Cleanliness drive being carried out by Preeti Tanti along with other team members at a village in Dibrugarh.

Assam: Come June, and it is almost a certainty that some part of Assam is either reeling or recovering from floods. Yet, such is the unpredictability of the weather that this time last year, several parts of Assam were reeling from drought. In an age where extreme weather has become the norm, how do we ‘celebrate’ World Environment Day? How do we fight climate change, and who should lead the fight? Experts with their wealth of experience or locals at the forefront of uncertain weather? In Assam, the youth, especially teenagers, who have been victims of floods and extreme weather their entire lives, have decided to take matters into their own hands. Two youths: Preeti Tanti from Dibrugarh and Utpal Hajong from Dhemaji, exemplify the idea that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. And they are working miracles despite being from marginalised communities: while 18-year-old Preeti Tanti is from the Ganeshguri Tea Estate in Dibrugarh, Utpal Hajong, also 18, is from the Azarbari village of Dhemaji. The two have come up with a few innovative, interesting and inclusive ways to save their villages and tea gardens from flood, erosion and other environmental issues, including climate change.

The damage is there for all to see

“Flood is an annual problem and every year, the people at our tea garden face the fury of mighty Brahmaputra during the monsoon season,” said Preeti Tanti in a conversation with EastMojo, adding, “During our childhood, the flood was not frequent. However, over the years, the flood intensity in the Brahmaputra basin has increased substantially, thus severely affecting human beings, animals and even plants.”

Preeti said she learned that the rampant deforestation in the catchment areas is one of the prime reasons behind the floods. It also led to substantial erosion of topsoil, which, coupled with a substantial increase in plastic usage, severely damaged the soil and water.

“Witnessing this, I took up the mission to protect the greenery of my villages and neighbouring areas. At first, I formed a children’s network, comprising 20 children across ten tea gardens of Dibrugarh district,” she said.

Preeti Tanti encourages locals to not only protect plants but also plant saplings on every auspicious occasion.

Armed with the necessary information on how to prevent flood, soil erosion, pollution and saving the environment, the children’s network under the leadership of Preeti has so far successfully motivated 20 villages across tea gardens to plant saplings. 

The network further held meetings with various sections of society, “Every weekend, we organised meetings to help people understand the ill effects of pollution and use of plastic bags etc.,” she said. 

“Our relentless work has started yielding great results. Almost every child in these 20 gardens now celebrates their birthdays by planting at least one sapling. We have also requested the Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC) of 20 tea garden areas to ensure tree plantation before celebrating any occasion,” she added. 

Preeti along with her peers are working towards building a ‘Plastic-Free Environment’. They are continuously urging elders to carry cloth made bags so that use of plastic bags could be curtailed.

A cleanliness drive in Preeti’s village.

Preeti’s efforts have been recognised by her Panchayat and she has been nominated at the district level to sensitise others to ensure and act against climate change. She spoke about climate action in a virtual panel discussion during International Day of Girl Child (11th October 2021) called by the office of the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata.

“People in our village are fearful of annual floods as it leads to loss of livelihood. It implies children’s safety as well. If we do not act now, then it would be too late,” says Sanatana Borahm, the District Children Protection Officer from Dibrugarh.

Need to be proactive against climate change 

The story of Utpal Hajong, also 18, is similar to Preeti. Hailing from Azarbari village of Dhemaji, Hajong too has emerged as a climate action leader from his region.

 “The people of Azarbari village have experienced devastating floods for years, and witnessed how it erodes the top soil of our agricultural fields,” said Hajong in a telephonic conversation with EastMojo.

Quite active in studies, co-curricular activities and other social welfare activities, Utpal and other children from his village formed a club: – the AK Young Star Youth Club to act against various natural calamities.

“Deforestation is a major cause of soil erosion. To create awareness for preventing erosion, we the members of the youth club have initiated plantation of saplings as much as possible in and around the village,” shared Utpal, adding, “We are also encouraging our elders to plant saplings on their Birthdays or any important dates of their near and dear ones. We have also planted saplings around the river banks to control soil erosion. With this, the situation is now changing slowly.”

The AK Young Star Youth Club has been applauded by the locals and during the village meetings, the Panchayat leader announced that instead of giving valuable gifts, people should instead gift saplings keeping environmental hazards in mind.

“Use of plastic bags is another cause of environmental degradation, so we have educated the people about the harmful effect of plastic. We are also promoting local resources, such as using homemade bags. We have reduced plastic bags significantly in our village and neighbouring areas,” he said. Utpal and his team also undertake regular cleanliness drives in and around their village to make the surroundings clean and plastic-free.

Utpal Hajong believes the power of social media can help them in the fight against climate change.

Utpal believes in engaging on social media to generate awareness of initiatives undertaken by the club on climate change. According to him, generating awareness, and building capacity on Climate Change adaptation at the district, block, panchayat and community level is extremely essential to building a mass movement. He dreams of connecting to youths, college students and other active stakeholders who can provide the much-needed impetus in dealing with Climate Change issues. 

“We have been working with Utpal for the last 4-5 years. A few years ago we formed a children’s group in every flood, erosion-prone area of the district. But with time, we have experienced that the Child committee of Azarbari village under the leadership of Utpal had taken several steps of steps to keep villages clean and free from flood and erosion, which is quite commendable,” sDharamraj Karki, a noted social worker from Dhemaji, told EastMojo

Both Preeti Tanti and Utpal Hajong are undertaking initiatives under the constant support and guidance of Save the Children. Rupam Das, Assistant Manager Project Assam State Office of Save the Children said, “They have not only inspired other children but also compelled many stakeholders to take up environment-friendly initiatives.”

 “Global Warming is the biggest threat to humanity, especially to children who are our future. It is the time for action, we at Save the Children nurture the children in a way that they can raise their voice and take initiative to prevent erratic climatic changes,” he informed.  

 He added that we must see the connection between natural calamities and the safety of children. Exploitation, abuse and child trafficking are common among the children of flood-prone areas, “Children especially adolescent girls are not secure in shelter homes; their dignity is often under threat,” he pointed out.

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