Climate Change in India - A Humanitarian Perspective

Last month, in the states of Karnataka and Andrha Pradesh in Southern India, flooding induced by heavy rains left approximately 2.5 million people homeless and more than 250 dead.1 This devastation occurred just two months after India’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, announced that the government was to begin importing food to make up for shortages caused by a drought estimated to be affecting 700 million people throughout the country.2

There is little doubt that India is already experiencing some of the impacts of climate change, which are predicted to worsen and intensify over the coming decades. In addition to sporadic monsoon conditions, experts have also expressed concerns about rising sea levels which threaten to submerge low-lying regions, and diminishing water accessibility which will deplete crop production.3 From a humanitarian perspective, this is worrying: “India is entering a period of severe… vulnerability,” says Jayakumar Christian, the National Director of World Vision.

A report released last year by CARE International described India as a “humanitarian hotspot” for climate change risk.4 The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has further specified that, because they are most dependent upon natural resources for their food, shelter and livelihoods, the poorest and most marginalized groups in Indian society are likely to be the most affected by environmental changes.5

India is home to approximately 800 million such poor people, the vast majority of whom “live on ecologically fragile land… and lack the institutional and financial capacity to protect themselves against climate change.”6 Many of these individuals belong to “adivasi” (tribal) communities, who already struggle with day-to-day burdens such as water shortage, food insecurity and disease.

In response to the floods last month, Karnataka’s state government has is providing food packages and temporary rehabilitation for those affected. More must be done, however. As the impacts of climate change intensify and increase over time, it is important that the government seeks to take a more proactive role to protect the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. In his speech at the Global Summit on Development and Climate Change in New Delhi in September, Vice President Shri M Hamid Ansari proclaimed “any action on climate change must enlarge, not constrict, the possibilities for development and empowerment of the world’s poor.” In reality, however, this is far from the case in India–the government appears to be doing very little to protect the poorest groups from the impacts of climate change.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The Plan focuses on eight “National Missions” that concentrate on adaptation (preparing for foreseeable adverse effects) and mitigation (slowing and reducing harmful effects) strategies for addressing climate change, including energy conservation, energy efficiency, and sustainability through an array of new and existing programs and alternative energy projects.7 But because building alternative power projects such as dams and hydropower plants physically displace rural communities and destroy livelihoods, human rights scholars have voiced concerns about the implementation of the NAPCC.8 Similarly, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) notes people living in rural communities often suffer “from the effects of climate change mitigation measures which are mainly market-based.”9 Large irrigation projects and other alternative energy “solutions” are estimated to have displaced between 80 and 150 million tribal and rural poor in India to date.10 A representative from an affected village community in the rural state of Orissa told me “every three or four months, the Forest Department tries to clear us out… we were born and brought up here… If we can’t stay here, where else can we go?”

In addition to social displacement, the design and implementation of these programs has been criticized for focusing on top-down measures which disempower local communities.Amnesty International has said that “in several [Indian] states… authorities failed to comply with new legislation guaranteeing access to information by denying affected communities information on planned development projects. In most cases communities were excluded from decision-making processes.”11 Market-based mitigation measures also create conditions for land speculation, land grabbing, land conflicts, corruption, and embezzlement of international funds by national elites.

If the Indian government is to tackle the effects of climate change while addressing the its citizens’ needs, it must recognise the importance of including local communities and empowering them to take part in the decision-making processes.  A number of civil society and non-governmental organizations throughout India are working on local level initiatives, seeking to provide citizens with the skills and knowledge they need to cope with the impacts of climate change. Although some collaboration exists between these groups and the Indian government, it is the latter’s responsibility to enhance such initiatives through further funding and support. This can be done in a number of ways.

First and foremost, the government should implement a structured public awareness program about climate change, its causes, and its potential impacts. It is vital that the groups likely to be most affected are aware of climate change and have strategies in place for coping with its effects. In order to help communities learn about and cope with climate change, the Centre for Environment Education is currently working in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in implementing these types of environmental education programs, including workshops and capacity building programs.

In Bangladesh,12 Oxfam International is facilitating the establishment of community preparedness committees–local groups which are given the responsibility to inform and help people before, during, and after floods. Hawa Parvin, the President of one of the village committees says “Previously we just reacted. We’d work together, but now we plan before the flood happens. It’s meant that, for example, we didn’t have to leave here [after the floods in 2004].”13 It is vital that funding is channelled into similar initiatives in India, providing knowledge and local capacity building which will reduce the vulnerability of rural groups across the country.

Secondly, the government should introduce advocacy and civil society inclusion programs to empower local stakeholders to participate in the development of government plans and strategies. This will enable the identification of potential problems or issues before they arise, combining technical expertise with local knowledge in order to help the government achieve sustainable solutions. Gathering and spreading local community knowledge is likely to have an array of positive outcomes, including devising local agricultural and forestry solutions. A number of communities throughout Asia are already using local knowledge to create climate change adaptation strategies; in Vietnam for example, some communities have planted dense mangroves along the coast to diffuse tropical-storm waves.14

In an attempt to take this notion forward, UNPFII is collecting documentation from adivasi groups about their “experiences in terms of their resilience, the adaptation and mitigation measures they themselves are taking and their traditional knowledge.”15 These reports are then compiled and submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, illustrating how “indigenous knowledge can become part of a shared learning to address climate-change.”16 Dr. Jacob Thundyil, Convenor of the National Advocacy Council for Development of Indigenous People (NAC-DIP), believes that the Indian government should include the opinions of these groups in its policy making: “there should be legal provisions enabling the… communities to patent for their intellectual property and traditional knowledge… [and the] benefits of the mega-projects… should be shared with the community.”  

Laslty, in order to support the suggestions above, the Indian government should have in place monitoring and research activities to measure local changes in climate and community-level impacts of climate change. This will develop the country’s resilience to climate change by providing valuable information to help local communities create strategic climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Development Alternatives (DA), for example, is an NGO engaged in a range of environmental monitoring and education activities. They conduct research to develop a southern perspective on climate change–one of the ways in which they do this is by disseminating kits to schools, NGOs, and companies to encourage people to monitor local environmental quality. Proactive steps like these–those which actively seek out local information and engage communities–will ensure the future livelihoods of the people of India.

In Sum

While the Indian Government’s National Action Plan on Climate Change represents an important first step in addressing the country’s future approach to global warming, it fails to address this increasingly pressing issue from a humanitarian perspective.  The implementation of alternative power plants has forcibly displaced millions from their homes, and lack of consultation with local communities is unlikely to create sustainable solutions for the country.  

Climate change is happening, and is poor and marginalized groups with the least knowledge about it are likely to be affected the most. The future lives and livelihoods of these citizens at present rests in the hands of social action and humanitarian groups that seek to implement local solutions to this global problem. In order to enhance these programs and to achieve reach across the country, it is vital that the Indian government comes on board to help implement a national people-centred plan, improving access to climate change education, promoting social inclusion, and researching the impacts that climate change is already having across the country. At present, the Indian government’s lack of involvement raises serious concerns about equity, justice, and human rights in a country which is widely acknowledged as the world’s “largest democracy.”  

In a country with a population of 1.2 billion, full commitment from the government is the only way India will be able to cope with the impacts of climate change in the imminent future. It must recognize that its own citizens are the key to tackling climate change and implementing sustainable development solutions.

November 2, 2009

frontispiece and photos: Outlook India

[1] Hindustan Times. "Deat toll in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh floods crosses 250" (October 6, 2009).

[2] The Economic Times. “Food Import Likely to Tide over Economic Crisis” (August 22, 2009).

[3] United Nations. “The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Facing and Surveying the Problem,” (http://unfccc.int/essential_background/feeling_the_heat/items/2914.php).

[4] CARE International. “Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change: Mapping Emerging Trends and Risk Hotspots(2008).

[5] R.V. Cruz et al. “Asia: Climate Change 2007; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” in Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, et al., eds.(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007): http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-chapter10.pdf.

[6] CARE International, 2008.

[7] Government of India, Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change. “National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC)” (June 2008).

[8] Rahul Goswami. “Blind spots in India’s new National Action Plan on Climate Change,” Infochange. (September 2008): http://infochangeindia.org/200809237384/Environment/Analysis/Blind-spot….

[9] Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. “UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Statement on Biodiversity and Climate Change (Agenda Item 4.5),” Confreence of Parties, Bonn Germany (May 23, 2008).

[10] Anna Pinto. “India in Climate Change,” Centre for Organisation Research and Education for the Gender and Climate Change Network (January 22, 2009).

[11] Amnesty International. “Report 2009,” http://thereport.amnesty.org/en/regions/asia-pacific/india.

[12] A neighbouring country similarly affected by climate change.

[13] Oxfam International. “Bangladesh: preparing for flood disaster,” Retrieved November 1, 2009: http://www.oxfam.org/en/campaigns/climatechange/bangladesh-preparing-fl…

[14] Jan Salick and Anja Byg. Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change (Oxford, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 2007): 17.

[15] Tauli-Corpuz, 2008.

[16] Ibid.

Civil Society, Climate Change, India