The just (on Monday) released “assessment report” of the UN panel on climate change reminds what many experts in India and even its good old ballads have been cautioning. These include that the world is warming faster, see levels are rising faster, hot waves are becoming frequent and intense, and cities are becoming the hotspots of warming. More important reminder of this UN report is that climate change and quality of life are intimately linked and are two sides of the coin. Even more pertinent reminder is that “human induced climate change is the main driver” of all these trends. The Report has not however dwelt so much on contradictory trends in the public policies of countries which have been the contributor to the mounting crisis, locally and globally. Also, despite two decades of UN focus on social and sustainable development, some leaders in power in India continue to harp on environment compulsions as a hurdle.
Way back in 1972 the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, told the first ever UN Stockholm meet about linkage between environment and poverty and warned the global leaders about what it means. The Rio convention of UN in 1992 adopted climate change as an integral part if sustainable development. In May 2000 another Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while addressing the ministers of environment in the country, pointed the linkage between human development and protecting environment from “mindless consumption and destruction”. Vajpayee even cautioned of “narrow perceptions” and “flawed development strategies” of the development model being pursued. In 2002 the Johannesburg meet of UN even offered targets for sustainable development. The 2015 Paris meet went further with target-agreements.
Unique way of living in India!
In November 2020 the G20 meet also reminded that “Mother Earth should be seen in a spirit of trusteeship”. In 2019 Prime Minister Modi recalled in his UN address, in New York, “unique way of living of Indians over the centuries” to sustain environment. Much before, Mahatma Gandhi talked about and had set examples to respect, care and preserve the nature. Neither of these early reminders, warnings, targets and pledges have made a dent or reversed the national policies, not even restrained, as in the case of India.
India has been an active member of this UN panel all along. Expect rechristening the name of the Environment and Forest Ministry by adding “Climate Change” in 2014, what could be recalled as significant initiative of the successive governments? With all the rich heritage and pro-environment culture of the country what has been the approach this Ministry has taken to protect the nature, environment and steer the climate change? No wonder “Environment Performance Index” by reputed global academic institute has been ranking India as “fourth worst country”, at 177 out of 180 countries assessed. It has been showing India on continuous decline path for a decade since 2008. What have been the correctives besides more of the same kind!
More of the same would not work
My forthcoming book next month, “The Green Puzzle: Missing Links in India’s Crusade to Sustain Environment“, narrates why India’s pursuit is not reversing the trend despite the country being the earliest to recognise the criticality and urgency. The book reminds that “environment recovery is guarantee for an economic recovery, not vice versa”. The book points that the present more of the same approach will not make much of a difference and suggests a new framework and a way forward to streamline the policies, efforts, concerns and priorities. The book extensively points out a disconnected view of public policies. It contends that contradictions, complacency, conflict of interest, consumerism, centralisation, and bureaucratisation remain the hidden factors while the phenomenon of lifestyles is the driving force and yet they are not the priorities.
India has no national agenda
Despite fifty years of concern and claiming a national policy every time the minister changes, we cannot claim today a “national agenda” in pursuit of environment. The budget of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is unbelievably meagre and it is being cut further recently. The schools at primary and secondary level should have a definitive involvement in furthering the cause. If there is hardly any social and impact research in the country (and whatever is isolated and hardly taken note) how can we expect to gear up to the compulsions and cope with emerging situations as we witnessed last decade in Uttaranchal, for example. We go more by global mandates and studies and our own internal scenario building exercise, based on studies within are not known and yet it is not a concern.
How could we expect reversal in the current trend if the concern remains one of a ministry (of clearances!) when most ministries of the governments have to be in a proactive mode. “Environment impact assessment” has become a routine formality, despite obligatory legal provision with too many exemptions and amendments for deviations. Can we expect anything better without considering concerns of the people and having their active engagement. On the contrary environment activism in the country is being dampened and restrained and “consumerism” is given push further. And transparency and overseeing measures like social audit, open house and public hearings are losing out. Even more glaring there is no realisation with the governments and leaders that without change in the lifestyles of people, nothing is going to change. Let us hope the forthcoming UN meet (Cop 26) on climate change at Glasgow in October this year will come up with more concrete action propositions going beyond targets and pledges.
(Dr N. Bhaskara Rao is a New Delhi based public policy analyst with over fifty years track)