Why India’s approach to climate change is missing the point

It doesn’t have to be this way.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Image: Reuters/Jayanta Dey
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With every year, India receives more proof that the effects of climate change are already here, and they’re deadly.

This year, over 200 Indians died in a single month because of storms, thunderstorms, and lightning which have all been intensifying over the years. Many states have also been swept by unrelenting heatwaves over the past few weeks, with temperatures soaring up to 47 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has set ambitious goals to reduce emissions by switching to renewable energy and electric vehicles. But often missing from the conversation is what Indians themselves need to do. This is even more important, argues Mridula Ramesh, founder of the Madurai-based Sundaram Climate Institute.

In her new book, The Climate Solution, Ramesh addresses the urban, middle-class reader, explaining how climate change is wreaking havoc in both rural and urban India, and how local choices, from the food we eat to the transport we use, are compounding the problem.

“Our current narrative of piling blame on bureaucrats and politicians is unhelpful…we need to examine our role in propagating the prevailing social contract,” Ramesh writes.

In a conversation with Quartz, she explained why reducing emissions isn’t enough, and how Indian women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Edited excerpts:

What do you think is missing in India’s approach to tackling the effects of climate change?

Focusing on emissions is one thing but many experts consider India to be the most vulnerable country to climate change, and I think this last month just goes to show how vulnerable we are. And there is a good chance that, come August this year, we’ll be talking about floods. The moment you mention green, people think about the carbon footprint and electric cars. That’s missing the point. We [also] need to be talking about water, waste, building resilience in our cities and in our harbours. The narrative direction needs to change. 

What are the obstacles at the local-level?

This (climate change) is taken to be an elite topic, it’s perceived to be difficult to understand. The whole point of why I wrote this book is let’s have an India-focused book on solutions in accessible language that the lay person can understand. Because only then will they be thinking “I can do something about it.” Today the agenda is being set outside India…we need to understand the situation within India.

In the book, you mention that the private sector has a role to play. How exactly?

In Israel, Mekorot, which is the water management company, has a startup lab on the premises. It gives them grant money, space, lot of support. Most importantly it gives them access. As a result, there’s a flourishing startup sector in water in Israel. You can see they can run out of water and they’ll still be fine. I’ve gone around in India saying I’ll write a cheque, I’m looking for a water idea to invest in but there’s very little here. 

Can you tell us more about how climate change will affect Indian women particularly? 

There are three buckets of risk, one is employment risks. 75% of Indian women work in agriculture; this is a job that’s exposed to the elements. You take that data point and put it next to the data point where we’re talking about heatwaves. So if you put the two together, what’s going to happen to them? 

The second category of risks has to do with the roles they play, so caregivers and fetching water. Children are going to be hit hard (by climate change), there’s flooding and nutritional risks. Women as their caregivers means more of their time gets taken up by giving care. The second thing is nutritional consequences, when locally available food becomes less. Women will often give up their share for their families. In drought-prone areas, when water supplies become lower and lower, the people who usually fetch water are the women or more often the girls. If they have to walk longer and longer (to find water) that time has to come from somewhere. So it goes from schooling or play.

Now let’s come to violence. What is really startling was the dowry deaths. The study I’ve quoted found that many people treat dowry deaths as income smoothing, and that’s a very provocative way of putting it…you kill your wife and marry a new wife and have an income when crop income goes down because of the drought. But they’ve seen that correlation. It’s something to keep in mind. 

How should ordinary Indians be thinking about climate change?

The first thing is to get informed, they need to expend some thought in getting informed of how this situation is and how it affects them and what role they play.

Let’s talk about water. The amount of water we lose to leakages is unbelievable. Being aware of water, measuring leaks, is a pretty important step that you can take. Number two is recycling, some form of waste-water treatment. Third is rainwater harvesting; most people say, yes, we have rainwater harvesting. Please make sure it works! Because many times it doesn’t. The next thing to do is actually lower water pressure. It makes a huge difference. 

Those are the small things that you can do, but again, first is attitude. We all seem to abrogate responsibility…The individual is the central figure. It’s very convenient to say, let the government do it, but not very effective.