organizations to mobilize for climate and social justice.”

Still, there seems to be no shortage in the drive and desire to make protests count.“The last time, we went into the Delhi Secretariat and received a signed document that acknowledged our demands. This time we plan to follow up on them, “says Eco-Logical, a substack newsletter by FridaysForFuture Delhi.

Speaking to us from Patna, Rakshinda has worked with communities in Barari and Bhagalpur districts of Bihar, on water and waste management. “We had to reach people and ask them their problems and enable them to have resources, it’s a very big process and we don’t have the capacity. Outside the boundary, there is an area where they stay and they migrate here for jobs. But they cannot afford the rent to stay here, so we try to reach out to them.”

Laksh Sharma, a coordinator at FridaysForFuture Delhi, understands how the idea of privilege too weaves itself into the conversation around climate change and MAPA. The 21-year-old explains how getting in touch with all underserved communities is difficult, so they started with who they could reach, “so that was the LGBTQ+ community and women.” 

“We tried to uplift them, bring them to our strike, and give them space so that they can also come and speak their minds,” says Laksh. He was one of the people who led the march from ITO Metro Station, all the way to the Delhi Secretariat, organized by FridaysForFuture Delhi on the day of the September strike. The march culminated with the organization’s leaders handing over their demands for inclusive climate change action to Gopal Rai, the Minister for Environment and Development in the Delhi Government. 

While urban centres in India connect to a growing global movement of climate resistance, it is an ideal native to the subcontinent for centuries. The Chipko movement, for instance, campaigned strongly against the felling of trees, with protestors hugging them. In 1974, led by Gaura Devi, the women of Reni village in Uttarakhand, for example, prevented the cutting down of more than 2000 trees by refusing to move out of the forest.

It can be traced back to the 18th century, when Amrita Devi hugged the Khejri tree in the Khejarli village, which sparked off a movement leading to the then king of Marwar, banning the felling of trees under his rule. While the Central Government of India has had a national award in wildlife conservation on Amrita Devi’s name since 2013 and their first awardee was from a community known to protect the Blackbuck, environmental activism continues to speak of social justice and livelihood security across India. There is in fact a growing realization in urban climate activism in India too, with activists like Laksh keen to create more space for communities affected by climate change at the frontlines.“So this journey of learning and building a community has been the reason that I can go on and on,” he claims.

Mehak Bhargava, co-founder of the collective Millennials for Environment says, “[climate change] is already impacting us on a huge scale. And it’s going to get worse from here if we don’t do something about it… at the very core of me, I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly battling with one catastrophe after the other”. The 21-year-old, who hails from Nagpur, highlighting the inequalities of climate impact continues.“More than half of the people on this earth don’t deserve what’s coming for them. I just really think that’s very, very unfair.” 

As someone who runs a social media page seeking to mobilize and raise awareness about the uneven effects of climate change, she also acknowledges the powerful role social media, is playing during the pandemic, “Whatever we do now is creating mobilization online, that is creating campaigns pushing out narratives in the mainstream media, like getting the big newspapers to cover events, getting the big people on Twitter or Instagram, and politicians to talk about these issues.” FridaysForFuture Delhi too works social media, to raise awareness on issues slipping under the radar of mainstream media: be it on the environmental impact of diamond excavation in Buxwaha, Madhya Pradesh, or the displacement and degradation that could befall Hasdeo, the coal-rich province in Chhattisgarh, if indiscriminate mining is sanctioned there.

A lot of these activists – particularly the ones in urban India – are still relatively young, and at some level, there is a worry about the repercussions of their activism. The Disha Ravi episode, which saw the climate activist jailed because of a social media toolkit, would still be fresh in the minds of most. There is also the perpetual fear of retaliatory violence. FridaysForFuture has been mindful of this, and while insisting on continuing their protests peacefully and without violence, remains steadfast in their commitment to strike: “We strike because we have no choice”

At the end of the day, these activists are united in their shared politics of an inclusive climate conversation.“MAPA are unheard, not voiceless. They’ve been fighting for their present, not just their future… Don’t fight FOR MAPA, fight ALONGSIDE MAPA,” is the emphatic message FridaysForFuture offers. It is what these urban activists must try to live by.

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

The featured image is from @fridaysforfuture.bihar via Instagram

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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