Unlocking climate action in Indian federalism
India’s unusually centralised form of federalism presents unique challenges to climate action. Powers and capacities substantially concentrated in the central government are uneasily juxtaposed against the nature of the climate problem, whose solutions often turn on the outcomes of localised politics in mitigation and adaptation.
The central government holds fiscal powers and bureaucratic capabilities more potent than the states, and the ability to set the agenda in many realms of climate policy (including those under state jurisdiction such as water and agriculture). But the states are solely responsible for many sectors crucial to climate governance, play an indispensable role in crafting appropriate political conditions for implementation and, crucially, in innovating to set policy examples for national emulation. Any effective model of Indian climate governance would, therefore, require each level of government to compensate for the jurisdictional, capacity, and informational constraints of other levels (Pillai and Dubash 2021). Building a compensatory relationship of this sort between the Centre and states will require modifications to India’s federal institutions.
Moreover, climate mitigation and adaptation challenges often spill over jurisdictional borders and change over time, calling for coordination and the circulation of new solutions within the federal structure. Addressing climate impacts and engaging in sustainability transformations across states with different capacities and levels of development underscores the need for an equalising Centre, not least, a central government making pledges in the international arena must work with the states to develop and implement policy if these are to be effectively implemented across Indian states.
Attempts to create climate linkages between the Centre and states have thus far failed to yield enduring results. This brief is built around lessons from federal interactions in periods of heightened climate policy activity. India’s experiences with the State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs), now a decade distant, revealed significant institutional shortcomings. First, the federal system failed to carry the momentum of an initial burst of policy enthusiasm into the present period.
Second, the strategic space for states to build bespoke plans was constrained by a lack of capacity and the normative influence of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) that immediately preceded the SAPCCs (Dubash and Jogesh 2014). Third, vagueness about financing diminished states’ enthusiasm over time (Kumar 2018).
This policy brief outlines what it might take to unlock climate action while working with the grain of Indian federalism. We propose changes to the system that, when taken together, potentially harmonise actions across governments in the federation while preserving states’ political autonomy to experiment and innovate. We call this model one of ‘structured opportunism’.
We aim to reform institutions to the benefit of both the national energy transition and climate resilience in the states.
(The study has been authored Aditya Valiathan Pillai, Navroz K Dubash and Partha Bhatia)