In September 2019, a collective called Extinction Rebellion spearheaded the organization of worldwide climate change protests. In more than 200 cities over 2 weeks, millions of people came together. The reason was simple enough, to show the UN and American Government a solidarity amongst the youth worldwide. I participated in the same protest in the city of Mangalore, Karnataka State, India. This is the story of my experience followed with my opinions and learnings about the root of the problem.
I grew up in Mangalore and moved out in 2009. I was back in town due to the sick health of my parents in 2019. It was my mother who received a poster on one of her whatsapp groups for this protest. This climate strike happened on September 20, 2019. There were around 250 people in the protest here, whereas New York witnessed 250,000 people on the streets of Manhattan on the same day. The image above is from the website that helped 4,000,000 people across the world coordinate.
At 4:30 PM, on 20th September I arrived in front of this Mangalore City Corporation Office, which was the venue of the strike. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wore a white shirt just in case. Many people were gathered already holding all sorts of banners. And when I looked around, I found the organizers also wearing white.
While I waited alone, I spoke to people around trying to fit in. I was from this city, but not of it. I felt like a fraud and was in a double mind to skip this altogether. One of the protestors I spoke to was a student, who shared with me his anxiety around the issue. I was empathetic for him because I was also going through severe eco-anxiety for many months prior to it. I used to talk to my friends about it, and I found it was pointless. But here, I felt I was being heard and understood. I was around people who were passionate about solving this problem. And the first problem we needed to solve was to raise awareness of this issue. The urgency of the crisis is not yet apparent to a lot of people. Moreover, everyone is too vested in their ambitions. From around 50 people when I arrived the crowd had swelled to more than 250 and felt electrically charged, ready for action.
At 5:00PM we formed a human chain. Kids, college students, adults stood facing the main road holding posters and banners. In the image you will notice 3 parts
- The human chain on the left
- Riot control police
- Main road traffic at junction
The choice of location was strategic as we needed to satisfy 2 requirements. Firstly, our chanting needed to be heard by common public. The protest would be successful even if a few uninitiated people pondered about this issue for a few minutes. Secondly, the organizers wanted to create a public forum after the chanting where Municipal Officials could also address the gathering.
Standing in line we got instructions to chant the slogan
“What do we want?
When do we want it?
Repeated a 100 times.
I could see the line extended more than 100 meters along the curb. People on the streets stopped for a while at the red signal and definitely heard our shouts. The traffic was building up as it was time when offices emptied out and the population traveled back home. In the duration of our chanting tens of buses full of Mangaloreans, hundreds of 2 wheelers and 4 wheelers passed us by. I was shouting at the top of lungs, aware I might score a sore throat if at all nothing else. At times I noticed people on the street pointing towards us, stopping to read more on the posters and generally displayed their support with a thumbs up. While there were a hundred people cramped up in a single bus, I noticed the people traveling alone in their air conditioned cars, their windows rolled up.
Such a disparity roused in me some of the horrific facts about the cause and impact of climate change. While the USA is not the greatest emitter of total CO2 today, its per capita emission is still 10 times more than Indians. Even in India the CO2 emissions of the bourgeoisie class are much higher than the average population.
Less than 5% of the population is responsible for 50% of emissions. And the same 5% live in glass houses protected from consequences, while the rest of the world will suffer from increased heatwaves, rising sea levels, polluted water sources and eventual loss of livelihoods.
After chanting the crowd gathered in front of the MCC entrance and a mic system was set up. One of the organizers, a lady from Puttur introduced the officials gathered in front. They were old and conservative government employees who take decisions for the city municipality of Mangalore. There were 3 demands which were brought up. From a bunch of bureaucrats I expected false promises hyphenated with praise and caution, nothing less. But what happened next took me by surprise. I was also shocked by my own reaction to the situation in the moment.
The demands were simple enough: a) Wet waste segregation
b) E- waste collection systems and
c) enforcement of rain water harvesting
By no means these demands were sufficient to actually tackle the problem of climate change. But it was a first small step in the right direction. Be mindful of the city we were in, Mangalore is not like Bangalore and Delhi. Instead it’s a small city with even smaller ambitions. These demands were reasonable, hence actionable. Instead of commenting on these topics the bureaucrat begins to question the ethics of the protestors.
Speaker question 1: How did you arrive to this protest? Didn’t you burn petrol and diesel and pollute the environment?
Speaker question 2: This generation of youth and kids is spoilt. Did you make up your beds in the morning? Or did your mother do it?
Rishi is getting confused, where is this speech heading towards?
Speaker question 3: Why do you buy cold drinks and chips? Doesn’t the plastic cause environment pollution? How many of you don’t drink cold drinks? Please raise your hands.
Audience gives mixed responses of Ayes and Nays.
Rishi *stares at the speaker grimacing, right hand raised, almost jumping.
The speaker makes eye contact with me and asks “Really?”
Rishi : Yes, I carry my own water and don’t buy cold drinks.
Speaker : That is a lie.
“That is a wrong line of questioning. You are derailing a healthy conversation by using hypocrisy as a scapegoat”
A wave of murmur spread through the protestors. The speaker faltered and looked confused. One of the organizers asked me to take a walk with her. She tried to assuage me by pointing out this could turn into a riot. I assured her that wasn’t my intention. I moved to the back and waited patiently for QnA to strike back.
I didn’t give much attention to anything that happened in between the speech and my question. I was shivering and my mind raced to shape the question I wanted to ask. The feeling wasn’t new to me, as I usually ask a lot of questions. I question my parents at home, my friends at parties, colleagues at work, strangers on the street and teachers in classes. So my mind raced to formulate a question based on some facts only I knew. I connected some dots, when a fellow protestor asked the bureaucrats about the delay in implementing laws for rain water harvesting in the building code.
Background: In the summer of 2018, Mangalore suffered a drought during April and May until the monsoon rains arrived.
Mangalore suffered from acute water shortage and water was supplied only once a week. Many people had to forgo showers in spite of the weather you can imagine in the summers. Even the wells dried up where usually the water table is hardly 10 feet below. The reason was simple, the annual rainfall for 2017 was in 21% deficit for Dakshina Kannada district. Moreover the entire catchment area of the river Nethravathi was in deficit zone.
Our district receives water supply from a dam 10 kms upstream called Thumbe. The water level in this dam was abysmally low in the summer, the river ran dry.
Even further upstream of this dam lies a weir, which supplies water to MRPL and SEZ with dedicated pipelines.
The shortage of water in summer is a recurring problem. So, every summer since 2016, MRPL operates at lower refining capacities in the month of May. As the city continues to grow and industries expand, demand has increased significantly. The river can only support so many people. So the myriad reservoirs dry up one by one as we move upstream. The rain restores water level only after June. While the citizens receive rationed water, MRPL uses 50MLD every day. Obviously the priority is for industrial applications, whereas the citizens suffer from cutbacks. So my question was the following:
When will you give water to the public and stop prioritizing industries like MRPL even in times of acute distress?
As soon as I finished my question, an applause broke out.
The official dodged my question by saying that MRPL also didn’t get the water in those weeks.
FYI, MRPL has finished construction of a 30MLD capacity desalination plant this year.
The protest wound up after a few local heroes shared their journeys. One of them had planted 1000s of trees in their lifetime. Another one ran a company about e-waste collection.
A good Samaritan approached me who used to work for a lawyer. He sought me out to explain the nuances of corporate laws and the legal agreements between companies and states for the use of natural resources. Basically, from protected forest land and water bodies, everything is for sale. One must be able to buy off the appropriate political parties.
Another student I spoke to earlier came closer to me and asked
Where do you find the guts to ask something so controversial?
It’s simple, I have been looking for solutions since 2016. I have already given up my cushy high paying corporate job in 2018. I’m working with startups who are figuring out scalable solutions. I know the facts and understand the glaring lies being perpetuated since the 90s. At this point no one can harm me, I feel I have nothing to loose. And that is why I’m able to raise my voice. I replied something on these lines.
A few more people shook hands with me. Finally I spoke to the organizers about their future plans and extended my support as a technical consultant for upcoming projects. They practice sustainable practices in their family farms and support local produce and related small scale industries. Thereby generating some low skilled but much needed employment.
Honestly, this was the first climate strike I attended. It felt cathartic after we chanted the slogans for 30 minutes. For a few days after the event I felt like I truly achieved something. It’s been more than an year since this experience, but I don’t know how protests can overcome the insurmountable problem of consumerism and unchecked capitalism globally. Isn’t this the crux of our problem? The world economy is built on the foundation of fossil fuels. And free enterprise is the structure which takes it to dizzying heights. How can we expect to replace the foundation without consequences? What we may need is a scaffolding to support the economy while this transition happens. And what is this scaffolding? Is it carbon capture technology or the reorganization of society I cannot yet fathom.
Lastly, I noticed this courageous girl at the rally with an oxygen tank prop. Such imagery is more than enough to propagate the scope of the problem.
I’m worried for the youth and my family.
At least I can say to them I tried. Ofcourse I’m still trying and I’m evolving my methods, iterating my path based on continuous learning.
Even though I have degrees from NIT and IIM, I haven’t sold myself to the highest bidder for a white collar job. I will continue to struggle and find solutions.
An insightful saying comes to mind:
It’s best to be unemotional in your response for emotional subjects.
I hope you enjoyed this story, find me on LinkedIn and Medium to start a conversation.