Early Career Perspective: Abhiir Bhalla

Abhiir is a youth environmentalist and sustainability consultant. Currently a second year student at Ashoka University, he is pursuing a degree in Political Science and International Relations and is currently working as the Director – Operations and Community Engagement at Care for Air, a non-profit working on air pollution. He has over 7 years of experience in the field of environmental conservation. He has worked with a range of organizations including UN Environment Programme, Delhi Metro Railway Corporation, WWF and CSE. He has a keen interest and experience in environmental issues pertaining to air pollution and waste segregation. He was recently covered by the BBC (watch here). Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Note: This is a guest blog and the piece has been lightly edited for brevity.

Early beginnings

I once thought the environment was boring. In primary school, we used to attend Environmental Awareness Classes on a biweekly basis, in which I would find absentmindedly scribbling or doodling, scarcely paying attention. 11 years later, today, I’ve completed 8 years as a youth environmentalist and have worked with prominent organisations both in India and internationally. So, what changed? Amusing as it may sound to hear a 19-year-old say this – it has not been an easy journey. If anything, my age is responsible for making the path traversed even more difficult. This is the story of my growth from being the stereotypical bored, ignorant, environmental averse child to being the founder and coordinator of an environmental campaign that’s been running successfully for the past 4 years. 

My journey began in middle school – thanks to my mother and grandmother, who coerced me into taking part in activities in school and to join a few clubs and societies. And so, I became a member of the ‘Paryavaran Club’ (Environmental Initiatives Club) in my school and began attending weekly meetings. At the meetings however, I found myself bored and I began to think that the club was all talk and no work. But I was wrong; work used to happen, only that juniors weren’t involved in it – we were too scared to participate in an activity dominated by high school seniors. As a result of our lack of participation, we weren’t entrusted with work – it became rather cyclical. 


Of medicines and nebulisers

Simultaneously, during this time, in Grade 7, I was diagnosed with a type of bronchitis.  While it isn’t life threatening,every year since I can remember, I have had to use nebulisers between  October-January because my airways get choked up. Unsurprisingly, this is also  when Delhi’s air pollution peaks. As it happened, the next meeting of the club happened to be on air pollution – the rest is history. From then on, I rose through the ranks and became an active voice, participating in intra- and interschool activities and projects; in high school, I was elected to the Student Council to lead Environmental Initiatives in my school. 

These two years were crucial in my development – I learnt skills, expanded my network and began to train my juniors to ensure that the work didn’t stop even after I graduated. Working on audits with the Centre for Science and Environment India for 5 years, I learnt how I could make my school campus more environment friendly and sustainable. In my final year of high school, after 4 years of persuasion by students, the school decided to install solar panels – nearly the entire campus is now powered by renewable energy!

My experiences

I’ve attended several conferences on climate change, and in some, I even participated as a panelist. In 2016, I underwent a 2-month long ‘Care for Air’ Student Ambassador training to spread awareness regarding air pollution and affect change. In 2018, World Environment Day was hosted by India, and I participated in a 3-day long conference of the United Nations Environment Programme where I also appeared on a panel with the then-UNEP Director, Erik Solheim. While air pollution was my personally driven area of work, I was equally interested in other aspects such as waste segregation, renewable energy and sustainability. Over the years, I have also worked with the World Wildlife Foundation, Kids for Tigers and Sanctuary Asia on wildlife conservation, and was awarded the prestigious Token of Appreciation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India. 

My biggest project, ‘Swachh Chetna’ – a collaboration between the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation and public, private and NGO schools – was focused around cleanliness, plantation and awareness drives. Leading over 300 volunteers in over 3 years, we cleaned areas around metro stations across the city and carried out awareness campaigns through street plays and flash mobs. We planted over 200 saplings at Metro officers’ residential colonies and outside metro stations in a bid towards mitigating air pollution. 

Not all fun and games

None of this was as easy as it sounds. Age bias plays a crucial factor. Most people reading this, even now, would think “what does a young boy know about the challenges of the world?” Yet, to establish a multi-entity cooperation between a State-Central shared Government organisation like the Delhi Metro and to sign a Memorandum of Association with various schools is particularly challenging, especially for a 17-year-old. All of this was done while juggling school classes and assignments. In fact, I was so invested in my environmental activities that there was a marked dip in my academic performance between 8th and 10th grade! I was able to overcome this with time – a lot of credit for which goes to my 10th Grade class teacher, who didn’t allow me to miss classes for environment work as my other teachers used to. He taught me how to manage my time and made me understand that no matter how passionate you may be about a cause; it can’t come at the cost of academics. 

Environmental activities weren’t particularly helpful for my social life either. What’s more important to a teenager? Even some of my closest friends were very amused by this aspect of my life. My enthusiasm for environmental conservation was degraded and compared to that of a glorified school gardener, “there goes Bhalla to straighten every blade of grass in the football field”. For many years, I heard comments like this, but if anything, it only strengthened my resolve to make my mark in the world of environmental conservation. 

Looking Ahead

Today, as I’m about to enter into my second year of college, a lot has changed, but there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. Year after year, I see (and even participate in) similar televised debates during October-January regarding air pollution. It’s the same political blame game, the same inaction and unfortunately, the same 2 million deaths every year due to the snail slow action (or perhaps even inaction) on air pollution in India. Motivated by international figures like Greta Thunberg, many more young people have begun to take up the cause. The sad part is, many of them are doing it only for their college resumes. For 2-3 years they’ll plant a tree here and there, speak a few words, take a picture and then disappear – a new way the environment is being exploited. Nevertheless, there’s also many people out there who are working day after day to bring about real change. 

My latest project is to carry the Swachh Chetna model forward, and I’ve proposed it to several corporate giants and MNCs, all of which have expressed a keen interest in it. With new research proving that environmental degradation has played a large part in the emergence of the current COVIDcrisis, we must strengthen our determination to carry forward our work. My own plans for cleanliness and awareness drives have come to a screeching halt but I’m turning to the internet like many others – environment discussion related Zoom calls, webinars and outreach to maximise awareness and outreach.which has been founded by distinguished entrepreneurs, scientists, journalists and lawyers. At Care for Air, I lead a team of over 20 people and we are reaching out to schools, universities, RWAs and retirement homes to build awareness around air pollution – the problems, the causes and the solutions.

It is time the world knew that the human race has turned our own planet against us. Having worked with national and international organisations, I’m looking to continue to work with like-minded individuals – professors, students, businesses – no matter the industry, provided they’re looking to work collectively to secure a better future for all of us.


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