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Impact on govt policies on heat waves, severe droughts, unseasonal rains

By Shankar Sharma* 

Few recent developments and news reports from around the world indicate the gravity of multiple crises facing almost everyone in our country because of the escalating threats of climate change, and they also should indicate towards some of the critical sustainable options to minimise the associated hardships to our people.
At a high level of serious consideration for our country, the immediate and obvious impacts of climate change, such as heat waves, severe droughts, unseasonal rains, the pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil, impact on food crops and community health etc. need to be viewed as calamitous in nature. 
 In this larger context, our ongoing policies on electricity/ energy sectors, and the associated consequences for our natural resources, such as forest and agricultural lands, rivers and other fresh water bodies, and the pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil etc. must have been the subjects of very serious debate across the country, but sadly, the concerned authorities seem to be content to continue with a BAU scenario, without worrying much about the associated short term/ long-term implications to our communities. 
 This worrisome scenario needs urgent consideration of the highest echelons of the Union government, through NITI Aayog.
 Whereas, the ameliorating measures to minimise the associated hardships to our people should be of the highest priority to our authorities, our planners cannot afford to ignore how our BAU policies, if continued as they are now, can escalate the associated causes of hardships, and which may soon reach a catastrophic scenario, and a point of no return.
Life threatening issues such as severe heat waves (and the associated community health concerns); frequent droughts; the economic ruin (as per one recent estimate, the economic damage wrought by climate change can be six times worse than previously thought); very serious threats to food production; community health scare such as Covid-19 and other Zoonotic diseases, etc., are already evident in the form of fast reducing forest & tree cover, pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil, alarming levels of uncertainties in annual rainfall patterns and the impacts on water flow in our rivers and fresh water bodies. increase in the incidences of Zoonotic diseases etc.
When we objectively consider the fact that on an average thousands of hectares of original forest lands from even within the legally protected wildlife sanctuaries, are being diverted every year to the so called developmental projects, the continued cynicism of our people on India's recent statement to United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), that India’s forest cover increased consistently over the last 15 years, should be appreciated. Are our authorities mistaking the trees for forests? 
Can we say that a patch of new dense forest, because of compensatory forestry efforts, can effectively come up in 15 years; as compared to the quality of original forests, which might have taken thousands of years of undisturbed growth? 
 It is hard to believe that anyone in our country, with a modest knowledge of how our forests are being treated by successive governments, will accept the The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change's (MoEF&CC's) statement that India’s forest cover increased consistently over the last 15 years without any cynicism. 
Our authorities, including the political leaders, should seriously consider how the escalating threats of climate change will devastate their own families; especially, the children.
It will not be in the true overall interest of our country for our authorities to continue to ignore multiple reports coming from different parts of the globe, and which have huge relevance to our people. 
The fast deteriorating health of natural resources in our country, because of policies/ practices, in various sectors of our economy, and in particular, the sectors such as energy/ electricity, is generally avoidable and/or can be minimised even in the short to medium term by a diligent review of the ongoing policies, and adopting the relevant recommendations from such reports/ experiences from around the world.
The massive investments which are being continued to increase the power production capacity of conventional technology sources of coal, dam based hydro and nuclear power, and even the large size solar and wind power parks, along with the associated infrastructures, are all contributing greatly to the devastation being heaped on our natural resources, and to the escalation of climate threats.
A year-long investigation a few years ago by "IndiaSpend", had reveals how India is opening up wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to roads, railways, mines and industries by weakening its own environmental laws and procedures. At risk are the country's last forests, natural resources and the health of its people. 
India, over the six years since July 2014, had approved over 270 projects in and around its most protected areas, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks. At the same time, the Centre has watered down environmental safeguards, prompting stakeholders to warn that such interference not only imperils habitat and ecosystems but also endangers public health. 
 MoEF&CC has approved 87% (2,256 of 2,592) of proposals that it received for environment clearance (EC) between July 2014 and 24 April 2020, according to data on the ministry’s clearance monitoring website, Parivesh.  If this rate of environmental clearance for diverting natural forests and other resources is to continue, the country is likely to lose most of its original forests of enormous ecological significance within a few decades.
The fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) database has identified thousands of Zoonotic diseases, should wake us up to the fact that Covid-19 like pandemics can devastate our communities in future too. 
 The devastation caused to our economy and communities by Covid-19 can repeat itself because of one or the other pandemics, if we fail to protect and enhance the natural environment and the wildlife habitats. The first step in this direction, hence, should be to protect every patch of natural forests, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and to enhance their cover.
A large number of global media reports such as: "World's biggest grids could be powered by renewables, with little or no storage - if we are smart enough" ; "PM-KUSUM scheme: After rooftop scheme, plan in works to drive solar pumps"; "Battery storage is about to overtake global capacity of pumped hydro" etc. should make our authorities in India to diligently consider how our energy/ electricity sector can be transitioned quickly and smoothly to a low impact and massively important sector to our country with minimum damage to our forests, wildlife species, rivers, agricultural soils etc. by optimally harnessing the enormous potential of distributed kinds of renewable energy sources, battery energy storage systems (BESS), mini/ smart grids, and by deploying effective operational measures such as efficiency improvement, demand side management (DSM).
Multiple representations to the concerned bureaucrats/ regulatory bodies etc., as in some docs. as forwarded below, during the last 15-20 years have not resulted in any discernible action plans. Such representations have not even been acknowledged, even for the sake of courtesy. Hence, it is hoped that the present representation will persuade NITI Aayog, PMO and the Union Cabinet to initiate, urgently necessary measures at all appropriate levels of our governance.
In view of the fact that everyone, including our bureaucrats, political leaders and their families, children and grandchildren, will be impacted by the escalating threats of climate change and the associated degradation of our natural resources, there is a critical need for our authorities to diligently consider the following issues, in the larger context of our own recent past experiences, and the plethora of experiences and news reports from around the world, including those from IPCC, WHO, UNEP, UN, World bank etc.
Are our natural resources, such as forests and rivers, in good health; can they support the unending growth of our economy on a sustainable basis, even for the next 30- 40 years; will the social and ecological consequences of the huge demand on our natural resource due to such a high growth rate be tolerable/ acceptable?
Can we afford to ignore concerns/ points raised in the draft National Resource Efficiency Policy released my MoEF&CC in 2019? 
Can we afford to ignore the salient concerns/ points raised in the draft 'National Resource Efficiency Policy' (NREP) released my MoEF&CC in 2019? The same should be of paramount importance in any related discussions. The draft says, among others: 
"In the endeavor for economic growth, natural resources have been largely indiscriminately exploited, adversely impacting the environment and biodiversity. Further, cross linkages between resource use, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss has been scientifically well established.  Meeting the demand for products and services, of rising population with increased aspirations has led to mostly indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and would further lead to increased pressure on resources resulting in environmental degradation, thereby raising sustainability concerns." 
 On the current status, the draft lists many concerns: 
“High import dependency of many critical raw materials; 30% of land undergoing degradation: Highest water withdrawal globally for agriculture; 3rd highest CO2 emitter, responsible for 6.9% of global CO2 emissions; Much lower recycling rate at 20-25% vis-à-vis of as high as 70% in developed countries (Europe); Low material productivity compared to global average; 3 rd largest material demand (year 2010); Resource extraction of 1,580 tonnes/acre is much higher than the world average of 450 tonnes/acre.”
Can we say that each one of the high impact/ high cost project proposals, during the last 20-30 years, are well supported by diligent studies and public consultations to ensure that the associated benefits are unambiguously much more than the total of all the associated costs to our country?
Can we say that in each of these project proposals all the techno-economically viable/ attractive options to achieve the stated goals have been diligently considered in an effective costs & benefits analysis to determine the most beneficial and least cost option to the larger society?
Can we afford to continue to divert vast amounts of forest, agricultural and freshwater resources for the so-called developmental projects, even at a time when our country is already identified as water stressed, and when the forest & tree cover is only about 21% of the total land area, as against our national forest policy target of a minimum 33%?
Has there been one or more diligent studies to project the costs/ risks to our communities because of the ever increasing threats of climate change by 2050, or 2060, or even by 2070 through a BAU scenario? Are such escalated costs/ risks in the intervening years considered fully acceptable/ tolerable? If not, what can we do about them?
In the context that there are no clear indications that the total consumption of fossil fuels, including coal, is only increasing instead of being decreasing, and that the total of GHGs is only increasing in our country, as well as elsewhere, can we say that the too-little and too-late target year of 2070 to attain net zero status has any true relevance to our people? In such a BAU approach, will our natural resources be in a healthy condition to sustain all forms of life by 2070, or even by 2050?
If there is even an iota of doubt with regard to this target year of 2070, can we say that the ambitious targets such as becoming the second or third largest economy; most powerful country, vishwa guru etc, will have any relevance to our people, because people may not be in a situation to enjoy such status?
In the prevailing context of the continuous and escalating pressure on our natural resources, and the consequent impacts due to climate change, such diligent examination of our national level policies and practices can help us in minimising the calamitous nature of costs/ risks to our people both in the short and long term. 
 Effective consultations with the interested civil society groups and individuals, and a good knowledge of the policies and practices of our ancestors, when our country was recording about 25-28% of global GDP for more than a thousand years, will be able to show us the sustainable pathways in our goal of a developed country.
Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author's representation to the Vice Chairperson and the Chairperson, NITI Aayog



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