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As a child, Abhiir Bhalla used to refrain from attending workshops on environmental awareness, faking stomach aches instead. Then, he realized the impact air pollution was having on his own health, and since then the 19-year-old has been actively involved in pursuing the environmental cause – especially those related to air pollution, waste segregation and sustainability.
Over the past eight years, he has worked extensively as a youth environmentalist both individually as well as with organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Delhi Metro Railway Corporation and United Nations Environment Programme. As a core team member of Care for Air (India), he leads a team of 35-40 young environmentalists to bring about a positive environmental change. He also works with Youth Connect, an England-based NGO, and produces climate-based podcasts under the banner of Ramphal Dialogues.
In a conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, Bhalla discusses issues around air pollution in the country, media discourse around climate change, and why young voices matter in the fight against climate change.
Sucheta Chaurasia (SC): Presently, we are witnessing a double trouble of sorts – a raging pandemic and air pollution. How are the two related?
Abhiir Bhalla (AB): So there is this study that says two things. The first – that prolonged exposure to air pollution can lead to the virus’ severity impacting us in a much worse way. The second – air pollution being as bad as it is at present, will also facilitate the spread of the virus. This was in January and now, there has been even more research that proves these points. So there is an undeniable link between the severity if not the spread, and the impact of the virus and air pollution.
SC: How do you look at the media coverage of environmental issues in India?
AB: There are two aspects to this issue.
The first – there isn’t enough coverage. Take air pollution, for example. The mainstream media only talks about it from October to January which is absurd. Because a few days ago, Delhi’s air pollution was just as bad as Mumbai’s air pollution three, four months ago, and at that time, people were saying, “Hey! Bombay’s air quality is worse than Delhi!”. So the idea that you talk about it only when you see it is absurd to me.
(And the second )What’s even more absurd to me is that it still doesn’t have that urgency., What the media discourse requires is urgency because air pollution and climate change are killing us slowly and steadily.
SC: Do you think youth voices need to be given more importance?
AB: Youth voices definitely need to be given greater importance. The reason being that the people who are sitting in Parliament right now will not be here twenty years from now. We are already witnessing the impact of climate change now, but 30-40 from now, we’ll be seeing the really devastating ones unfold (if something isn’t done about it). And at that point, if people from my generation sitting in Parliament are told to deal with the crisis, that’s not fair, because it will be too late then.
We are already about to reach, if we haven’t already, the point of no return. That’s why I feel it’s imperative that youth voices have a say and the power to change policies with regard to those specifically which influence our future.
SC: Is India in a position to set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050?
AB: India has still not made the net-zero commitment. That’s shocking. If they have not made that it tells you that we are not prepared for 2050. What I can say is that if we continue to emphasize renewable energy —then maybe we could reduce our carbon emissions a lot, but net-zero at this point, with everything else going on right now – I think the agenda presently is to do whatever it takes to revive our economy.
SC: What are some of the steps that can be taken on an individual level to save the environment?
AB: For those of us who live in urban areas – composting, switching to sustainable products, doing things in your houses, that in itself can help a lot.
Next, things like— buying electric cars if one can afford them, installing solar panels if you can afford them. People say, “Oh! we can’t afford rainwater harvesting! Balti to rakh hi sakte ho na bahar. Tub rakh sakte ho (You can keep a bucket or a tub outside). If nothing else, use that water to water your indoor plants, wash your dishes, wash your clothes. At least it can be used. So, you know, it is about finding these tricks, tips, hacks and solutions and a lot of them are out on the internet now.
SC: Lastly, any piece of advice to the young people looking forward to getting initiated in environment conservation?
AB: I think it’s all about passion and commitment. It is about doing your daily bit. If I don’t take a bucket bath, I do 10 other things; I segregate my waste, I compost my waste. It is about taking baby steps.
Every 2-3 months, set targets for yourself on how you can be sustainable. Start by setting up different bins to segregate your waste. Talk to your garbage collectors about the importance of segregating the waste.
I know a lot of people who start environmental or social initiates to pad up their CVs. Unfortunately, 60-70-% of them stop working when they get into the colleges, you know. Ideally, continue the project that you start, if not, at the bare minimum, hand it down to your juniors. Have a continuity, have a succession plan. Hand it to them! Make it efficient!