The climate march in New York on Sept. 21 featured Indian-Americans coming from all over the United States, willing to show they cared about the environment. However, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, which is the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter according to the United Nations Environment Programme, didn’t make it to the United Nations Climate Summit, which gathered more than 120 heads of states two days later.
For Barnali Ghosh, an environment activist who has volunteered for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Modi “needed to be there at this discussion with other premiers.”
Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister of India, represented the country at the summit instead. He said over the phone that the Indian government is “taking real initiatives” for the environment. The government’s goal, Javadekar said, is to make India a big manufacturer “without loss to the environment.”
For the Indians and Indian-Americans who joined the climate march, it was a chance to join together to show their feelings.
Dressed in a green sari, Dr. Vaishali Patil, founder of Ankur Trust, an organization that protects the lands of an Indian indigenous community from exploitation, danced in front of cameras filming the demonstration. Invited as a global ambassador, she flew from India to demonstrate. “This is a proof to the whole world and to the political decision-makers that communities are not going to be quiet now,” she said. “I’m very proud and happy that we, as Indians, are part of this global movement.”
Siddhartha Mitra is a member of the New York chapter of the Association for India’s development (AID), which raised almost $1.5 million to support grassroots organizations that carry on sustainable programs in India, and has chapters throughout the U.S. Mitra said that Modi “has given the green light to many projects that have environmental concerns.” Among these projects is the extension of the Narmada dams, which have aroused controversy for almost 70 years.
Opponents to the project say that extending the Narmada dams would bring more water to Gujarat, the state where Modi is from, while impinging further on Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra’s territories, according to a study by M.J. Peterson, from the University of Massachusetts.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) expresses concerns about the “devastating effect” of large dams “on the riverine ecosystem.”
The Indian government has defended the project as a way to provide more energy to India. According to a 2013 World Bank statement, lack of electricity is one of three main obstacles to running a business in India.
Speaking about Indian environmental policies at large, Richie Ahuja, Asia regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, conceded that “well, India has to create jobs,” and that “everything has to be part of the equation” when it comes to environmental policies.
Geetu Ambwani, another member of AID, said that one of the association’s recent projects was helping funding the Kheti Virasat Mission, which promotes organic farming in Punjab. In this Indian agricultural state, “the pesticides have been so overused that the levels of toxicity in the soil and water are way higher than in other places,” Ambwani said.
A 2009 Greenpeace study showed that in Punjab, nitrate levels topped the limit set by the World Health Organization in 20 percent of all sampled wells containing drinking water.
In California, another association, APEN, raised more than $1.3 million in 2012 for sustainable development and environmental issues. APEN is focused on reducing gas emissions on the American territory.
“Everywhere you go,” Barnali Ghosh, who used to volunteer for APEN, said, “if you’re a low income person of color, you’re at the foreground of climate change, and a lot of our communities in the United States are impacted too.” “The beauty about climate,” Ghosh added, is that “if you help reduce the emissions here in the U.S., it has an impact on South Asia. And we don’t want to wait for the next disaster to do that, right?”
Ashwani Vasishth demonstrated in a T-shirt from Ramapo, the New Jersey university where he teaches sustainability. “I do workshops, I try to get the word out that there is a different way of living that allows us to have a high quality of life while still living sustainably,” he said.
He has also tried to reduce his own carbon footprint. “With food, the biggest impact is from meat,” because producing meat is polluting. “I like steak, I really do, you know, and I won’t deny myself that. But what I’ll do is, during the week, I will not eat meat. On the weekend I will.”
Despite several warnings on the Earth’s condition, big changes in countries’ environmental policies are hardly perceptible. Vasishth likes to think of his engagement against climate change as a variant of “dinky little poke,” a martial art technique that relies on accumulative effects rather than on one big effect. “I make lots of little interventions and hope they add up, rather than one big project that is going to change the world.”