Breaking Out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change (Book Preview)March 7, 2013 By Dhanasree Jayaram
The 2009 Copenhagen summit was a watershed moment in the history of climate change negotiations, especially from an Indian perspective. Brazil, South Africa, India, and China – the “BASIC” group – asserted their position, which led to a virtual collapse in talks, ostensibly marking the ascent of the global “south” and relative descent of the “north.”
The summit placed India in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, India has been on the receiving end of many destructive environmental changes, and on the other, fear of the global recession was looming large.
While India’s leaders may have felt that short-term economics were an overriding factor at the time, it is becoming clear that India cannot simply ignore environmental security forever. This is not a topic that can be segregated and dealt with exclusively. It is one that needs to be explored and understood in an integrated fashion, and one that requires national leadership.
From energy to water, agriculture, trade, and security, “sustainability” and environmental consciousness is – sometimes controversially – permeating policy. Inter-state transboundary and intra-state river water sharing, cultivation of genetically modified food crops, promotion of nuclear energy and biofuels, and environmentally-influenced migration are among many issues that have emerged as bones of contention in the Indian context.
Environmental change is not restricted to climate change and the latter is only one crucial component of the former. Time has come to pay equal attention to non-climate change related issues such as urbanization, deforestation, groundwater depletion, pollution, stress in the availability of resources, and so on, as each of them impact security of the present as well as future generations.
In my book, Breaking Out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change, I explore the ways in which environmental change has shaped the international system and India’s position in it. The central argument of the book is that environmental change is changing geography and in turn changing geopolitics and international relations. This has been substantiated by detailed analysis of the drivers of India’s environmental policies; international climate change negotiations; the role of state and non-state actors in the international environmental discourse, both in theory and practice; and most importantly, the inter-connectedness between environmental change and national security.
The work strives to evolve an Indian perspective on these strategic issues in what has been a Western-dominated arena. Though the book brings to light several gaping holes in India’s policy and strategy, it contends that India has a plethora of options and opportunities to not only maintain its own national security but also help the world adapt to and mitigate the effects of environment change.
An Evolution of Policy, But Is a Revolution Needed?
From former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s statement at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment that put poverty eradication above all else to current prime minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that it is “no longer acceptable to take as a given a certain degree of environmental degradation and over-exploitation of natural resources in the cause of promoting growth,” India’s sustainable development policy has come a long way. But it still has a long way to go.
Indian lawmakers have begun to take into consideration a multitude of factors in framing its local, national, and international environmental change policies, but energy and broader economic development policies might be the most important.
The energy management policies of the establishment have more or less failed to make India self-reliant. Not only is India’s development excessively and irrationally dependent on importing the least environmentally-friendly sources – coal and oil – the share of renewable and nuclear energy in the energy basket is abysmally low. With the launching of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008 and the signing of civil nuclear agreements with several countries across the world, this situation could well change, but the stumbling blocks are still many, ranging from political and economic to social and cultural.
Lack of environmental risk assessments in rapid urbanization and infrastructure-building in the delta regions such India’s financial capital, Mumbai, are creating acute problems such as flooding, storm surge, subsidence, and so on. What is needed in Mumbai and other cities is a decision-making system that takes into account environmental change. India cannot afford to follow the path of its largest neighbor, China, which has pinned its policies on control of the environment (enunciated by its rampant dam-building) rather than management of it.
Struggling to Find a Position in the Global Order
On top of its domestic struggles, India has failed to mobilize the support of the majority of developing countries on climate change, including its own neighbors. India’s seemingly obstructionist attitude towards global environmental consensus and its refusal to consider climate change a security issue has alienated it to a large extent. This has weakened India’s position in the global environmental order, resulting in some legitimate issues raised by it during negotiations – from adaptation techniques, sustainable technology, and finance mechanisms – being overlooked by the international community.
India is beginning to emerge out of this world of denial and address the security implications of environmental change. The Indian military is expected to face a convergence of energy and environmental threats in the near future owing to environmental change. Loss of territory or lack of freshwater in the Maldives, loss of agricultural or habitable land in Bangladesh, drying up of the Indus River, or the damming of the Brahmaputra by China – all would have major implications for regional security and therefore, India’s national security.
But the Western trend of treating climate change as a security issue rather than a development one is not acceptable. For Indian leaders, addressing daily concerns – “roti, kapda, makaan” (food, clothing, shelter) in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and “bijli, sadak, paani” (electricity, roads, water) now – is a much bigger priority.
Rethinking Environmental Policy Options
At the policy level for India, there is a need to segregate the military and civil aspects of environmental issues and deal with them accordingly. There are certain aspects which come directly under the umbrella of the existing national security paradigm and where the military should play a substantial role – water security, safety and security of military installations, and migration being some examples. But other issues such as food security could be directly handled by civilian branches of government, like the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Instead of concentrating heavily on the possibility of deploying geoengineering projects that may prove to be counter-productive, if India focuses on natural carbon sequesters such as planting trees and exporting various traditional technologies available in the country, such as eco-friendly cook stoves or waste converters, it could also assist other developing countries in the sustainable development arena.
Environmental change is compelling India to adapt, both at home, through new policy formulation and implementation that reconciles development and sustainability goals, and abroad, through an emerging international system in which India must play a major role.
Dhanasree Jayaram is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, and an associate fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.
Sources: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Kafila, Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change (India).
Photo Credit: Burning rice residue in Punjab, courtesy of Neil Palmer/CIAT.