Human Rights Day: How children use their agency to build a safer, greener environment

Young crusaders in the Sundarbans are making efforts to convince community members to plant trees and nurture them so that their future is safeguarded

By Trina Chakrabarti
Published: Saturday 10 December 2022
Human Rights Day: It is children’s right to inherit a world safe from climate change impacts
Around 330 million children (one in seven children globally) are highly exposed to riverine flooding. Photo: iStock Around 330 million children (one in seven children globally) are highly exposed to riverine flooding. Photo: iStock

It is Human Rights Day today. It is the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Let me begin this article by talking about a dinosaur, made famous by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It makes a dramatic entrance at some world summit on climate change, walks all the way to the podium, takes up the microphone and warns world leaders of the extinction that we are heading towards.

It warns us about the impending disaster that we are scripting for ourselves, and ends its speech with a powerful message — “Don’t choose extinction! Save your species before it’s too late!”

Yes, I am referring to the two-and-a-half minute video by UNDP — which went viral sometime last year.

However, Soumyadeep Bhuniya, a 15-year-old hailing from a small village in coastal Bengal’s Sundarbans delta hasn’t seen this video. He doesn’t even remember anything of the fateful day in 2009, when the super cyclone Aila pummeled their village in Patharpratima block of South 24-Parganas. He was only a toddler at the time.

But he has heard horrifying stories from his parents, neighbours and relatives. People and cattle were washed away and never found. Some had to cling to high, quivering branches of submerged trees for days before help arrived.

Mud houses were razed to the ground. Trees were uprooted and acres and acres of farmland destroyed by swirling saline water. His family and their neighbours and people from neighbouring villages spent long days and nights at hastily set-up dingy shelters, waiting for the ‘storm’ to pass, in every which way.

More than a decade on, teenager Soumyadeep is well aware that he lives in an environmentally fragile zone. Year after year, cyclones and tropical storms have ravaged this region, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction of agriculture, property and infrastructure, damage to the environment and ecosystem and endless misery.

School buildings have been destroyed, time and again, hampering primary and secondary education of children. Healthcare centres have had to be shut down for days together disrupting routine services for children and the community at large. Over time, lives and livelihood have been rebuilt, only to be decimated again by another ferocious storm the following year or the next.

A recent Unicef report on The Children’s Climate Risk Index brings to the fore the calamitous future that Soumyadeep and his generation stare at.

According to the report, 400 million children (nearly one in six children globally) are currently highly exposed to cyclones. This is likely to get worse as high-intensity cyclones increase in frequency, rainfall intensity grows, and cyclone patterns shift.

Around 330 million children (one in seven children globally) are highly exposed to riverine flooding. This is likely to worsen as world temperature rises, glaciers melt, and precipitation increases.

Increasingly catastrophic droughts, fires and storms are forecast to become even worse as our planet continues to warm. Important food and water systems will fail and entire cities are expected to succumb to destructive floods.

Grim facts, figures and statistics, indeed. But do they really mean anything to the people on the ground in Patharpratima, who shudder every time they see the skies darken and rivers swelling up?

Moulding young minds

Child Rights and You (CRY), the organisation I work for, believes it is essential to groom young students and make them flag-bearers of a sustained campaign on climate change and the need to conserve and protect the environment. With on-ground support from a partner organization, Kaajla Janakalyan Samiti, work has started in full swing in remote hamlets in Patharpratima.   

Read Sundarbans is cyclone capital of India: IMD report

As part of the project, 300 children from villages in Patharpratima and Gopalnagar are taking supplementary lessons at centres run by volunteers of Kaajla Janakalyan Samiti.

Soumyadeep is one of them. He is learning more about concepts such as environment conservation, climate change, rainwater harvesting, tree plantation and 3R (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle), along with various sources of energy.

Acutely conscious of the fragile ecosystem around him, the young boy has taken up the crusade to spread awareness about the little things that we all can do and learn to conserve our environment.

People in the community need to know more about why the cyclones happen, and steps that can be taken in daily lives to mitigate the sufferings in the aftermath.

Soumyadeep now leads a Green Scout team that visits door to door in the community and convinces people to plant trees and nurture them. The more the greenery, the less the amount of carbon dioxide in the air — the best and the easiest remedy to reverse the adverse effects of climate change.

Even as villagers wait in trepidation for news of an impending cyclone hurtling towards them from the ocean, silent winds of change are blowing in the region. Sample this:

Once upon a time, the ground in front of Raghunathpur Saraswati Free Primary School in Uttar Gopalnagar village used be a green haven, full of old trees and fresh saplings, planted and taken care of by villagers. But successive storm surges and the consequential trail of destruction left the land completely barren, bereft of any greenery.

Last year, the villagers, led by the Gram Panchayat pradhan, put forward the idea of setting up a fruit garden on the ground to Kaajla volunteers. As part of the project, hundreds of fruit trees were planted on the piece of land by the local women’s self-help groups, who water them regularly.

They hope that in a few years, the produce from the rose apple, guava and other trees will not only boost healthy eating among villagers and sprout economic activity through sale, but will also attract insects and birds — important agents of the ecosystem.

Patharpratima and Gopalnagar blocks were once known for their unique gift of nature — thick mangroves. Successive cyclones including Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021) wreaked havoc on Sagardwip, Patharpratima, Kakdwip, Namkhana and Gosaba to destroy much of the area.

Agricultural land has been inundated and destroyed, mangroves uprooted and river embankments damaged completely. 

An initiative has now been taken to plant mangrove trees along river banks to prevent erosion, with help from Gram Panchayats, the forest department and villagers.

The Banashree Mangrove Protection Committee has 17 women from Uttar Gopalnagar village as members. They have planted about 10,000 mangroves along the river and fenced them, to keep fishing nets and other equipment from causing harm.

On Human Rights Day, this is what Soumyadeep has to say: “We need to conserve the environment and are trying to teach the young generation simple ways to do that. What the children are learning today, their parents will learn from them tomorrow. And soon enough, awareness will spread in the community. That’s the only way we can save our Sundarbans.”

Are we listening?

Trina Chakrabarti is Regional Director (East), CRY – Child Rights and You

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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