A nine-year-old girl, Ridhima Pandey from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, has filed a petition against the Indian government, seeking action to save the planet for future generations
As US President Donald Trump scrapped his predecessor Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan in an attempt to turn back the clock on the global fight against climate change, a nine-year-old girl in India has approached the National Green Tribunal, the country’s environmental court, to hold the government to account for its commitment under the Paris climate agreement.
Ridhima Pandey, hailing from the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand in India, represents the generation that is going to inherit the earth with all the environmental problems left by our generation.
Ridhima approached the tribunal because history has shown that commitments made under international agreements rarely translate into action at the ground level or make a difference for average citizens battling climate change.
Uttarakhand has been devastated in the past three years by heavy rains, flash floods and frequent landslides, linked to climate change, and estimated to have killed thousands of people. Ridhima inherited her passion for climate change campaigning from her father, Dinesh Pandey, who has been working for 16 years for an environmental NGO in Uttarakhand.
In her petition, Ridhima, who is represented by advocates from Lawyers Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), argues the government needs to take urgent and effective, science-based measures under the existing environmental legal framework in India to reduce and minimise the adverse impacts of climate change in the country. The tribunal has admitted the petition and has directed the government to respond within two weeks. That leaves Ridhima hopeful of a better India.
The petition highlights the government’s failure to act on climate change, despite introducing many policies on paper. Ridhima argues that the government can mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change if it takes steps within the existing framework of environmental protection laws.
But the problem is in the implementation. To substantiate, the petition underscores the lacunae in the process of environmental impact assessment under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and the diversion of forest land despite the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The petition argues that various projects seeking environmental or forest clearance should also be appraised for climate change impacts and whether they are in line with commitments made to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under India’s nationally determined contributions to combat climate change. It promises a “low carbon emission pathway” for India.
Every year more than 50,000 hectares of natural forests are diverted by the Government of India and thousands of projects are granted environmental clearance. The impact of the massive diversion of forest land on aggravating climate change has never been considered. The petition further points out that the government committees appraising projects have not factored climate change impacts and mitigation into their decisions.
Through this ambitious petition, Ridhima asks the NGT to direct the government and its agencies to assess climate related issues while appraising projects for grant of environmental/ forest clearances. They should also check projects satisfy compensatory afforestation conditions before granting permissions for fresh diversion of forests, keeping in view the INDC commitment of increasing carbon sinks in the country.
Ridhima has also asked the government to prepare quantifiable targets, or a “carbon budget”, for the total amount of greenhouse gas (mainly carbon dioxide) emissions that can be released until 2050 by India, in keeping with the global responsibility of limiting the long-term average global temperature increase to no more than 2°C. India currently has a commitment to reduce the intensity of its emissions by 30-35% by 2030, compared to 2005.
Why are children coming forward?
It is well documented that children are the most vulnerable and worst affected due to adverse impacts of climate change across the globe. Unfortunately, owing to their “minor” status, they are not involved in decision making processes. Antony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, pointed out, “As temperatures increase, together with water scarcity and air pollution, children will feel the deadliest impact of water-borne diseases and dangerous respiratory conditions. As more extreme weather events expand the number of emergencies and humanitarian crises, children will pay the highest price. As the world experiences a steady rise in climate-driven migration, children’s lives and futures will be the most disrupted.”
Children are particularly susceptible to injury and death as a result of extreme heat, drought, floods and other disasters caused by climate change. They are also at an increased risk from food and water shortages caused by crop failure, ocean acidification, water and soil salinization, and species extinction. A 2015 UNICEF report estimated over half a billion children live in extremely high flood occurrence zones, whereas nearly 160 million live in high or extremely high drought severity zones.
There is hope
This petition follows a similar case brought by a seven year old girl last year against the Pakistan government for not taking sufficient action on climate change. It is a good sign that children like Ridhima are coming forward to bring about such positive change.
In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh writes that a “lack of transitive connection between political mobilization, on the one hand, and global warming, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in the countries of South Asia, all of which are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change.” He laments that “climate change has not resulted in an outpouring of passion in the country, despite the fact that India has innumerable environmental organisations and grassroots movements.” Hopefully, Ridhima will be able to prove Amitav Ghosh wrong.
Meera Gopal is representing Ridhima before the National Green Tribunal along with Ritwick Dutta from the Lawyers Initiative for Forest and Environment.