Nepalis joined global climate strike, but there are doubts whether the movement will sustainEnvironmentalists wonder if the campaign in Kathmandu was simply a fad and whether the climate protests would continue.
On September 27, as part of the global Fridays for Future movement kick-started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, a group of Nepali schoolchildren gathered at Maitighar Mandala. A week earlier, millions of people had taken to the streets in various cities, in one of the biggest youth-led protests, with one message to world leaders: do more—and act faster—to combat climate change.
Fifteen-year-old Nishtha Sharma, who along with her friends, had skipped school to be at Maitighar, said she wanted to spread awareness about climate change. Her classmate Kovid Bhusan Pathak, also 15, said that the rising number of cars in Nepal is one of the most pressing environmental issues that need to be addressed.
Both said they were inspired by Thunberg, who last summer skipped class everyday for three weeks to sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament with a sign declaring a “school strike” for the climate.
Sharma and Pathak, who attend Ullens School, said they were optimistic that the climate movement in Nepal will continue. But Sakhaa, the group that Sharma and Pathak belong to, only met three times to protest and they have held no further strikes for several weeks.
The strikes, which took place at different venues, also involved a variety of actors. Shreya KC, coordinator of Nepalese Youth for Climate Action, said there had been a collaboration among a number of climate and environment organisations to launch a rally at Patan Durbar Square on September 27.
The same day, another rally was organised by Amnesty International Nepal at New Baneshwor. According to the organiser’s website, 200 people took part.
On September 27, a rally was also held in front of the Swiss embassy because Switzerland’s biggest airport, Zurich Airport, has been shortlisted as a funding partner for the Nijgadh airport project. Nijgadh is another pressing issue for environmental activists, as the government is preparing to cut down millions of trees to make way for a new airport.
Despite the number of organisations holding so many rallies, Kathmandu since then has not witnessed any more protests, leading experts and environmentalists to wonder if the movement was simply a fad and whether the climate protests would continue.
According to Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed and climate change expert, there are several reasons why such protests have failed to continue.
“First of all, there is still a lack of communication and awareness about how severe the problem is,” Upadhya told the Post. “Most people think the government is going to solve the issue.”
Besides, said Upadhya, there is a general feeling among people that climate change is largely caused by industrialised countries in the West and hence there is low enthusiasm to act.
“It is true that Nepal is one of the smallest contributors and a major victim of climate change,” said Upadhya. “But that doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not do anything about it on our own.”
The September 27 protests in Kathmandu, however, were impromptu, and were held largely in solidarity with similar protests all across the world.
Participants were unanimous that climate change must be high on the agenda and that pressure must be built continuously to combat climate change, but there was little clarity on how exactly to go about achieving this.
According to Mrigendra Bahadur Karki, a social movement researcher and executive director of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies at Tribhuvan University, social movements often tend to wither away unless people are facing hardships on an individual level. “Until and unless people face severe hardship, the movements will only be sporadic,” he said.
Protest participants say that the limitations were much more material. According to Anish Jha, a student of environmental engineering, who had helped organise the rally at New Baneshwor, a lack of resources is behind the absence of further protests.
“It’s not as easy to organise a rally. You have to plan a route, consider security, and mobilise people. All of that takes time,” said Jha.
Apart from resources, say experts and activists, there needs to be commitment, a deep understanding of the goal and a constant push to find newer ways to get organised.
“The activists should also wait and assess the impact of the first rallies. If the feedback is positive, we can go ahead,” Jha added.
The large number of groups involved in the September 27 protests can itself be a problem.
“The movement seems fragmented at the moment,” said Abish Man Shakya, a member of Kathmandu Climate Save, a group whose primary aim is to end animal farming. “Some were protesting in Maitighar Mandala and others in front of the district court, the UN House and Embassy of Switzerland. We’re all concerned about the environment but we have different ideas on how to take the movement forward.”
The environmental cause is also very broad and already has numerous facets, including cutting trees for infrastructure projects such as the Ring Road expansion and Nijgadh airport, and the clean-up campaign for the Bagmati river which, according to one of its founders Megh Ale, has been ongoing for more than six years.
For Nepal, such climate movements are a relatively new phenomenon, say experts.
“Environment related protests are a new social movement in Nepal as people are getting more aware about environmental degradation, pollution, climate change and their negative impacts on human health and development,” said Chandra Lal Pandey, a researcher on environmental politics at Kathmandu University.
Karki, who has conducted extensive research on social movements in Nepal, affirms that environmental activism is new in the country. In a 2003 survey, he asked 800 activists from Pokhara, Janakpur and Kathmandu about their goals and motivation. Of the 14 categories of protests, environment or climate wasn’t a reason for social activism at that time, Karki said.
With another global climate strike coming up on November 29, Kathmandu’s climate movement will get another chance to make its demands heard. About half of the nearly dozen activists the Post spoke to are planning to take to the streets again. According to Shakya, six groups have already joined forces to plan a rally at Basantapur Durbar Square, perhaps aware of the fragmentation of their last protest.
However, it remains to be seen whether the movement will achieve momentum and continue until its demands are met, or whether, like some suspect, will simply fizzle out.