When Swedish teenage climate activist and cultural phenomenon Greta Thunberg filed a landmark complaint at the U.N. last fall accusing several countries of inaction on climate change, she wasn’t alone: more than a dozen likeminded youth climate activists from around the world joined her. One of the youngest was 12-year-old Ridhima Pandey from the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, who has been agitating to save the environment in the world’s second most-populous country since grade school. Today, Pandey is a star in her own right in India and spends most of her days outside of school traversing northern India in service of its burgeoning youth climate movement.
Pandey, who wears her hair in a bob and has huge glasses, lives in Haridwar, a historic city on the banks of the Ganges, India’s holiest river, which has been clogged with garbage throughout her life. Both her parents are environmentalists and work for regional forest and wildlife agencies. Her father Dinesh chaperones on her increasingly packed schedule of activist engagements.
In 2017, she filed a petition with the Indian government’s National Green Tribunal for not treating climate change seriously, which was initially dismissed, but which she has now escalated to the country’s Supreme Court. She is also founding her own NGO. In modern India, where breakneck economic development is prized and the environment rarely gets even a mention from top politicians, Ridhima represents a new generation that is rejecting the status quo. Here, she speaks about the cost of development, the pervasiveness of plastics, and how Indian kids are leading the charge on lifestyle changes for a warming planet.
In December, you met the King and Queen of Sweden in Uttarakhand. What was that like?
It was amazing, I have never met royals before. They gave me a lot of their time and listened to me and my point of view about what I feel is happening in India. It was a very good experience.
And what did you tell them about India?
That our government is not doing as much work on the ground as they should. I live in Haridwar, a holy place – we call it Dev bhoomi, the land of God – but people are throwing garbage here and there, no one is really concerned about the environment. Ashrams (religious retreats) here put trash directly into the Ganges, people throw plastic into the ghats (riverbanks). So I told them about this. We met in Rishikesh, another holy city on the Ganges, and they had cleaned it up because there were visitors coming. But I told them it was not usually like that.
Do you still keep in touch with the other young activists you met at the U.N. in September?
It’s difficult because of the time difference, but we still keep in touch via Instagram and Whatsapp. We give each other ideas and support. For example, my friend Katharina from Brazil was very frustrated by an oil spill in her country because many animals and birds were dying in marine areas, so we suggested to her that she start an online petition.
How has the media attention been for you otherwise?
I’m very happy that the media is taking my message seriously. I think what it shows is that everyone cares about this issue, even the older generations. They have so far been very supportive in my work, and my confidence has been boosted.
You’ve been traveling a lot in recent months to other cities in North India like Dehradun and Delhi. How has it been to connect with other young Indians as an activist?
It’s very rewarding. I deliver speeches and kids are getting motivated. Many of them get in touch with me directly after I visit their schools. Sometimes it’s tough for me to go to faraway places because India is a big country, and I can’t miss too much school… I’m in eighth grade and have board exams. So, sometimes I have to turn down speaking offers, and I feel very bad. But as of now, I try to go to places nearby, like Rishikesh, Dehradun and Delhi.
What’s the status of your petition at the Supreme Court?
It’s still pending so we’ll see. If they dismiss that, we can’t file it again, but I am hopeful that this time it will be harder to ignore.
India was widely expected to ban single-use plastics last October, but then dissolved its plans at the last-minute. Were you disappointed?
Our Prime Minister said on an international platform that India will soon ban single-use plastics, so we all expected that. But then he changed and said that they will only ban polythene (the most common type of plastic). And seriously I can’t believe it. In India, every single small thing comes in a single-use plastic, and it would be one of the easiest ways to make an impact if we banned them. So I don’t know what he has done or why. The government says we haven’t found alternatives yet. But what’s the use of announcing that it happen in an international forum if we can’t actually do anything?
You live in a heavily forested state in the foothills of the Himalayas. What do you think are the biggest threats to India’s forests right now?
For one thing, they keep changing the definitions of forests. Like in Aarey Forest, in Mumbai. To most people, trees in that quantity in a specific area without roads or buildings would be considered a forest. But they declared it as a non-forest area so the Mumbai metro can build a depot there soon. Who is going to take care of those trees? I don’t know.
Individual people and companies are also cutting them down all the time, with no oversight. Here in Uttarakhand, my mom also works in forestry, so I know from her that what people do is go illegally into our forests, cut trees down, and sell them to hotels or companies or as firewood – just for their own profit, basically. Everyone is concentrated on their own interests. If it keeps going like this, we will have no forests left.
India has some of the world’s worst pollution these days. What has been your experience of pollution season?
In Haridwar it’s usually quite good, but these days after Diwali [the Hindu festival of lights], even here we are seeing smoke and dust. We were not able to see the sun for two to three days after the holidays. I was also in Delhi recently when the Air Quality Index (AQI) was so high that I was not able to breathe properly, and my chest was hurting, and I was literally crying. I wanted to go home but I had a speaking event, so I didn’t make an issue. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the kids who live there, kids smaller than me. People say that they are used to it, but their body is going to get harmed since pollution is so high. I have started an online petition about this, but to make a real difference, I think the government is the only one who can do something.
When you talk to other students at schools, what steps do you ask them to take for the environment?
I focus on small steps that everyone, even kids, can do. For example, using less paper in classrooms. Sometimes we throw out whole sheets that aren’t fully used, and making paper of course takes a lot of resources. I encourage kids not to waste food and electricity in classrooms and to recycle paper and notebooks. All of these small things do contribute to global warming. I also encourage kids to use bicycles and public transport, because it’s good for your health and more eco-friendly that motorbikes and cars. And also I suggest that everyone gives a few hours a week to read about climate change and just learn what it is and how it affects us.
Do you think the Indian government is pursuing development too aggressively? How does it affect their actions on climate change?
Yes, and it’s very bad because the power is in their hands, They make our laws. Everybody is taking our environment for granted, and if they ever think about it, they only want to make money from it. To me this is very bad. We are only here because of our environment. My teachers in school say that if we have a lot of something, we don’t realize how important it is until it’s gone. That’s how I feel about our natural resources. We can’t go on like this.
When adults talk about economic development and the future of India, I tell them I am also only doing this for my future and for our future. If we don’t have a future where kids feel healthy, how can we make any goals? I’m very frustrated and I want more action now.