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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Youth Climate Leadership: Lets Also Mind the Sharks

A couple of weeks back, I was in Singapore's United World College of South East Asia, listening to a roomful of young men and women talking passionately about climate change. As they spoke, a sharp, almost painful, thought struck my mind: "are we serious about transformative leadership here, or, is this just another ritualistic act?"

Now, why did I think of this? A little background might help. 

The youths I heard were from the ASEAN member states (If you didn't know already, these are Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) and they were here to take part in ASEAN Power Shift 2015 - a 3-day  training workshop on climate change and the  upcoming Paris Climate Conference (COP 21).
Youths at ASEAN Power Shift 2015. Photo credit: Young NTUC

It was a pretty diverse group:: some were graduate students in a university while others were still in junior high schools. Some already had a lot of knowledge about climate change and erratic weather, while others only had a faint idea of what it might be. And, as I found out later, only about half of  them lived in cities, with 24x7 internet access while  the other half lived in the provinces with little or no access to digital connectivity. 

Yet here they were - bound by a common thread: concern for a fast degrading environment in their respective countries and a strong wish to set it right

According to the organizers of the event ( 350 Singapore and Young NTUC), there was no significant youth movement from ASEAN region at the COPs and one of the core objective of ASEAN Power Shift was to build a sustained youth movement across the region, which would pressure and lobby each government to take positive climate action.

 It plain words, this means, everyone expected these youths to return to their countries, build a movement locally so their governments would take notice, listen and act to stop/curb climate change.

Fantastic idea! 

But then, not all ASEAN countries have are highly democratic

In fact, some are quite notorious for jailing activists - both political and environmental - at the flimsiest of pretexts. Some are also like killing fields where activists are murdered in broad day light and their killers are never brought to justice.

So, if these youths have to take up activism, what about the challenges and risks they would face? What about the political obstacles that might spring up before them? What about the security threats that many of them are likely to face as environmental/climate activists? Are these young people aware of those risks and hurdles? If yes, is there a room for them to express their fear and concern? Is there a room where senior activists and experts can listen to those concerns and advise the youths on how to tackle them? 

I remember talking about this with Chris Wright - an Australia-based climate change activist who was also there as a speaker. There has to be an open dialogue where these youths can talk freely of the suppression they might face back home," Wright said. I couldn't have agreed more!

Now, I was there to conduct a session on environmental blogging and once my presentation was over, a number of hands shot up in the air. Each one wanted to know how to move on and report/write in a hostile environment. I and my co-presenter Syaiful Rochman - an environmental activist from Indonesia, tried our best to answer these questions, but by then we were running late and we just had to close the session.

I and Syaiful with some of the youths we presented to


One of the questions that particularly shook me came from a young man from Brunei who was no older than 17/18: 'is there is absolutely no transparency and if there is a lot of risks in going out and reporting on an environmental problem, what could I do?" You could look at his face and see that he was already there in the field, surrounded by people that were hostile and ready to hurt.

ASEAN is one of the world's most climate-vulnerable regions where cyclones,  haze, drought and flood claims hundreds of lives each year. The fragile region could surely benefit a lot from a youth-led climate movement, both during the COP21 and well after that.

Climate vulnerable ASEAN needs their voices, but we need to assess the youth's vulnerability as well. Credit: Young NTUC

But before that happens, we also need to do three things: 1) provide a platform where youths, especially those living in a repressive society, freely speak of their fear 2) organize open dialogues between youths and experts where these fears can be taken note of and addressed 3) finally, create a peer support group -like a safety network - that they can reach out to whenever there is a need. 


Without that, even a well-intended and well-organized event like ASEAN Power Shift may not achieve its true goal or explore the youths full leadership potential. Worse still, it risks becoming a ritual that encourages youths to jump into a pool without talking of the sharks that infest the water.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Smart Sanitation: Shimla Sets an Example

A couple of days back, I read this really great news about Shimla - a hill station in the north of India: the popular tourist hub is aiming for smart sanitation by installing hundreds of E-toilets.

Now, what is E-toilet? Well, its an unmanned toilet which cleans itself, one that's based on a sensor-based technology.

Let me explain a little more.  As you see in the photo below, the toilet has a locked door. Now, when you want to use it, you insert a coin to open the door. As the door opens, the toilet's sensor-based light system is automatically turns on - pretty much like the way your ATM teller machine turns on when you swipe your card.
An E-toilet. Courtesy: Eram Scientific

And, just like the ATM machine, the toilet also will direct you with audio commands. This means, you will be directed on how to use the toilet.

To conserve water, the toilets are programmed to flush 1.5 liter of water after three minutes of usage and 4.5 liters if the usage is longer. This “smart” toilet also washes the platform by itself after every five or 10 persons use the toilet. An instructional note is pasted outside the toilet to make the user familiar with the functioning of this toilet. The auto flush goes off on its own and uses just the right amount of water that is needed - not less and not more.

 But why is Shimla adopting e-toilet, instead of building more of the old-style conventional toilets?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rohingya Refugees: Vulnerable on the sea, not much better on land!

You probably have been reading about them these past few days or watching them on TV - the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar who were chased out of their homeland and now floating around the ocean on boats with no food, no water and nowhere to go. Hundreds of them have already died already while death stares at hundreds of others.

Truth is, hunger and misery are also constant companions of even those Rohingyas who live on the land. I met some of them in Hyderabad city of India. Sharing here some of the images that, several months later, still haunt me!


The Rohingya refugees arrived in India from Bangladesh. For some, it has been a few weeks, while some have been here since 2012. Each one of them has a horrific story to share: beaten, tortured, forced to leave home, watching their near ones being murdered and their homes being burned down.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Toilets: teaching is better than talking!

Sometime in April, I met Roopa, an extraordinary young woman, in a village called Nagenhalli in south-west India. She was smart, friendly, warm and very pretty. But what made me call her extraordinary is this: the woman had built a toilet, all by herself.

Roopa's toilet
Now, before I tell you how she built the toilet, let me share the 'why':

Roopa is a Dalit and her mother is a former temple sex slave. All the men from her village wanted Roopa to also become a sex slave and, as she reached puberty, they began to look at her with lust. So, one day Roopa's mother ran away to another village miles away from her  own, taking along her 6 children.

But in their new village, women and girls were often sexually harassed and assaulted by men from
'higher castes'. Most of these assaults took place when girls and women went to relieve themselves in the open.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Death by coal: our women deserve better

A few weeks ago, I met Minjamma, a woman in her 50s, in Kariganur neighborhood of Hospet town in southern India's Karnataka. And it was a terrible experience.

It was late afternoon and Minjamma was getting ready to cook dinner. She brought out an iron cookstove, placed that in the lane next to her home and lit it. 


Within minutes, a big column of thick, brown, foul-smelling smoke rose and engulfed the whole lane.  My eyes, nose and throat began to burn and water and I found myself nauseated and struggling to breathe. Before I could black out, I ran - to the end of the lane, about 500 meters from Minjamma's house. But from there,  I could still see her bent over the stove, poking it and coughing loudly.

I was wondering when it would the smoke clear up, so I could return to Minjamma's home. However, soon  women from every house in the neighborhood began to light their stoves. The smoke grew thicker, uglier and the air became so smelly, I clutched my chest trying hard to breathe and hoping I wouldn't just drop dead.

 A few teenage girls came out of their homes and sat beside me, asking if I was ok and offered me water.  Once I was able to breathe easy, my first question was what was this horrible thing burning in every cookstove. The answer came as a shock: they were burning coal. 
Real coal.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clean India: There's No Glory in Being Stupid!

Last week I was in north Karnataka. One of the biggest attractions there is the dam over river Tungabhadra which provides water to several districts of north Karnataka and neighboring Andhra Pradesh.  I was told that this is a must-see and they were right: the dam was truly beautiful.

          
But every time I crossed over one of the branch canals of the dam, I saw it littered with trash. So, there were people bathing, washing and drawing water from the canals for their other needs while also throwing their trash in!  How disgusting!

I returned from the trip yesterday and saw the trash collector with her van. The woman -  employed by the  municipality - comes 3 times in a week and collects the trash. We have to pay her 50 rupees which is actually less than what a packet of cigarettes (about 90 rupees) or, a large bottle of Coke costs (80 rupees).

But every time the woman comes, she collects trash from only a few families in our lane. The reason? Others are not ready to pay her 50 rupees for trash disposal. And these are educated people from fairly well to do families!

So, how do they dispose their trash? Well, they go out in the evening with a bundle of trash ( a plastic bag) and throw it by the roadside. Sometimes, the trash collectors stop by and pick them up, sometimes they just rot there. Often, dogs tear them often, if they smell meat or fish.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When Thirst Beats Education

A few weeks back, I was in a village along the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where I met Sandhya Rani, a 10 year old. She was carrying a bamboo staff on her shoulder and , fastened to its ends, three aluminum vessels. In these vessels, she was going to carry water from a borewell for her family, along with her 7 year old sister Saundrya.

Their parents were working as migrant laborers in a city and the girls lived with their elderly grandmother.



I followed Rani from her house which was at the village' entrance to the borewell at the far end of the village. That was the only borwell in the village - the source of potable water for over 500 people.