Don't Call This 8-Year-Old India's Greta Thunberg
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Licypriya Kangujam is half Thunberg’s age, but she has in spunk what she lacks in height.
By Pallabi Munsi
A crowd of men and women walked through the streets of Madrid behind two young girls as they held hands and spoke to each other animatedly. One of the girls was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swede who has become the face of a new generation’s fight against climate change. The other one was Licypriya Kangujam.
On reaching their destination, Licypriya hurriedly rolled out a placard that read: “Dear Mr. Modi. Please pass the climate change law in the ongoing Parliament session. Save our future! Act now! Act now!” It was December 2019 and the group was on their way to the United Nations Climate Change Conference 25 (COP25), where both girls addressed world leaders and urged immediate action against climate change.
Born in 2011, Licypriya is half Thunberg’s age — but she has in spunk what she lacks in height. The media calls her “Greta of the Global South,” but, she tells me with a confident grin: “Really, I’m Licypriya of India.”
At this rate, by the time I grow up, Earth will be uninhabitable.
The youngest climate activist in the world, 8-year-old Licypriya has made it her mission to hold Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his words when he says he’s a champion for clean energy. She wants to start by making sure India follows through on the 2015 Paris agreement. “It is already too late,” she squeals, with urgency in her voice.
Her conviction won over even U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at COP25, but Licypriya came away from the experience frustrated.
“I heard many speeches from our leaders. … ‘We will do this and that … we will, we will, we will.’” She stops and looks at her father. Finally, the child in her makes a cameo — she has lost her train of thought and what they had written down prior to our meeting. Her father prompts her in their native Manipuri language. “But in the end, the conference failed. It was such a waste of time and money,” she quickly remembers.
Recently, Licypriya says, she’s been “thinking a lot” about the looming water crisis, and she cannot stop worrying about the 844 million people who lack access to clean water. Getting up from the couch and pacing around the hotel lobby where we meet, she talks about the more than 800 children under age 5 across the world who die each day from diarrhea attributed to poor water. “I demand our government to include climate change as a compulsory subject in our school curriculum. They should also make a policy to ensure that each student plants 10 trees a year,” she says.
India has 350 million students — if each plants 10 trees a year, that’s 3.5 billion trees. Boosting forests, experts say, can be a critical component of curbing climate change and water scarcity.
Born in the small village of Bashikong in Manipur on the northeastern fringe of India, Licypriya is already a veteran of the movement. Her father, Dr. Kangujam Karanjit Singh, a local youth activist, recalls when Licypriya was just 4 and Singh’s friend K Abdul Ghani (aka the Green Man of India) came over. “She was fixated with him — she kept asking him why he is called the ‘Green Man,’ why is the environment important, what is climate change, etc. She talks a lot,” laughs Singh.
At age 6, she participated in the Third Asian Ministerial Conference for Disaster Reduction in Mongolia. She came home to start the Child Movement, to call on world leaders to take urgent climate action. She’s become a regular on the global summit circuit, visiting 21 countries so far, and has racked up awards, including the India Peace Prize. At age 7, she organized Africa’s biggest climate protest in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where 50,000 other children joined her.
In February 2019, she protested in front of the Parliament of India every week instead of attending school. In October, nearly 1,000 children joined her in her march toward Parliament, demanding stronger legal remedies against climate change. Then, as air quality dropped dramatically in New Delhi in early November, she walked the streets with an oxygen mask attached to a plant she carried on her back — a symbolic device she likes to call SUKIFU (Survival Kit for the Future) to point to how future generations might need to walk unless leaders act now. For example, in New Delhi poor air quality irreversibly damages the lungs of 50 percent of all children.
She can pack a punch on social media, where she drew global attention last week as she bristled at the comparisons to Thunberg.
It wasn’t the first time she’s sparred with the press. Last April, soon after Licypriya wrote a post on Facebook (now deleted) that she was “selected” to address a U.N. session in Geneva but had decided not to attend, the newspaper EastMojo reported that she’d never been selected at all, according to the U.N. Singh struck back, saying of his daughter: “One local paid media in Manipur [has] killed her career by spreading lies about her.” He has his own history there. Back in 2016, Manipur’s Imphal Free Press reported that Singh had been arrested for impersonating a U.N. official. The local Manipur media also found out that the prizes that she has claimed to have won are given by organizations fronted by Kangujam’s father.
And yet, the family is unabashedly taken on India’s leaders. Licypriya talks about how the Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar — who was also at COP25 — “runs away” from her, even as she believes Modi has started to listen to her. Javadekar’s office, for its part, contends that “India engaged constructively in the [COP25] negotiations while protecting India’s key interests,” including making sure developed countries help with the cost burden for implementing the Paris agreement.
Harjeet Singh, global climate lead at ActionAid International, says Licypriya is just getting started, and “especially such a young girl putting out such a message and pressure on the government has a lot of meaning. It indicates how the young generation is waking up to the climate crisis and must be appreciated.”
Even as her activism accelerates, Licypriya plans to return to school in April. “I want to become a space scientist — build a rocket and go to the moon,” she says. Her reason speaks to the urgency of her mission. “At this rate, by the time I grow up, Earth will be uninhabitable.”
- Pallabi Munsi