Vulnerabilities of Indian Governance in handling Climate Crisis amid COVID-19 Pandemic and Recession

Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta

Unabashed assaults by human beings on the natural ecological system have caused the virus to spread in the first place. While finding a definite cure to contain the virus, any complacency towards the environment would make human lives more unsustainable on planet earth, said Dr Simi Mehta while hosting a webinar on Vulnerabilities of Indian Governance in handling the climate crisis amid COVID-19 and recession organized by the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development at IMPRI and India Water Portal on September 25, 2020.

PlanetTalks - Mr Leo Saldanha_Climate Crisis

Reminiscing the loss of many notable personalities, such as singer S B Subramanyam due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Leo Saldanha stated that lives have become precarious considering the latest developments two decades. Global warming has resulted in the rapid melting of ice caps in the Arctics and Antarctica. Water levels would rise by several meters at the current pace, thereby posing irreversible damages to the island and low-lying countries their populations. Even for India, the vast coastal population is vulnerable. Human lives’ vulnerability has further been exacerbated with the sudden spread of coronavirus, which is progressively becoming asymptomatic.

While applauding and highlighting the problem with the past responses of Indian governments to disasters such as the 1999 cycle of cyclones and pandemics, Saldanha said governments have been using emergency powers such as police powers on the ground. He believed normative governance should accept the state of ever readiness to deal with pandemics. Evident from the cycles of floods in India in metropolitan areas, cities are not even ready for excessive rainfall. This is a result of maldevelopment.

He opined that the Indian governance system has been highly centralized since the 1990s with its neo-liberal policies. It does not recognize people’s wisdom and does not implement the plans and schemes in our constitutions that are really secured with dealing with natural crises. India cannot deal with unnatural crises such as the maldevelopment of cities due to negligence towards fundamental principles of governance. Since the fundamental principle of governance in India is rooted in democracy, therefore, the government must involve the people in governance operations. But this is far from being true. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments’ heavily centralized structure has been a major reason for making the villages and municipalities unmanageable.

To ensure transparency in governance, people need to struggle, as evident in the Lokpal Bill’s case, the Right to Information Act, Forest Rights Act, among others. While addressing Adivasis’ plight, who has been seen as inferior since they refuse to accept the private sector’s capitalist model, Saldanha highlighted they have been denied their rights on natural resources and displaced from their lands. They possess an immense amount of knowledge of forest resources. This knowledge is protected under the Biodiversity Act signed in Conventional Biological Diversity as part of the UN Rio Declaration.

Saddened about the non-implementation for Forest Rights Act 2006, he stated that Indian governments have been suppressing the progressive models for one pretense or the other and created emergencies on the ground. He condemned the clinical trials of genetically modified organisms (GMO) by the central government in 9 states amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the Supreme Court has challenged the move stating that it is against food security because it will turn food systems into proprietorship and become genetically contaminated. This is a highly unsustainable move.

Biodiversity needs to be protected from biopiracy; making speeches at international like the UNFCCC would not yield desired results. Addressing the unprecedented forest fires on the west coast of the United States and typhoons on the east coast of the US, Saldanha also highlighted the 600-700 spots that caught fires in the Western Ghats two years back in Karnataka, which the forest department was not able to manage it. He also addressed that when India’s lockdown was lifted, many industries such as LG Polymers, oil wells in Assam, and others started blowing up and released huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.  Unprepared industries are countering the promises made to the Conference of Parties to reduce carbon emissions.

On the farming front, efforts have been made to monetize farming and snatch the sovereign system of food from farmers’ hands over to the corporate sector. Mr Saldanha pointed to the structural displacement of democratic governance by ignoring the parliamentarians’ voices and the farmers against the three farm bills.

The natural food from organic farming has also been commodified from the so-called zero budget farming. This has led the lands to slip out of the hands of farmers. Giving examples of land regulations in Karnataka where no clearance is required for diverting commons and agricultural lands for industrial activities, he coined this situation as a land grab, which will lead to dispossession at a time where we should encourage more natural farming, agroecological approaches should include the revival of pastoral communities and non-displacement of fishing communities. These lands are being turned into cities, and cities are building disasters.

Highlighting the research study being done by the Environmental Support Group, he stated that many resources were wasted in preparing for the Trump visit in February 2020 while knowing the presence of the coronavirus in India. The resources could have been invested into building health infrastructure in dysfunctional public health centers in villages to deal with the pandemic.

Recalling the Disaster Management Act, which was passed due to the Tsunami, he underlined that those regions with effective local governments have the greatest capacities of response, relief, and rehabilitation. Therefore the government could have established a decentralized response. By 2008, India had guidelines to deal with pandemics, wherein people are aware of where to get the help from, and help will be provided to them, but when the COVID-19 struck, these guidelines went in vain. Lessons should be learned from countries such as South Korea who created local units to respond to SARS. In fact, Kerala must be applauded for dealing with pandemics.

The pandemic has brought the education of a large number of students to a standstill. Online education necessitated a smartphone with adequate data but believing that every student would have access to this was erroneous. The televisions having wider reach must have been used to deliver classes, and mechanisms could have been created for the same. The capitalization of public spaces and prioritizing public sector needs has essentially meant that the public sector has not been a priority for the center.

Mr. Saldanha was worried about the status of the money donated by the public to the PM CARE Fund, which was set up to deal with the pandemic. Further, GST was supposed to be shared between states and centers, but the former has been asked to borrow money because of the latter’s incapacity to pay them their due compensation.

He is concerned that the world moves towards an age where infections would be much more frequent, and current models will not work. The working model would be where every village, ward, and city can survive with their own capacity to cover themselves.

On the way forward, he advised on the need to sensitize the government system to make regulatory practices effective. India needed a decentralized approach where states are empowered and fully implementing the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts. There is a need for intelligent ways to deliver responses to it instead of failing repeatedly and trying to communalize it. The people must keep the governance systems accountable to them- which is the crux of democracy.

YouTube Video for Vulnerabilities of Indian Governance in handling Climate Crisis amid COVID-19 Pandemic and Recession

Picture Courtesy: Environmental Defense Fund


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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