Individual Action At The Heart of Lasting Change: Meet Abhiir Bhalla
By Udaye Kumar for Save the Children
“My journey started in Class 6, I was very similar to Donald Trump, I couldn’t care less about the environment,” says young environmentalist, activist, and student Abhiir Bhalla. It was amusing to hear him say this at first, but as the conversation moved progressed, his journey unfolded from a person who was indifferent to climate change to now being a leading voice in young India’s fight for climate action.
Abhiir is a student, environmentalist, and activist who has gained prominence for his admirable work in the field of environment conservation, sustainability, air pollution, and waste segregation. He has leveraged his pedestal to advocate for reducing our carbon footprint through slow and steady action which is led through individual efforts. He is currently interning at PwC India and is a podcast producer for Candid Climate Conversations at ‘The Ramphal Dialogues’.
He has participated in BBC News’ State of The World Program where he had the opportunity to interact with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Sir David Attenborough and has addressed many Ted Talks on sustainability and the impact of climate change. Be it on the national or international stage, his action and youth-based agenda have left a positive footprint.
“I think change has to start small and change has to start at home and has to start with us,” said Abhiir, I had asked him what change-making meant to him as a change-maker himself, Abhiir went in-depth and articulated that there are so many of us who talk a lot about how change should be or what can be done.
“We often don’t practice what we preach”, being a firm believer in leading change from left, right and center be it ‘climate change or whether we’re talking about societal change’. “We can’t be pinning all the blame on governments and corporates, action has to be inspired by individuals, that has to percolate into societal action that’s when institutions and governments will act “.
Every change maker is on a journey towards creating lasting change, the only difference that lies is what led them towards their respective journeys. For Abhiir, his journey as a change-maker started in class 6, he commented that “very quickly I learned that I was very indifferent about climate change”. He told me that he learned of Delhi’s bad air quality which was affecting his health and that of everyone around him, the harrowing air quality caused him to have seasonal allergies which he continues to face according to his general physician.
These are seasonal allergies brought on by Delhi’s hazardous air quality. “So it was purely for selfish reasons that I realized that climate change and more specifically the air pollution aspect of it was harmful to me and my health” Abhiir stated. The reason why he mentioned it as a selfish motive is that he believes that nowadays climate advocacy has a very ‘gloom and doom aspect to it which he believes is necessary but beyond a point, it doesn’t work because at the end of the day everyone is asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ‘why should I do anything about it?’ Class 10th was a stepping stone for him, it was a period of learning the ropes and getting involved with his school’s Environment club.
“So for me, in all the advocacy work that I do, the central message of all of it or the central question I try to answer is, how are you affected, and what’s in it for you?” Abhiir added.
Another pivotal moment in his young change-making journey was the launch of his flagship campaign called ‘Swachh Chetna’ which was in collaboration with the Delhi Metro. It lasted for three years and Abhiir led plantation awareness drives at and around Delhi Metro stations. “It was a very inclusive project, we had 500 volunteers from not just public schools or private schools, but, also NGO schools. For me, the key success in that project is if 200-300 commuters at every metro station pause their daily commute to listen to you whether it is a Nukkad Natak or a flash mob, and then stay and ask questions, to learn what they can do in their day to day lives, that’s how you bring about change truly at the grassroots level”.
Focus On Climate Change
Climate change affects all of us through more extreme weather changes, increases in carbon emissions and lack of safe drinking water, it truly impacts all of us in different ways. Why do you think we humans should focus more on climate change? “Because we are the one’s doing the damage, climate change is a result of anthropogenic activity.
You look at London or California 40 years ago; they were as polluted if not more polluted as Delhi is today, so even within humans there’s further segmentation to who has their fair share of blame to account for, but at the end of the day we need to do our bit because we are the ones making damage on the planet whether it’s in terms of deforestation or whether it’s in terms of industrialization, we are at the center of it” said Abhiir.
He elaborated his answer by giving an example of the lockdown where he said that for the first time in 270 years, Delhi saw a steep drop in its air pollution by 79% within 3 days. The only explanation he said was that everyone was at home as our cars, planes, trains, industries, etc. were all not working. He also added that “at the same time we have to realize that it’s not a practical solution that we all sit at home, that’s not a practical solution and that’s why sustainable development is at the heart of everything the UN does nowadays”.
What We Can Do as Individuals
“That’s a very interesting question, because conventionally when we talk about any of these problems, people just say ‘it’s the governments’ or ‘it’s the corporates’ which have brought about a change, but that’s fundamentally flawed, we are stuck in a catch 22 where we are stuck in a vicious cycle. Let’s take the example of the firecracker ban which the supreme court, the national green tribunal, the high court, the environmental institutions, and the government have been banning for the past 5 years, yet year after year this ban is openly flouted.
Take 2020, the first Diwali we had in COVID, I thought because of how things are and all things considered, maybe people will listen. The following morning, I woke up to a TOI article saying that there were 12,000 complaints registered with the Delhi Police for firecrackers. Now we know those numbers are tiny, we know it’s pretty much higher, why am I going on and on about this example if those 12,000 complaints this year were to fall to 4,000 complaints, that sends a message not just to our society but also to our policymakers and our politicians. His main point is to do away with the vicious cycle of catch-22 through individual action which is at the ‘center of institutional change’
Abhiir worked with ‘Care for Air for 3 years, he led their operations and community outreach initiatives from 2020-2021 where he would do talks on air pollution and engaged with retirement home’s for ISRO scientists. He audited his school with the Centre for Science and Environment for environment-friendly and sustainable practices, Abhiir has promoted an action-oriented approach to advocacy. “We would do talks on air pollution and it would be action-oriented, more like a workshop where we were addressing what can be done and what is the change needed and how we can contribute to it?” Abhiir says about his time at care for air and how this model was successful even during the pandemic as they were doing a lot of webinars that could reach out to a wider audience online.
“Recently, I was representing India at the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. I spent a week and 10 days there focusing on the issues. I was representing the Indian perspective, the Indian youth’s perspective, and not just climate change but youth empowerment and the role in Sustainable Development Goals” revealed Abhiir. He is also a part of the Sustainability Campus Team at his college for the new campus which is coming up and also currently serves as the Board Advisor for the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council. He is also a student at Ashoka University.
Concerns About Climate Crisis
As young people, we are often frustrated and concerned about the state of the environment, we most concerned about the ongoing climate crisis which to this day continues to torment so many of us. Our planet is home to 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 to 24 the largest generation of youth in history. “Now 2 years later if you look at Pakistan the country is flooded, you look at Australia, you look at California, you look at our states we have floods and droughts in some places with just 15 days of difference between them” according to Abhiir. What for him is most concerning is the indifference of people and the skewed income distribution to deal with this problem. He pointed out that “we as people who are fairly well off can buy air purifiers to deal with air pollution, we can buy electric vehicles to be environment friendly and we can even buy solar panels, 30 to 40% of the country can’t afford to do that.”
What Gives Him Hope
“Our blog is titled ‘Generation Hope’ so what gives you hope about this generation in the fight against climate change? I inquired of Abhiir. “Well, it’s a very simple answer because we are the ones who are feeling the impact, generations above us and generations before us may have heard of climate change but they didn’t feel the impact. We are feeling the impact and therefore are inclined to act, it’s as simple as that. So that gives me hope because we are the future of tomorrow if there is a future” says Abhiir what gives him hope about this generation?
What He Would Do as Environment Minister
From his social media accounts, we know that Abhiir is a budding politician who one day aims to be the Prime Minister of India. Since we were talking about a topic that pertains to climate change and global warming, I asked Abhiir what changes he would bring to curb climate change if appointed the Environment Minister of India, he put forward 3 solutions which were 1) Improve accessibility to Electric Vehicles 2) Improving the quality of climate education in India which is tokenistic 3) Look at improving policy at large around climate change and enhancing punishments.
A World He Envisions
“I don’t want to live in a sci-fi world. My ideal world is to live on planet earth and nowhere else and to fix our emissions and have greenery and trees around us” says Abhiir when asked what kind of a world he envisions.
In conclusion, the underlying message of this piece is that individual action is at the center of institutional change and if we demonstrate to governments and corporates that we the people take climate change seriously and can bring about institutional change. As a young activist and youth environmentalist, Abhiir has promoted advocacy that is action-oriented and which ultimately snowballs into societal action.
We all breathe the air of this planet and drink the water that flows through it, but we also treat the planet with little love and care. As humans, it must be our responsibility to bring it back to life because somewhere we all are affected by climate change and its wrath.
In Abhiir’s words “we’re increasingly getting a seat at the table, but it’s time for us to have a say at the table”