Climate Change

Why India needs to see climate change as urgent political issue

Privatising energy and agricultural sectors will bring India closer to its economic goals — but at the cost of its climate ones

By Paroma Soni
Published: Monday 16 March 2020

Long before Greta Thunberg took the world by storm, thousands of climate activists as well as the science community pushed for stronger measures to mitigate global carbon emissions and fossil fuel reliance.

Institutions have been set up in most countries to monitor and assist climate policy. They have committed to stringent plans to lower contributions to environmental damage.

In the last few years, climate change has become politicised — as a positive force encouraging hopefuls to debate how to address it, as well as a bitter excuse to mock opponents not sufficiently prioritising other ‘pressing’ issues such as job security or poverty.

For governments that dismiss climate change — like the United States under Donald Trump — public movements have come up to challenge and hold them accountable.

In India, however, the movement hasn’t gained as much momentum as in the West.

It seems India is doing a great job on the surface. So what’s the need for a mass movement?

Of all G20 (group of 20) nations, India is hailed as the one that has come close to meeting its 2015 Paris Agreement goals.

It is spending nearly Rs 2,000 crore public funds on its ambitious solar energy plan. With this, the government seems to be keeping up with its pledge of generating 40 per cent of power from renewable sources.

A study by Steve Crabtree, research analyst at consultancy group Gallup, found that 77 per cent Indians were satisfied with the current government’s efforts to combat climate change. In fact, shortly after Narendra Modi assumed office as Prime Minister in 2014, he renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests as the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change.

While it is true that India’s net carbon emissions are significantly lower given the population size, and Modi’s plans to invest in renewable energy seem commendable, the reality is far from ideal.

More than half our GDP is singularly dependant on coal. Pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels —  of which coal is the most polluting — is responsible for over nine million deaths globally. India represents about 50 per cent of that number.

Despite this, the central government continues to heavily subsidise the coal mining industry, pumping in nearly Rs 60,000 crore annually. In 2015 the government also introduced the Coal Mines Special Provision Act, which opened the sector to commercial mining by private companies.

One of the main goals of the Modi government is to bring India to a $5 trillion economy — brought down from the initial $20 trillion ambition — by 2024. This will inevitably come at the cost of the same government’s ostentatious climate change promises.

“For the economy to reach $5 trillion, it will take the types of reform that were long promised — massive reductions in regulations, streamlining of labour laws, privatisation of state entities and investments in infrastructure,” said Vivek Wadhwa, professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering at Silicon Valley.

Given that the energy and agricultural sectors are among the biggest in the country, privatising and cutting regulations will bring India a lot closer to its economic goals — but at the cost of its climate ones.

Without fossil fuel-based energy, India’s economic growth would all but stop completely. And when it comes to choosing between rapid economic growth and tackling climate change, the choice for even the most progressive governments is fairly predictable.

A deeper look into the government’s actions regarding climate policy reveals how disingenuous and superficial their efforts truly are. In the first budget meeting of the central BJP government in 2014, the money allotted to the newly renamed MoEF&CC was reduced by more than 50 per cent.

It also struck down a number of laws concerning environmental protection, including some that had to be blocked by the Supreme Court. Modi also cut a number of environmental regulations for companies involved in industrial production, particularly the small ones whose operations were likely to remain out of media focus.

Around the same time, the government also reportedly froze bank accounts of Greenpeace and other local environment-related non-profits.

The Modi government, operating unchecked when it comes to climate regulations, makes tall claims about protecting the environment perhaps only to save face in the international community, as many countries do.

But India’s political system is not designed to hold candidates and parties accountable for climate issues, because it is not an electoral priority.

Unlike some countries that welcome single-issue political parties dedicated to climate change — such as Jill Stein’s Green Party — India’s mainstream political parties rarely include climate policy on their agenda.

The recent manifestos released by the BJP and Congress included fleeting segments on climate change, but in no way were they nearly as comprehensive as their foreign counterparts or even the rest of the manifesto.

A few smaller Indian parties have made environmental policy central to their campaigns, such as the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UKPP) or the Indian Peoples Green Party (IPGP). But the former polled less than 0.80 per cent voteshare in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, lower than 2.23 per cent that went to NOTA for the same seat.

Not only is this telling of how dangerously unsupported such initiatives are, but how political structures which influence public opinion need to be urgently challenged.

The lack of public awareness over gravity of climate change stems from many other issues — poverty, lack of access to good education, gender discrimination, unemployment, etc.

But climate change is intrinsically linked to all of these — those one the frontlines of climate-related catastrophes are the most vulnerable.

As this crisis escalates, the most marginalised segments of the society will be the first to suffer, and that is perhaps why fighting climate change is far down in political priorities.

Instead of the launching awareness campaigns that put the onus on citizens, the government must empower its people to hold them accountable for the onslaught of damage inflicted on the planet. Climate change is a rapidly growing, politically “inconvenient” threat. And it’s time for Indians to spearhead their own climate revolution.

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