It’s not all that very often that you will hear of an environment program (as opposed to a cultural program) being conducted in Kolkata, so my eyes popped out (like literally) when I got the email that said “You’ve been invited as a delegate to the National Conference on Climate Change. Can you make it?”

For the year that I have lived in Kolkata, one of the thoughts that often crossed my mind was -what good could possibly come out of Kolkata! ‘Maybe it’s just the South Indian in you’, many Kolkatans jokingly warned, and now, I cannot imagine how a two day conference has shaken me up and changed my perspective of the place and its people as much as it has.

Students learn about alternative energy sources at the National Conference on Climate Change

Like all big conferences, the main conversations were around the topics of alternate energy options (energy gap and energy requirement), strengthening climate action, carbon financing and using technology to reach the poor. On the one hand, while there was a lot of talk on India's financial goals (in billions) and challenges (in billions more!) towards climate change adaptation and mitigation, there was also a session focused on the actual change makers; here, the community’s best practices in local energy initiatives highlighted the benefits of using alternate energy sources to solve problems in the most sustainable and inexpensive way.

Will you ever believe me if I told you a 15 year old student challenged Dr. S.P. Gon Chaudhuri (the solar man of India) to try her ‘bottled water for roshni project’ for a change, as it would cost less than 100 rupees? well, I was lost for words.

The ballroom was packed on the second day by the time Sunita Narain, an environmental activist arrived at the venue where she implored skeptics to believe climate change is here. “Look at the Kheladi village in Mewat district of Haryana where acres of farmland is under water; this is injustice to a farmer.” she said. As she spoke about climate justice, I hoped she would also point out the air pollution of Kolkata, and right onn cue, she passionately urged political leaders and administrators to wake up and smell the foul air. She said, “There is a need to make the public transport system fast and comfortable so that people opt out of cars and use buses, but the buses you have now in Kolkata are actually trucks that only look like buses.” (Ouch! Now that’s what you call a much needed wake up call.)

As I made more notes, it was a great moment to witness and be part of a conference that actually made a change. The co-organizers, Seva Kendra Calcutta, proposed in the final declaration to solarize at least 3 new villages in the next three years. There’s more! Organizing mass transport for delegates, distributing one-side used paper pads, recycled pens and not allowing bottled water, were some ways they tried to keep the carbon emissions of the conference to the bare minimum.

Now for some much needed food! Networking over a cuppa and good food with stakeholders like NGOs, principals and professors of schools and colleges, nodal funding agencies, officials from the Ministries of West Bengal Government and people from the academic world was an experience in itself. After all, there’s nothing like a lot of good food and great company.

Delegates at the conference

On the last day, I decided I will end it big (that insatiable feeling that makes you want to be a part of more good things). So, I walked towards a teacher to discuss the possibility of doing a session on air pollution at their school and to my disbeleif, she told me that she and her students were all too tired of the just the talks and the lectures about doing something. “If you have an action plan for us, you’re most welcome. My students want to get doing something. They will stand on the road and take down all the numbers of polluting vehicles if you will.” she said.This was it. This is what I needed.

I was so shaken up that right at that moment I thought - not bad at all Kolkata, may be I shouldn’t have written you off so quickly!

Grace Saji is a part of the Digital Engagement Team at Greenpeace India