Why a 9-year-old girl is suing India's government over climate change

Ridhima, the daughter of an environmental activist, is concerned about the lasting effects of climate change on her future. 

Altaf Qadri/AP/ File
An Indian national flag flies as a thick layer of smog envelops the city skyline after Diwali festival, in New Delhi, India, in November 2015.

A nine-year-old girl has filed a legal case against the Indian government for failing to take action on climate change, highlighting the growing concern over pollution and environmental degradation in the country.

In the petition filed with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a special court for environment-related cases, Ridhima Pandey said the government has failed to implement its environment laws.

"As a young person (Ridhima) is part of a class that amongst all Indians is most vulnerable to changes in climate, yet are not part of the decision making process," the 52-page petition said.

The petition called on the tribunal to direct the government "to take effective, science-based action to reduce and minimize the adverse impacts of climate change."

The tribunal has asked the Ministry of Environment and the Central Pollution Control Board to respond within two weeks.

A spokesman from the Ministry of Environment told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they would respond as directed by the tribunal.

India is home to four of the 10 worst ranked cities in the world for air pollution. Along with China, India accounted for more than half the total number of global deaths attributable to air pollution in 2015, according to a recent study.

Despite several laws to protect India's forests, clean up its rivers and improve air quality, critics are concerned that implementation is poor, and economic growth often takes precedence over the environment.

Flash floods and landslides in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where Ridhima lives, killed hundreds of people and left tens of thousands homeless in 2013.

The devastation affected Ridhima, the daughter of an environmental activist, said Rahul Choudhary, a lawyer representing her.

"For someone so young, she is very aware of the issue of climate change, and she is very concerned about how it will impact her in future," he said.

"She wanted to do something that can have a meaningful effect, and we suggested she could file a petition against the government," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ridhima is not the first child in India to take the government to task over inaction to protect the environment. Last year, six teenagers filed a petition with the NGT over air pollution in New Delhi which has the worst air quality in the country.

Young plaintiffs have also been litigating climate change in the United States. Since 2011, cases filed on behalf of children and supported by Our Children's Trust have claimed that the "public trust doctrine" – the concept that the government owns and must maintain natural resources for the public’s use – applies to the atmosphere, and that it obligates states and the federal government to phase out fossil fuels. A federal court in Oregon is expected to hear one of these cases later this year. 

India, meanwhile, is already taking some action to mitigate the damage caused by CO2. As a signatory to the Paris agreement on climate change, it is committed to ensuring that at least 40 percent of its electricity is generated from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.

In her petition, Ridhima asked the court to order the government to go further, assessing industrial projects for climate-related issues, preparing a "carbon budget" to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and creating a national climate recovery plan.

"That a young girl is doing so much to draw the government's attention is something. We hope the case puts some pressure on the government to act," said Mr. Choudhary, her lawyer.

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