The pandemic as premonition

The loss to the Indian economy due to the pandemic shutdown, and the loss of jobs, shows that the current model of growth is unsustainable, even loss-making, for India

The pandemic in India should have made us reassess whether we can sustain this mode of economic development [image by: Gwydion M. Williams]

Editor’s note: We are sorry for the delay in publication of this edition, as there was a death in the family.

No major economy suffered as badly as India during the pandemic. While part of this may be explained by government failure, what it also exposed is an economy that was deeply integrated with the world, but with few buffers or ways to deal with global shocks. The recent IPCC report - unanimously approved by all 195 UN member states - tells us that the incidence of such shocks is going up.

These shocks include an increased incidence of floods, droughts, extreme heatwaves, heightened incidences of cyclones at higher speeds. These have impacts on supply chains, price fluctuations, cost of infrastructure – and most importantly, health and lives.

A report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) estimated India spent USD 91.8 bn on loss and damage in FY 2013-14 due to climate change induced disasters. These costs are projected to increase to USD 360 billion per financial year by 2030.

A 2018 report stated that coal plants accounted for 1.74 lakh crore in bad assets in Indian banks, the single biggest line item in our story of non-performing assets. Investigations by external agencies showed that many of these had been built with questionable economic logic behind them.

One issue with coal plants is that they need water to cool the plant as it runs. With the known variability of rainfall, any coal plant currently built is headed for days when the water availability may be limited, lowering the efficiency level it can operate at, and lowering its profits (or increasing its losses, whatever is the case). And yet we recently held auctions for coal mines. Even if they were not as profitable as anticipated, this is a long-term investment in risky, even loss-making, endeavours.

At the end of the day, the people who pay the steepest price are the poor. The accretion of taxes, through both direct and indirect means, which was supposed to help provide better infrastructure, more opportunities, and a potentially better future, is being sucked up by disaster upon disaster, as well as through bankruptcy proceedings where large public sector banks – run on taxes – have to swallow large losses.

How is the economy supposed to create a just transition if we keep investing in a creaky carbon-based model that leaves us far more vulnerable than before? Where is the money going to come from if the state is too busy mopping up losses?

Politicians, even deeply informed ones, will tell environmental journalists that they have to listen to their constituents, and their constituents are not in favour of environmental regulations that may lead to a loss of jobs. They will tell us that what progress has been made has been due to international commitments that the country has made, when it comes to dealing with things like air pollution.

This is partially true. In a country with hundreds of millions living below, or just above, the poverty line, a decent and steady job is one of the most important aspirations that many people have. In the interview featured below, we see how the fear of losing that steady employment has led to a lack of trust that imperils the reform of electricity distribution companies.

But here is the rub: jobs in a loss-making enterprise are neither very dignified, nor are they very stable. Furthermore, if the transition is made only from pressure from external actors, then the adoption of environmental measures will always be delayed. Lastly, it is worth asking if the politicians who say the environment is of secondary concern have paid attention to the numerous environmental impact assessment hearings in places like Himachal Pradesh, where the jobs go to people from other places, but the damage is visible there.

We can continue with business as usual, with the same jobs at the edge of disappearing, the same vulnerability of the economy, and every year, more shocks, less money, and far more misery. Instead, we have a chance of trying to focus on creating jobs in a green economy. This has the advantage of potentially more security over the long-term, but more than that, it has the possibility of driving change from below. If there is a substantial number of jobs in the environmental sector, or related to it, the demand for change will come from below, and not from outside, making it faster, more durable, and one that is applauded by the very constituents that politicians now give as their excuse for not doing anything.

The technology is now very much there, at least for part of the sector. What is needed, though, is to disentangle ourselves from the problems of the past, and on that note we transition to the interview, and the very relevant question of why are we still subsidising polluting technologies in India.

The Interview

Shruti Sharma is an associate and energy specialist based in India for the IISD’s Energy Program since 2013. Her work focuses on understanding household energy transitions with a focus on electricity, LPG and renewable energy. This work focuses on analysing fuel pricing policies, its reform and impact, with the aim of providing recommendations to national and state governments.

Balasubramanian Viswanathan is an Associate in IISD’s Energy program. He does data analysis, stakeholder consultations, policy review, project management and outreach, on issues related to a clean energy transition.

Q. Why are we still subsidising the fossil fuel industry, given that it is supposed to be so profitable?

A. Historically, any sector that is infrastructure heavy, receives tax breaks to help it grow initially. If this is continued, it would make it heavily profitable. Moreover, in the case of the coal plants and gas plants, what is subsidised is consumption – through the distribution and consumption of electricity – so there are subsidies at both ends. Some of this is dependent on where renewable energy (RE) is at; if it can act as a replacement. There are questions such as whether RE stable enough? Can we make a just transition, so those employed in the fossil fuel industry have alternative means of livelihood? What will we be doing with the coal and gas plants?

Subsidies increased for RE during Financial Year 2014-20 overall, although they dropped in FY17, and fell further in FY20. We could see the trend reverse, reorienting the support from installed capacity to storage of energy.

But there is a big question, which is our large and continued investment in natural gas. This includes whole pipelines, a push for cities to go for gas-based cooking.

While we can understand the need for this in the fertiliser industry since there isn’t a reliable replacement yet, creating parallel capacity in gas for electric cooking or for electric vehicles with CNG based transport makes limited sense if we are trying to bring down emissions.

The adoption of gas in the US lowered the rise of emissions, but – critically – did not bring overall emissions down. Investments in gas are also not compliant with the Paris goals.

Q. One of the issues identified is the insolvency of distribution companies (DISCOMs), why is this such a big bottleneck?

A. The government has to step in every 5-8 years to write off the debt of DISCOMs, which is not a good use of tax payer money. If distribution companies are non-viable they can’t make infrastructure investments or improve reliability. Loss making enterprises are not attractive for private sectors either.

There is a challenge with privatisation with a lack of trust about the government’s claims on just transition. In the 1980s many large companies or mills were shuttered, people lost jobs with mechanisation, so the new waves of privatisation are seen with suspicion. When the privatisation of distribution companies in UP was discussed, there was a huge pushback.

Another problem with privatisation is that tariffs aren’t really deregulated. This creates lots of problems for the political economy because distribution companies cannot charge cost reflective tariffs. If companies invest, they have to charge amounts to recoup that investment, but if tariffs are bound within a range because of fear of pushback, then there is little incentive to invest.

Lastly there are massive overdue payments to power generators. This really hurts RE sector, and their financial backers, because while these overdue payments are there, how can the distribution companies pay? And if they cannot pay, the new entrants in RE are at a disadvantage because they are seen as unprofitable and risky ventures.

Q. Do we have any idea of 'hidden subsidies' - the costs to the state through health and social expenses? Why is it so hard to implement air pollution standards?

A. Basically, hidden subsidies are understood as things not under the normal subsidy such as the weakening of regulations. A company profits from regulations which gets delayed to rolled back, helping them lower their price, getting them an advantage. We could calculate the potential cost of compliance as an expense and this would be the value of the hidden subsidy.

For example, coal washing regulations have not been properly complied, with companies getting light fines at most. In November 2020. The entirety of the regulation was scrapped. Now it is impossible to get a number to compare.

There are also lots of cost to air pollution. Air pollution standards also get pushed back and back, which is in effect a support for the coal industry. Very hard to capture. In practice this cost is pushed back onto society and manifests as higher mortality, and morbidity. How do you calculate the value of a life, if people are dying of pollution? This report has a dedicated chapter on social costs of coal in comparison with subsidies and tax revenues.

We have some data. For example, there is major non-compliance by Delhi-NCR coal plants. It would cost about 9,816 crores to put in the technology for air pollution control (across India, this is within the range of 70-80,000 crores). The non-compliance is a hidden subsidy of that amount. But it is a one-time cost, and applicable for 15-20 years – the lifetime of the technology and plant.

The technology is there, China has done it, and the regulatory constraints are not too hard. But the problem is that many coal plants were not financially viable, and making them add costs will force them further into non-viability. According to government orders the distribution companies would have to pay, but they are also financially unviable. This then becomes locked into a legal battle that drags on, delaying compliance.

Q. You mention South Africa as an example of successful grid transformation, what are the key takeaways for India?

A. ESKOM, their PSU, is vertically integrated, it is in everything from production to distribution, and had financial issues for a while. South Africa created a council for a just transition, looking at what would happen with coal plants that were entering the end of the life cycle. In South Africa these plants are concentrated in a smaller region, with the jobs located in that area. The council looked at what could happen, the socio-economic aspects of closing these plants.

In principle this is great, something we could learn from. The Ambanis, Adanis, and Tatas are getting into the RE sector, which means there is a business case for energy transition. Nonetheless even if, overall, the energy sector may be profitable there are still going to be losers which often the vulnerable communities. We have things like the District Mineral Foundation, which is supposed to be collecting coal taxes to deal with such issues, and this type of thinking is what is needed to make a just transition work naturally.

Q. What is the big issue in fossil fuel subsidies that does not get the attention it is due (data transparency, maybe?) and that we should all be talking about more?

A. The need for transparency. There is a lack of good reporting of these issues by government and PSUs.

The sheer resources required to get the data is difficult. These include inter-ministerial communication, department of economic affairs, ministry of coal, ministry of power, ministry of oil and gas, among others. There is no clear reporting format that allows a comprehensive report.

At the other end we need to know who is receiving the subsidies that the state gives. We did some detailed studies looking at Jharkhand. Because of self-assessments of poverty status of households, in some cases LPG subsidies end up with richer households. The poorest 40% households receive less than 30% of LPG subsidies. When it comes to electricity if a household consumes up to 800 units electricity, they can still receive subsidies in Jharkhand. A household consuming over 800 units per month is not a poor household. Approximately 60% of electricity subsidies go to 40% of the richest households.

Critical reading

  1. Clearance For A Jammu Dam Reveals How Fake Govt Claims Deprive India's Tribals Of Legal Rights: Two years after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, forest rights under Indian law are denied to its tribal communities. The initial clearance to drown forests for a prestigious Rs 9,167-crore dam (the Ujh multipurpose project) in Jammu, for example, is a web of false official claims, ignoring the legal rights of pastoral communities whose homes and livelihoods the dam will destroy. 

  2. How Limestone Mining Has Pitted Gujarat's Farmers Against Govt: Limestone extraction in fertile agricultural lands in south Gujarat continues despite threats to the environment and livelihoods, farmers allege. Investigations show that limestone mining by UltraTech Cement, an Aditya Birla Group company, is slowly eating into private agricultural lands in Bhavnagar district in south Gujarat. Over the years, companies including UltraTech have benefited from a change in mining regulations, loopholes in the environmental appraisal process and lack of effective state action against pollution violations. Meanwhile work on a state-sanctioned check dam which would benefit the 30,000-strong agrarian community in 10 villages in the region has stalled. Locals believe this is because construction of the dam will lead to the area becoming a wetland, which could hinder environmental clearance for more mining projects. 

  3. Vedanta-Owned Company Evaded Thousands of Crores of Mining Royalties Owed to Rajasthan Govt: An investigation of Hindustan Zinc Limited, India’s largest zinc mining corporation, revealed massive irregularities in the quantum of silver and lead-zinc it declared to the Rajasthan government - a number significantly lower than what it declared to the Indian Bureau of Mines. The overall evaded royalties were worth Rs. 1,113 crores. A previous investigation had uncovered collusion between IAS officers and HZL officials that allowed the company to walk away with 3.87 million tonnes of rock phosphate ore, leading to a loss of over Rs 600 crore to the state exchequer. Vedanta’s operations in Rajasthan and elsewhere are reflective of how transnational capitalists embed processes of extractivism.

  4. What the Ramagundam Verdict Portends for Environmental Protection in India: In a verdict that will have a bearing on all future thermal power projects, and other big projects in general, the Supreme Court of India upheld the National Green Tribunal’s ruling requiring detailed studies of the environmental impacts of power projects. The most important takeaway from the ruling is that the cumulative impact – i.e. the combined impact of all activities in a given region, including past, present and prospective ones – have to be assessed before a new project is approved or during its construction – and not once it has been built. The decision offers the country welcome respite from the prevailing, and now ritualised, nature of such exercises. It has been increasingly common for project proponents to finish building out a project, and sometimes even operate for several years, even as cumulative impact assessment studies are still underway. As a result, these studies are rendered moot.

  5. Subsidies for India's renewable sector are falling, needs renewed support, says study: A July 2021 study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), finds that government subsidies to the renewable sector have fallen by nearly 45 per cent since 2017. Meanwhile, support for fossil fuels has increased, hitting Rs. 70,578 crores in FY 2020 – which is over seven times the sum of subsidies to clean energy. Highlighting support for coal through concessional tax benefits and several non-subsidy measures, the study states that “while coal makes significant contributions to government revenue and rail cross-subsidies, its full social cost is much higher than its net contributions.” 

  6. India's transition to renewable energy may affect more than 2 crore jobs, finds a study: Coal mining, power and road transport are the three key sectors that will need planning for a just transition in the next 10 years. As India makes a shift to renewable energy sources over the next couple of decades, at least 2.15 crore people currently employed – formally and otherwise – in its fossil fuel and allied sectors will need to be provided decent employment to prevent social and economic distress, states a recent report by the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology, a Delhi-based environmental think-tank.

  7. Environment ministry quashes limits for discharge of antibiotic residue in water bodies: In its latest set of rules notified by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on August 6, the limits specifying the discharge of antibiotic effluents and residue have been removed. In its draft notification of the environment policy released on January 23, 2021, the ministry had invited citizen comments. As per this draft, if the levels of as many as 121 antibiotics in the effluents were found above the permissible limits, legal action was to be taken against the defaulting pharma unit. However, the latest rules released in an official gazette on August 6 do not even mention the presence of antibiotics in the effluents released by pharmaceutical plants. The decision to drop the limits was made even as the menace of antimicrobial resistance is being widely highlighted by experts in India.

  8. Proposed amendments to Coal Bearing Areas Act will change land acquisition for mining: Experts: Even as countries are striving to reduce carbon emissions to move towards more environment-friendly fuels, the Indian government is planning to propose a new amendment bill this monsoon session to make coal production easier. The proposed bill seeks to amend the existing Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) [CBA] Act, 1957. The draft of the proposed amendment bill has neither been made public, neither has the Union government sought any public opinion on it. The core and sole purpose of this law is land acquisition to facilitate access to coal reserves for Coal India Limited; environment and public interest were never a part of it, according to experts. 

  9. By Dismissing Petition on Chamoli Floods, Uttarakhand HC Ignored Environmental Concerns: The Uttarakhand high court has imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on five petitioners who were seeking cancellation of two hydropower projects, which were sites of death and disaster during the Chamoli flood in February. At least 204 people had died in the flood, and two hydropower projects – 13.2 MW Rishiganga and 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad – were completely damaged. Six months after the flood, five local social activists filed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking rehabilitation of affected villagers and the fixing of accountability of the hydropower companies for “criminal negligence”, since, of the 204 deaths, 192 happened at the hydropower sites. However, on the very first day of the hearing, the court gave its judgment, calling the petition “highly motivated”, and the five petitioners “puppets at the hand of an unknown puppeteer”.

  10. Drought scare looms large over a fifth of India: Over a fifth of India’s land area (21.06 per cent) is facing drought-like conditions, according to recent data released by Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), a real-time drought-monitoring platform. This is 62 per cent more than the area under drought during the same period last year, and the projected degrees of drought range from abnormally dry to exceptionally dry.

  11. The sum of all of India’s net zero fears: Adding decarbonisation to the to-do list of a country already battling high emission levels, modest mitigation options, rising inequality and a slowing economy, is easier said than done – but necessary. In August 2020, India’s Union minister for coal, tweeted “CIL is poised to become a “Net Zero Energy Maharatna PSU”. Coal India would produce 3,000 MW of solar power by 2023-24, it said, enough to cover all of its energy needs. It would no longer need polluting thermal power for its operations. But the state-owned miner is the world’s largest producer of coal and has a mandate to grow even bigger and produce no less than 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2024. Can such a firm switch to clean energy for its operations and claim Net Zero status? Who is responsible for emissions from all the coal it has unearthed? At the same time, is it realistic to expect Coal India to sequester all those emissions?

Who gets to save the world?

As the effects of the climate crisis intensify, some of the solutions offered seem to be largely beneficial to those responsible for the problem

Eruption of Sarychev Volcano from the ISS International Space Station: NASA

As floods in Europe and wildfires in the US and Russia dominate global news cycles, it seems that the conversation on climate change is moving forward. And maybe just in time. The next UN Conference of Parties on climate change – COP26 - is due at the end of this year. The last one was disappointing, to say the least. Shifted from Chile due to political unrest to Spain, it featured the US under the Trump administration at its worst. But there was no lack of bad actors, with the EU coming into criticism for blocking green financing, China and India being blamed for dodgy projects, and name calling all around. Greta Thunberg may have warned, “We’re watching you,” but the results were so meagre as to suggest we might just turn our eyes away.

COP26 was supposed to be held last year, but the pandemic had its impact. The venue of the conference itself – the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow – had a section made into a temporary hospital to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. To say the omens have not been good would be to put it mildly. Thus, any added impetus – whether it is videos of the flooding of New York city, to news of permafrost melting in Siberia – should probably be a good thing. The Biden administration’s first act was to recommit the US to the Paris Agreement, from which Trump had pulled it out of, so there is a different energy going in.

All that said and done, it is still worth asking what such a meeting will manage to achieve. Despite the very real proof of how the climate crisis is destroying lives and livelihoods, the world is still marked by too little ambition. Under the Paris Agreement countries were supposed to set their own Nationally Determined Contributions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. As the Climate Action Tracker shows us, of the countries they are tracking, only two are on track for that – Morocco and the Gambia. Countries like China are still pursuing pathways that may be lead to warming above 3 degrees, and countries like Saudi Arabia, for a world that is more than 4 degrees hotter, on average, than the 19th Century.

It is little surprise, therefore, that some people are pushing for radical solutions. Suggesting that since the world is not going to get its act together any time soon, we may require technological fixes that give us more time. This is the topic of the interview in this newsletter’s interview with Prakash Kashwan, on the topic of solar geo-engineering. This point of view suggests that since we cannot manage the problems on earth – or at least not quickly – then it is time to manage the radiation coming from the sun, by limiting the radiation that reaches the earth.

This is a grand ambition, and by definition, one that is only open to those with a great amount of wealth in their hands. Kashwan uses the term “colonising the global commons”. Ironically those that have colonised the global commons with their pumping out of CO2, would largely be the same ones who would be taking the lead in “saving us from ourselves”.

There is an internal, Indian, aspect to this as well. The two richest businessmen in India, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, both with huge and controversial investments in coal and oil, are now the leading investors in renewable energy. It is worth noting that they are not phasing out their investments in coal or oil, perish the thought, but just using money to invest in a newer sector. Given that large solar parks envisaged under these projects will require substantial land acquisition, these are likely to be justified under “green projects”, possibly displacing those who are not, in any way, responsible for the type of emissions that the Ambani or Adani projects are involved in. It is not just rich countries colonising the global commons that is an issue, but also the rich polluters in developing countries who are colonising internal spaces in the name of giving us cleaner energy, as story number 9 in our critical reading list highlights.

While the issues with solar geo-engineering might find an easier fix – after all the main actors in the global systems are countries, and even if the system favours rich countries over poor countries, there are mechanisms – there is less of a way to manage how wealth from polluting industries is greenwashed internally. It is past time that countries that suffer from massive air pollution and climate change-induced disasters such as India start seriously thinking of carbon taxes on those contributing to our problems. This will give the developing world far more credibility in demanding similar taxes for global giants that have created the challenge we face. Otherwise we end up in the laughable situation of having the poor being made to sacrifice to the rich, who have been instrumental in creating these problems, in the name of saving themselves.

The Interview

Prakash Kashwan is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Institute, University of Connecticut, Storrs. He is the author of Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2017), Editor of Climate Justice in India (Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming), Co-Editor of the journal Environmental Politics, and the Co-founder and Co-convener of the Climate Justice Network. Kashwan is a member of the global expert group for Scoping of Transformative Change Assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a member of the Academic Working Group (AWG) on International Governance of Climate Engineering (2016 –18), a Senior Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance (ESG) Project, and a member of the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN) convened by Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society.

Q. What is solar geo-engineering? Why is it being promoted?

The idea comes from mimicking volcanoes.

Major volcanic eruptions spew ash particles into the atmosphere, which reflect some of the Sun's radiation back into space and cool the planet. Climate scientists argue that this effect could be recreated to fight the impacts of climate change.

The argument is: it doesn’t look like the world can act to stay below two degrees global atmospheric temperature increase, which threatens to create runway climate catastrophes. Proponents argue that the relatively cheap, and relatively quickly executable solar geo-engineering projects can be used to shave the peak off the emission curve. This will buy us the time needed to get our act together (on mitigation and carbon removal.

There does seem to be a bit of “White man saviour complex” in some of the writing around it, not least in books like Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry of the Future". A good summary of the opening plot is here.

Q. Why should we be concerned?

A. This allows for the colonising the global commons.

There is unprecedented potential for one billionaire to have his hand on the global thermostat.

It is THAT cheap (leaving aside the social, environmental, and potential geostrategic security costs/conflicts). There is a similar risk with carbon removal, another form of geoengineering.

Most important is the impact that shielding the earth from solar radiation will have on global hydrological cycles. This is simple physics.

The difference in temperatures of the sea and land are what drive rainfall patterns. Once you start tinkering with this on a large scale, it is impossible to predict how these will impact large cycles such as the monsoons.

While some have argued that solar geo-engineering is likely to be relatively less disruptive compared to volcanic emissions, much depends on the intensity of solar geo-engineering.

The net impact is likely to be quite significant for Asia and Africa monsoons. India, with its critical dependence on monsoons, is one of the countries that should be addressing this proactively. About half of India’s farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and this is one of the least explored areas of concern. These are “diverse, complex, systems that depend on multiple sources of subsistence, including a reliance on seasonal regeneration of pastures in arid/semi-arid regions”. Much of this is threatened by solar geo-engineering related fluctuations. I should note that some modelling studies suggest that these concerns are not that serious, though it is worth asking if we are going to take such risks on limited data.

Q. Is there any regulatory mechanism?

A. Academics have been pushing for it from 2016, with extensive (and, often time very vigorously contested) debates on governance mechanisms, including research governance. The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment’s Academic Working Group (AWG) on Climate Engineering Governance assembled an international group of senior academics to formulate perspectives on the international governance of climate engineering research and potential deployment, with a focus on proposed solar radiation management/albedo modification technologies.

The discussion has not stayed just academic. Switzerland and eight other countries raised the issues in the UN, but this was blocked by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Q. What is the current situation?

A. Over the years the issue has become more mainstream. The US National Academy of Sciences, in March this year, proposed putting in USD 200 million over 5 years in researching the idea. Some scientists have backed the idea, although the governance for these solutions which will have global impact are less clearly stated.

The lack of governance thinking has led to face offs. The Sami indigenous group managed to stop an initial experiment from taking off. But this is not a sustainable way forward. While some social scientists (including me) have called for a moratorium in our submissions to publications such as Nature and Science, as the climate crisis intensifies, people will be open to more radical ideas. We need to have a governance protocol for how the impact of such things can be assessed.

5. What should we be thinking about?

It has become a stiff political battle already. Anyone who pretends otherwise is not being honest. The recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences brings it close to being a part of the US climate policy portfolio. Parts of the scientific community are trying it very hard to legitimise these experiments, with global South scientists and civil society is being co-opted rapidly.

There is some opposition by civil society organisations in the global North, but it is not very clear how well people understand the challenges.

Mere opposition without a way to talk of governance risks that these things may be pushed through in a laissez faire manner, without transparency and accountability.

It is interesting that there seems to be a strong link (though no smoking gun) between the fossil fuel industry and solar geo-engineering. Pages 36-38 in this report points to some of those longstanding ties.  

Critical reading

  1. Report on Baghjan blowout says it may take more than 10 years for even a partial recovery of the destruction caused to the landscape: Biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems damaged in the 2020 Baghjan oil and gas leak fire in Assam, which took over five months to douse, might take at least a decade to recover, according to a report, based on multiple expert assessments, compiled by the state government inquiry committee. The report says that “of all the onshore blowouts, the Baghjan blowout could be the largest and biggest onshore blowout so far in the world”. The findings include that the two EIA [Environment Impact Assessment] Reports submitted by Oil India Limited (OIL) did not stand up to the mark required for proper ecological handling of such a sensitive project next to a national park and a biodiversity hotspot. The Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland, was the most impacted of all the ecosystems; nearly 95 per cent of the 12,000 people inhabiting 10 adjoining villages of the wetland directly depend on its bioresources for their livelihood, which they lost because of the blowout. With more than 220 exploratory and development wells in the region and OIL having been recently granted permission for drilling sites in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the entire landscape is virtually sitting on a volcano of such disasters.

  2. Gujarat: How GPCB's Public Hearing on Vedanta's Zinc Plant in Tapi Turned 'Violent': GPCB (Gujarat Pollution Control Board) July 5 public hearing for a 415-acre smelter plant planned by Hindustan Zinc Ltd of the Vedanta group in Dosvada village of Gujarat’s Tapi district, ended in violence, with police firing over 50 tear gas shells and lathi-charging agitated villagers to “disperse” them. Multiple tribal groups have been opposing the upcoming plant. Local communities and organisations, such as the Adivasi Panch, fear that chemicals from the plant will contaminate the fertile land of villages near the project area; and that chemicals like lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulphur dioxide from the factory would pose a great threat to local public health. However, GPCB not only published its voluminous environment impact report as late as June 20 but also only in English such that no local could read or understand it. Requests of the locals to postpone the public hearing, even on grounds of the pandemic, were rejected. Normally, the EIA report is supposed to be published at least 45 days prior to the public hearing. 

    The situation at the public hearing escalated on account of heavy police deployment, segregated sections for the villagers and the authorities, and blocking of entry points that prevented those impacted by the project from having their concerns heard. 

  3. Millions at Risk of Eviction as Modi Govt Shies Away from Coordinating States to Review Forest Rights Claims: In line with a February 2019 Supreme Court order issued by a bench headed by Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, state governments are at present conducting reviews of claims over forest land that they had earlier rejected. These claims had been filed as individual and community rights in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006, also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. In the absence of a central monitoring mechanism and specific guidelines, there is variance in methods applied by state governments to conduct reviews of rejected claims. Consequently, the risk of legitimate claimants being declared encroachers upon their own land is expected to be quite high--in several millions. As per the latest official data, a total number of 20,01,919 claims over forest land – in terms of both individual and community rights – had been rejected across the country by the end of February 2021, which amounts to as much as half of the total claims filed. Even though the Forest Rights Act states that no eviction should take place till the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights is complete, incidents of forced eviction of forest dwellers have been reported from several states.

  4. Choking Mahananda: How Siliguri's waste, water crisis is turning on its people: Siliguri’s rapid urbanisation and lack of space to dispose of waste has led to abuse of the river Mahananda, which flows through Bangladesh as well as Bihar and West Bengal in India. “Around 400 tonnes of waste is generated everyday in the city and most of it is dumped into the river,” said Jyotsna Agarwal of the Mahananda Bachao Committee. The Siliguri municipal corporation is also planning further construction work on the river bank. Meanwhile, other smaller rivers in Siliguri have been encroached to build houses and lodges. Massive deforestation, coupled with urbanisation and tourism, has deteriorated the condition of Sahu on whom farmers once relied for irrigation. “The administration is hand-in-glove with the mafia. Most part of the Sahu river has been sold,” said Sudha Singho Chattopadhyaya, a local gram pradhan. 

  5. COVID-19 will place India's biomedical waste management under terrible strain: Categorised as hazardous biomedical waste by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), surgical masks, face shields, gloves, shoe covers and personal protective equipment, or PPE, could all harbour the novel coronavirus and other infectious pathogens and be as hazardous to humans and the environment as any hospital waste such as bloody bandages, biological material, syringes and scalpels would be. Despite CPCB’s initial claims that India has the capacity to treat 800 tonne of biomedical waste generated per day, a careful analysis of CPCB’s January and May 2021 reports suggests that 22 of the 35 states and Union Territories generate more biomedical waste than they can handle. Under-reporting, poor segregation and lack of awareness ail India’s COVID-19 waste management, and the problem is set to increase with the nationwide vaccination drive.

  6. Activists Slam Bihar Govt for Ignoring Issues Raised by Expert Committee over Dagmara Hydro Project: The Bihar government has ignored the recommendations of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) as a fresh term of reference for pre–construction activities of the Dagmara multipurpose hydropower project, and moved ahead with building the state’s biggest hydroelectric power generation plant over the Koshi river in Supaul, Bihar. While the Bihar government and Union Minister of State for Power and New and Renewable Energy, RK Singh have emphasised the project’s contribution to green energy and employment creation; local activists in the flood–prone Koshi region have expressed serious concerns. The several EAC recommendations include formulating a detailed R&R Plan, preparing a separate Social Impact Study for the large number of project affected families, and a land-use study of the submergence area. Activist Ranjeev, a river expert, while highlighting how the run–of–the–river hydroelectric projects were not successful anywhere, said that “the government has not learnt a lesson from the past experiences of different development projects on Koshi. This new one is a contractor-driven project for loot of public money”.

  7. Dams Displaced and Changed Women’s Lives in Gujarat: Across Gujarat, nearly 2.5 million households lost their land and/or habitat to dams between 1947 and 2004. A factor that binds all these displaced families is that women experience the resettlement differently than men. Vaishnavi Rathore reports in detail on the loss of land, memory and costs of relocation and displacement of Adivasi women in South Gujarat, emphasising impacts of forest dependence, water scarcity, increased agricultural and familial workload, lack of participation of women in cash transactions, and emotional costs.

  8. In Goa, the Water Runs Black: Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust received 9.56 million tonne coal--roughly 3.8 per cent of the country’s total in 2019-20--and subsidiaries of JSW Group, Vedanta Limited, and Adani Group lease berths at this government-owned port to import the same. For local residents this has meant dealing with incessant coal dust and constant respiratory infections, even rising cancer cases; as this polluting coal is handled in the open. The state BJP government’s stance of ‘coal for development’, along with the environment ministry’s recent hasty greenlighting of infrastructure projects that will keep coal tumbling into Goa, are both in contrast with Modi’s global image of protector of the environment. “The government’s role right now is that of a facilitator of private profits at the cost of national resources,” says Abhijeet Prabhudesai, co-convener of the protest group Goyant Kollso Naka (We Don’t Want Coal in Goa). “It doesn’t seem to be even slightly inclined to fighting climate change.” 

  9. Land conflicts on the horizon as India pursues a clean energy future: Many renewable power projects – whether solar or wind – require vast tracts of land, however the land allotted is often either the common land used by communities or land that is identified as ‘wasteland’ but actually is an important biodiversity habitat. Research group Land Conflict Watch (LCW), recently recorded five land conflicts related to wind and solar park projects across India affecting a total of 5,095 hectares of land, 2,036 people, and an investment of over Rs. 90.89 billion (Rs. 9,089 crore). One of the projects is the 15 megawatt (MW) solar power plant being set up at Mikir Bamuni Grant and Lalung village in Assam, where farmers have been protesting against the forced eviction from their lands. An April 2021 report called ‘The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab’, by a fact-finding committee of environmentalists and researchers, detailed human rights violations and environmental and social impacts of the project. As India targets a capacity of 175 GW by 2022, with a thrust on wind and solar park projects, the overall support for renewable energy projects is likely to obscure the impacts of growing land conflicts.

  10. U.S. Data Centers Rely on Water from Stressed Basins: As usage of the Internet expands, the amount of data online is skyrocketing--and expected to grow sixfold from 2018 to 2025. Connecting data centers to water consumption is one aspect of planning for our increasingly digitized futures. A Virginia Tech study mapping data centres’ substantive consumption and sources of water and energy, recently published in Environmental Research Letters, has shown that water to support the cloud often comes from water-stressed basins. 

The inspiration, and limitation, of volunteerism

Signal victories by activists sometimes obscure the fact that only some people have the capacity and opportunity to engage in it, sustainable change requires these efforts to become inclusive

Climate Justice Now! (art by Nissa Tzun) [image: Vince Reinhart]

There is a famous quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It is particularly beloved of activists when confronting large, systemic problems. The scale of the challenge is often daunting, but without an effort at change, things will stay as they are. Bad systems will remain bad systems until and unless sustained efforts of change are undertaken. They will not fix themselves, because – by their very nature – systems benefit somebody or the other, and even if they are unjust to the vast majority, those that are benefiting are unlikely to give up their profits by themselves.

There are few challenges as daunting as dealing with the climate crisis. Not only has it taken centuries in the making, it is deeply linked to the economic and political systems that make the world run. Just as slavery in the US was not just about running plantations, but also a major part of the financial system as banks offered loans and other financial instruments based on the wealth of cotton extracted through slavery, the carbon economy is linked to things far more than just coal plants and oil rigs. To give just one example, China is currently the world’s biggest promoter of coal plants across the world, but since these are money making ventures which have a high and relatively secure rate of return, it is no surprise that money from the US, Europe and even Japan flow into these investments.

Disentangling these investments requires not just taking on large corporations and the way that they do business, but also governments that benefit from these investments, as well as large investment funds, some of them managing the pensions of retired individuals. These people are unlikely to change their minds merely because of a street protest.

And yet, activists are chalking up their successes. In this fortnight’s interview we feature the young students that make up the Yugma Network. Through little more than sustained outreach, and a willingness to raise their voices, they have managed to challenge the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification promulgated last year. Using the opportunity offered by citizen feedback to the law, they mobilised hundreds, if not thousands of responses to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell – of the biggest oil companies in the world – suffered a major setback when a court ordered it to cut its carbon emissions faster than it has been doing. These are major victories, which prove the optimism in Mead’s quote. Even if they are partial, rather than complete, changes, they highlight how organising, educating and agitating can have major impacts, including against governments and mega-corporations.

Nonetheless, there are challenges to these models of change. The first, and most important, is that such type of organising is easier for the rich and those least affected. The legal challenge to Royal Dutch Shell was in a court at The Hague in the Netherlands, where it is headquartered. There are other legal challenges that the company has faced, primarily over its practices in Nigeria. In its work in the Niger delta, it has been accused of everything from oil spills to spying, and supporting the torture and murder of environmental activists. In the end, Shell chose to exit Nigeria and was fined for some of its pollution, but the communities – particularly in Ogoniland – have had to deal with this issue for decades.

There is a similar change with the EIA 2020 protests. As the Yugma Network note, the draft was available only in Hindi and English. The communities most affected by environmental catastrophes through bad impact assessments, are also those that are least able to access the technology to respond to such notifications. Nor do they have the time and leisure to devote to these drawn-out fights. As the example of those affected by the Baghjan natural gas well blow out in Assam demonstrates, these are often people whose source of livelihood has itself been destroyed, and they are hoping for some help to start life anew.

The challenge of volunteerism is that it is affordable precisely to those least affected, and thus structurally excludes those most affected. This does not mean that those most affected do not care, it is just that they have to overcome larger hurdles to make their voices heard. This means two things: one, that organisations based on volunteerism, as the Yugma Network is, must take extraordinary steps to include these voices, and two, that for change to be sustainable and benefit the most vulnerable, we must find ways to incentivise their participation in such activities. Without that, we may continue to get climate solutions, but may still fail at anything like climate justice.

As my colleague, Shambhavi Madan, puts it, “there is a status quo where locally generated mobilisation does usually happen in some form when life and livelihood is threatened. To turn that into civic participation that is able to activate legal or political processes is tricky because only certain sets of citizens are equipped to institutionally engage.

In that space it is not just adding excluded voices so to speak, but ensuring/working for resources for impacted communities without totally distorting the actually experienced exploitation and knowledge systems in the process. [This] calls for forms of collectivisation to have to challenge orthodoxy. [Organisations like the] Yugma Network have capacities… to be a form of organisation that a) wouldn't turn extractive the minute it constructs incentivisation systems and becomes more heterogeneous/collaborative, or b) operate as an actual network that continues functioning even if the original organisers leave.”

The Interview

The Yugma Network is a youth-led social movement that kicked off last year, challenging the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification by the government. Since then it has expanded its footprint. Instead of sending their pictures, the network sent us their artwork, as they felt it represented them better, and due to the pandemic, a meeting together was impossible.

Q. What is Yugma? How did it come about? Where is it going?

A. Yugma Network started off in late July 2020 as a student-led campaign to withdraw the Draft EIA 2020 Notification. The Draft EIA 2020 Notification weakens many clauses of the pre-existing Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, thereby making it easier for corporations and industries to get an environment clearance for a project. Thus, it favours ease of doing business over environmental protection, although the latter is the very purpose of an EIA.

The initial idea was to get student unions, clubs and individuals to sign on to a letter addressed to Prakash Javadekar and the MoEFCC, asking them to withdraw the Draft and clearly stating why we thought the Draft was perilous for the environment.

By the time we sent the email, we had around 80 unions and clubs from across India standing in solidarity! This was our first experience of the overwhelming potential of student/youth voice. 

As we sent out that email and mobilized individual students to also join the campaign, the MoEFCC extended the last data for public opinion on the Draft to August 11th 2020. The iron was already hot and we chose to strike it by exploring ways in which we could build more awareness and reach, and mobilize more citizens to stand against the Draft EIA 2020. With an influx of volunteers who chose to help with the movement, we created graphic and video content on the Draft and parallelly to mobilize more people through social media interactions, writing a song (Wake Up, Yugma Network) and collaborating with other environmental activism groups like Chennai Climate Action Group and Let India Breathe.

An important realization was the strength of working as a coalition of groups towards a common goal!

With the content we created, we attempted to achieve two implicit goals. For one, we wanted the language used to be as simple and non-technical as possible and for the information to be presented with artwork that captured its essence (you can view these on our Instagram page!)

Secondly, we worked to produce all content in around 12 Indian languages (varying based on the content) with the help of volunteers who were well versed in them (all of them were youth!). We also worked to connect ongoing local environmental issues and disasters such as the Baghjan blowout and Vizag gas leak to the EIA Notification to argue that the new draft would worsen such issues. You can read more about the EIA movement here:

Since the deadline for public opinion on August 11th 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has taken cognizance of the lakhs of emails which were sent and CSIR-NEERI recently prepared a report (albeit flawed) on the trends of the objection raised. Environmental groups, including Yugma have now come together again for #WithdrawDraftEIA 2.0.

Our biggest takeaway from the initial month of Yugma was realizing and understanding the complexities of the movement for environmental justice, not just environmental conservation, and the potential and need for youth voice in the movement.

Thereafter, the Yugma Network, a collective of youth across the country passionate about environmental and social justice, expanded to experiment with other possibilities.

We think of the Yugma Network as a process. Through our campaigns we have realised that the environmentalism we have learnt in school is not complete. Yes, we should get polluting factories to shut down, but when the economy is in a decline, addressing unemployment and the poverty and inequality that comes with it is just as important. How can this be reconciled with the prevailing destructive idea of development? What is a utopian vision of an ecologically and socially just world towards which we can work towards, and who defines it? How do we ensure that environmentalism is representative and intersectional, led by those who are the most impacted?

With these questions in mind, we as the Yugma Network decided to broadly work towards the concept of environmental justice. The Yugma Network is a pan-Indian youth initiative that works towards achieving ground-level environmental justice through campaigns, language, education, legal and policy interventions, deeper understanding & conversations, and alternatives. Our aim is to broaden the definition of environment to socio-cultural, economical and political issues, and to include various perspectives of castes, classes, indigenous communities and genders in the discourse. ​We are made up of:

●      Language Society: 70+ youth working in over 12 Indian languages

●      Education Group: aims to supplement existing school curriculums with a more nuanced idea of environmental justice. Right now, we are also facilitating sessions on environmental justice, through a curriculum we developed, to 12 high school students in DLRC School, Pune. Parallelly, we are (albeit slowly) working towards developing a complementary environmental justice module for middle school students.

●      Campaigns, coordinated by campaign coordinators, and made possible through an artists society, a content creation team, and the language society. We work with other environmental and human rights/social justice groups in a collaborative manner to support and lead campaigns through art, local languages, educational content and on-ground strikes. Some campaigns have included Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA) - art & activism, Greens with Farmers (to support farmers movement through content, physical strikes, webinars), Khori Gaon Campaign (to prevent unjust evictions of 1 lakh+ people), #SaveAndamans (to prevent the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from being destroyed), Anti-Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi, and several forest and coastal movements.

●      Environmental Justice Clinic: run by law students - we have filed a successful legal petition against online public hearing for Peripheral Ring Road, Bangalore, instead demanding for a more inclusive, offline one post the pandemic. We have also worked on a lot of legal research, drafts for PILs, and filed several RTIs for the Andaman and Nicobar campaign.

●      Several short-term initiatives such as a 3 month research project on renewable energy, a thorough compilation of resources on caste and ecology, and an in-depth educational series on marine ecology.

Going forward, we hope Yugma Network can turn into a deeply democractic and representative movement strongly grounded in social and environmental justice.  As a decentralised process, the Network will be shaped by all our members and we are sure that several pertinent and essential conversations will be prodded and taken forward. We hope to continue being a space wherein people can question existing power structures, assess issues from an intersectional and interdisciplinary lens, reimagine new spaces and societies, and explore alternatives from a just and democratic perspective.  

Q. Why the focus on languages?

A. During the EIA 2020 campaign, we realised that a majority of India’s environmental discourse was taking place in English, at least in the online medium. There was barely any coverage in regional newspapers about the Draft EIA2020 Notification. The draft itself was only in English and Hindi, effectively excluding a huge population in India from being able to read it and also violating the constitutional mandate for the MOEFCC to translate the draft into regional languages. Hence, with the help of over 70 students from across India, the Yugma Network decided to try and put out some information about the Draft EIA2020 and it’s regional impacts in 12 Indian languages.

Over the past year, we have realised that language is not simply a communication tool - it is part of one’s identity. It is imperative to have conversations in different languages, not only to enable greater awareness and reach (regional languages are a very important tool to reach out and personalise issues to people) but also to ensure that the conversation is intersectional, not-coopted by the ‘elite’, savarna, and white-washed voices, and led by those from Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA), Trans, Queer, Muslim, and other marginalised communities.

We also noticed through our process that the environmental discourse was dominated by the elite sections of the society in India. The upper class notion of “preserving the environment” and creating a strong “binary between humans and nature” dominated the space. If change is pushed for by such an exclusionary group, the outcome and means both remain exploitative and do not actually benefit a majority of the population. Language is thus an important aspect of inclusion needed to push for more nuanced changes and to diversify the conversation to ensure the majority have a much larger say in issues.

Q. Why do the youth care? And why is it necessary to involve them?

A. The youth care because we are left with no choice but to fight for our future and to fight to preserve our democracy and a representative, empathetic and inclusive society. We think that the term ‘involve’ itself is somewhat inaccurate - the youth are the ones leading this fight and we have already been thrown into the deep by the inaction of our decision makers and those with the economic, social and political power.

We, as a nation, are drowning under the impacts of the second wave of COVID-19 and a lack of governance & planning. We are suffering from rising unemployment and job scarcity, agriculture and labour laws are being weakened, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones, those protesting against injustice are being persecuted, caste and patriarchy are still pervasive and oppressive features of society, numerous indigenous and local communities are being displaced, our environment and future is being ruthlessly destroyed, democratic values are being erased, our deeply flawed economic system is in shambles… If these reasons are not more than enough for youth to care, be involved and fight this battle vigorously, then what are we waiting for?

Since those in positions of power have failed us (and we want to emphasise that this has not impacted all youth equally - ‘youth’ itself is a diverse category with some communities being much more exploited and impacted compared to others), it is our responsibility to ensure we stand for environmental and social justice - we do not have the luxury to be apolitical and inactive.

It is necessary for the youth to lead this movement with the support and solidarity of all generations to bring in a new vision and imagination of what our world can be.

Q. How conscious are you that this is coming from an elite space (higher education, economically secure), and how does a voluntary organisation of such sort include and showcase the voices and experiences of those most hurt by environmental damage?

A. We think the term ‘youth’ itself is, incorrectly, often co-opted by upper-class and upper-caste youth who have the social and political capital to make our voices heard. Though the Yugma Network comprises a regionally diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, we are quite aware and conscious that our activism does come from an elite space. Almost all of our active group members do come mainly from economically and socially privileged, savarna backgrounds. The ability to access resources, networks, social media platforms (and social media literacy) to even start and continue working on something like the Yugma Network stems from privileged backgrounds and places in society.

As of now, all team members also work purely on a voluntary basis, with no monetary compensation and that itself leaves out many people with financial constraints and given the online mode of most of work until now, network constraints as well.

Keeping this in mind, our goal has always been and is to ensure that Yugma Network is a platform to amplify the voices of those most affected rather than co-opting more space or twisting the narrative to suit us. In all campaigns we take up, such as that for Khori Gaon Rehabilitation, EIA 2020, or Youth Action to Stop Adani, we ensure that the voices of those on ground are amplified and brought to the forefront on the Network platforms (through videos, quotes, interviews, art, music etc.) and try to minimise our own biases and perspectives. Yugma Network is not ‘our’ movement, but a tool and a platform to lend solidarity with those fighting for justice. Yugma being quite young and born within the pandemic does not have the funding and ground-reach yet to break out of the echo chamber completely. This is however, something we take seriously and are constantly seeking ways to achieve, whether it is through amplification, collaborations, or involving more individuals & members from affected, marginalised, and oppressed communities.

We also hope that in the near future, especially when we can move beyond purely digital interactions and work, the Yugma Network can be more inclusive and diverse in its team. We completely understand that our politics, environmental and social, are in no way perfect, and we are constantly committed to unlearning, educating ourselves and being corrected and called out, while continuing our battle against injustice and oppression.  

Q. What is the one big thing that is missing in the conversation about youth and environment, in your opinion?

A. We think that the intersection of environmental issues with economic, social and political issues, like caste, class, religion, is something that is mostly left out in the mainstream conversation of youth, climate change and environment.

Our school education also does not expose its students to ideas around environmental and social justice issues. Much of the mainstream discourse is largely shaped by an elitist, savarna perspective and envisions environmentalism as the protection of pristine nature from people.

We don’t think there is enough focus (if any at all) on casteism, land politics, and environmentalism. This easily demonises those who are directly dependent on natural resources, like Adivasis, or those who ‘encroach’ on resources or land. While there is a dominant conversation about not enough access to clean water, air, open space etc, there is not enough conversation about those who are denied access to these resources and are most affected by natural disasters and climate change because of caste, class, gender, and religious structures and power dynamics.

This lack of intersectional conversation again alienates a large population of people who are trying to ensure that their basic needs are being met- even though that IS a conversation that pertains to environmentalism. In order to look at access, distribution, impact of climate change on people and then protest for just, inclusive, and representative solutions, it is necessary to look at the environment movement along with social justice. It is not enough to stop climate change - we must ensure that the means are just and democratic too.

Critical reading

  1. Why the Haryana Govt Must Not Evict One Lakh Residents of Khori Gaon: The Supreme Court’s eviction and demolition orders (without rehabilitation) regarding the Khori Gaon basti on the Delhi-Haryana border falling within the Faridabad Municipal Corporation (FMC) jurisdiction, concluding that it is an encroachment on Aravalli forest land, reflect the precarious rights to the city that are extended to the urban poor. Cases involving informal settlements on lands held important for environmental reasons are typically polarised as a contest between housing rights and environmental conservation, with the latter being presented as public interest threatened by housing rights of the poor, when in fact it is state failure in regulating land use. High-end commercial establishments or religious enterprises in the same area thrive, whereas working class settlements, auto-constructed through dubious land dealings, continually battle legal discourses of encroachment and evictions fused with ecological justifications.

  2. India's Deep Ocean Mission: A Literal Race to the Bottom:The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs recently approved a Deep Ocean Mission proposed by the Ministry of Earth Sciences at a cost of Rs 4,077 crore over five years. Its objectives include to develop technologies for exploration of the ocean floor and ridges, and act as a precursor to deep sea mining (DSM) – strategic technologies that are currently at various stages of highly protected development and deployment by only a handful of mostly developed countries. India’s entry into deep sea exploration has grown from an initial motivation of technological self-reliance, to Mission objectives regarding ocean biodiversity and potentially utilising bio-resources being explicitly linked to aspects of the Blue Economy initiative, indicating a strong commercial and industrial thrust. While the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) regulatory mechanisms have globally prevailed in keeping extractive activities at bay, however as certain pressures and interests in ocean minerals mount, anticipated and unanticipated environmental hazards and ecosystem impacts lie on the horizon.

  3. Are Kashmir's New Hydro-Electric Projects Economically Viable? Since the 2019 abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A) of India’s Constitution and the bifurcation of the state into two union territories, the Union government has sanctioned multiple hydropower projects in Kashmir with the argument that these will make the region power-surplus.  However, while the ecological implications of hydropower projects are quite well known, the government may also have overstated their economic benefits. The projected earnings from the Ratle project in particular – under construction on the Chenab river in Kishtwar district – will make up less than 0.2% of J&K’s 2021 budget. This is hardly significant. Worse, most of the hydro power generated here is exported while the state faces energy shortage every winter. A Kashmir-based think-tank found that in 2000-15, NHPC earned close to Rs 40,000 crore by selling hydel power produced from J&K while the J&K government buys around 19-20% of the power generated in J&K from NHPC projects at market rates – the region’s indigenous residents pay both ways.

  4. Karnataka revives dying lakes: Why a decentralised governance was long overdue: The High Court of Karnataka June 15, 2021 passed an order calling for decentralised governance of lakes in the state, thereby recalling a 2012 order that had allowed centralised management of lakes. This was important to ensure biological as well as ecological security of water bodies across the state, as this HC order will allow local public access to lake restoration and revival activities, which will help preserve and rejuvenate the dying lakes in the state. Centralised management required by the 2012 high court order, along with the officials' unfamiliarity with technical matters related to lake rejuvenation, had allowed the destruction of lakes. As many as 40,000 lakes in urban areas were included in the 2012 judgement; and as a result, as many as 10,000 lakes in rural areas have since been lost. 

  5. As mining returns to Ballari, farmers have nowhere to turn: Land holdings of farmers in “unsettled” or “unsurveyed” villages in Sandur Valley, Ballari, Karnataka – villages that have not been officially surveyed by the Karnataka government – do not appear in government records. This lack of “complete” documentation leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by mining companies, who are returning to the region after the activity was banned there in 2011 for violating environmental laws. The unsurveyed areas overlap with Ballari’s most intensely mined iron ore reserves, and while mining companies have received survey drawings and land documents, and processes for their operations have been fast-tracked, there is little interest or political will to provide land security to farmers, or to people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities with respect to their land claims under the Forest Rights Act. Infrastructure is being augmented to handle mining projects even as farmland, being earlier encircled by the iron ore industry, now faces the threat of being subsumed.

  6. Is Uttarakhand abusing disaster management laws to allow rampant riverbed mining? In November 2020, a few months before floods ravaged Uttarakhand, there was an open auction of tenders to desilt the riverbed in Champawat’s villages in Tanakpur district. While government tenders usually seek the lowest bidder contractor willing to do the work at the lowest cost, in this case, the highest bidder would get the tender. It went beyond issuing a work contract – also auctioning the right to sell to the construction and building sector all the sand, gravel and boulders estimated to be excavated from the location. It was but one of several such tenders floated by district administrations since January 31 2020 under the government’s River Training Policy – a policy invoking the Disaster Management Act 2005 to auction desilting rights to private contractors, therefore allowing sand and boulder mining from river beds without seeking either environment or forest clearances for river training contracts, despite little evidence of such desilting reducing disasters.

  7. TERI suggests diversification of revenue sources for coal-bearing states to prepare for just transitions: Two recently released working papers by TERI underline the need for a just energy transition approach while shifting from coal to renewables. They find that as India plans to transition away from coal for its energy demand, it will have to look for alternative revenue and livelihood sources for those associated with the industry, especially states for whom coal forms a major part of their revenues. The diversification of revenue sources for such states and their workforce can be undertaken by establishing industrial parks, solar parks, and battery energy storage projects.

  8. Rural job scheme guarantees carbon sequestration: The world’s largest anti-poverty programme may also help India achieve its target of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent, through additional forest and tree cover, by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) captured 102 million tonne carbon dioxide (MtCO2) in 2017-18 through plantations and soil quality improvement, found a recent study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru). The researchers calculated carbon sequestration by assessing biomass in plantations and carbon stored in the soil of work sites in 158 villages spanning 18 agro-ecological zones of India to arrive at the conclusion. 

  9. As Dharamshala grows, the city eats into the forest: Dharamshala is a fast-growing municipal area. Between 2011 and 2015, new wards were added to the municipal corporation and its population saw an increase of over 70 per cent. The selection of Dharamshala for the Indian government’s Smart City project and its designation as the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh added to the pace of growth. But almost all the structures spread along its main road and back narrow alleys are over-built and multi-storey buildings are hanging over main roads, and on steep slopes, at precarious-looking angles in the region. Dharamshala’s haphazard development has eroded the region’s forest cover, with tree felling, although prohibited, being facilitated through other means. However, state response to forest violations is selective, disproportionately targeting small encroachments, leaving bigger encroachments unscathed – and violations continue unabated thanks to an alleged nexus between the government departments and the builder lobby. 

  10. Modi Govt's Policy to Reduce Oil Imports: Subsidise the Rich, Burden the Poor! The Modi government seems to be subsidising the rich at the cost of the poor by diverting food grains meant for the most impoverished sections of the population to private industries for producing alcohol for India’s ethanol blended petrol programme. There’s more: food grains will not only be sold to these industries at subsidised rates but units seeking to expand their capacities for the purpose will also no longer need mandatory environment clearances and will be provided financial aid for enhancing their ethanol producing infrastructure. All this, as per the claims of the government, is to increase production of ethanol which will ultimately be blended with petrol for use as vehicular fuel in order to reduce India’s oil import bill. However, the government food grain stock should first be used to universalise the public distribution system. “For any purpose other than that, like manufacturing ethanol, food grains need to be procured from the open market which will give a clear idea about the viability of the ethanol blended programme”, as Nikhil Dey of the Right to Food Campaign explains. 

Follow the money

A truly just green transition means not just that there are green jobs available, but also that the technology these are based on are appropriate and are created in developing countries

Indians in non air-conditioned 2nd class railway coach [image by: Brian Holsclaw]

Ganges Water Machine by Anthony Acciavatti is a gorgeously detailed book on the history and morphology of the Ganga. Among the photographs and plans there is a small mention of the role of railways. Before the introduction of the rail by the British during the colonial era most goods were transported wither by caravan or by boats and barges. Among the impacts of the railroad was the withering away of trade by river, and the pauperisation of communities dependent on it for their livelihoods.

This is a rarely discussed facet of the introduction of rail travel in India. Usually it is discussed as a “gift” of the colonial era, an example of the “modernisation” of India under British rule. Or it is discussed as a strategic calculation, which – with the telegraph lines – helped a small contingent of rulers transport armies quickly to strategic locations very quickly. Notably it is considered one of the advantages through which the British managed to reconquer their empire after the 1857 Uprising. Comparatively little attention is paid to the role of money, both in investment, and how it effects technology, and the money that pays for technology.

India received one of the most modern railway systems in the world during the time of British rule. It was paid for by Indian taxes, and it was not a gift. The makers of these steam engines were in England, so in effect Indian taxes subsidised the wealth of the British rail system. Today India is trying to rebuild some of its waterways for trade through the Inland Waterways Authority of India, though these are without their own challenges as noted in one of the articles in the critical reading list below.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here as India starts to deal with the climate crisis. The first, and most important, is that if solutions are developed exclusively in other countries, Indian taxes will end up subsidising technologies and wealth in other countries, without building up capacities internally. The country may acquire – at great costs – some of the best infrastructure, but like the railways, may not be able to continually build up the technology so that it remains world class over time.

The second is that new technology is not necessarily the most appropriate technology, and putting all eggs in one basket is not always the solution. The example of railways and waterways is worth looking at as a balance that tipped too heavily in one direction, and as we struggle to rebuild our waterways much later, we are trying to rebalance. Similarly, the Green Revolution led to higher water, pesticide and chemical fertiliser usage across India, and it came at the cost of promoting monoculture. A “one technology” model for growth has sharp drawbacks, and makes a country, and its economy, far less resilient, as we are finding out.

In our interview this fortnight we look at jobs in the green economy, as well as the recent G7 meeting, and the challenges between developed and developing countries cooperating to deal with the climate crisis. The next Conference of Parties – COP26 – will be held in November in Glasgow, with the UK as the chair. It will be the first COP post Trump, and one in which the fight for a green future is being fully joined between the US and China, as US President Joe Biden ups the ante in challenging China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

There is both an opportunity and a challenge for India here. As our interview illustrates, there is a great potential for green jobs in India, but if the base of these technologies remain things manufactured outside of India – for example cheap solar photovoltaic cells from China – will we end up subsidising new technologies yet again in other countries? Even if we have the US and China competing to sell us cleaner tech, and we get new infrastructure, are we building up research and design in India?

Secondly, is all the technology we are rushing to adopt entirely appropriate. Nature based solutions are often cheaper and more effective than new technologies, but they need better stewardship of land. This issue barely gets a mention, except as a sidebar, in conversations, although it was raised as early as the Stern report. Much of this revolves around making sure deforestation is combatted and crop diversity is maintained. India is at the cusp of change in this regard, as we contemplate more mechanised large farms, and afforestation, instead of maintaining forests that already exist. Our choices will show us whether we have learned from our past, and whether we will help shape the future, or merely be shaped by it.

The Interview

Madhura Joshi is a clean energy and climate policy expert with over ten years of experience in managing and implementing large multi-disciplinary teams and projects. She is currently a Senior Associate and India Energy Transitions Lead at the E3G based in India. Her work focuses on developing the strategy and analyses to advance just and low-carbon energy transitions in India working closely diplomatic, governmental, and civil society networks. Prior to E3G, Madhura was the lead consultant on energy access, green jobs and climate policy in India for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Madhura has also worked at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and was the manager at the Centre for Research on Energy Security, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) before CPR.

Her areas of research and interests include energy and climate policy in India; energy poverty in developing countries; co-benefits of low-carbon transitions; energy security; multilateral and regional energy climate governance; political economy of energy transition in India; and multiple-objectives based policy decision-making. She has authored several book chapters, academic papers, strategic memos, and policy-briefs meant for senior decision-makers on these topics.

Q. Are there jobs in the renewable sector, specifically in India?

A. The straightforward answer is yes. In a 2020 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that a sustainable green recovery after the pandemic would be far more useful than a polluting one. It would add or save (the electricity sector would be under threat of losing many jobs otherwise) up to 9 million more jobs, globally, over three years and would spur economic growth.

Specifically in India, a 2019 report by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that there had been a five-fold increase in green jobs between 2014-19.

Just reaching our commitment to produce 175 GW of electricity from renewables would end up employing over 300,000 workers in just the utility scale solar, rooftop solar, and wind sectors.

According to another study by Power For All, in the financial year 2018 alone 95,000 direct jobs were created in the distributed renewable sector in India.

Bear in mind these are jobs just from in the direct renewable energy sector. There are indirect jobs as well, for things like skills training, market linkages and allied services associated with renewable energy. Experience of the Self Employed Women’s Association in partnership with NRDC shows that working with salt-farming women in the Little Rann of Kutch to switch from diesel to solar not only helped them save money, but also created jobs in managing solar power. There are also other sectors such as in electric vehicles, green buildings, and energy efficiency which  have green jobs. The data on this is, however, not captured well.

Q. Are these jobs accessible to women and marginalized groups?

A. On paper these should be available, but unfortunately, we do not have enough studies to capture gender participation in the sector. CEEW’s report on women working on rooftop solar was one of the few that did.

Compared to the fossil fuel sector, there were more women, but still only 11%. The global average of women in the renewable sector is much better – 32%.

Part of this has nothing to do with the sector. There has been a sharp decline in women in workspaces in India over the last few years, but we can design incentives. For example, having training programmes - like the Kutch one – at the village level. This cuts down on travel, making them more accessible. There are a whole bunch of schemes on skill development. Focusing on increasing participation from women will be useful. There also needs to be greater communications outreach at the grassroots level that will bring greater awareness about these programmes.

Q. What did you make of the recent G7 meeting?

A. Many people have been disappointed, and even caustic about the outcome. I am a little more optimistic. There were a lot of expectations from this summit, and we should look at it as part of the process, in which a few ground rules were stated and progress sustained.

Never before has a coal exit plan been explicitly addressed.

In May the G7 environment ministers had committed to net zero by 2050 and keeping temperature rise below 1.5C from pre-industrial levels. The G7 financial ministers also committed to end new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021. These commitments have been reaffirmed.

The G7 also made the connection between an energy transition and a just transition, recognizing that the transition must have support and policies for affected workers and sectors. So that  jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector are compensated and new employment opportunities are created. There was also agreement to provide support for coal retirement mechanisms. More clarity on the extent climate finance required remains, but this is will hopefully become clearer in the run up to the Conference of Parties (CoP) at Glasgow in November.

I would call it an encouraging step in the right direction, one that leaves space to build upon soon, and which sets ambitious and clear time bound goals.

Q. What would you consider is the main issue between developed countries and developing countries?

A. There are a few issues, but a key one is a lack of trust. Without sufficient trust in follow through on commitments and demonstrated action on the ground, it is hard to make cooperation work. Quite often the context of developing countries and the needs of their people can be overlooked. The lack of sufficient financing for making a transition possible and just has added to that. Countries with means also need to take stronger steps domestically to bring about clean energy transitions faster. Hopefully this is changing, and with it the trust deficit may also shrink.

Q. What is the one big issue that does not get the attention it deserves?

A. There are so many! But maybe the key issue is that we must focus on adaptation now. We are already experiencing very different weather patterns. India has seen two cyclones on the western coast in two years, when it used to be the eastern region that was usually harder hit.

We need to ensure resilience, have regulatory, financial, and social mechanisms to respond, and pay attention to the infrastructure we build so that it can deal with the climate challenges.

The need to give greater attention for adaptation measures is also visible globally. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has been saying that at least 50% of funding should go to adaptation. The impacts of the climate crisis on communities and how it is reshaping economies have to be better understood to design comprehensive solutions. Unfortunately, too much of state response is short-term, such as relief measures for droughts. These are, at best, momentary relief. They cannot address lands lost to rising seas, areas where it is no longer possible to farm, or crops that no longer produce as much as weather patterns change. We need to build more resilience in our economy, cities, villages, infrastructure, jobs, and communities – in both existing and new structures – while planning for changes that are likely to take place because of unavoidable impacts of climate change that have set it.

Critical reading

  1. How one official helped Tata Steel and Vedanta get away with flouting green law: With the government focused on fast-tracking green clearances to help specific industry lobbies, rather than following the path of sustainable development, the rule of law and legal principles of environment conservation are bound to be a casualty. During June and July 2020, the Union environment secretary drafted a legally-dubious ex-post facto clearance procedure to facilitate two mega steel plants, operated by ESL Steel Ltd (Vedanta Group) and Tata Steel Ltd, that had violated India’s key law for environment clearance - the EIA Notification 2006. After the Union environment minister approved the procedure for the EIA law, it was then extended to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification in February 2021, that instituted amnesty to projects violating the CRZ law, based on the same ex-post facto clearance procedure which directly contradicts both EIA and CRZ. While the ministry explicitly denies this procedure could be called an ex-post facto clearance, the Bombay and Madras high courts confirmed it is so in May 2021 through interim orders in response to public interest litigations by environmentalists. 

  2. In Lakshadweep, a Strongman Leader Courts Ecological Mayhem: The Lakshadweep administration, led by Praful Patel, has announced several new Bills that threaten the local communities’ way of life. The draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation 2021 bans beef; the draft Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation 2021 allows the administrator to unilaterally detain people for up to a year; the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 concentrates planning powers with the administration, and empowers it to take any piece of land in the island, irrespective of its ownership, for “development” purposes. Reinforcing the state’s eminent domain over all of Lakshadweep must be considered against the backdrop of NITI Aayog’s plans to convert the UT into a site for premium tourism. Planning ambitious projects such as high-end hotels and floating villas is incongruent with existing realities of climate change such as water-stressed islands and eroding coral reefs, not to mention the ecological cost of the other construction projects being discussed – building a sea port, converting Kavaratti into a smart city.

  3. NITI Aayog's Vision for Great Nicobar Is at Great Odds With Islanders' Reality: NITI Aayog’s Rs 75,000 crore vision for ‘holistic development’ of Great Nicobar island entails building a transshipment terminal with a greenfield international airport, townships and solar and gas-based power plants, but doesn’t account for the existence of at least 15 Nicobarese villages along the island’s west coast. The island has two indigenous groups – the Nicobarese and the Shompen, a forest-dwelling community. But a pre-feasibility report by consulting agency Aecom India Private Limited recognises only seven revenue villages on Great Nicobar, but not the tribal villages. Envisaging 6.5 lakh people to inhabit the island by 2050 – currently the population is only around 8,500 – NITI Aayog’s projection is “a death knell for the already minuscule Shompen tribe and an obvious ecological disaster for leatherback turtle nesting sites”, according to a journalist based in Port Blair. The project is also unrealistic given the islands’ water scarcity.

  4. How infrastructure projects intensified cyclone Tauktae's impacts in Kerala : Cyclone Tauktae caused much damage on India’s western coast but in Kerala, human activities such as large-scale land reclamation, development of ports, shrimp farming, river diversions, dredging, sand mining, as well as rampant coastal zone violations including destruction of adjoining wetlands, intensified its impact and continue to keep the region at high risk. Ongoing coastal erosion through unscientific and rapid development of big infrastructure projects exacerbate the impact of climate change-induced cyclones in the Arabian Sea. The most vulnerable are small coastal villages, such as Chellanam, where the construction of a nearby coastal highway intensified sea erosion and now regular cyclones pose a severe threat to its people. In Vizhinjam-Shanghumukham regions, fish workers accuse the construction of the Vizhinjam International Seaport of inciting natural disasters. “Because of the construction in the sea, the waves have become rougher. The breakwater has prompted the waves to hit the shores harder,” says Joseph Vijayan, an expert on coastal communities in Thiruvananthapuram.

  5. Black carbon in High Asia can go down 23% if Subcontinent cuts emissions: Report: If South Asian countries implement all the current Black Carbon (BC) emission policies, the deposition of the pollutant can go down by 23%, according to a new report released by the World Bank Group on June 3. BC is generated by a range of human activities such as industries, vehicles, biomass burning, forest fires, brick-making and cook stoves and is capable of travelling long distances, sometimes towards the mountains and settling on top of glaciers and snow. The report finds BC deposition is responsible for as much as 50% of the increase in glacier and snow melt worldwide. “Black carbon and glacier melting in the Himalayas and erratic rainfall in the mid-mountains always lead to landslides, floods and inundation in the lowlands,” Maheshwar Dhakal, joint secretary of the Nepal government and former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change national focal point of Nepal, said. The resultant changing patterns of hydrology, the timing and the quantity of water have a direct impact on agriculture, and on increasing the vulnerability of local communities. 

  6. World Environment Day: A new proposed law backs construction projects in eco-sensitive areas: A Bengaluru team at private law firm J. Sagar Associates is working on the draft of a new, single environment management act, which is all set to back projects such as Adani-L&T Kattupalli Port in Tamil Nadu, several hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and Jammu’s Ujh multipurpose project, all of which have the potential to destroy the ecologically sensitive areas they are set in. This new umbrella law is set to replace three existing Acts — Air Act 1981, Water Act 1974, and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. The roots of this new law can be traced to the 2014 Subramanian Committee that was appointed by the Union environment ministry to revise environment laws. It is hard not to question the timing of yet another environmental law amidst a crippling pandemic. “The problem is when COVID-19 becomes an excuse to do away with public consultation and discussion that are an essential part of parliamentary democracy. It is ironic when the government considers not having public consultation as an act in public interest,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. 

  7. New Systems, Old habit: A new study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) examines the state of pollution data generated by the use of an automated monitoring system in the coal-based thermal power sector – called the continuous emission monitoring systems (CEMS). The study finds that even after having been installed in most power plants for more than 6 years, the system is not ready to be mainstreamed as a compliance tool. With only four states currently making CEMS data public, which accounts for 28% of India’s installed coal-based capacity; even in the most transparent state, Madhya Pradesh, there are wide data gaps. Less than half of the data is being sent to the pollution control board by the plants; and poor data quality is rendering a lot of that data unusable. 

  8. Van Gujjars: People of the forest or nowhere?: The nomadic pastoral tribe of Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand are being slowly displaced to protect the Rajaji National Park – they’re being blamed for increased pressure on wildlife through overgrazing their buffaloes, even as multiple development projects continue to eat into the forest, raising questions of whether conservation is valued only at the cost of marginalized and minority communities. Manshi Asher of Himdhara, an environmental research and action collective, calls the accusation of overgrazing unfair: “Over the years, it is industrialisation and urbanisation that has forced Van Gujjars to become sedentary and limited their access to smaller forest patches, manifesting as overgrazing”. It is paradoxical, she says, that both development and conservation have acted to dispossess the communities of their resources.

  9. Modi Government's Grand, Flawed, Expensive Waterway Project: Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the National Waterway-1 in Varanasi in 2018, which sent the signal that India would create a web of inland waterways. A 2021 study reviewing the progress and impacts of the National Inland Waterways Program, released by the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a non-government organisation working on water and energy issues, states that the project was “greenwashed” into existence, meaning that environmental benefits were touted to push through an ecologically harmful and economically non-viable project. The authors – interviewed here – emphasize severe implications of keeping National Waterways and their components such as multimodal terminals outside the environmental clearance process, i.e. the monitoring of impacts being done by the very same authority that is in charge of developing the waterways in the absence of any mandates for baseline EIA study or public hearings. 

  10. Protests over ecological concerns at Bunder diamond mining project: The proposed Bunder diamond mine project in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh won by Aditya Birla Group’s Essel Mining & Industries Limited (EMIL) in 2019, is facing protests against the likely felling of more than 200,000 trees, over ecological and local livelihood concerns. Earlier, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, had to exit the project in 2017, for similar reasons. Locals now gear up for a long fight yet again, this time against an Indian company receiving political patronage from an uncaring national government. “The Ken-Betwa River Interlinking project already threatens 23 lakh trees and 1.9 lakh trees have already been cut down for Bundelkhand Expressway Highway. The destruction of flora, mega-fauna (tiger) and human socio-ecological habitat done so blatantly and ‘legally’, shows that it is never about the environment or the people, nobody in power cares about this in current India,” says Arnab Roy Chowdhury.

  11. A massive rock and ice avalanche caused the 2021 disaster at Chamoli, Indian Himalaya: A new study by a team of international researchers finds that the February 7 disastrous flood at Chamoli that killed 200 people was caused by a massive chunk breaking off a glacier on Ronti Peak in the Indian Himalayas. The study presents a rapid and comprehensive reconstruction of the hazard cascade, after leveraging multiple types of remote sensing data, eyewitness videos, numerical modelling, seismic data, and reconnaissance field observations. It also describes the antecedent conditions and the immediate societal response, in order to consider some wider implications for sustainable development in high-mountain environments.

  12. Govt Think Tank Hand-Picked SC Rulings To Probe Judicial Activism: Government think tank NITI Aayog funded a study on the economic impact of judicial activism, overruling a warning from a top official that it served no purpose, according to documents accessed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. It commissioned the study from CUTS International, a non-governmental organisation in January 2020 to examine five judgements of the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal, including an order that CEO Amitabh Kant had written an op-ed against. The research intended to gauge the economic impact of Supreme Court rulings on environmental law violations, which included the manufacture and sale of vehicles that did not meet Bharat Stage-IV emission standards; a February 2018 judgement in a case called The Goa Foundation vs M/s Sesa Sterlite Limited & Others, related to unchecked, large-scale illegal mining in Goa, and another on environmental clearance to Mopa airport in Goa, the order that Kant believed was erroneous.

Access is life

Technology and infrastructure ringfence opportunities in India, as our - largely successful - electrification stories shows us, though, the key to success lies in putting the citizen at the centre

A rechargeable solar lamp [image: Smallest Forest / Flickr]

The scramble for vaccines has highlighted the Digital Divide in India. The Financial Times ran a story headlined: India’s Covid vaccine rollout favours the wealthy and tech-savvy. This is not a new story in India, not even during the pandemic. Last year, as lockdowns forced the closure of many schools, the people left out were often of poorer communities – adivasi and Dalit populations dependent on public schools, with little in the way of infrastructure.

Probably nothing exemplifies the implications of unequal technological access so much as health infrastructure. As the coronavirus moves into rural areas, we have reports of people dying of mysterious fevers. These will remain mysterious because there is little infrastructure for tests, and even fewer trained staff to deal with these things. This is an old story for India. Speaking with a member of the US Center for Disease Control staff based in India, I was told that she could find little data regarding the acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) cases in eastern Uttar Pradesh. 80% of the mortalities had happened without a test determining the cause.

AES is a symptomatic description. It merely describes the fact that there is severe swelling of the brain. This could be caused by multiple reasons. The underlying disease in the vast number of cases remains unidentified.

A few years ago, as a cousin of mine looked after his father in Banda, southern Uttar Pradesh, he told me the difficulties. It was not just that a dialysis machine was not available, it was also that few trained technicians were available at the hospital. Much of his treatment took place in Chandigarh, almost a thousand kilometres away from his home.

Access to technical infrastructure is key to lives and livelihoods. Maybe more importantly the ability to have that infrastructure serviced is the only way to make sure it actually serves the people. In our interview this fortnight, Dr Palit of TERI explains one of India’s great success stories, of almost universal electrification of households, as well as how far we have to go. At the centre of the interview is the issue of design. Is the infrastructure designed in a way to merely tick of numbers, or is it designed to actually provide service to the people? The example of the successes and problems of electrification show that if you do not design for the latter, even achieving the first will remain an illusion.

This is central to India’s debate on how to respond to the climate crisis. Is it about ticking off global benchmarks for Global Zero, or are we trying to make the best possible future for our population? In its own way the choice is a false one. As the effects of Cyclone Yaas show, in a warming world, the scale of disasters that Indians face will only increase. The Indian Ocean is the fastest warming ocean in the world, and as it heats, cyclones are becoming both more intense and more frequent. Furthermore, some things are simply playing out in favour of a more climate appropriate response. As the price of renewable energy keeps falling, it just makes good financial sense to invest in less carbon-intensive form of growth.

The problem is that this is not enough. There is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to keep warming the world. One of the already observable impacts in mountainous areas is the outmigration of people to find employment as their livelihoods – largely based on agriculture – fail. Uttarakhand is a particularly stark example of this, as large numbers of the young move away from their mountain villages to try and find some means of sustenance in the plains. “According to a 2018 survey… 734 villages in the state have become uninhabited since 2011. These villages are spread across all 13 districts and are often referred to as ghost villages.”

Nor is the problem isolated to mountain areas. As the sea heats, it rises since warmer water expands and the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic melt. India has one of the longest coastlines in the world. We claim more than 7,500 kilometres in length, while the CIA World Handbook assigns us 7,000 kms. This gives us either the 15th or the 18th longest coastline. The people that inhabit this region are often poor, and their lands are being swallowed up as the sea rises. They are losing their livelihoods as saline water makes their fields infertile, and they have nowhere to go. The human tide of misery, from mountainous areas, from the sea, and even from central India where farms that are dependent on rainfall for irrigation become more prone to drought, is coming our way. As an article in our reading list states, this migration is causing more refugees than any war.

As India’s success in electrification shows, we can handle the world’s biggest challenges. As its problems show, we must do so bearing in mind a design that puts service delivery at the centre of our model.

Dr Debajit Palit is the Director, Rural Energy and Livelihoods, at TERI. He has worked there since 1998 on projects related to renewable energy technologies – design and implementation, resource assessment and energy planning, clean energy and rural electrification policy and regulation, monitoring, impact assessment and capacity building. He holds a Master's degree in Physics and a PhD in Energy Policy. His thesis was on "Towards Convergence of Grid and Decentralised Electricity Solutions for Effective Rural Electrification".

Q. We claim to have electrified all our villages, but many people in rural areas have intermittent access to electricity, if at all. What is the real picture of how many have uninterrupted, regular supply of electricity?

A. There are four facets to electricity access. The first is extending connectivity to all villages. The second is to connect each household in the village. The third is to provide reliable, round-the-clock electricity along these connections, and the fourth is to make sure there is a responsive service network that takes care of metering, billing, collection, problems, and maintenance.

We have done very well on the first since 2005. At that time around 80% villages had connectivity and less than 50% of households had connections. The passage of the Electricity Act in 2003 made the Central Government also responsible for extending electricity supply along with state governments. This policy has remained unchanged under all governments so far. After the National Rural Electrification Programme was launched in 2005, we made rapid progress, with around 108,000 completely unelectrified villages connected in 8 years or so.

At TERI we evaluated this connectivity, and found that often not many households in these villages were being connected, though. Connections to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families were free, but at times it was difficult to tell who was really BPL versus Above Poverty Line (APL). APL families often did not take connections. Maybe they were not sure of the electricity supply, or its sustainability. In which case they would have the bill and little else.

By 2014 all except around 20,000 villages in remote areas were covered, and this was done quickly. This sometimes required decentralised solutions, like solar microgrids or solar home systems. In 2017 the Saubhagya Scheme was launched, and in 18-20 months roughly 30 million households were connected, aiming at the second aspect. There are about 500,000-1,000,000 households not connected. These are either those reluctant to get connections, or are of homes far outside the revenue villages.

In twenty years, we achieved near universal electrification. This was a huge achievement, and is globally recognised. In 2005-06 25% of the global unelectrified, or 400 million people, lived in India. Since then, we have provided electricity access to around 600 million (keeping in mind population growth).

Q. What are the challenges that remain?

A. The key problem is what happens between the 11 kV feeder to the household. This is where the link breaks down from the government built high tension wires to the local village. In some ways the question of centralised or decentralised power generation is irrelevant if local service mechanisms do not work. It does not matter if the electricity is coming from the main grid, or from a locally set up mini grid if the Division or the subdivision office is unresponsive and technicians are unavailable.

There are examples where it can work. The Chhattisgarh state government set up mini grids, but their real achievement has been prompt after-sales service. In villages, people are often unable to go the long distance to petition subdivision or division level officials. They often do not know how to navigate the bureaucracy. It costs them time, and that time is costly, because normally they would have used it to work and earn their living.

Q. Would “sweat equity”, for example with locals working to maintain micro-hydro projects in remote hilly areas, or maintain solar projects, help?

A. To an extent. The government had a franchisee-based electricity distribution policy that it put in place. This could be anything like users’ associations, self-help groups, or local entrepreneurs. They would buy electricity in bulk from the utility and sell to customers (within a price range set by regulators). They would have a 10-15% margin, and it was an excellent business model. We surveyed this in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and other states in 2008-11. Services were being provided, and there was increase in collection efficiency and most importantly a high level of consumer satisfaction. It is in the interest of the electricity distribution utilities to improve the customer service delivery through local organisations like franchisees and generate enough revenues (through improved billing and collection efficiencies and reduced distribution losses) to invest in infrastructure improvements.

Unfortunately, this was discontinued in most places. Some state governments complained of the arrangement. Now the only thing that happens in many states is that meter reading and billing are outsourced. These have done little in the way of increasing earning or reducing technical losses. More importantly the people have no ability to deal with issues that arise. They cannot fix or maintain things, and if there are problems with service, they can do nothing. The centralisation of delivery helps nobody.

Q. Are there other ways that people can be incentivised to be part of the solution, like selling electricity to the grid?

A. This is part of the PM KUSUM scheme, which supplies solar panels to farmers for the use of water pumps and other essentials. There is the option of selling the power to the grid if they have excess electricity. Unfortunately, there is a real problem with the finances of most distribution utilities. They may not be in the position to buy this electricity.

Solar power in urban areas has a different, though related, problem. The people and organisations, who can afford to set up solar panels, and potentially sell power back, are the creamy consumers. If they are out of the grid, who will subsidise the electricity rates for the poorer consumers?

We need to think of finances, maybe create a fund that can manage these financial difficulties. But because electricity is a concurrent subject in the Constitution, this will require states and the Centre working together, and that is sometimes challenging.

Q. Are we going to meet our renewable goals as we expand our electrification programme?

A. That should actually be easy, if present trends continue. Over the last few years, we have largely only been adding renewable energy to the grid. There have been few, if any, new coal plants. The one main challenge is storage price, and by 2030 this should also be cost effective. Renewable energy just makes good financial sense at this point of time.

Q. Is there something we are missing?

A. Robust data. We do not have enough monitoring to build a realistic model of what is happening and why, or to evaluate the health of the network. You can install a prepaid smart meter and that tells you what is happening in the home, but not what is happening between the 11kV line to the household, the state of the transformer and the LT network, the last link. Electricity given free in rural areas to farmers is not metered, we don’t know what is happening there. We just cannot plan properly with big parts of the data missing.

A second thing is a focus on change management, especially in distribution companies. We put in reforms, and these are top down. As someone in such a utility remarked, what is the incentive for him to change how he works? This means that these reforms remain superficial. In the late 90s when we did a lot of electricity reform, we backed this with change-management training that helped people working in these companies understand that the changes were to their benefit. Even when Gujarat undertook similar changes, many of which were also included in  the UDAY scheme launched in 2015, it was accompanied by a great deal of training.

Without that, it is hard to convince people. Our problem remains centralisation of delivery and services, and a lack of engagement with the people – whether in distribution companies or those they serve.

Critical reading on the environment of India, 28.05.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan

  1. How India is handling human to animal transmission of COVID-19 (or not) : The interconnectedness of the environment needs to be considered in the country’s pandemic response. Increased interfacing between humans and animals allows for more pathogens to be exchanged and enabled; viruses evolve by creating new variants in animal reservoirs. However, the environment ministry has so far only issued a single page advisory on COVID-19 management of wildlife that has been criticized as ineffective and inadequate in arresting zoonotic transmission. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, special secretary, Tamil Nadu Forest Department: “Wildlife managers can’t execute what’s in the advisory because there’s simply no capacity development for it..” The underpaid and overworked forest staff face numerous issues: rural areas are now the worst affected by COVID-19, no frontline status for vaccination, several difficulties in getting samples or monitoring symptoms in free-ranging wild animals. Meanwhile, a disease ecologist warns that even seemingly unaffected species can become reservoirs to new variants. 

  2. More Cyclones Batter India's West Coast But States Slow To Build Critical Infrastructure: IndiaSpend assesses the implementation of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP), which involves development of physical infrastructure and early warning systems funded by the World Bank along with the central and state governments. Cyclone Tauktae, the second severe cyclonic storm to hit India's western coast in less than a year, is further evidence of cyclones increasing in frequency in the Arabian Sea, yet none of the west coast states has met targets for building cyclone shelters, all-weather roads and embankments. It is also important to incorporate climate science findings into local action plans. As Harjeet Singh, from Climate Action Network International asks, "Existing buildings need to be retrofitted based on available scientific data. How are we preparing for sanitation and public health issues that follow due to floods that follow cyclones?” 

  3. Increased farm work negatively impacts women's nutrition: study: High engagement in agriculture coupled with no relief in domestic activities has led to decline in nutrition levels among women in rural Maharashtra, according to a study co-authored by an alumnus and director at Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition. To make sure policies align with the ‘feminisation of agriculture’, the study argues in favour of labour-saving strategies in agricultural and domestic work such as women-friendly farm mechanisation, alongside structural reforms such as land ownership. A stronger policy response is needed in India where women constitute over a third of the farm labour force, especially as India’s agriculture sector is also heavily impacted by climate change which then disproportionately affects women.

  4. Climate disasters ‘caused more internal displacement than war’ in 2020: Among the 55 million (at least) internally displaced people recorded by the end of last year, according to figures published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee (IDMC), there were 40 million new displacements that took place during 2020 itself - the highest annual figure in 10 years. Of these, the IDMC report said, 30 million were a result of floods, storms and wildfires.

  5. A “do or die” agitation against coal pollution in Odisha: For more than a decade, the villages near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block in the Sundargarh district have been fighting without respite against the incessant coal dust pollution from the 3000 dumper trucks of coal which daily pass through their villages. Their many attempts at legal recourse included opposing the expansion of the mine’s capacity citing non-compliance with multiple conditions that had been imposed on the project earlier--including regular medical camps, control of fugitive emissions along the road with mechanised sweeping and spraying, and creation of a thick green belt in the downwind direction of the project site. Despite all this, the environment ministry recommended further expansion of the Kulda mine’s capacity in January 2021. The villagers finally launched a “do or die” agitation in the same month, which continues even as the local administration is cracking down on them. The coal pollution grievously impacts not only the physical health of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities residing near the mines, but their livelihoods too as it affects agriculture and forest produce. The mine is operated by Mahanadi Coalfields Limited.

  6. Bihar highly vulnerable to climate change, says study, but lacks action plan: According to a recent assessment of climate vulnerability for adaptation planning by IIT Mandi, IIT Guwahati and IISC Bangalore, 14 out of 50 most vulnerable districts to climate change in India are in Bihar (along with Jharkhand and Assam, the three states cover over 60% of the most vulnerable districts).  Bihar is unique in its vulnerability to hydro-meteorological disasters as its northern part faces annual floods and the southern part is prone to droughts--and urgently needs a prioritised action plan.  However, along with limited resources, the state also suffers immense political apathy-- previous sectoral action plans by the state government and the UK’s Department for International Development to tackle climate change have either been cast aside during policymaking or withdrawn for “unknown reasons”. 

  7. [Charts] A long road to 2030 for India's import-heavy solar power sector: Large-scale adoption of renewable power, including a serious push for solar, is crucial for India’s clean energy transition goals. India is targeting about 450 Gigawatt (GW) of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030 and, of that, a lion’s share – 280 GW (over 60 per cent) – would come from solar. However, the Indian solar industry relies heavily on imports of important components such as solar cells, modules and solar inverters, spending billions every year as India’s domestic manufacturing capacity is not enough to fulfil the demand. While a May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency stressed upon how the shift to a clean energy system relies upon the supply and refining of crucial minerals, currently only a few countries - like China, who accounts for over 80% of India’s import bill for solar PV cells/modules - have a strong presence in these segments. India needs to not only ensure a long-term policy addressing these gaps so that a pandemic or geopolitical disputes can’t derail its clean energy plans, but also ensure not to increase mining activities for these metals that cause more social and environmental conflicts.

Loading more posts…