From September 20-27, the Global Climate Strike or the Global Week for Future was observed worldwide. The event was a part of the school strike for climate movement, inspired by young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. In the context of the just concluded climate strike, Nahid Riyasad writes about youth movement for environment in Bangladesh
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
— Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Action Summit, September, 2019.
WHEN millions of people are marching in hundreds of major cities across the globe, Arshak Makichyan, a young Russian violinist, stands alone for 30 Fridays on the trot, at the central Moscow — in a one-person protest. Russia’s climate as well as fossil fuel based economy might obstacle the northerners to think deep about the serious impacts of global warming, but little by little, people are standing with Arshak.
Greta Thunberg’s call for global climate strike has gained enormous support from across the globe. Bangladeshi youth too have organised events in solidarity. While largely majority of the solidarity events in Bangladesh were NGO supported, some students have use this moment to raise their voice against the Rampal Coal-fired Power Plant or Roopur Nuclear Power Plant. Many have asked in social media, where is our Greta Thunberg? It is a question that demands our attention. Before engaging with this question, we must take a look at the current youth movement for climate justice in Bangladesh.
Greta Thunberg effect
ALREADY nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 16-year old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has already spearheading an unprecedented movement across the globe — Global Climate Strike. Much like Arshak, she started her protests alone, in August 2018, outside the Swedish parliament, holding a placard that read — school strike for climate.
Soon students from other communities started holding similar protests. In no time, Greta became a known face and became synonymous for climate justice. After she addressed the 2018 United Nations Global Climate Change Conference, her idea of school strike spread across the world.
The first major worldwide protests held on March 15, 2019 where more than a million strikers gathered in more than 2200 separate strikes in 125 countries. On May 24, 2019, in the second major gathering, similar people gathered in 150 countries.
The 2019 Global Week for Future is a series of more than 4500 strikes across more than 150 countries too place during the week of September 20-27. According to the Global Climate Strike website, more than 7.6 million people in 185 countries have carried out 6135 actions of protests organised by 820 organisations. From Jakarta to New York, Karachi to Amman, Berlin to Kampala, Istanbul to Québec, Guadalajara to Asunción, in big cities and small villages, millions of people joined hands and raised their voices in defence of the climate.
On September 23, Greta delivered a speech in United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. Her strong choice of words and rather aggressive demeanour have offended many people, as observed in responses in different social media platforms; but her speech provided the necessary spark for the long due movement.
‘How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than eight and a half years,’ she said in her speech.
Hours after the speech, Greta and 15 other children from 12 different nations have filed complaint with United Nations alleging five of the major economies — Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey — for violating their human rights by not taking adequate actions to combat the unfolding climate change.
The complaints came on the first day assembly of the Climate Summit, where dozens of global leaders revealed their countries’ plans to reduce carbon footprints.
At a press conference, the young climate leaders explained background of the complaints. Carl Smith, a member of the indigenous Yupiaq tribe who lives in Akiak, Alaska, USA explained how global warming has increasingly become an obstacle to their subsistence economic activity — hunting and fishing — that his community depends on.
Climate strike in Bangladesh
SINCE 2016, the government has introduced School Cabinet Elections with an objective to promote democratic practices among students. In 2019, the elections took place in 22,961 educational institutions of which 16,245 are secondary schools and 6,716 are Dakhil madrassahs.
Among the eight points in the portfolio of the elections, according to the government website, the first is the protection of environment.
Most of the climate protests that took place in Bangladesh in the past week took place at different schools. It is worth mentioning here that most of these events were collaboration between school authority and non-governmental organisations. There were some exceptions, but largely the Global Climate Strike was organised by NGOs committed to environmental justice.
In Bangladesh, climate strike was participated by students, but it was hardly a student led initiative.
On March 15, 2019, more than 300 young people, mostly students marched from Barishal town hall as part of climate strike. Jointly organised by two NGOs with support of the Barishal City Corporation, protesters marched under a banner that read ‘Friday for Future: Global Climate Strike’.
On September 20, more than 3000 students from 30 different schools and colleges staged a protest at Manik Mia Avenue, Dhaka urging the global leaders to act immediately to stop the impending climate crisis. The event was jointly supported by Save the Children Bangladesh, Green Savers and Sailor by Epyllion Group.
On September 27, students of Monoghar Residential School, Rangamati staged a demonstration expressing their solidarity to the global climate strike.
On November 29, Novera, a cycling group of Narayanganj organised a cycle rally to mark the last day of Climate Week 2019. Eleven young girls cycled through the city roads with placards promoting environmental causes. Some of the messages were — save the trees, save our hills, we want fresh air and more.
Similarly, school students of Bandarban, Narayanganj, Chittagong, Cox’sBazar, Jamalpur and Khulna held demonstrations in respective areas to express solidarity with the on-going global climate strike.
Police brutality and youth movement
Under the Power Sector Master Plan, the government is planning to undertake a number of development projects and many of those power plants are based on fossil fuel or nuclear power. Among many, Rooppur Coal Power Plant and Rampal Coal-fired Power Plant are two projects of the current government that generated a lot of criticism from environmentalists in Bangladesh.
Rampal Power Station is a proposed 1320 megawatt coal-based power plant in Rampal of Bagerhat. For its close proximity to the Sundarbans, 14 kilometres north, the largest mangrove forest in the world, environment experts have been vocal about its future adverse effects on the bio-diversity of the Sundarbans. This plant would, moreover, threaten livelihood of thousands of locals who live nearby. The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports took to streets protesting against the coal-fired thermal power plant project, a joint initiative of Bangladesh and India. Since the beginning of this movement, popularly known as Save Sundarbans movement has gathered a lot of support from youth community.
On October 18, 2016, hundreds of anti-Rampal protesters marched towards Indian High Commission to submit a letter to the Indian prime minister for scrapping the coal-fired power plant project. Law enforcers armed with water cannon swooped on the protesters, cordoning them off in between Mauchak intersection and Malibagh level crossing. As police used water cannon and tear-gas on the protesters, more than 30 were left injured — many of them were youth. Later a cycle rally, singly organised by young students were attacked by members of Bangladesh Chatra League.
It is quite common in Bangladesh for state forces to stand against the youth for their support to student or other issues of public interest. The Road Safety Movement 2018 is another burning example of state’s unwillingness to listen to youth voices. Protesting death of two fellow school students by a reckless driver on the Airport Road in Dhaka, students across the country formed a major movement on the first week of August 2018 demanding a reformation of the transport sector. Law enforcers as well as ruling party activists launched series of attacks on the protesting school students in different areas of Dhaka which left scores injured. A number of young journalists were also assaulted by ruling party men while covering the incident.
The state not only uses legitimate force to quell dissent, but also heavily incentivises those who pull the trigger on field. In the police week 2019, highest number of police officials in the history of Bangladesh, 349 to be precise, have received accolades from the prime minister for their valiant work on the line of duty. Among them, nineteen were recognised from Dhaka division — for their outstanding performance in quelling student protests. One of the protests was road safety movement.
Under such circumstances, how could our youth talk challenge the power?
Greta Thunberg demonstrates, during her climate summit speech, how the youth should talk to the power — how dare you? She directly challenged and questioned integrity of some of the most powerful people on the planet for the climate change.
Many facebook users have recently drawn public attention to a contrasting event from a very recent history of prime minister’s conversation with ‘youth leaders’ of Bangladesh. On November 23, 2018, prime minister Sheikh Hasina participated in a programme ‘Lets’ Talk’ which allowed youth leaders to directly speak to the head of the government. Some young viewers who watched the programme later found the question asked by these leaders were rather superficial — they were not necessarily questions, but a form of praise uttered in the spirit of absolute loyalty.
During the week of Global Climate Strike, Bangladesh has indeed seen many actions, but they were rather acts of symbolic solidarity. Until and unless, the government ensure a space to raise question without any fear of repercussion, it is hard for local youth to effectively respond and participate in the global movement for climate justice.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth
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