Not many eight-year-olds can say they’ve protested outside the parliament house of the world’s largest democracy. But that’s exactly what Licypriya Kangujam did. Dropping out of her school in Bhubaneswar at the age of seven in February 2019, Kangujam travelled to New Delhi and stood outside the Parliament House. In July the same year, she spent a week doing the same holding a sign that read, "Dear Mr. Modi & MPs, PASS THE CLIMATE CHANGE LAW! ACT NOW!"
Of course, the scene is reminiscent of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist who is nearly synonymous with youth activism. In 2018, Thunberg stood outside the Riksdag, Sweden’s Parliament House, in her own one-woman protest. Since then, young activists across the world have been getting compared to Thunberg. And Kangujam is no exception to this. But on January 27, she urged the media, through a Twitter thread, to stop labeling her as the ‘Greta of India’. “If you call me the Greta of India,” she wrote, “you are not covering my story. You are deleting a story.”
And it is quite the story. Hailing from the Northeastern state of Manipur, Kangujam started focusing on climate change and disaster risk reduction at a tender age. In 2019, Kangujam accomplished a lot for an eight-year-old—from winning multiple awards such as World Children Peace Prize from Global Peace Index-Institute for Economics and Peace, and India Peace Prize from the International Youth Committee, to becoming the youngest speaker at the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Her speech was told “on behalf of the children of the world.”
It’s become increasingly clear, especially over the last two years, that people as young as Kangujam are extremely cognizant of the urgency of climate change—especially in countries like India where the dangers of climate change will affect millions (like the terrifying reality of climate change refugees). In fact, studies have predicted that certain Indian cities will be completely unlivable if this is to continue.
In an interview with VICE, the activist talks about her movement, what India needs to do about the climate crisis, and why her identity needs no comparisons.
VICE: When did you first become aware of the need for climate change laws in India?
Licypriya Kangujam: I’ve been attending various international conferences, meetings, seminars, and workshops with my father from a very young age. Having love and care for the environment is in my blood. In 2015, during the Nepal earthquake, I accompanied my dad for fundraising to help the victims’ children and families. When I saw children losing their parents and people their homes, I cried.
Then in July 2018, I was six and I got an opportunity to attend the Asia Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risks Reduction 2018 (AMCDRR 2018) in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. That’s where I first spoke in front of world leaders. It was life-changing. I met many great leaders and thousands of delegates from different countries. When I returned, I started an organisation called The Child Movement, to call on these leaders and take immediate action to save our environment, our planet, and our future. I also travel to raise my concerns about climate change. So far, I have been to over 32 countries. When I began the organisation, I was alone but today, I have thousands of supporters across the globe.
Many Indians deny that climate change is even occurring. What do you say to them and the internet trolls?
Most of the deniers are political leaders and workers who [spread] such propaganda on behalf of their political leaders, in order to suppress our movement. But the children know how the climate is changing. They can feel it.
[Prime Minister Modi] founded the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in 2015 with the French government. But in the last five years, coal imports in India have increased by 13 percent. I appreciate the effort but I want to question him: Is this India’s green new deal to fight climate change? I want to tell Mr Modi to stop buying coal from Australia. Instead of spending billions of dollars on buying coal, I want him to invest it in producing renewable energy, which is cheaper. This can also create millions of jobs for our youth.
You stood in front of the parliament building in July last year and urged PM Modi to pass the climate change law. What was that experience like?
I was very lonely and even cried one day when the police and security guards asked me to leave. Delhi is so hot in summer, so I faced heatwaves and sometimes heavy rains. Despite all of this, I spent multiple weeks in front of the Parliament House. My movement had begun in 2018, but the world only came to truly know me after this Parliament protest.
After my protest, more than six MPs (both from ruling and opposition) brought up the issue of climate change for the first time in the history of India in Lok Sabha, on July 24. I could feel the impact of my protest then.
You decided to leave school for a while, in order to continue your activism. What prompted you to make this choice? Has it alienated you from your peers?
My school is in Bhubaneswar which is about 3,000 kilometers away from New Delhi's parliament house. It would have been impossible for me to travel every week to protest because of the money that will incur.
But what helped was many national, local, and international organisations inviting me to speak for various events. This led to major issues in attending school. Should I accept or reject these invitations? Most of 2019 were spent in my protests, movements and attending events. This is why I left school and got homeschooled instead. This month, though, I resumed school and have decided to accept invitations only over the weekend and holidays. The only exceptions are United Nations official events.
How do your parents deal with your work and travel, especially at such a young age?
My mom, at first, didn’t support me as she is more concerned about my studies. But after almost a year after seeing the positive impact of my struggle, she started supporting me. But my father has stood by me from the beginning. He is my true hero.
Countries like India are set to be deeply affected by climate change. Do you feel the need to focus on India more because of this?
I feel we need to change from the grassroots to the global level to fight climate change. In India, I’m fighting to change three main policies: first, I want our government to enact a climate law so that we can regulate carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases. This will bring transparency and accountability to our leaders, and also benefit millions of poor people. Second, [I’m fighting for] compulsory inclusion of climate change as a subject in our school curriculum. Lastly, I advocate for a minimum of 10 tree plantations per student across India to pass their final exams. We have 350 million students, and if they plant this minimum amount of trees every year, we will be planting 3.5 billion trees a year.
In the global context, what environmental issues have you taken on?
I’m currently ready for a new mission in Japan, where I will launch an initiative called ‘Green Olympics’ during the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020. The key points of this charter include the Japanese government calculating and offsetting all emissions associated with the organising and running the Olympics; emissions-free transportation to and from the Olympic facilities; every athlete to plant a tree; no single-use plastic at the venues; and use of drone display, laser, and sound-light show instead of fireworks.
What do you think are the most immediate actions Modi’s government can take for the environment?
To enact a complete ban on fossil fuel-run vehicles by 2030 in order to cut carbon emissions, and replace them with solar and electric vehicles; enable a strict law to stop cutting down of trees; allow no new buildings to be built if there’s no space to grow minimum 20-30 trees; and control of greenhouse gases.
Some things are changing already. After several protests on the streets, I requested the Rajasthan government to include climate change as a compulsory subject in the school education curriculum. On January 13, I received a letter from Sachin Pilot, Deputy CM of Rajasthan, which said that they have started the process to complete my request. By doing so, India will be the second country (after Italy) and the first in Asia, to include climate change in a school curriculum. This is a big change, brought by an eight-year-old child. Other states will follow. From zero to 10,000+ schools in 2020, I call this the ‘Licypriya’s effect’!