Policies and People | Uttarakhand’s climate plan shows State failure
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) begins in Glasgow on October 31, and a spate of climate-related events in different parts of India have, once again, underscored the enormity of the challenge that India, and the world, face today.
In the last week, Uttarakhand and Kerala were battered by intense rainfall, which led to flooding and landslides. More rains are expected in both states.
A nightmarish 2021
For Uttarakhand, an ecologically fragile Himalayan state, 2021 is turning out to be a nightmare. With 298 deaths and 66 reported missing (till Sunday) in weather-related disasters (flash floods, floods, cloudbursts, landslides and mudflows), 2021 is the second-worst in terms of loss of lives in such calamities since 2010 (when data collection was streamlined).
Only the Kedarnath flash floods (2013) devastated and killed many more.
Government data shows a sharp increase in weather-related calamities over the years in the state. Uttarakhand has registered 7,750 extreme rainfall events and cloud bursts since 2015, most of them over the last three years. What has happened in the state (and in Kerala) is linked to the changing patterns of monsoon, say experts.
There are several reasons why the mountain state is going through such devastation at regular intervals: Unrestrained anthropogenic activities in such a fragile ecosystem, exacerbated by the climate crisis, deforestation, and political and bureaucratic disinterest in making development plans climate-sensitive.
“Landslides are under check in areas with intact natural vegetation because of the binding of the soil by roots. However, any disturbance to natural vegetation in a locality with high rainfall and with steep slopes makes it prone to landslides. Such disturbances may include construction of buildings and roads, quarrying or mining, replacement of natural vegetation by plantations, or levelling of the land using heavy machinery,” wrote ecologist Madhav Gadgil (on the Kerala floods) in this newspaper on October 24. The situation is not different in the northern state.
Explaining the recent round of rain-related incidents in Uttarakhand, Vishal Singh, executive director, Centre for Ecology Development and Research, Dehradun, says: “Rapid and cosmetic developmental pathways, weak tourism management and unreliable infrastructure are the hallmarks of mountain cities of Uttarakhand”. He warns that such events are expected to repeat more frequently as a result of the climate crisis, and if business as usual continues, the “speculation of collapse may become a reality at-least for urban centres such as Mussoorie and Nainital.”
Lost in transition
One of the best illustrations of the state’s climate-insensitive attitude is its handling of the Uttarakhand Action Plan on Climate Change (UAPCC).
In 2009, the central government asked states to develop their action plans, the rationale being to decentralise action beyond the eight missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, since many of the subjects such as water and agriculture are state subjects. As a result, UAPCC was devised in 2014, and approved in 2015 by the central government.
The first line of the 226-page UAPCC (Transforming Crisis into Opportunity), which is available on the state government website, says: “Uttarakhand is most vulnerable to climate-mediated risks”. In the later chapters, UAPCC calls the state “ground zero of the climate change battle”, acknowledges the rapid increase in “incidence and intensity of extreme weather events”, and the grave challenges that its nature-based economy faces due to the climate crisis. It also says that through UAPCC, the state government “commits itself to fostering inclusive, sustainable and climate-resilient growth and development of the state”.
Yet, little has been done when it comes to internalising and integrating UAPCC in the planning process.
“It was ambitious to come up with the action plan, and bring different stakeholders on board. But somewhere down the line, it lost tempo. Small climate adaptation projects have been launched but their effect is minimal,” says Jai Raj, former principal chief conservator of forests, Uttarakhand. He was the nodal officer when the plan was written. “While there are some financial resource-related challenges, climate concerns must be given due importance and included compulsorily in development planning.”
It’s a pity that Uttarakhand has not utilised UAPCC because such plans can be an important intervention in the development process. “They provide an institutional platform to mainstream concerns of environmental sustainability into development planning, and if done properly, to update ideas to include climate resilience,” write Navroz Dubash and Anu Jogesh in From Margins to Mainstream? State Climate Change Planning in India (India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development). “At the moment, this promise is not being adequately realised,” they add.
‘An intellectual exercise’
“State climate plans are an intellectual exercise,” says Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India. The deepening climate crisis and the lackadaisical attitude of states towards the larger issue and the climate plans show that the climate crisis challenge has gone beyond states and has to be dealt with at the central level, he says.
Prakash feels that India needs a separate ministry for tackling the climate crisis. It has to be a nodal, new-age ministry, which can then coordinate with different ministries since the issue impacts all sectors, from health to child care. “Every action has to go through the climate lens,” he says. The new ministry has to bring in new knowledge systems, push for adequate funding of projects, climate-resilient infrastructure, and also must be staffed with people to implement climate plans in a mission-mode.
But for now, Uttarakhand’s choice is clear: It needs to go back to UAPCC, update it, and implement its key messages for its development planning. Otherwise, it will face repeated rounds of climate-related devastation with severe social and economic consequences.
The views expressed are personal