Back 17.03.2009

One Billion People at Risk – India has a mixed record on climate change

At the same time climate change discussions are calling for ”a global solution to a global problem”, the issue is not perceived as such in all parts of the world. Although India will face several serious challenges from climate change; history, faith and religion play their own part in how Indians regard the matter.

India already now among the top countries suffering from natural disasters

India has suffered from several natural disasters during the past years. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), during 2005 India as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan faced temperatures 5-6 °C above the regional average. There were 400 reported deaths in India alone, but unreported deaths would multiply this figure many times over. Monsoon floods and storms in South Asia during the 2007 season displaced more than 14 million people in India and 7 million in Bangladesh. Inability of poor households to cope with ‘current’ climate shocks is already a major source of human capability erosion. During 1971-2001, India has been among the top 4 countries in terms of people killed in natural disasters.

Looking towards the future, climate change will affect India especially in three ways: agricultural losses, sea level rise leading to submergence of coastal areas as well as an increased frequency of extreme events. With a present population of one billion and constantly growing, India will face many challenges protecting its people and maintaining their livelihoods and well-being.

Indian public yet to be convinced on climate change

But acting on climate change in India is not a certainty. The large majority perceives climate change as a distant factor when making a day’s living is top on the agenda. I conducted interviews in Kolkata, West Bengal in January 2009 with interviewees representing non-governmental organisations, media, universities and authorities. Interviewees mentioned how people are seeing impacts of climate change, such as in the sinking Sundarbans area in Bengal basin region, but they do not understand the reasons. However, it is not just the poor to whom climate change is a distant factor. Interviewees mentioned that due to religious beliefs, especially among the Hindu majority, people consider their faiths fixed and thus take life as it comes. Indians therefore partly believe bad things cannot be avoided, of which climate change represents one example.

Climate change has been on the official agenda for the past two years and is thus a rather young topic in Indian policy. In 2007, the Indian Government created an Advisory Council on Climate Change, chaired by the Prime Minister. India laid out a National Action Plan for Climate Change to the year 2017. The plan and India’s climate policy has been partly criticised nationally and internationally due to India’s unwillingness to commit to greenhouse gas emission reductions. India’s officials refer to sustaining economic growth and point out India’s low emissions per capita. The interviewees pointed out also the fact of anti-colonialist and anti-West sentiments, which still live strong even among official views, and can be seen in attitudes towards the climate change issue. Climate change is seen as a problem created by the West and therefore Western countries should also be the forerunners in finding a solution and being an example. Especially the role and actions from the United States were emphasised. West is partly seen as trying to limit India’s growth by committing India to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Voices from within

Of course, there are also Indian experts and activists demanding actions from their own government. For example, Greenpeace India in its “Blue Alert” report has called for India’s leadership in the international arena to develop an effective emission reduction strategy. According to Greenpeace, India should make serious commitments to reduce its emissions because India along with other developing countries will be the loser in the long run. Interviewees also mentioned that the government is partly guilty to the “blindness” of climate change impacts because it gives an impression “everything is under control”. Also the interviewees emphasised that the Indian Government should do more to, among others, perceive the problems coastal areas will be facing and include vulnerable areas such as coral reefs and the Sundarbans area in the climate policy.

However, the interviewees also emphasised that the responsibility to act is not entirely on the government. Cooperation with different actors is needed. The Central government, State governments, NGOs, local people and the private sector must all come together, and there should be a mind set change to tackle the severe challenges yet to come.

Alina Pathan

Author is an environmental and climate consultant at Gaia Consulting. She is also completing her second degree in the field of development studies and is writing her Master Thesis on India and climate change.