In November 2016, India's capital New Delhi declared its pollution levels an "emergency situation", prompting environmental agencies to call it the most polluted city on Earth.
Toxic smog enveloped the city, shuttering schools and limiting traffic flow for three days. Construction and demolition activities were ordered to halt for five days, and coal-fired power stations closed for 10 days.
That was the year climate activist Licypriya Kangujam moved to Delhi to begin her schooling. In 2018, a deadly cyclone ravaged the east Indian state of Odisha, where some of her family lived. That same year, Licypriya accompanied her father to a United Nations disaster conference in Mongolia. Then, only 6 years old, Licypriya decided enough was enough.
“It was a life-changing event, listening to experts talk about the dire future of the planet if action wasn’t taken,” she recalls. “And I wanted to do something.”
In July 2018, Licypriya launched The Child Movement (Bachpan Andolan), which she refers to as a “people’s movement” that calls on world leaders to take immediate climate action.
Her first protest, held in February last year outside Delhi’s Parliament House, had three main demands for the Indian government: to pass a climate change law, to make climate education compulsory in all schools and to ensure the plantation of a minimum of 10 trees by every student in India.
Her weekly protests quickly gained traction, and she was dubbed the "Greta Thunberg of India", after her young Swedish climate activist peer. Invitations soon began pouring in from all over the world.
“When I began the movement, I was alone. But today, I have thousands of supporters across the globe,” says Licypriya, who is now 9 years old.
Meeting Greta Thunberg
Licypriya, who is originally from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, has travelled to more than 32 countries and spoken at more than 400 events around the world.
The highlight of her activism so far, she says, was speaking at the United Nations Climate Conference 2019 (COP25) in Madrid, Spain, last December, where she also met Thunberg.
“We spent time together for about four days. It was wonderful. We discussed various issues about climate change and future plans. I invited her to India, but it’s very difficult for her to travel as she doesn’t fly,” she says.
Of course, activism comes with its own risks. Licypriya actively uses Twitter, where she has more than 92,000 followers, to put pressure on lawmakers around the world. That often puts her in the firing line for people who are opposed to her views or who do not appreciate her criticism of certain politicians.
“I never pay attention to [the trolls],” she says, “Every day, I block between 10 and 100 people who attempt to cyberbully me as I don’t have time to argue or fight with them. But I receive plenty of online threats and abuse every day to silence my voice whenever I speak out [against] any of our leaders.”
Licypriya’s father KK Singh, who monitors her account and is usually her chaperone on her travels, says he is constantly in fear for her safety. But he says he and his wife will support their daughter all the way.
"She has sacrificed a lot, her childhood and all the things she would have experienced as a kid. That’s why she is always angry at our leaders,” he says.
Protesting in her free time
A class 3 student, Licypriya has been home-schooled since her activism began. While she’s been attending online classes during the coronavirus pandemic, she hopes to go to school in Delhi once the new academic year begins. Her aim is to become a space scientist.
“I did home schooling to fill up the gap as both education and my activism are equally important for my future. It’s been hard for me to manage both,” she says.
“Now I accept invitations only on Saturdays, Sundays and other holidays except UN and government events. As for my protests, I decided to conduct them only during my free time, like in the afternoons or on holidays.”
Her activism has yielded positive results, says Licypriya, who was invited to Dubai to speak at the first Schools Conference of Parties Expo in October. Her session was eventually held online.
“The Indian government last month set up a commission to draft an air pollution law, which was signed by the Indian president. And so far, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Sikkim have given me a positive response to include climate change as a compulsory subject in school curriculum. More than 100 private schools have already started taking this initiative across the globe after my request,” she says.
“Also, more than 350,000 trees have been planted across India and Africa, which is equivalent to planting 100 trees every day since my birth. India has 350 million students, if each plants 10 trees every year that works out to 3.5 billion trees. Trust me, India will be green within five to 10 years.
"This will help fight the air pollution, floods, droughts, heatwaves and other environmental issues in the country.”