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May 02, 2019 Thursday 02:31:36 PM IST


Cover Story

Climate Change is the greatest ecological, economic and social challenge of our times. It is projected to have significant impacts on physical and biological systems all over the globe. Warming of the oceans and melting of ice is anticipated to bring about a continuous rise of sea level by 18 to 79 cm in this century. Inter-Governmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) also predicts that by the year 2070, the thermal expansion of oceans and melting of glaciers will raise the sea levels to 21 to 71 cm. This will have widespread effects on coastal zone especially in developing nations like India, located near the equator.    

The central challenge is therefore to develop an environmental governance system and judicious resource consumption that secure life-support systems underpinning current and future human well-being. Essential to meeting this challenge is the incorporation of natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides, into decision-making.

The State of Kerala has remained at the centre of economic development discourse in the country for quite some time on several counts. The development model of Kerala has been divergent from that of most other State economies with the paradox of high human development coupled with low income.

Lineage of development thinking

Sustainable development is one of the most hotly debated issues in recent years. Development during 1940’s and 1950’s was often simply equated with economic growth as seen in industrialized countries. Then came the dual economy model in which development was associated with capital accumulation in industries and transfer of labour from traditional sector to modern industrial sector. During 1970’s it became clear that in many countries the benefits of growth has hardly trickled down and dissenting voices emerged.  This called for alternative development path. A major criticism was that under this approach, the whole Third World is treated as functionally homogeneous.Then came the thinking of sustainable development, a process of change wherein exploitation of resources and orientation of technological development are in harmony without jeopardizing the future potential for satisfying human needs and aspirations.This thinking implied that economic change is the key to sustainable development and environmental costs must be internalized. Integration of social issues into policy-making was also felt important in this approach.

We live in a world in which science, technology and development play important roles in changing human destiny. However, over- exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of development leads to serious environmental hazards.

Indications on the emerging crisis of ecological degradation triggered an absolutely new global thinking on the subject with the publication of ‘Limits to growth’ by Club of Rome (1972). However, earlier attention to this thinking came with the publication of the ‘Silent spring’ by Carson in 1962, who warned against the catastrophe associated with indiscriminate use of modern chemicals, pesticide, fungicide, weedicides, etc.  ‘The tragedy of commons’ (Harding 1965) put forward the pioneer thinking about the relationship between property rights and environmental degradation, linking unrestricted population pressures on common property resources leading to degradation. Schumacher (1974) was the one of the early green thinkers who put forward the idea that ‘small is beautiful’ and warned against the finiteness of every resource.This led to a diminishing faith in modernity and a version of green thinking that emerged during 1970’s. Since then, it has become central to the thinking on environment and development, closely after the publication of the World Commission report on Environment and Development (WCED  1987) also known as ‘Brundtland Report’.

Impacts on livelihoods

The phenomenon of climate change is related to the increasing level of Carbon dioxide in the air and as a byproduct of various gas emissions such asSulphur dioxide, Nitric Oxide and methane apart from the Carbon dioxide emission from burning of fossil fuels. Any increase in carbon load of the air will eventually lead to an increase in atmospheric temperature, may be about 1-20 degree centigrade more in the next 50 years or even less, if the hazard is not adequately controlled. The leaf system and its spread can effectively control the photosynthetic activity in which Carbon dioxide is captured and oxygen is released. It is therefore imperative that the vegetation composition be fortified through green belt development with appropriate plant species, particularly trees, in conformity with the existing ecological pattern.

As soil can function as a Carbon sink, good agricultural practices that improve soil organic carbon and soil micro-organism can also effectively function as carbon sink and storage systems.

Climate change is expected to cause more crucial and serious effects in developing countries located near the equator. The vulnerability of the poor in developing countries to short-term impacts from climate change, notably the increased frequency and severity of adverse weather events, is more serious. Human societies have to evolve strategies to cope with some intrinsic level of climatic variability and the extremes of weather.

So, the central concern is not that humans are altering climate as we have modified our environment to a marked extent throughout our history, but whether these changes in climate can be accommodated using our existing capacity to adapt and whether ecosystem resilience is large enough to survive these climatic perturbations.

Enhancing adaptive capacity

Consciously enhancing the adaptive capacity, especially of the most vulnerable ecosystems and communities, to exploit the changing resources and minimising the hazards through changing exploitation levels is a crucial challenge.

Mitigation measures are required to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions with the intention of eventually stabilising atmospheric concentrations at some level. However, greenhouse gases that have accumulated and are accumulating in the atmosphere since the pre-industrial era, will continue to affect global climate long into the future. Adaptive measures become essential in order to enhance the coping abilities of valued ecosystems and vulnerable communities.

The crucial perspectives about climate change need to be integrated into the full range of policy measures in our drive towards sustainable development. This invariably means that in order to come to terms with climate change, we need to deliberately reduce our carbon foot print in all our human activities, in all sectors from production to service sectors.

Limiting wants to reduce carbon footprint

It is true that a science that does not respect nature's needs and a development which does not respect people's needs threaten our very survival.

It is in this context that Gandhiji’s concept of environment assumes relevance. Gandhiji said, "nature has enough to satisfy every one's needs, but not to satisfy anybody's greed." This becomes one-line dictum to environmental thinking. Gandhiji considered the earth as a ‘living organism’. His ideas were clear in the expression - ‘Limitation of wants’.  Gandhiji urged us to minimize our wants to minimize the consumption and thus reduce the burden on nature. in other words, to ensure a low carbon foot print in all human activities as per present day diction. Several decades before the rise of environmental movements, Gandhi picked up fundamental environmental issues such as over-consumption, violence to man and nature and so on.Gandhiji conceptualized a new economic order based on ecological balance, meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The economic ideas of Gandhiji differed from conventional economics and bore close resemblances with ‘ecological economics’. The term sustainable development was not much discussed during Gandhiji's time, but his ideal vision to safeguard the rights of future generations, through the welfare of all obviously cover this thinking.

Environmental justice

There are several movements in different parts of the globe fighting against environmental injustice. Sustainable development may be described as a process for improving the range of opportunities that will enable individual human beings and communities to achieve their aspirations and full potential over a sustained period of time, while maintaining the resilience of economic, social and environmental systems.

There were no concerted efforts made before 1960s in the direction of conservation of environment and its sustenance. Ecological movements first started as radical cultural movements, as an attempt by individuals to control and understand the consequences of their actions. In 1970s, the ecological movement became a political movement for sectorial and local aspirations but rather represented and shared across nations.

Economic growth and environmental sustainability

State policy on environment and development in contemporary India remains almost unchanged and according to this thinking, poverty is seen as the worst polluter, and the preferred solution for the above remains economic growth.  In academic and policy discourses, many a time, economic growth and environmental sustainability are considered mutually exclusive and ecological conservation is attributed to compromises on economic growth. Although after independence, there was a heavy boost to large infrastructure for nation building such as multi-purpose dam projects and steel plants, this could not bring the desired economic growth; it unwittingly ushered in a wave of environmental issues and movements.

Environmental grievance redressal

The idea of environmental protection has been a part of the Indian tradition and practice from ancient times. Kautilya, in his ‘Arthashastra’, extensively dealt with the issue of environment protection by laying down the rules for the protection and upgradation of environment in great detail. The Chipko Andolan of 1973 is seen as the first environmental justice movement of the country. As part of this most famous movement, protestors strapped themselves to trees in order to prevent logging companies from chopping them down.

The agitation consequent to the Bhopal Gas tragedy was a very different movement. In December of 1984, one of the worst industrial tragedies occurred. The pesticide factory of Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, India, malfunctioned and leaked more than 30 tonnes of highly toxic gas into the surrounding area. Some reports   estimated that the immediate mortality exceeded 15,000, and thousands more have suffered from acute blindness, respiratory infections, pulmonary edema, liver and kidney damage, and infertility.There have been little to no efforts to decontaminate the ground water and soil that is crucial to the survival of the people in the area. Many grievances still remain to be settled.

In Plachimada, Kerala, Coca-Cola bought property to create a bottling factory. Within the first six months of the factory’s operation, water was left polluted and unfit for domestic use. Additionally, sludge and waste from bottle washing in the factory was collected and deceptively labeled as fertilizer and sold to farmers. Villagers started complaining of gastritis and other stomach problems, and farmers’ crops were reportedly affected. Over 80 percent of Plachimada’s residents are agricultural laborers, These cases illustrate the complexity of environmental issues in India, highlighted the need for a formal mechanism for timely and speedy environmental justice.

An example for ecological damage due to human intervention is theThanneermukkom Barrage (TMB) commissioned in 1970 in Vembanad lake in Kerala to intensify rice monocropping. TMBvirtually dividedVembanad lake into a saline lagoon on the north and stagnant freshwater lake  on the south,Kuttanad. The rapid changes in the  ecology of the lake with the cutting of estuarine connectivity with the coastal waters for increasing cropping intensity, has reduced  the livelihood opportunities of the marginalized fisher folks.  Several species of fishes and clams are affected or endangered due to pollution from lack of flushing. It is now recognized that a rice based multi- commodity farming system involving diverse and rich endemic biodiversity in tune with natural environment of the region is economically and ecologically more sustainable than rice mono-cropping. Although the barrage was established to promote rice mono cropping and to improve rice cropping intensity in Kuttanad, rice cropping intensity is presently only 115 % as compared to 134 % attained prior to construction of the barrage. It’s now realized that the physical intervention has turned out to be counterproductive to rice farming due to absolute dependence on external inputs.

The Endosulfan tragedy in Kasaragod district of Kerala, India is one of the worst pesticide disasters to happen to a region and its people. The tragedy occurred with the use of such a chemical in an area like Kasaragod, well populated andrich in water bodies. The chemical was continually aerially sprayed by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala ( PCK) on its cashew plantations for 20 years, without even once looking into its impacts. Local health practitioners had documented increased incidences of congenital anomalies, delayed puberty, mental retardation, abortions and cancer during the years of Endosulfan spraying. The pesticide manufacturers have tried all possible means to justify its use. In 2011, Supreme Court banned the use, sale, production and export of Endosulfan across the country. A global ban on Endosulfan was imposed in Stockholm Convention in Geneva, mainly prompted by the incidences in Kasaragod.

Kerala 2018: Flood and deluge

Kerala has experienced the devastating flood and deluge in August 2018 consequent to cumulative rainfall, almost 42 per cent in excess of the normal average. The flood and deluge had affected 5.4 million people, displaced 1.4 million people, and took 483 lives. With a high density of population, land became contaminated by use of agricultural chemicals, uncontrolled disposal of sewage, etc.  The torrential rains triggered several landslides and forced the release of excess water from 37 dams across the State, adding to the impact of floods.  Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) found that the landslides were in slopes above 22° and most common between 22° - 28° slopes.  A majority of the landslide sites were on the fringes of forests, indicating that the forest fragmentation, disrupting slope continuity, was a major factor that facilitated landslides. Construction of check dams in steep slope obstructs the natural flow, resulting in debris flow. Quarrying in vulnerable areas has also contributed to the degradation and is reported as a factor that accelerated landslides at least in a few locations. This small State is identified to have over 5924 quarries, ranging from 0.02 to 64.4 Ha in area.

The situation calls for an independent facility to manage the reconstruction process, to plan, coordinate environmental rehabilitation within the shortest possible time. More importantly, a holistic understanding of resource management, together with mainstreaming of environmental planning into the development process as reflected in the constitutional framework of India and also in the international agreements made by India, become important. The situation suggests implementation of regulatory regime for protection and conservation of environment and sustainable management of natural resources

The Indian Government has demonstrated the country’s commitment to environmental justice.

Establishment of National Green Tribunal and the Right to Information Act have undoubtedly helped to empower citizens on the environment front.  The National Green Tribunal (NGT), established in 2010, was instituted into the Indian Constitution to handle ‘environment related litigations’ and to ‘ensure speedy justice on environmental causes’.

Environmental governance

Undoubtedly, as regards the environmental issues, the Indian courts have also been actively contributing in the protection of the environment, evolving new principles of environmental justice. This pro-active role by the judiciary as regards environmental regime management has been laudable.

The Indian judiciary also added some of the most significant principles within the national regime, viz., Polluter Pay Principle; the Precautionary Principle to protect the environment; and the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which has brought within its ambit wider issues largely affecting the interests of the general public. The emergence of the concept of  ‘Green courts to deal with environmental laws and the establishment of the National Green Tribunal in India (NGT) has proved to be an effective  means  to ensure  environmental justice in a big way by upholding the right of the citizens in  our land.

Prof. (Dr). K.G.Padmakumar

(The writer is Director, International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming (IRTCBSF), Kuttanad, Thottappally, Kerala; former FAO Fellow, PR China & former Advisor to Govt of Punjab)

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