Parneet Kaur is a young climate professional who participates in volunteer and activism initiatives working on development and international relations. She was selected as one of the 2022 Max Thabiso Edkins Climate Ambassadors (launched by the World Bank Group) and is the founder of GirlUp Zubaan. Parneet is currently a Postgraduate Student in the Department of Environmental Policy and Law at the National Law University, Delhi. She holds a BA in Political Science from Panjab University.
Parneet, we are so glad you are here with us today to do an interview. We would like to know more about you. Please tell us more about yourself.
Thank you so much for having me, Deniz. I discover new ways of defining myself every day. Whatever I have built so far pivots around two crucial ideals - intellectual flexibility and humility - which are especially critical for the young, the old and everyone in between who’s trying to serve the world.
The roots of my climate consciousness can be traced back to the earliest memories of my grandfather planting the now tall and mighty trees overlooking our home, perfectly cemented by my mother’s creative way of spinning tales about inanimate and animate creatures to awaken empathy for a fallen flower to a piece of clothing I abhor. I am just a simmering mixture of all I have been gifted with.
I graduated in political science this year. Currently, I am pursuing a postgraduate diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from WWF and National Law University, Delhi. In addition, I am working at the intersection of gender rights, sustainability, and indigenous peoples’ rights through my initiatives: GirlUp Zubaan and Poetry for Planet. I am also serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Youth Wing of Chandigarh United Nations Association.
What occasion or circumstance encouraged you to work in the fields of international relations, climate change and sustainability?
My work has largely been a by-product of my preparation for one of the toughest exams in India - UPSC, which is a gateway to diplomacy. It predisposed me to a wide range of possibilities that exist, and further, it has enabled me to create an impact through a nuanced understanding of the issues at hand. In retrospect, the earliest imprints of my love for nature can be found, which are embedded, in my poems, a deluge of romantic appreciation for the oft-dismissed beauty of nature.
My journey officially kickstarted in September 2021 when I got selected as the delegate for the Fifteenth United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD15) Youth Forum, wherein I had the honour of leading and facilitating the working group on ‘’Climate action: an inclusive response’’. I co-authored the UNCTAD Youth Declaration, wherein I drafted the need to promote the acknowledgement and adoption of the traditional knowledge system of indigenous people in a gender-responsive manner to mitigate climate change. That decisive moment set the tone for everything else that followed after.
My engagement with frontliners abroad, especially activists and indigenous people working on-ground, and learning about the struggles that they have to go through has implored me to leverage the nexus between climate change and international relations. One of the fiercest motivations by far is the disproportionate representation and active participation of women in COP26 and now COP27. Marginalised women suffer the worst impact of climate change in all aspects, yet they are invisible, unseen and unheard when decisions about their death and life are made.
You are a young climate professional from India. What is the most significant environmental problem you have experienced in India?
India is a topographically and geographically diverse country, so the interplay of several endemic factors leads to region-specific vulnerabilities. I will try to give you a briefing on national and local problems: so, the most significant problem I have experienced is air pollution.
We faced severe heat waves and longer summers this year. The World Bank has recently warned us that India will be the first country to reach the breaking point of human survivability due to intensifying heat waves. That will cost us over 35 million jobs, causing an economic slowdown and loss in productivity. That’s the economic cost, and it breaks my heart to even think about the human cost.
In addition, over 60% of our population, employed in the agricultural sector, has been hit hard by the frequent droughts impacting our food stability. These droughts result from depleting water levels aggravated by intensifying heat waves. The contamination of over 70% of surface water is another concern.
Closer to home, in a town in Chandigarh, there is an ever-growing dismal mountain of over 7.5 lakh metric tonnes of the garbage accumulating over the last 20 years. Although Chandigarh has been intelligently designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier keeping climate responsiveness at the heart of the architectural planning, Chandigarh still finds herself susceptible to the pangs of climate change as the minimum temperature of the city has risen to 1.7 over the last 70 years which is more than the global average due to the loss in the green cover which has given way to concrete and tar. This gives rise to the urban heat island effect as the concrete structures trap heat.
Additionally, every household owns two vehicles, making it the city with the highest density of vehicles in the country. Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg :)
India is currently classified as a developing country. In which areas do you think inequality is highest in a comparison between developed and developing countries? In this regard, what area of inequality does India experience the most?
This Independence Day, our Prime Minister Mr Modi shared five vows with us, out of which one is for our country to become a developed country by the time we celebrate 100 years of independence from our colonisers.
Well, at the outset, it is critical to mention our place in history as colonised and that of most developed countries as colonisers. India was the first in the world to launch an economic critique of colonialism spearheaded by the Indian Leader, Dadabhai Naoroji, who gave us the drain theory.
Currently, India falls into the lower-middle income bracket and is regarded as developing by the World Bank. However, it ranked 131 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. This reveals half the picture, as some states are faring well while others are lagging. Therefore, the government launched the Aspirational Districts Programme to bridge the regional disparities.
There are several areas of improvement, such as reducing poverty, and income inequalities, improving access to education and healthcare and raising living standards. The government has launched several programmes and schemes to tackle these issues.
Surprisingly India is the world’s third biggest in terms of purchasing power parity, but most Indians are still relatively poorer than people in other middle-income and high-income economies.
Some metrics reveal that even the rich will have to significantly enhance their consumption levels to match those of poor households in developed countries. However, there is a catch here: The level of consumption, when seen in conjunction with the average carbon emissions by a person, reveals a different picture. Indians have an extremely low carbon footprint compared to their counterparts in developed nations. I am not an expert on this issue, but sustainability could - perhaps - be included as one dimension through which we analyse ‘’developed’’ and ‘’developing’’ countries. The definitions need to be revised, and new parameters for assessing development should be incorporated to align with current realities.
You are the founder of ‘’Poetry for Planet’’, an enterprise that tries to promote local and indigenous literature and wisdom by sharing stories in the native languages of climate professionals in the spirit of inclusivity and recognition. What was your purpose in founding ‘’Poetry for Planet’’?
My willingness to leverage creative expression as a vehicle of change has culminated in establishing an international youth-led enterprise called Poetry for Planet, which aims to celebrate the unsung climate champions from across the world by documenting their unique struggles in creative formats such as poetry and prose.
The spotlight is always on those who speak, protest and react. Yet, simultaneously, an army of proactive leaders is working in silence while battling financial, social, political and psychological struggles. Poetry for Planet is to celebrate all those heroes who stay hidden.
Having first-hand experienced eco-anxiety and witnessing my fellow friends go through psychological struggles inspired me to initiate critical discourse about eco-anxiety and the mental well-being of people working at the frontline to create psychological safety for the community.
My involvement with indigenous leaders has implored me to increase their visibility by promoting their literature, wisdom and sustainable practices. Poetry for Planet is a digital repository of unique indigenous poetic expression that has been deprived of a place in history. It’s an attempt to make visible some of the most valuable contributions to humanity.
In 2021, it was reported that India has already lost almost 90% of the area under four major biodiversity hotspots [the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Sundaland (including the Nicobar Islands), and the Indo-Burma region) because of the catastrophic consequences of human actions and unplanned urbanisation. Could you please tell us about your experiences and observations concerning this?
India hosts 8% of biological diversity on only 2.4% of the world's land area. Well, the major threat to biodiversity comes from the expansion of agriculture and contamination due to the use of harmful pesticides.
In Punjab, we are currently witnessing an ecocide due to the overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilisers in the soil, threatening our biodiversity. In addition, the focus on High-yielding varieties, exotic breeds, and invasive alien plant species is a major threat to biodiversity.
It’s time we go back to the golden teachings of our Guru Nanak Dev ji, the spiritual guru of Sikhism, who advocated for harmonious coexistence with nature.
Over 13 species of flora and fauna are on the brink of extinction in Punjab, including the white-backed vulture, Indus River dolphin and Saras crane, among others. Furthermore, the wetlands in Punjab are under stress due to encroachment, soil erosion, and land reclamation for agriculture, among other things. In addition, the introduction of exotic species of fish has had a detrimental impact on the natural fish population. For example, it has led to a substantial decline in the catch of Indian carp.
The developmental projects in eco-sensitive Shivalik hills are also a cause of concern. The state is diverting resources to mitigate this by establishing wildlife sanctuaries and protected area networks and promoting soil, water, and wetland conservation.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India currently produces more than 25,00 tonnes of plastic waste on a daily basis. This situation also leads to a plastic crisis in the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. Does the government have action plans on this subject?
Our government has launched several programmes, out of which the Namami Gange programme to clean the holy river Ganges is one that comes to my mind right away.
To tackle the plastic crisis in Yamuna, Geocycle under UNEP partnered with Agra to implement the ‘bubble curtain technology’ for the first time in India to stop plastic from entering the Yamuna river. It’s a non-invasive technology which allows ships and fish to pass through but prevents plastic from entering the oceans.
The Union Ministry of Earth sciences has launched an all-encompassing study to identify the source of waste, especially plastic waste, to tackle marine pollution across our coastline.
India banned single-use plastics such as plastic straws to curb plastic pollution's menace to becoming plastic-free.
As one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, India is also facing extreme heat waves that cause water shortages throughout the country (especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh). Therefore, how does this affect agricultural areas and food security?
The impact of heatwaves on India’s food security is three dimensional as it affects the availability, access and absorption. The underlying vulnerabilities compound the cumulative impact of heat waves. Take, for instance, the case of Punjab, which is grappling with three major problems: Polluted canals and rivers, depleting groundwater and polluted groundwater. The depletion and contamination of groundwater are the direct impacts of excessive dependence on water-intensive crops such as paddy and wheat and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
The trend of crop homogenisation from crop diversification at the onset of the green revolution in the 1970s, a movement to increase produce and productivity, has devastating implications for Punjab and Haryana. The water resources have been overexploited in 109 out of 138 development blocks in the state. The per capita water availability in the country has declined by 70% since 1950 and over 600 million people face acute water shortages. This has caused farmers to rethink their choice of crop. Prime Minister Modi is advocating to switch from water guzzlers like rice to less water-intensive crops such as corn and pulses. The government’s major challenge is to change the mindset of the people, which can be partially tackled by rolling out diversification incentives.
Any thoughts on COP27?
The exclusivity and inaccessibility of the conference for youth, women, indigenous people and other vulnerable communities due to structural, financial, social and security reasons has been a major highlight for me as I am one of the many who lost the opportunity to attend COP27 on account of financial and logistical constraints despite securing the accreditation. COP is an exclusive party for a lucky few.
I have been pushing for more women at COP, but the entry barriers to such an exclusive platform are insurmountable for so many of us.
COP27 fared well on Loss and Damage as we saw the creation of a loss and Damage Fund. It is a big win for all the right-holders and stakeholders who have been relentlessly working towards its realisation for years. It failed to deliver effectively on adaptation and mitigation, though.
We need to have more women in these spaces, not in the spirit of diversity but in the spirit of inclusivity. It's a fundamental right denied to be deprived of the decisions that can mean life or death for the most vulnerable communities.
You are also the founder and the current president of ‘’GirlUp Zubaan’’, a civic and social organisation. Is it possible for you to give us details about this organisation? Do you have any projects, especially for Indian women and young girls?
GirlUp Zubaan is a chapter under the GirlUp initiative pioneered by the UN foundation that aims to redefine and reform feminism through an inclusive and empathetic approach. We aim to uplift marginalised women by enhancing their representation and encouraging active participation. We recently unveiled the Legal and Mental health wing intending to provide equitable and affordable access to legal and mental health services to the marginalised in India. We operate virtually as our members hail from different parts of the country, which has enabled us to understand and take into account the intricacies and regional disparities which imbue feminism.
We will be continuing with our series of offline workshops on “Sustainability and Empowerment” to nudge young girls into cultivating critical skills, empathy, and love for themselves as well as nature. Our focus in the coming year is to enhance access to affordable mental health and legal services to marginalised communities.
Can you share some of the future projects of ‘’Poetry for Planet’’ and ‘’GirlUp Zubaan’’ with us?
Well, the coming months are pretty-packed. Poetry for Planet is a relatively new youth-led creative enterprise, so our core focus is expanding and spreading awareness about our initiative. In addition, we hope to highlight unsung climate champions, those on whom the spotlight is rarely shown. More so, our focus would be predominantly on highlighting indigenous poetic gems which encapsulate the essence of love for nature and bring to the fore the unparalleled contribution of indigenous people to the conservation of nature.
As with GirlUp Zubaan, we are planning to bring this year to a close by hosting a heartwarming mental health week in the spirit of nurturing and strengthening the GirlUp family. You can only serve the world better if you serve yourself better first. We also hope to unveil some projects and workshops to raise awareness and access to mental health and legal services among the marginalised. In addition, we plan to spearhead discussions pivoting around sustainability and empowerment in the local schools.
Lastly, could you please tell us your favourite plant-based milk? (It’s a tradition😊)
Almond milk :)