Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'India needs growth, but not at cost of climate'

Development must not destroy our natural environment and adversely hamper quality of life, writes Sumaira Abdulali, convenor, Awaaz Foundation

Published: Jan 16, 2020 11:18:00 AM IST
Updated: Jan 16, 2020 11:25:11 AM IST

'India needs growth, but not at cost of climate'Forest fires are among catastrophic events like drought, flooding and heat waves that point to the accelerating pace of climate change
Image: Brett Hemmings / Getty Images

India acknowledged the seriousness of climate change in 2014 by renaming its environment ministry as the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC). However, it was among the polluting countries unwilling to commit to enforceable responsibility for its actions that contributed to devastating climate-related events in 2019. Amid mounting catastrophes since the beginning of this decade, and anguish expressed by Indian youth inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, climate change negotiators worldwide failed to deliver enforceable commitments at the 25th Conference of Parties (CoP), run by the United Nations, held in Madrid in December 2019.

'India needs growth, but not at cost of climate'
In 2010, Nasa found that the world was warmer by 0.63 degrees than the average global surface temperature between 1951 and 1980. The pace of global warming has accelerated since and has been made tangible by devastating climate events, including storms destroying countries such as Haiti, drought and flooding, heat waves, sea level rise and many others.

According to the World Bank in June 2018, 600 million people worldwide are at risk from the effects of climate change. One in every seventh person on Earth lives in India and yet we do not have a national study to understand the causes and effects of climate change, or implement change at the district-level where it impacts the lives of millions.

In its latest report, Unicef says: “...Following trends of the rest of the world, Indian youth most likely impacted by such irreversible long-term effects of climate change have most articulately expressed genuine anguish, while enforceable policies and administrative action lag behind.”

Recent research published in the journal Nature estimates that the rising sea levels may render some of the world’s most famous cities, including Mumbai and Kolkata, under water by 2050. For those in Mumbai, such research elicits less shock than it should: Visible changes and recurring events considered extraordinary a decade ago are now accepted as routine. These include changes in rainfall patterns, like increased cyclonic events, delayed monsoon, unseasonal rains and recurring floods.
In 2019, the western coast of Mumbai suffered five cyclonic events generated in the Arabian Sea, against the normal average of one per year. It devastated agricultural crops while policy makers continued to ignore the need for implementable policies against serious issues contributing to and accelerating the effects of climate change. This includes illegal sand and stone mining, large-scale tree cutting for infrastructure projects and diversion of forest land. Worse, they continued to push policies meant to build urban infrastructure in Mumbai without considering the sustainability or cost to environment. 

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It is unsurprising that much of the resistance to this model of environmentally destructive infrastructure-building comes from the youth. Resistance to the construction of the Mumbai Metro 3 car shed at a site covered with thousands of old-growth trees was fuelled by a growing number of young people. When Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray joined the fight, it helped make the issue one of significant political relevance. After the Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra in the recent assembly elections, the state government stayed further construction of the car shed at Aarey.

Projects envisaged under the Mumbai Development Plan—notified by the government in 2018 amidst an unprecedented number of objections from citizens—include the Coastal Road project, the Shivaji statue in the sea, the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link, the Navi Mumbai International Airport, and many others. They will contribute to infrastructure growth, but have adverse impact on the environment. Some of these projects were stayed through court orders. Others remain under challenge through public interest litigation.

India was ranked 14th in the Global Climate Risk Index released by Germanwatch, a non-profit organisation in Germany. And according to the Drought Early Warning System in June 2019, more than 44 percent of India, including parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, was under conditions of drought. 

A World Bank Report estimates that climate change could cost India 2.8 percent of GDP and lower living standards of half its population by 2050. Yet the government, in the name of development, continues pursing GDP growth at huge environmental cost. By announcing about 2,000 projects that divert forest land for infrastructure such as roads, it adds to the already massive environmental damage caused by diversion of about 1,800 sq km in the last two-and-a-half years. 

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India needs development, but it is imperative that growth includes long-term viability and sustainability, and protects our natural environment and quality of life. It is heartening that at the CoP in Madrid, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar highlighted India’s push away from coal towards renewable energy. Such policies will go a long way towards mitigating the effects of climate change. 

Among the most major extractive industries worsening the effects of climate change are sand and coal mining. The MoEFCC in 2016 published ‘Sustainable Sand Mining Guidelines’, recommending state government policies to discourage illegal sand mining. Not only has illegal sand mining intensified thereafter, but the extreme effects of climate change have also resulted in events like the Kerala floods. The coal ministry is still in the process of developing a ‘Sustainable Development Cell’ to promote sustainable coal mining and address environmental concerns at closure of mines.

India is still identifying sectors and institutions to model climate change district-wise. NH Ravindranath, heading a panel to quantify India’s climate challenges, says we are unprepared both in terms of data and planning to tackle climate change.

 Intense effects of climate change to daily life in India are inescapable. Forced migrations from affected rural areas place a heavy burden on urban cities like Mumbai. 

In the decade going forward, it is up to our leaders and us to consider the world we will leave behind. It is up to us to ensure urgent and holistic planning to manage causes which promote recurrence of devastating climate events. It is up to us to demand enforcement of policy and administrative measures on the ground, at district, state and national level, to develop our country in a manner that contributes to a sustainable lifestyle to the interest and benefit of us all.

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(This story appears in the 31 January, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)