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BRP Bhaskar: Waiting for climate justice
April 26, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

A heat wave was sweeping large parts of India as Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar joined leaders from 174 other countries at the United Nations headquarters on Earth Day to sign the historic Paris Climate Agreement.

India has lived with the vagaries of nature throughout history. There are changes in the established weather pattern from time to time, resulting in drought or floods. They cause large-scale suffering, and are seen as natural calamities or acts of God.

Last year, as the country experienced a heat wave, Minister for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences Harsh Vardhan said, “This is not an unusually hot summer. This is climate change.”

That heat wave, the fifth worst in recorded history, took a toll of 2,422 lives, the highest in more than two decades. This year the heat spell started early, and this month appears set to become the cruellest April in living memory. The worst of summer is still ahead.

Last week the Centre informed the Supreme Court, which is looking into a complaint about the inadequacy of relief measures, that 256 of the country’s 675 revenue districts, have been declared drought-affected and 330 million out of the total population of 1.21 billion live there.

It is the state government that notifies a district as drought-hit and it has the responsibility to take measures to relieve the people’s distress. But it has to look up to the Centre for funds for the purpose.

Scientific management of drought, which is a major cause of failure of crops and ruin of farmers’ lives, is comparatively new. It was only in 2010 that the National Disaster Management Authority, set up under a 2005 law, formulated guidelines to facilitate coordinated response to drought.

According to NDMA, there has been no increase in the incidence of droughts over the last two centuries but their severity appears to have increased. Water is being overexploited. In the absence of effective rain harvesting, groundwater replenishment is limited.

The NDMA guidelines called for a shift in public policy from drought relief to drought preparedness and mitigation measures such as integrated soil and water management. They also envisaged drought-proofing measures before the planting of crop and drought management while it is growing.

The magnitude of the current drought suggests that the guidelines have not been implemented properly or that they have proved inadequate. The worst sufferers are the marginal farmers who number about 200 million. They own less than two acres each but have to borrow heavily to meet the cost of cultivation. Crop failure lands them in deep trouble and often leads them to suicide.

A report of 2014 put the number of farmers who had taken their lives since 1995 at 296,438. Last year 3,228 farmers were reported to have committed suicide in Maharashtra state, which was in the grip of a severe drought.

Statistical data indicate that some regions are drought-prone. The probability of drought is once in two years for western Rajasthan, once in two and a half years for Tamil Nadu and Telengana, once in three years for Gujarat, eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, and once in four years for south interior Karnataka, eastern UP and the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Assam is in a happy position with the probability of drought as low as once in 15 years.

Climate change, of course, is an issue which goes far beyond the havoc caused by drought and floods. At Paris, India made a commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 35 per cent and augment its non-fossil fuel power generation by 40 per cent. It also agreed to undertake massive tree planting to absorb 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Indian businessman Anand Mahindra, who spoke on behalf of global capital at the climate agreement signing ceremony, said the Paris pact provided the corporates with the opportunity to visibly integrate their interests with those of the planet’s future. “We have contributed to the problem and it is up to us to help mitigate it,” he added.

There has been a sharp deterioration in the situation in India in the last two years but the Central and state governments are yet to take effective measures to help people in distress. An estimated 250,000 people have migrated from the Latur area of Maharashtra, which is experiencing water shortage.

Climate justice, on which the Paris agreement lays stress, will elude India unless the Centre moderates its policies which have made agriculture an uneconomical activity and industry a destroyer of the environment.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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