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India nurtures youth advocates for climate action

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 15 May 2013 11:15 GMT
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Children hold candles while participating in a vigil to mark Earth Hour in Mumbai, March 23, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – India is stepping up efforts to educate school and university students on climate change and its impacts on people’s lives, with the aim of raising awareness and tempting them into related careers.

On a pleasant afternoon in late April, around 90 students listened to experts tackling a range of climate change issues in the auditorium of New Delhi’s Khalsa College. Initially, at least, most of the young men and women seemed indifferent, as they wondered what was in it for them.

They had not realised that rising global temperatures could affect their own health, or cause dairy production to fall. They had not thought about why homes in the hills now need air conditioning, why Punjab farmers have had to change their planting habits, or why apricots can now grow only at much higher altitudes.

The workshop was organised by the Millennium India Education Foundation (MIEF), along with the Khalsa College zoology department and Delhi University’s department of environmental studies. The main promoter and financer was the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences, which is providing funds to schools and universities for climate change education.

MIEF Director Uday Kakroo told Thomson Reuters Foundation his organisation had carried out a survey in Mumbai last year and another in Delhi, to find out what young people think of climate change and how it should be tackled. The results were then discussed with students.

“They all first thought climate change means hotter summers. But presented with the data, they were surprised,” Kakroo said. “Issues such as (milk) production loss due to reproduction failures among cattle, previously unknown diseases, rainfall changes etc were new to them.”

Kamla Kamra, head of zoology at Khalsa College, said the students had thought they already knew about climate change.

“But when experts told them that people in Laddakh at 10,000 feet above sea level are now using refrigerators, and brought them face to face with changes in lifestyle and disease patterns, they for the first time understood the extent to which climate change affects us,” Kamra said. “There are issues of crop pattern changes and agricultural economics too - things that experts told the students for the first time.”

CLIMATE AMBASSADORS

This new knowledge is spurring some students to act. Priya Singh, a 19-year-old zoology student at Khalsa, said she had stopped running the air conditioner all day long, and now uses it only at bedtime. “After graduation, I will take up a job related to mitigating climate change. I see these ads on energy-saving home appliances, so maybe I shall work on such things,” Singh said.

And it has been decided that a group of students will go to Punjab during summer vacations to study how farmers are already responding to climate change, Kamra said.

Meanwhile, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is working to create “climate ambassadors” among school students. “The idea is to create trained student ambassadors who will help disseminate correct information about climate change. They would spread the message about lifestyle changes needed to mitigate the effects of climate change,” said B Mukhopaddhyay, the IMD’s deputy director general for climatology.

Mukhopaddhyay said the government “ambassador” scheme has been tested in the central city of Pune, and will soon be replicated in Delhi and other big cities.

Under a separate initiative in Pune, on the last Saturday in February, students listened to a presentation on alternative energy. The lecture was part of a monthly series by InnoVidya, a group of experts dedicated to transforming learning.

Paul Ratnasamy, former director of India’s National Chemical Laboratory, started off with a simple question: “Name the God we all see every day.” The answer - which he went on to provide - was the sun.

In many cultures across the ages, the sun has been revered as a god, he noted. And its value as a source of renewable energy is just as important today, said the top scientist, arguing that the world needs to stop using ever larger amounts of fossil fuel to satisfy rising energy demand.

KEY ROLE FOR YOUNG WOMEN

The thread connecting these different efforts across India is a growing conviction among government officials and development experts that restricting climate change issues to scientists and policymakers will not be effective.

Many feel there is a need to swell the ranks of young Indians educated to deal with climate change - whether as doctors, vets, climatologists or journalists.

Ivy Chakraborty, a 22-year-old geography student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, who also attended a climate change workshop run by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences, said her previous understanding had been limited to physical aspects like temperature rise. “But now I can see the connections between climate change and human lives,” she explained.

Anuj Sinha, former director of the government’s National Council for Science and Technology Communication, who spoke at the JNU workshop, argued that the awareness-raising efforts must also include young women “as they are decision makers at home about energy consumption and also teachers of the future generation”.

Chakraborty, one such young woman, is already studying how climate change is altering people’s lives and livelihoods in the Mewar region of Rajasthan.

SOCIAL CHANGE

Kakroo of the Millennium India Education Foundation argued that there will not be a wider change in society’s attitudes towards climate change “unless students force the issues”.

“That is why we have decided to go across major metropolises, where climate change impacts are more evident, and build up a youth force to tackle this,” he said.

Even if only two or three out of a batch of 80 students attending a climate change seminar decide to work on the issue, it is an adequate conversion rate to start with, he added.

N Sudhakaran, advisor to the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), said it had earmarked Rs 130 million ($2.38 million) for its annual outreach programme. The MoES has research centres, one of which is located in the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. “But these research findings need to reach the common man, who now understands climate change only in very general terms,” Sudhakaran said.

MoES Regional Meteorological Centres organise exhibitions on climate change, and the ministry even runs an “Exhibition on Wheels”.

These complement the funds it provides to NGOs, schools and other groups for climate change education. “We receive lots of proposals and we grant the money, because the youth have to play a very crucial role in dealing with climate change,” Sudhakaran said.

“We need and are determined to have a much stronger bench of climate scientists in the near future,” he added.

Sujit Chakraborty is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, focused on environment and climate change issues.

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