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Is India Ready for a Leadership Role in Times of Environmental Change?

India, as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to environmental change, is at the undeniable centre of various discourses relating to the impact of environmental changes on human security and conflicts driven, or exacerbated, by the exploitation of natural resources. India also has the potential to  promote stability and peace through sustainable development and environmental cooperation. Integral to adelphi’s project – “Environment, Conflict and Cooperation” (ECC) – these issues have been dealt with at length on numerous occasions and on a host of  platforms. As the ECC exhibition travelled to Manipal University (a university that commands a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east), the primary focus has been to examine the realities on the ground and to integrate these into the larger national and international frameworks of  climate diplomacy and environmental governance.

Biodiversity, Protection and Conservation

The location of Manipal University makes it a unique setting to delve into the  plethora of environmental issues which face India as a whole. Perhaps the predominant issue of all is biodiversity. The perils which confront biodiversity in the Western Ghats (situated along India’s southwest coast and home to many endemic species) are the first thing to draw anyone’s attention.  These perils include mining, climate change, infrastructure projects and population pressures, amongst others. Calling the Western Ghats a “blackspot” - and not just a hotspot -, N. A. Madhyastha contends, “If the causative factors that are gradually destroying the Western Ghats continue to operate, then the disaster is inevitable, in the future, as it has happened in the Himalayan region.” If one goes by the recommendations issued by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), headed by Madhav Gadgil, the entire Western Ghats must be treated as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), although this does not mean that developmental projects have to be halted completely. Another report submitted by K. Kasturirangan watered down the Gadgil report and declared 37 percent of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive and allowed development in the remaining parts of the region. Even this report is being opposed by various state governments on the grounds that it is anti-people (as an extension of being anti-development).

On the other side of the university lies the Arabian Sea, and, with the spotlight on the protection of the Western Ghats (may it be with funds from the national and state governments or even international agencies), the coastal biodiversity is being largely neglected. This is where efforts made by common citizens in biodiversity protection gain prominence. Ramit Singal, reflecting on the role of citizen science in coastal Karnataka, insists that those without a scientific background could and should engage in scientific initiatives and endeavours, especially in the context of a burgeoning trend towards mainstream conservationism and ecological surveying.    

Biodiversity protection and conservation are  emerging entry points for cooperation between India and the rest of the international community. Especially, considering that impacts  on major biodiversity hotspots, such as the Western Ghats and the Himalayas, could have regional and international ramifications. As illustrated above, this could be undertaken at two levels, through national and sub-national agencies (in forest surveying, protection of endangered species, zoning etc) and through the financing of citizen initiatives (knowledge building, community practices, spreading awareness etc).

The Inevitability of Water Conflicts 

The drought-stricken Marathwada region of Maharashtra has yet again become a talking point with the inevitability of a “humanitarian crisis” unfolding in its villages. Four successive droughts have demonstrated two things. First, the role of resource scarcities (caused in part by environmental change) in exacerbating conflicts; and second, the need for building resilience and exploring ways to achieve a transition to sustainable natural resource management. In this case mainly that of water, as observed by Ulka Kelkar

Water scarcity, being an existential threat, is caused by multiple factors – physical, economic, institutional and so on. In India’s case, pollution is one of the biggest drivers of water scarcity. Rapid economic growth and growing population have put severe stress on Indian rivers, which are losing their self-purification abilities. For instance, successive governments have unsuccessfully been attempting to clean up the Ganges for the past three decades. K. Balakrishna, after conducting an extensive study on the state of pollution in Indian rivers, especially in Karnataka, concludes that the problem has now been compounded with the relatively recent addition of newer contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) that could potentially lead to the collapse of the entire river ecosystem and societies that depend on it.

Cleaning the Ganges is part of India’s diplomatic outreach to other countries, with Israel, Germany, Japan and a few others extending their cooperation in this endeavour. Measures including, regulating the discharge of all pollutants into the river, increasing investments to set up waste water treatment plants across towns and villages of India, and strengthening the waste water treatment systems in places where they already exist, are at the top of the government’s priority list. It goes without saying that much more is required in order to prevent Indian rivers from complete degeneration.

Fulfilling Energy Transition Goals

Energy is another component that lies at the focal point of India’s climate diplomacy. As the international community underscores the need to  build strategies to enhance energy security in order to prepare vulnerable populations, India simultaneously needs to equip the country’s engineers and energy managers with practical education and technical level training. Indeed, this is possibly the only way in which India could make some headway in the gradual yet inevitable shift towards greener forms of energy. In fact, V. K. Damodaran uses the case studies of Darfur, Lake Victoria, the Mekong River and several other locations to show that climate impacts could lead to both intra- and international conflicts (such as dislocation of communities) as well as cooperation among communities to combat the ill-effects. He stresses that “one of the basic necessities in any crisis ridden scenario is energy for cooking food, lighting and for creating employment for the displaced/survivors.” 

 By choosing solar energy as the cornerstone of its policy for a low-carbon economy and a greener future, the Modi government has again made clear its commitment towards heralding a change in India’s energy strategy, previously plagued by an over-dependence on fossil fuels. As a matter of fact, a point remarked by Siddhartha, “the pressure to increase its energy supplies, combined with the consequent negative environmental impact of fossil fuels, has led India to explore the potential of renewable energy sources to meet its energy demands, sustain economic growth and achieve human development objectives”.


Socio-economically Appropriate Mitigation and Adaptation Policies

Another point which shouldn’t be overlooked is that the implementation of any climate change policy should take into consideration its risk of conflict generation as well. This becomes even more relevant in the case of climate diplomacy initiatives – when two or more countries engage in cooperative frameworks. They would not only be expected to understand each other’s national requirements, but also to be able to penetrate societies on the ground in a positive manner. This is crucial in countries such as India, where governance is not centralised and environmental decision-making and implementation is carried out at all levels – national, state and local.

Any such policy has to be integrated with other general policies governing the social, financial and economic sectors of the particular country. As Amarnatha Shetty, asserts, “Standalone environmental policy is incapable of bringing a comprehensive change in the system. Formulation of any policy has to deal with the issues concerning economic feasibility, social acceptability, and technological capability vis-a-vis environmental benefits to the targeted social group. Lest it will remain only on the paper.” This is applicable in all cases, whether it is to promote climate friendly agricultural practices or to adopt green building technology or to popularise low carbon economic development strategy.

In a similar vein, building resilience is at the heart of conflict prevention, resolution and transformation. This has gained traction in the context of climate change, with more and more emphasis on adopting climate policies attuned to poverty reduction and sustainable economic development programmes. Bejoy K. Thomas envisages a two-pronged approach for understanding resilience – one, by emphasising recovery to a prior state in the aftermath of stress or shock (such as natural disasters); and the other, by looking at the adaptive capacities of systems to long-term stressors or shifts such as climate change. This approach, according to him, does not fit in developing country settings, wherein multiple stressors apart from climate change need to be weighed in. For instance, land-use study becomes an important parameter when it comes to studying urban resilience and water. 

The Environmental Divide between the West and India

Drawing a distinction between environmentalism (environmental movements) in the West and India, many scholars have analysed the need for locating the present day environmental challenges within historical and socio-political contexts. These important factors are overlooked by many, which leads to governance failure. Proponents of an Indian perspective on environmental thought, like Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have spoken in length about how environmental movements in India have been concerned about survival and livelihoods, contrary to the Western preoccupation with wilderness and conservation. Maitreyee Mishra, while highlighting this fundamental difference between the two, argues in favour of keeping the bond joining indigenous and tribal peoples to their natural environments intact, even while introducing policies in the name of nature protection and conservation.

One of the examples that can be quoted to explain this scenario is that of the case of Kudremukh National Park. Forest dwellers, mainly tribal communities, were first evicted from the area, when it was declared a national park, and later they were allowed to reside in the forests, but without laying any claim to the forest resources, that constituted the primary source of their livelihood. This allegedly gave rise to Naxalism in the region too, turning into a security concern. As accentuated by Narendar Pani and Varadesh Hiregange, India cannot afford to adopt maximalist positions on environment by analysing “conflicts over the environment merely in the physical space” or see the “loss to the environment in physical terms.”

The actual negotiations over the environment involve a number of other spaces, which can be defined through various lenses and are not restricted to ‘absolute space’. In fact, the majority of discourses on the environment  are dominated by absolutist notions such as ‘carrying capacity’. As a case in point, a system of bargaining derived from Gandhi’s works could be used to outline the broad contours of environmental negotiations in India in recent times. Pani vehemently argues that “the lack of consistency between positions adopted in different spaces had arguably contributed to India becoming an environmentally unfriendly nation.” The reality is quite different as the society is a set of interconnected actions and it is constituted by not only individuals (a more Western approach) but various other strata and sub-strata. India’s environmental policies and practices are contingent on these multiple spaces operating at various levels of the society, whether it is the ‘relational space’ or the ‘conceptual space’ or the ‘organic space’.

This major lacuna has been bridged to a great extent, but there are many gaps that are yet to be filled, especially since the environmental security and policy discourse is heavily dominated by Western literature. In order for environmental diplomacy to be employed on a much larger scale and for it to bear fruit, these basic differences have to be taken into account. 

Filling the Domestic and International Legal Loopholes

Adherence to Indian environmental regulations is yet another cornerstone of environmental diplomacy, as an increasing amount of countries invest in India’s green economy and other projects. Central to this is the Indian judiciary, which is one of the pillars of environmental governance in India. Despite the fact that the Indian government has set up a National Green Tribunal under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 “for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”, there are still many grievances with regard to the manner in which environmental clearances are given to projects that involve investments from multinational companies. One such loophole is brought to light by Leo F. Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao – that of the grassland ecosystem failing to get the same protected area status enjoyed by the forest ecosystem, mostly as a result of conventional and compartmentalised policy framing. As a result, the pastoral residents in many parts of the country have been unjustifiably rid of their grazing land and in turn, affecting their livelihood security.

On the international stage, many more loopholes exist that could plague both security governance and environmental governance. The conundrum with regard to the debate on environmental refugees is just one among several. The terminology “climate refugee” is quite controversial, as it is far from attaining any legal sanctioning apart from acceptance from civil society, concerned nongovernmental organisations and a few other forums. Migration occurring due to environmental causes such as climate change may be voluntary or forced; it could be the result of a well-considered decision process or a sudden environmental catastrophe; it could be permanent or temporary. Nanda Kishor, while providing a concise account of the criticalities involved in according legal status to ‘climate refugees’, emphasises the need to adopt available alternate discourses on the subject through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms; and not wait for the international law to provide solutions.

From ‘Spoiler’ to ‘Conciliator’ to ‘Leader’

One of the most oft-exploited labels that have been used to characterise India for long is that of a ‘spoiler’ at major international forums like the climate change negotiations. This has begun to change slowly. In fact one of the points that were underscored during the course of the exhibition-related lecture series was that there had been a visible fundamental change in India’s attitude with the new government under Modi’s leadership, making efforts to work with the rest of the international community with a constant emphasis on commonalities. India’s top leadership realises that it cannot afford to go alone and that its role in the international environmental order is crucial.

The country has to play a major role in promoting not only sustainable economic development (aimed at eradicating or reducing poverty, hunger, and diseases among others, while not destroying the environment) but also sustainable lifestyle (by emphasising practices such as vegetarianism) so that the international community’s focus does not solely lie on cutting down fossil fuel consumption. India must adopt a two-pronged approach towards climate diplomacy – first, through bilateral partnerships (such as in clean coal, solar and wind) and second, through a global facilitation mechanism and network, by which countries with less diplomatic clout could advance their climate policy without affecting their national interest.

From a conciliator, India has to now make the next big leap towards becoming a ‘leader’; and for this, India has to create agencies of positive transformation in the global environmental order by exploring both micro and macro perspectives on environmental change. As the famous saying goes, “Lead change from within yourself and you will change everything.” This is the path that India also needs to espouse in order to become a global leader in climate and environmental policy.

Please download the programme of the ECC Exhibtion Lecture Series at the Manipal University here.

Acknowledgement – The author duly acknowledges inputs from Ramu C. M., a scholar of Geopolitics and International Relations, India.  

[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India