Published: 20th November 2019
Manipuri girl Licypriya Kangujam is India's youngest climate warrior — what are we doing?
Forget Great Thunberg. Meet Manipuri girl Licypriya Kangujam who dropped out of school and is on an endless campaign to clean the environment up, deter climate change and make the world a better place
As a six-year-old, what were you moved by? Seeing a friend cry or breaking your favourite toy perhaps? It’s hard to imagine that at that tender age, one would empathise with those who have lost their homes, or worse, their loved ones when disaster struck due to climate change. It’s even harder to imagine that this young girl started protesting in front of the parliament every week since February 2019, calling attention to climate change and its dire consequences.
No, we are not talking about Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate change activist who is serving as the world’s conscience, but in some ways, we are. This little girl, who is creating huge waves across India, we are talking about is Licypriya Kangujam, also known as the Greta Thunberg of India. With activism in her blood (her father is an activist), she was born in Bashikhong, a small village in Imphal, Manipur, came to Bhubaneswar and studied in KiiT International School and currently, is schooling everyone about the need to act on climate change. She has been to several international conferences, has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and is certainly not naive. She knows protesting is good for awareness, but needs to be followed up with action. “We should walk the talk at our home and workplaces otherwise protest has no value.
Overall, it’s a positive change in this world to save our environment, our planet and our future,” she implores. She started The Child Movement, collaborated with experts from IIT Jammu for SUKIFU and is relentless in the pursuit of her goals. So, before she zips off to Madrid for COP25 Chile (United Nations Climate Conference 2019), we catch up with her to find out about climate change as a subject in schools and how children are the frontliners of this movement. Excerpts:
She is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi (she was born on October 2 too), Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Shashi Tharoor and PM Narendra Modi
Tell us a little about your life before you became an activist.
I came to Bhubaneswar when I was 4. In 2016, I got admission in Nursery at KiiiT International School. When I first came to Bhubaneswar, I did not know how to speak Hindi, English or Odia. KiiT International School nurtured me with regards to leadership qualities and other challenges including languages. The school assembly duties were assigned to me once a month and it helped me conquer stage fear and enhanced my speaking abilities on a larger platform. Moreover, Dr Achyuta Samanta is also my inspiration. On the other side, Hi-Tech Medical College Chairman Dr Tirupat Panigrahi encouraged and supported me a lot too.
Can you take us back to the moment when you first felt that you need to do something for the climate crisis? When and where did it happen?
In July 2018, when I was just six years old, I got an opportunity to attend the third Asia Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction 2018 (AMCDRR 2018) in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. It was a life-changing event. During the conference, I met many world leaders and thousands of delegates from various countries of the world. Many of them highlighted various disastrous issues. I cry when I see or hear about children losing their parents or people becoming homeless due to the danger of disasters. My heart feels sorrow for people who can’t help themselves when disaster strikes. The root cause of these disasters is climate change. After I came back home from Mongolia, I started an organisation called The Child Movement to call on world leaders to take immediate action to save our environment, our planet and our future. I travel place to place to raise my concerns about climate change and disaster risk reduction. So far, I have travelled to over 18 countries as a part of my movement.
Licypriya marching with 50,000 youngsters in Angola | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
What motivated you to drop out of school? When did you do so? Do you continue to study?
In February 2019, I decided to protest every week in front of the Parliament of India to draw the attention of our leaders, our MPs and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. I wanted them to pass a climate change law in India to control and regulate the emissions and the carbon footprint to save our future. Despite all security restrictions and no permissions to protest in front of the Parliament, I protest every week. On June 21, 2019, the media started noticing me and highlighted my issues globally for the first time which later on, become a global attention. As a result, on June 24, my demand was discussed in Rajya Sabha (Upper House) as a calling attention motion which was brought up by seven MPs to draw the attention of the PM and the environment minister. The western news of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist who protests every week in front of the Swedish Parliament also greatly influenced me and motivated me to move ahead to reach my goals. But she is 17 and I am just 7.
To protest every week in front of the parliament and to demand an enactment of a climate law in India, I dropped out of school in February 2019. My parents admitted me to St Joseph School in order to continue my education, but I couldn’t go to school due to the activism in various places across the globe. Now, many top schools in the world offer me free education with scholarship. But I haven’t decided yet. I am thinking about continuing my education as my education also has equal importance to shape my future career.
Licypriya during The Great October March 2019 | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
After the moment when you felt commitment towards the cause, what was the first action step you took?
First, I read lots of books, attended dozens of international meetings and other high-level events of United Nations across the globe. I listened to the news everyday to deeply understand the cause I am fighting for. I met many renowned environmentalists, living leaders and members of think tanks of the country who are working in this field so that I can receive proper guidance. Many of them helped me a lot and still offer advice every day. They inform me about the latest news, updates and books every week. They are my true foundation. I just want to say, ‘Experienced is the best qualification of life.’ The Child Movement is a voluntary movement by the children and for the children so that we can raise our concerns about the global issues which affect us directly or indirectly. Till now, we focus mostly on the environment and peace cause.
You have travelled to various countries and have given speeches. What has this been like?
Some of the important events I attended are World Youth Conference 2016, South Asian Youth Summit 2017 (India), Asia Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018 (Mongolia), South Asian Youth Summit 2018 (Sri Lanka), United Nations Global Platform for Disaster Risks Reduction 2019 (Geneva), the United Nations Asia-Pacific Climate Week 2019 (Bangkok), Global Youth Peace Ambassador Program 2019 (Maldives), UNESCO Partnership Forum 2019 and so on. My speech is drafted after several brainstorming discussions with my mentors after I express my feelings and prepare accordingly as per the theme of the session where I am going to speak. Before drafting any speech, I always apply my quote, “I am not a millionaire but I can donate my heart to millions.”
In front of the UN headquarters | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
You have also received many awards. Which of the awards are the most prestigious and important for you and why?
Yes, I received many awards in recognition of my contributions to the environment, global climate change movement and peace. World Children Peace Prize 2019, India Peace Prize 2019, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Children Award 2019 and Rising Star of Earth Day Network.
World Children Peace Prize is the most prestigious and important for me as it’s given to me by the Global Peace Index – Institute of Economics & Peace (IEP), Australia. The Global Peace Index (GPI) is a report produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) and developed in consultation with an international panel of peace experts from peace institutes and think tanks with data collected and collated by the Economist Intelligence Unit. GIP is endorsed by individuals such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President of Finland and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus, economist Jeffrey Sachs, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson and former United States president Jimmy Carter. The updated index is released each year at events in London, Washington, DC and at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. It’s a big encouragement and motivation for me.
Tell us about the Great October March 2019 and how you planned for it.
The Great October March 2019 is a global climate protest led by me. It was launched on October 21, 2019 from India Gate with my thousands of supporters. The event was embraced in the developing nations of India, Uganda, the Philippines and Nepal — countries acutely impacted by climate change — as tens of thousands of school children and students in more than 70 countries went on ‘protest’, demanding that the political elite urgently address the climate crisis. It’s our time to rise up. We don’t have a lot of time left; it’s us who have to make a change so I thought it would be important to be here and show support to our generation. Till today, only five countries New Zealand, Australia, UK, Mexico and Peru have a legislation on climate change and 98 per cent don’t, including India.
We were marching to call on world leaders to enact the climate law as soon as possible so that it can regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases to save our planet and our future. They must unite and act now before it’s too late. Coordinated via social media by volunteers in 70 countries and regions, the action spread across more than 1,000 events under the banner of Child Movement for urgent action on climate change and also to enact the climate law. The biggest historic rural climate strike of the world happened in Paralakhemundi town of the Gajapati district in Odisha, India. Alarmed by the Delhi air pollution and images of the felling of thousands of trees at Aarey forests, students and workers from abandoned schools, shops and offices in nearly every corner of the Delhi, aiming to stop what they see as a looming environmental catastrophe joined the protest at India Gate. The protests started in New Delhi, where rising air pollution threaten life and was followed by Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Southeast and on to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.
SUKIFU | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
Tell us about SUKIFU. When did the idea come to you, when did you start collaborating with IIT Jammu and what is the future of it?
SUKIFU (Survival Kit for the Future) is a symbolic device to curb air pollution. SUKIFU is almost zero budget kit, specially designed from trash to provide fresh air to our body when the pollution rate is high. This wearable plant is in recognition of the green movement and it would grab the attention for all those who are facing deadly pollution. The abbreviation stands for SUrvival, KIt and FUture. Anybody can build this at home from trash by recycling. I launched it in front of the Punjab and Haryana Legislative Assembly as a symbol of demonstration before the oath-taking ceremony of newly elected Haryana MLAs and ministers.
This is the ultimate solution. Whoever carries this would no doubt attract the attention of the climate experts, pollution control board members, scientists, policy-makers, city/municipal commissioners and the entire generation, who are bound to ensure a ‘safe future’ for their ‘generation next’. This type of pollution is not acceptable by any standards. I was inspired by the Chih Chiu’s ‘Voyage on the planet‘. This invention sends a poignant message about environmental degradation and questions the planet's unknown future and environmental depletion. This idea came because governments are busy blaming each other instead of finding a long-term solution. No children were able to go out in Delhi and all schools were closed. The project is inspired by the air pollution problem in Delhi. I don’t want its message to only be about the environment. Instead, it’s about the same adaptability that caused me to come forward with this mission, the qualities of resilience that it takes to survive now and in the future. The demonstration speaks thousands of words. She developed the model with the support of Prof Chandan Ghosh, Professor at IIT Jammu who is one of my mentors.
At AMCDRR | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
Which conference are you headed for next? Will you be speaking there?
I will be travelling to Madrid, Spain from November 30 to December 14 to attend the COP25 Chile (United Nations Climate Conference 2019). Probably, I will be speaking in two sessions. One is an awareness-raising session called The ACE workstream and another session is called Global Climate Action workstream.
What's next for you? What are you planning to do and what will be your next step?
I have sent a notice to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Central Pollution Control Board to find a permanent solution for air pollution with some set of recommendations for solution. I don’t know if they will read my letter or not, but I have already started the legal process to sue them both through Delhi High Court to transform my letter to action. And I am preparing to sue the Government of India to enact the climate law as soon as possible through the Supreme Court of India. These will be the two main tasks for the next few months.
Simply protesting or raising our voice on the streets doesn’t make any sense to today’s leaders. But we have to save our own future even if they don’t act. And in early 2020, I am planning to open a sustainable and free residential school for the victims of armed conflicts, especially for orphans. I follow the adage, ‘If you educate a child, you can change a life. If you can educate many, you can change the whole world.’
At a protest | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
Is our education system teaching enough about climate change and its consequences?
Not exactly. Now, climate change is just a small topic of a few hours in the present-day education system. We need to rectify at a larger level as a compulsory subject from primary to university level. Recently, Italy adopted a climate change subject as a compulsory subject. All countries must follow. I want to become a space scientist in the future. I want to launch a rocket to the moon or Mars to research on how we can live there and also, how can we make air and water to survive there as an alternative as our earth will be dying soon.
What is SUKIFU?
- In SUKIFU, a potted plant is housed inside a clear backpack (rucksack) hooked up to one tubes to funnel fresh air into a face mask
- It's a bold, abstract take on an oxygen tank
- The transparent rucksack contains a plant, which connects to the breathing apparatus
- Another hole in the downside supply the natural fresh air inside the tank through a pipe with four layers of activated carbon
- The plant symbolises our dying environment and our planet due to human beings
- No chemicals or electricity is used in this device.
With Kailash Satyarthi, Shashi Tharoor, Pranab Mukherjee and Milkha Singh | (Pic: Licypriya Kangujam)
Three policy changes she would bring about
- First, I will enact the climate law in India so that we can regulate the carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases.
- Secondly, compulsory inclusion of climate change as a subject in our school curriculum
- Thirdly, a minimum of 100 tree plantations for high school students, 500 tree plantations for the undergraduate, 1,000 for university students (PG to research) to pass the final exam.
For more on her, check out facebook.com/Licypriya4Planet