Garima Thakur Is Protesting for Earth's Future
Meet the 15-year-old Indian climate change activist who won't let her hometown forget its past environmental disaster.
"My Back Garden" is a series about everyday athletes finding connection and balance in the natural world.
Before she first considered taking up activism, 15-year-old Garima Thakur of Bhopal, India, was already aware of climate change and its devastating impact around the world. At 13, seeing the grim images in the Leonardo-DiCaprio-narrated documentary "Before the Flood" left her with a feeling of depression and "eco-anxiety". She realised that the global climate emergency wasn't happening somewhere else to other people. Signs of environmental degradation were, she suddenly noticed, ubiquitous in her own city and country.
"I began to see the film's message in the smallest things: a tyre burning by the side of the street, a tree being cut down somewhere, people standing in line to collect water for their families", says Garima. "These are signs of emergency, and in India, the signs are everywhere. You can't unsee them".
Garima recalls a freshwater stream near her grandmother's home in Bilaspur district, in the mountainous, wooded state of Himachal Pradesh. "I'd visit it on walks with my cousins. There was very little human presence there, and we could play freely. You could see fish in the water", she remembers fondly.
Today, that cherished spot from her childhood has been paved over with tarmac, and instead of a moving stream that can support life, "there is just a stagnant body of water by the side of a road", says Garima. "I was about 11 when the road was built. I had been visiting the stream for only a couple of years but seeing what happened to it hit a nerve".
"I really hope that one day, perhaps some lawmaker or political leader will pass me, stop to ask what I am doing, and really pay attention to what I have to say".
Garima's experience is not one that will be uncommon if measures aren't taken. Walking, running or playing sport will be impossible to do freely outside without clean air and a healthy planet.
Garima has also witnessed the alternative and the benefits of a thriving environment. For a large part of her childhood, Garima moved around a lot because of her father's job in the army, living in cities that aren't typically featured on India's pollution map. "I had the good fortune of growing up in very green towns, like Dehradun and Dharamkot, where I'd go on long walks every evening, taking in the clean air. It left me feeling fresh and energised". Once they settled into a larger city, she missed the outdoors. Garima now plans to move back to Dehradun as she pursues further studies.
Spurred by a newfound sense of responsibility and her memories from her formative years in nature, Garima is now one of a growing cohort of young women across the planet, following in the footsteps of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and sounding the alarm on climate change. And since the sciences aren't her strongest suit, Garima's goals are trained on a different aspect of the environmental crisis: legislation.
Speaking with a clinical earnestness that belies her age, she says, "environmental governance is really my main interest. That's how I see myself making a difference in the world and amplifying my message about the global climate emergency". Garima seems well aware of the magnitude of this challenge.
In fact, Garima is already preparing to take an exam that may grant her a seat at one of India's prestigious law schools, the National Law Universities. Part of her reason for choosing the path of governance is the history of Bhopal, which, in her words, "is the city where I found my activism".
On the night of 2–3 December 1984, the city of Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, suffered what is now regarded as one of history's worst industrial disasters. Approximately 36 tonnes of toxic gas leaked from a pesticide plant in the heart of the old city, immediately killing thousands of people. Thousands more died in the years and decades that followed from medical complications and chronic health problems related to direct and indirect exposure. Some informed estimates put the death toll of this disaster at 25,000 lives or more.
Though she was born a couple of decades after the fact, Garima remains keenly aware of that fateful night in 1984 and the environmental reforms that followed it. "I'd like to understand these laws with more nuance, to see if they can be implemented with an even greater impact than they've been able to achieve", she says.
While preparing for a possible career in law, Garima spends every Friday picketing along the shoulders of VIP Road, 20 minutes away from the location of the pesticide factory. The young environmentalist has become the most recognisable face of Thunberg's global Fridays for Future movement in Bhopal.
Whether in the sun, rain or cold, Garima hasn't missed a single "Day of Revolution" since she began last spring. Accompanied occasionally by friends or her parents—though very often alone—Garima is armed with little more than her stick-to-it mentality and a cardboard sign bearing the words "Climate Strike!" in thick, black lettering.
When most people her age in India are encouraged to pursue academic excellence through rote learning at school, Garima has chosen to break the mould. She is dealing with the world's most immediate concerns by stepping outside the classroom. "If I could even spark even the slightest awareness in our leadership, or my peers, about what is at stake for our generation, all the hours I've spent braving the elements will be worth it".
These days, Garima's main preoccupation is unfolding on the other side of the globe: the wildfires that have increased along the west coast of the United States in recent years. These are images that have been emblazoned in her consciousness for good. "Whenever I think of the climate emergency now, I think of fire", she says. "It resonates with me because I know what it's like to choke on the air I breathe".
Garima views the tragedy of her hometown of Bhopal over three decades ago as a harbinger of what will be unleashed on the world if its leaders don't act soon enough. "Our air will be unbreathable, our water undrinkable. No fish in the rivers, no crops in the fields", she says. "What could possibly be more important than trying to stop this from happening?"
But it's another vision that keeps her motivated. "There's this scenario I keep replaying in my head", she says. "That one day, perhaps some lawmaker or political leader will pass me, stop to ask what I am doing, and really pay attention to what I have to say".
Words: Prayag Arora Desai
Photography: Dolly Haorambam