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Local warming

You hear ‘climate change’ and you think it’s just a ‘developed vs developing world’ debate. KumKum Dasgupta points out that it’s also an ‘India vs India’ tussle.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2009 23:25 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

‘I am a representative of the Bhil and Bhilala tribes of West Nimar from Narmada valley. We have been told that these changes in the climate are due to global warming... [but] we have not contributed towards the problem. Then why should we suffer? Today we are facing hardship because the world is running after development. Their development is not ours!’

That was 22-year-old Dalki Rawat at a press conference on climate change in New Delhi recently. Apart from focusing on the stiff challenges her community is facing due to climate disruptions, Rawat in her speech also touched upon another important facet: there’s a divide between rural and urban India on the climate issues.

While urban India (even here not all are on board) is consumed by climate policies and emission norms, rural India — which in more ways than one has already started feeling the pinch of climate change — it is about livelihood challenges, something that Rawat and others like her are facing every day. It will only benefit everyone if these two opposing sides engage and the disparate dots are joined to get a complete picture.

“In India, development is seen from two prisms,” says Siddharth Pathak, Campaigner, Climate and Energy, Greenpeace. “But there’s an urgent need to bring these two sides on the same plane. The climate debate is an opportunity to close this gap and launch a joint effort. But unfortunately that does not seem to be happening.... The other issue that often gets left out is that of its impact on the urban poor, many of whom are climate refugees.”

More than 150 million people live off India’s rain-fed agriculture, and every time the monsoon fails or behaves erratically, part of this population ends up being in any one of the big cities. This in turn puts enormous pressure on the already stretched civic resources of Indian metros. “Despite so many changes in weather patterns, urban India seems to be oblivious of the threat and is keen to continue with an unsustainable development pathway,” environmentalist Sudhinder Sharma says. “This is precisely the reason why the Ministry of Environment and Forests is not bothered to have a comprehensive consultation process on the climate change debate.”

And sometimes we miss the bigger issues that lurk behind the immediate small picture. Take the recent delayed monsoons and waterlogged streets in Delhi. Most of the drawing room discussions revolved around the shoddy infrastructure and administrative failure. Of course, the chaos that happened was due to a lax administration that failed to do its homework. But behind this small picture was the bigger issue of changes in our weather patterns.

Interestingly, if we put the template of the global situation in climate change on India, it looks very similar. It is the urban areas that emit the most and the rural areas that suffer the most — along the equation that exists between the developed and under-developed worlds. “Why should rural India be punished when it is urban India with its ‘Americanised’ set-up that is the one creating the mess?” asks development writer Richard Mahapatra. “Isn’t it time India adopts a common but differentiated responsibility within its own territory?”

As things stand 80 days before the Copenhagen summit, the climate change debate in India seems to be revolving around the ‘macro’ issues. But the need is to put more focus on ‘micro’ issues — how the common people of India are adapting to the changing climate patterns. In Punjab, for instance, farmers have turned to basmati to beat the climate change threat, while in some regions of the Gangetic delta, women have learnt to build elevated bamboo platforms so that they can take refuge during frequent and unexpected floods. There is also a need to have a clear idea about the status of India’s preparedness for climate change.

It is in urban India’s interest that it wakes up, gets involved and pushes the government to act more — and fast. In an interesting experiment in Britain showing how counter-culture can take forward the issue in the public arena, away from the high-table of climate change negotiators, a drama-documentary-animation film, Age of Stupid, has been ‘crowd-funded’. The movie has the actor Pete Postlethwaite playing an old man living in the devastated world of 2055, watching archival footage from 2008 and asking, ‘Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?’ To raise its £450,000 budget, the makers sold ‘shares’ to 223 people and groups, including a hockey team and a women’s health centre. (The movie will be launched in India on September 22.)

I met Rawat at the launch of the innovatively named ‘tck, tck, tck campaign’ that hopes to mobilise citizens around the world to put pressure on the heads of States meeting in Copenhagen in December to achieve an “ambitious, fair and binding” climate treaty.

Can urban India, with its candlelight vigilwallas and television debate participants, please stand up and be counted? If not for anyone else but yourselves.