"How many of you are going to turn up if we do clean-up activities around the Buriganga river?" a panel speaker asked a room of teenagers. Hands shot up in the air. There is a very good reason for the enthusiasm - they live right next to the river.
The city is more divided than we think. Communities often do not cross neighbourhood fault-lines and it is the rare volunteer clean-up group who would venture to the very periphery of the city with gloves and nets to take on the most polluted river in the country.
That is what made this group of high schoolers holding the meeting at a community center in Nawabganj special. Nor were they here on a whim. For hours last week, the teenagers grilled established conservationists from Poribesh Bachao Andolon and Buriganga Riverkeepers, asking tough questions about environmental activism.
“Does the government agree with your stance on the environment?” a boy asked. “What about Rampal?” another piped up. “Where does your environmental organisation get money from if not foreign donors or the government?” a question shot in the air. It was clear that the teenagers were already thinking about how to make their movement sustainable.
“What have your successes been so far?” asked a skeptical one, questioning hard the effectiveness of having a climate movement.
“Our visible successes include being able to save ponds, fields. The instances when the aggressors won and we lost are plenty, but, our biggest gain is being able to get people to care about the environment,” said Sharif Jamil, the head of the Buriganga Riverkeepers. “And that is what you too should aim for - creating awareness.”
“Start small. Create a club at school. Make a few posters with facts about the environment,” he added.
Tasnia Jahan Tanusha, another participant who is a student of a government high school in Armanitola, wants to join the police when she grows up. “Her father passed away and I am a housewife. So my daughter needs to be strong,” said her mother, who was waiting for Tanusha. An environmentally conscious, strong policewoman is exactly what this country needs.
“I brought my students here because we live in one of the most polluted neighbourhoods in the city,” said a social science teacher of Hazaribagh Saleha School and College. “When the government shut down the leather tanning factories by cutting off utilities, we didn't have electricity for three whole days. They were polluting the environment, but we suffer.”
Students from Nawabganj, Armanitola, Hazaribagh, Lalbagh and others attended the workshop to make a volunteer army for fighting environmental damage. It is about time the youths take charge and realise the need to conserve the environment.