Vulnerable India 1: Climate Change in the World’s Largest Democracy

By Anju Sharma

Real Swaraj (self-rule) will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority. – Mahatma Gandhi

Can local governments and communities take the lead in development and in climate change adaptation? Do they have the capacity? What about problems with national and local governance? What about the power relationships between the rich and poor within countries?

These are some of the questions that I have been asked in response to my previous blogs on Community Driven Development (CDD) and Community Driven Adaptation (CDA). They are very valid concerns. Poverty and climate change impacts cannot be dealt with through small “model” projects, insulated from the “mainstream” political, social and economic reality within countries. “Transformational change” is needed. The tail must wag the dog, if you will, and development and adaptation must encompass more systemic changes that go well beyond model projects or even sectoral reforms – including devolution of power, empowered and “capacitated” communities, and a facilitating role for governments.

Many countries have already taken steps towards such change in the context of national development or poverty eradication efforts, promulgating laws and creating institutions for decentralisation. They are in different stages of progress, dealing with the many challenges that are thrown up in the process.

In a series of future blogs, I will examine the questions posed in the introduction, on the viability of community driven change, in the context of climate change adaptation and rural poverty in India. And because, as I said earlier, adaptation cannot occur in a silo, I will explore the subject within India’s broader political, social and economic context, to try to get a better understanding of the transformational change needed at the national level to address poverty in a climate-compromised world.

“Transformational change” is on its way to becoming another controversial topic in international discussions, by the way, as developing countries view it as another pre-condition from the developed world – like “mainstreaming” or “green growth”, to name but a few from the long list of taboo topics in international sustainable development diplomacy. I would therefore like to make it clear here that I do not think for a minute that transformational change at the national level can take place as a result of international agreements, or through conditionalities linked to international funding. It must be driven from within nations, through custom-made solutions for different national and local circumstances. Transformational change at the global level is another matter – it can be driven by global agreements, goals and institutions, as I point out here.

Back to India. This is a particularly significant time to discuss the nation’s governance – the world’s largest democracy is in the process of electing a new government. Like in many democracies around the world in recent times, elections have offered poor choice to the citizens of India in recent decades. Political parties are much of a sameness, and voters have either chosen the lesser evil, or, fed up with the incumbent, the opposition.

This time there is a significant difference. A new party, called the Aam Admi Party(Common Man Party) was born out of anti-corruption protests in 2011. Within a few months of its creation, AAP took India by surprise by winning the New Delhi assembly elections in 2013. However, Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the party, resigned as Chief Minister of Delhi in less than two months after it became clear that two pieces of legislation considered critical by AAP for effective governance would not pass through the Delhi Assembly: a Jan Lokpal Bill to fight corruption, and a Swaraj (self-rule) Bill for decentralisation and direct democracy.

AAP is now contesting the general elections, giving older, more established parties a run for their money although their chances of winning the election are slim. The AAP manifesto promises to fight corruption by passing a national Jan Lokpal Bill; decentralise power to the people through a Swaraj Bill; and focus on education and health as key priorities.

As Kejriwal argues in this interview, these elements are crucial for effective governance. He accuses both the current ruling coalition (the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance), and the alternative coalition (the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) of indiscriminately signing over India’s natural resources to large companies at low prices for personal profit, and at the expense of the common man. A strong anti-corruption law, he says, is the only way to stem such corruption at this high level. And direct democracy through the Swaraj Bill will give them more control – as he says in his book Swaraj, “…people have no control whatsoever over the nation’s resources, their pillage or the pollution caused by the mining of these resources”.

I would like to argue that these priorities are more crucial than ever in an India facing climate change – they are the start of the transformational change everyone is talking about. The challenge of dealing with poverty has increased manifold with climate impacts thrown in, and business as usual will not do. With 33 per cent of the world’s poor, India will need more than just a few poverty and adaptation programmes and projects to weather the storm.

In my next blog, I will try to provide a snapshot of the vulnerability of the poor in India to climate impacts. This will be followed by blogs drawing on India’s experiences in the “poverty sectors”, to consider why progress has been so slow, and what can be done to speed it up in the face of climate change. I invite readers to contribute with experiences from their own countries, or to challenge my perceptions, and further the debate.

About the Author:

Anju Sharma began her career as a journalist before she went on to work in sustainable development in UNEP and Oxfam GB. She currently heads the Policy Analysis and Publications Unit of the European Capacity Building Initiative, a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development and work as a consultant for the International Institute of Sustainable Development’s Reporting Services. More of her posts can be found here.