How to get away with murder

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 15 February 2003

What is wrong with us? Over 800 people have died in north India, another 500 in Bangladesh, only because it is colder this winter. And these are government estimates. Who knows what the real human toll is, caused by nothing more than what the meteorological department passes off as abnormal weather events. And why is it that this huge death toll fails to move us? As if over a 1000 deaths can be written off as bad weather effects. Chief minister Mayawati, who governs the state where over 500 people died, throws a huge birthday bash. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee takes time off from his trip to the Andaman islands to scold Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf. Life goes on. It seems we are nation-dead, numb and mute.

We also don't know what is wrong. We are not definite this is global warming. But something serious is afoot weatherwise. It does not take an expert to know this. This year, we had the worst heat wave - over 400 people died then. Then delayed monsoons, failed monsoons, delayed winters, little snow and now freezing temperatures. In addition, a dense blanket-like fog descended over many parts of north India.

Unusual weather events have also been widely reported across the world. Massive unusual snow in Beijing, floods in Europe, blizzards in us. But ask an Indian weatherman and he will tell you nothing is unusual about unusual weather events. You see, at some time, in some year - for which there is a record - a similar event was noticed. There was a bad fog year also in 1999, or an equally freezing winter in 1930. And on and on. Westerly disturbances is the 'foreign hand' of the meteorologist - an excuse for every season. It seems to me that the key obsession of meteorologists is to keep their bosses believing that nothing in the weather could jeopardise their immediate posting, or career.

Clearly, the issue is not current 'abnormal' weather. The issue is whether there is any reason to believe that the trend in extreme weather events is increasing in frequency or intensity. The issue is to find the small or big signs of change, from the early flowering of the mango tree to vanishing seasons. That is what weather signs are about. Not cussed and mean denial, even as the death toll and human agony mounts. I strongly believe that science and particularly, Indian scientists, are letting us down today. They fail to explain what we can palpably experience in our lives.

In any case, how does it matter if scientists will call this climatic change, or not? The fact is people are dying. Poor people, at the margins of survival, are most vulnerable to weather events -usual or unusual. Over the years, their lives have been more and more devastated. Their abilities to cope, indeed to overcome daily perturbations, are weakening. We need to implement, urgently, all the programmes for land, water, forest, food and livelihood security so that poor people are able to withstand the vagaries of nature. We have to be serious about development programmes. We have to be serious about effective government.

Nothing less will do. Last month the Orissa state assembly witnessed a ruckus as legislators argued if the threat of climate change was indeed serious and imminent for the state. The Centre for Science and Environment had published a briefing paper for state legislators, explaining how vulnerable and disaster-prone Orissa had become -reeling under vicious cycles of drought, flood, cyclones, hurricanes and heat waves, and this year even a bitter cold wave. The paper hit legislators hard. But the government was not convinced. Typically, it dismissed every indicator as unfounded and scientifically unsubstantiated. The point is, as we say in the paper, that Orissa is too poor a state to be able to afford any climate change.

The point also is that climate change is easily affordable for the rich. The oilprofligate and wasteful rich of the world in developed countries such as Australia, usa or Europe are not going to die like flies. New technologies and conveniences will see them through, even as they will shift the onus of change onto the developing world.

This is equally true of the equally energy-profligate rich of our country. They also will do little to avert climate change. Clearly, if it is going to be in the interest of the most marginalised to demand effective action, then the effort has to be to give them a voice. Give poor people the fora to shout and scream, so that the rich everywhere will have to provide for space, and the poor secure their present and future.

Thus, it would be right and just for the Orissa government to demand that the Central government takes the us to task for not doing enough on climate change. And precisely for this reason, it would also be perfect for the Orissa government to demand that the poor, who are underutilising their share of atmospheric space, have the right to build their lives. It is their inalienable right. It is the government's responsibility.

But the worst thing about globalisation is that not only is it leading to a loss of national and local decision-making powers, it is also leading to a loss of control over our leaders' attention span. It is this globalisation of politics, where leaders find it easier to externalise public attention by focussing on terrorism, war and Musharraf, that is letting them get away with murder. How else can you explain that in a democracy, as many as a 1000 people can die and there is neither a whimper nor a squeal? The scenario is business as usual. The scenario is only more indifferent than ever.

- Sunita Narain

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