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Climate change and sustainability in the Indian context.

India is one of the world's oldest civilizations. It has a rich cultural past and a long colonial history. During the process of colonization, its economically self-sufficient livelihood systems were severely threatened.

Today, India has two faces. On the one side, it is a nation perceived to be on the brink of a breakthrough in economic development. It is considered one of the most politically powerful nations because of its economic potential. On the other side, India remains one of the world's poorest countries, with a large part of its population -- more than 40 percent according to a recent survey -- living below the poverty line and struggling for survival.

The issue of climate change has to be situated in this context. It is thus from the point of view of the majority of the Indian population, who are being increasingly marginalized today, that this paper attempts to highlight the impacts, issues and dimensions of climate change and what they imply for sustainability in the Indian context. Based on the experiences of work with indigenous communities in the east of India, it represents collective thinking represented in papers, reports and presentations at workshops in various parts of India.(1)

There are several reasons why the issue of climate change has not had a high priority in the Indian context. It is perceived as a problem of remote consequence from the perspective of the common people, who are engaged in more impending struggles for survival and for whom present conditions are so intolerable that the future assumes little importance. In addition, "climate change" at the local level -- sudden variations in the monsoon months, frequent floods and droughts -- has always been experienced and dealt with by Indian farmers. From the point of view of policy-makers, climate change is understood as a Northem problem. Since the Northern countries have largely created the problem of climate change, it is felt that it is up to them to work out solutions for it. Moreover, for a country like India to respond to climate change mitigation strategies would involve compromising the development of the economy.

Impacts of climate change in India

While predictions have been made on the possible impacts of climate change in the Indian context, these are still preliminary research findings and only indicate possible trends. Major uncertainties remain about the precise magnitude of its effects.

1. Agriculture. According to a study sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, India's geographical location makes it particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming. An analysis of various climate change scenarios reveals that crop yields in India could be adversely affected by changes in temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide. The effects will be felt differently in different regions.

These studies indicate that wheat yields would be greatly reduced by increasing temperatures, an expected consequence of global increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Rice yields in coastal areas, where the productivity is low, will not be affected, but yields in the more productive regions of Haryana and Punjab are likely to decline.

Such an adverse impact on agriculture will be alarming in the Indian context, and a World Health Organization report clearly states that malnutrition would increase due to the effects of climate change on food production systems.

2. Coastal regions. The most exhaustively studied impact of climate change is on India's coastal regions. It is expected that a rise in global temperatures will bring a rise in sea levels, with adverse impact. The observed trends in the mean sea level along the Indian coast indicate a rising of about one centimetre per decade, which is close to that noticed in other parts of the globe. The projected future sea level rise could inundate low-lying areas, coastal marshes and wetlands, erode beaches and increase flooding and salinity of rivers, bays and aquifers.

The total length of the Indian mainland coastline from the Sunderbans in West Bengal to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is 5700 km. If the Lakshwadeep-Minicoy and Andamans-Nicobar groups of islands are included, the figure is 7510 km. The coastal areas most under threat include the entire coast and the low-lying regions of Lakshwadeep-Minicoy and Andamans-Nicobar. There is a possibility that the lowlands in the Bengal-Orissa tract and the Gujarat Rann areas would he submerged due to expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers, resulting in encroachment of sea on lands. Large areas of cropland and mangroves, unique to this region, could be inundated. Apart from causing damage to the coastal infrastructure, this would result in the loss of fresh-water supplies due to the invasion of sea water. More than seven million people are at risk, and the impacts of sea level rise could cost as much as approximately 1850 million rupees.

India has a high coastal population density in the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The intensity of use of these coastal areas is growing under current developmental trends and in view of the high value of tourism in these lands. Sea level rise and the encroachment of the sea on inhabited lands would force the migration of populations inland, with consequent human suffering, besides having an impact on the living and non-organic resources of coastal zones.

Neighbouring Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world which would suffer the most serious problems of inundation from a rise in sea level as a consequence of global warming. According to a 1990 study conducted by Huq and Ali, it is estimated that 25,150 sq. km., or 17.5 percent of the surface of the country, would be inundated by a one-metre rise in sea level. This would displace 10 percent of its people and destroy 14 percent of its agriculture. The physical infrastructure destroyed would include 1.9 million homes, 1500 km. of railways, 10,300 bridges, 700 km. of metalled roads. The mangrove forests in the Sunderbans, covering 400,000 hectares, would be destroyed by increasing salinity and inundation; and 300,000 acres of jute would be destroyed.

3. Hydrological resources. The impact of hydrological changes will be very significant in Nepal, Bhutan and the Himalayan regions. The Himalayas are one of the world's most fragile mountainous regions. With nearly 1500 glaciers, estimated to cover an area of approximately 33,000 sq. km., the Himalayas are the source of some major rivers of the region. In recent decades, the hydrological characteristics of the watersheds in this region have undergone substantial changes due to extensive land use. Global warming now poses an additional threat.

Dimensions of climate change

Over and above the physical impact of climate change are the implications of this phenomenon for vulnerable communities. Here we shall explore three aspects of this: population and consumption patterns, deforestation and technology.

1. Population and consumption. The increasing population of India, coupled with economic development, is seen as a global threat because of the increase in rates of emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the implications of this for climate change.

While India's population is expected to pass the one billion mark by the turn of the century, its share of the global population (12.15 percent) will increase only marginally by 2025, and its share among developing countries will decline during the next century. Simultaneously, projections of the rate of growth in the gross domestic product are above 6 percent a year from 1997-98 onwards, which will be more than three times the growth rate of population. The fear is that this increasing population size together with the increasing trends in GDP will result in a phenomenal increase in energy consumption.(2)

At the same time, it must be recognized that the consumption patterns of the large majority of people in India indicate that their life-style is a negligible factor in climate change. Seventy percent of the population of India lives in rural areas, and these people simply do not use most of the products that are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions -- modern amenities such as motor vehicles, refrigerators, washing machines and other gadgets which absorb high levels of energy. Moreover, the resources they use are the ones on which they depend for their subsistence.

It is the consumption patterns of the Northern countries and elites in the South which threaten the resources within the context of the country. In terms of consumption the effective population of India is far less than the effective population in a Northern country. The average person in the USA is said to consume over 20 times the resources of the average person in the South. More specifically, according to Sandra Postel of WorldWatch Institute, in terms of emissions into the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, one person in the USA is equal to 8150 Indians. A study by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Bombay puts consumption levels of various commodities and raw materials in the North and the South in the following terms:

In the case of meat, US citizens consume 532 times more per capita than do

Indians, which

means that, as far as meat is concerned, the effective population of the USA

is 12.96 billion

as compared to 0.85 billion for India. In terms of copper, the effective US

population would

be 61 billion, and in terms of paper 28.66 billion. As far as the

environmentally effective

population is concerned, there is no doubt that the North constitutes the

bulk of the world's


While the World Resource Institute ranks India as the fifth-largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the world, compared to its population -- 16.2 percent of the world's population in 1990 -- India's total production of carbon dioxide and methane amounted to only 6 percent and 14.4 percent respectively of the amount that is absorbed by the earth's ecological system. In fact, India can double its total carbon dioxide emissions without threatening the world's climate. If it controls its deforestation, then it can increase its carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels several times.

India feels that each nation's allowance for greenhouse gas emissions should be prepared by taking into account both its resources of emission and its terrestrial sinks, that is, its forests, other vegetation and soil. This would give a more correct idea of the true emissions of each nation, which would have to be further matched with each nation's just and fair share of ocean and tropospheric sinks -- a common heritage of humankind. Only then can the net eniissions of a nation which are accumulating in the atmosphere be calculated.(3)

What is alarming is that the present trend of an increasing use of natural resources for conspicuous consumption is continuing, since India has opted for liberalization of the economy and structural adjustment. The problem is that the ecosystem in the Indian context must carry not only the livelihood requirements of its local populations, but also bear the burden of supplying a growing demand for commodities and raw materials in its urban market and, increasingly, the global market. What is more alarming is that it is the poor people who are then blamed for ecological degradation and, in the context of a population crisis, are perceived to be expendable and treated as "surplus population".

What is required is to ensure the rights and access to resources to generate sustainable livelihoods which will not only control ecological destruction but also deal with the simultaneous process of population growth. Striving for sustainable levels of population implies striving for lower growth levels with better quality of life. Some basic questions in this context are: -- What are the chances for developing countries with high rates of population growth to overcome the persistence of absolute poverty? -- Is the consumption pattern of the rich in the North an even more detrimental force towards the marginalization of the poor than the absolute increase in numbers of people in the South? -- To what extent will world food supply and its distribution take care of anticipated increases in population and basic nutritional levels? -- To what extent are the structural adjustment policies imposed by international financial institutions and pursued by governments today effective in mitigating poverty conditions? While there are many debates today on consumption and population questions in a North-South context, we need to focus on certain basic areas in the context of India itself: the management of people, inequitable consumption levels, die changing nature and levels of consumption and criteria for measurement of sustainable consumption.

2. Deforestation. The process of deforestation is of special significance for climate change. According to tropical forests expert Norman Myers, it leads to the release of large amounts of bio-mass carbon into the global atmosphere, where it combines to form carbon dioxide, which accounts for almost 50 percent of the greenhouse effect. It also releases two other potent greenhouse gases, namely, methane and nitrous oxide.

Recent satellite imagery shows that more than 19 percent of India's land mass is covered by forests, 12 percent of which is dense cover. What this analysis fails to show is that much of the dense forest cover is actually mono-culture plantations or is devoid of the rich ground vegetation once prevalent. As much as 90 percent of the original forests were already destroyed by 1989; and very little of India's land today retains good natural forests.

A micro-example of the process of deforestation has been identified through satellite imagery in two panchayats (geographical administrative area of contiguous villages) in a tribal area in the eastem region of India: Mohanapuram in the plains area, and Boddagandi in a remote, hilly area where many of the villages are accessible only on foot. The satellite images reveal that the process of deforestation has been much greater in the plains area than in the interior region. The analysis of Boddagandi indicates that there was around 84 percent forest cover in 1989, which was reduced to 63.8 percent by 1995. The data for Mohanapuram indicate that dense forests have decreased from 40 percent in 1989 to about 9 percent in 1995.

Maximum change was found on the upper hills, an area under dense jungle -- mainly bamboo, according to topographical surveys of 1974-75. The major bamboo cutting was done by paper mills in the region with virtually no supervision. Apparently, in order to maximize earnings all bamboos in each clump were cut, thus restricting the regeneration process. It is important to note that the forest area lost due to bamboo-cutting was far more extensive than the forest area lost due to shifting cultivation patterns.

This story at the micro-level provides insights into the problem at the macro-level. Most of the depletion of India's forests took place during the period of British control. Before their arrival, there were customary restrictions on the use of forests, but the British reorganized the commercial value of forests and introduced a rigid control on their use, thus restricting the rights over the forests of the forest-dependent communities, mainly indigenous groups.

Susan George indicates that forest destruction in the third world is responsible for up to one-fifth of impending climate change. The rate of greenhouse emissions resulting from deforestation has increased by something like 50 percent in the last decade alone. What is revealing in her analysis is the connection she draws between external indebtedness and the process of deforestation. While the toll on tropical forests due to human pressures is increasing, "this is not so much the result of population growth as of marginalization of huge numbers of poor people in debtor countries who no longer have a chance of finding a decent livelihood".(4) India, which ranks fourth among the world's 24 largest debtor nations during the 1980s, is also high on the list of major deforesters.

In qualitative terms, a country like India is caught in a debt trap in which its resources are exported goods and not enjoyed by our own citizens. Whatever income accrues from exported goods is redirected towards foreign creditors. During the financial year 1995-96, India received US$1.31 billion in loans from the World Bank and paid $2.03 billion in interest and repayment of earlier loans: a net payment to the World Bank of $723 million.(5)

At the policy level today there are two opposing trends in India: the pressure on forests is going up as the demand for wood, mainly from the industrial lobby supported by international demand, is increasing; and the pressure to conserve forests, backed by the global environmental lobby, is also increasing. Recently, the government of India has come up with a new bill called "The Conservation of Forests and Natural Ecosystems Act". What is questionable about the act is that it centralizes control of forest areas in the hands of the state and does not recognize the traditional rights of the forest-dependent communities to manage their forests. Hence, in the name of conservation, many indigenous groups are pushed out of their habitats when specific areas in which they reside are identified as reserved forests.

The need for forest conservation is obvious but we cannot ignore underlying forces behind deforestation and the dynamics of conservation. Sustainability in the context of forests would mean instituting processes by which the forest areas meet the survival needs of local populations. It is essential that forest-dependent communities be supported in the management and regeneration of forests and in safeguarding the principles of biodiversity, rather than prescribing conservation according to the narrow commercial interests of Southern elites and Northern demands. However, this issue is complicated by the prevalent North-South inequalities in power and economic relationships and the present North-imposed model of mal-development.

3. Technology. On the basis of economic potential, India today is considered to be one of the most powerful countries in Asia. India has promoted industrialization since the 1950s; and in the past decade the country has been moving towards an increasing liberalization of its economy and is making structural adjustments. Today it is considered highly attractive for investors, as it constitutes the tenth-largest market in the global context. Technology has come to be perceived as synonymous with development. It is felt that the way to improvements in the present economic status of the country lies in technological development.

But today's option for accelerated industrialization is geared towards the comfort of the top 15 percent of the Indian population, as is evident from some examples in key sectors. -- Consumer goods. Technology provides an access to luxurious consumption. In the Indian context this means access to refrigerators, washing machines and increasing use of such day-to-day items as chocolates, toothpastes and soaps. -- Mining. India is one of the largest exporters of minerals in the world.(6) It ranks among the top five iron ore-exporting countries, and is one of seven countries in the world with the manganese ore vital for the steel industry. It is the third-richest country in bauxite, the largest exporter of cut and polished diamonds, and a key exporter of fabricated sheet mica, non-coking coal, sillimanite, granite, vermiculite, magnesite, steatite and bentonite. But mining has led to ecological devastation and the displacement of mainly indigenous people. For example, the whole tribal belt in northern Andhra is in danger of being turned into a series of bauxite and other mines, some run by Indian private companies, others in collaboration with multinational firms. Contrary to protective land-transfer regulations elsewhere, the government acquires the lands through the state mining corporation and leases them to companies for whom the profit motive over-rides any concern for ecological loss or the survival needs of the tribals, whose access to land, water and forest resources is seriously jeopardized by mining in the catchment areas of the various watersheds. -- Transport and mobility. In 1995, the automobile industry in India had a growth rate of 23 percent, nearly four times the overall growth rate of the economy, according to the president of the Association of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM), making automobile production the second-highest creator of wealth in the country. But although private transport is increasing at an alarming rate, large parts of the rural sector have no transportation infrastructure or access to transport facilities. Even today, a large number of villages are accessible only on foot. The obvious question raised by technological development in the transport sector raises is: Who controls the priorities?

The inescapable reality of the nature of technologies being adopted in India today is that they are not in priority sectors and that their use contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and to the depletion of natural resources, wreaking ecological havoc. But the perception of policy-makers in India is that the present technology is a key prerequisite of development. That the country's economic development lies in its technological development is the underlying assumption behind the opening up of markets and the proliferation of a plethora of conspicuous consumption goods, mainly used by the upper middle classes, in the markets. The familiar "trickle-down" theory is cited: as demand increases, mass production can reduce the cost per unit of these products, and more and more people can benefit from their use. From the perspective of marginalized groups, these liberalization processes in technology are aggravating the pressures on their resources.

The benefits of the large-scale technologies being introduced in India are not for the rural poor. India is basically an agricultural country. According to the agricultural expert Dr Swaminathan, although the share of agriculture in India's overall gross domestic product has dropped from almost 60 percent in 1950 to about 30 percent in the 1990s, over 75 percent of the rural population still depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

Technologies such as large dams, mines and large-scale industries displace mainly the poor from their habitats. For example, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, a multipurpose dam is being proposed on one of the largest river systems of India. If this dam were to be constructed, almost 250,000 people, about half of indigenous background, would be displaced and one of the richest forest areas in the countly would be destroyed. These interventions are being justified because they are perceived to be in tho national interest. But who determines what constitutes national interest?

India's position in the international debate

In the run-up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, ftindamental issues of equity were at die core of climate negotiations. India was in the forefront of those who pushed the issue of equity to centre stage in climate-change negotiations. The same cannot be said of the post-rio climate talks.

India is one of the signatories of the Climate Change Convention. It has clearly stated in some of the earlier discussions that the basic norm is the equal right of every individual to atmosphere. While this concern for equity is reflected in the climate change text, the post-convention talks have appeared to ignore this issue. This is evident in the clear change of stance regarding joint implementation. Initially, India resisted joint implementation on the ground that it sidetracked the issue of changing patterns of consumption in the Northern countries. Later, during the First Conference of Parties in March 1995, it accepted the pilot phase of joint implementation under the new name of "activities implemented jointly".

In the course of the deliberations on the different reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change working groups, India took an active stand, particularly in relation to the controversy over the IPCC economists' valuing of human life differently in the North and in the South. However, the issue is far from resolved. The economic costs of damages associated with climate change will most likely be at the core of assessments for a long time.

The truth is that the North has been using aid and trade to control the South and push its policies through. Since India is pursuing a high-growth policy, it feels that the North is compelling the countries of the South to slow down their emissions at the cost of development in their own countries.

For example, there is pressure on Indian industry to move from coal to oil as a source of energy because it is relatively less harmful to the atmosphere. But India's coal reserves are rich and its oil reserves not so rich. Hence such a switch is likely to affect the economy adversely. Another example is the promotion of chlorofluorocarbons required for refrigeration. The North seeks to restrict the export of CFCS from one developing country to another, thereby adversely affecting trade in developing nations. Indian policy-makers feel that alternative energy technology is expensive and compromises the development needs of the nation.

The main question is to what extent a country like India can assert itself in the international arena, given the nature of power relationships.

Sustainable options

The marginalized communities in India constitute basically the rural sector tribals, Dalits, fisherfolk and other economically backward communities -- and the poverty groups living in the slums and on the pavements of urban areas. But although these groups are "marginalized", it is important to recognize that they in fact constitute the majority of the Indian population.

The pressure of private interests on land is increasing, protective legislation is being amended to suit the vested interests of outsiders in hitherto protected areas, local crop varieties are being replaced by market-oriented commercial crops, activity is being increasingly privatized. In all of this, the government is increasingly representing private interests rather than public interests. In fact, the marginalized communities have come to be perceived as expendable.

The nature of patterns of consumption, the promotion of a certain kind of technology and the underlying causes of deforestation not only contribute alarmingly to environmental degradation and the acceleration of chmate change, but also fail to suggest a solution to the survival problems of the nation. In odier words, the model of development that India has been pursuing and continues to pursue is ecologically unsound and elite-oriented. But in the context of globalization and the close nexus between the aspirations of Northern countries and Southern elites, what options can lead towards sustainability?

There is no easy answer to this because there are in fact few technical solutions to the problem. This issue is political.

A critique of a recent Friends of the Earth report on a sustainable Europe states:

The FOE framework has looked at die question of sustainable Europe in

isolation, i.e.,

without placing its analysis in the global context of inequitable sharing

of power between

nations, a long-drawn-out result of the process of colonization endured by

the South at the

hands of the Europeans. Its analysis is removed from international politics

and the present

trends in globalization of the economies, which in turn is leading to an


interdependent world. Thus the report has addressed the question of European

over-consumption without addressing the question of poverty in the South


Over-consumption in the North is possible because India and other third-world countries provide the natural resources, food and labour at cheap rates to these nations.

Sustainable societies are possible only under certain conditions: -- equitable distribution; -- a change in global priorities, with the consumption needs of the last human being taking precedence over the consumption greed of the first human beings; -- a development approach which focuses on self-reliance (sustainable agriculture and industry) rather than vested interest alliances; -- a technological revolution which is based on ecology and subsistence level of production for all.

In the Indian context, in which the new economic policy is already underway, the struggle towards sustainability is a long and arduous task. What we need to focus on is: -- ensuring basic minimum needs: basic nutritional requirements, access to safe drinking water, basic health for all, basic education, a decent living habitat; -- self-reliance with ecological harmony: community rights on common property resources, such as community forests and common grazing grounds and so on, sustainable management of the ecosystem by enhancement of the total natural resource base in our villages and equity in distribution of bio-mass resources; -- sustainable technological options which encourage appropriate and indigenous technologies.

In short, this would mean taking a new look both at resource control and resource use in a way that ensures equity and social justice, economic efficiency and ecological harmony.

In the present context of globalization and the nature of power relationships, we can hardly look to governments on their own to represent the concerns of civil society. What is required, therefore, are assertive voices within each country, solidarity actions within regions and across the North and South to exert pressure towards decisions which do not militate against the survival interest of the majority of the world's population, now and for the future.


In addition to the sources cited, this paper draws on the findings of a March 1996 workshop on "Climate Change: Implications in the Indian Context", and on a position paper of the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change, Visakhapatnam, 1996; as well as the following resources: K.C. Abraham et al., eds, Global Warming: Implications for South Asia and the Role of Churches, 1993; Action Research Unit, "Resource and Economy Study -- East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh"; Anil Agrawal and Sunit Narayan, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism, New Delhi, Centre for Science and Environment, 1991; Jyoti Parekb, "IPCC Strategies Unfair to the South", Nature, no. 360, Dec. 1992; Vandana Shiva, "Sustainability of People and Ecosystems", People's Perspectives, Aug. 1995.

(2) Kamala Gupta, India's Contribution to Global Warming, Bombay, International Institute for Population Studies.

(3) Science of Global Warming and Climate Change, New Delhi, Centre for Science and Environment, 1995.

(4) Cf. Susan George, The Debt Boomerang, London, Pluto Press, 1992.

(5) The Hindu, 10 Oct. 1996.

(6) Cf. G.D. Kalra, "The Indian Minerals Industry: An Overview", Raw Materials Report, vol. 7, no. 2.

(7) Sustainability and the Southern Perspective", Down to Earth, 15 July 1992.
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Title Annotation:The Churches and Climate Change
Author:D'Souza, Nafisa Goga
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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