Climate change's challenge to India

About the author
Mira Kamdar is a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute. Her latest book is Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner 2008). Her work has appeared in publications around the world, including Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Times of India.

Business and financial communities reacted with outright euphoria to the recent landslide victory of India's National Congress Party.  Mumbai's stock exchange soared. Foreign investment poured in. Pundits at what used to be known as investment banks trumpeted the results as nothing less than India finally throwing off the shackles that have held it back from greatness: the limitations of a weak coalition government beholden to Communists. India, we are told, is free at last to embark on a project of wealth creation that the rest of the world will be hard-pressed to imitate. 

India is expected to recover smartly from the current global recession, hitting an annual economic growth rate of 6.9 percent by next year. Meanwhile, bearish economists are warning that structural weaknesses will delay the recovery of the US economy until well into 2011. The icing on this cake: General Motors is soothing investors rattled by its recent bankruptcy in the United States with the assurance that its India operations will not be affected. Charles Wilson, a former GM CEO, once quipped that "what's good for General Motors is good for the country." That quaint, 20th century line now begs only one question: which country? The world's financial press buzzes that India could be the "new China"; capital (at least some of it) is stampeding from Shenzhen to Bangalore; and the US dollar is in free-fall. Mira Kamdar is a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Her latest book is Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner 2008).

After a few terms in the wilderness of coalition dependencies, Congress has, to use a favorite euphemism of recessionary America, "right sized" the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party down to a mere hundred or so seats. It has utterly ham-strung the Left, which held onto a mere 26 seats. Congress need no more worry about the Communists spoiling its new friendship with the United States or its own version of GM's old dictum: "what's good for India Inc. is good for India."

Knowing that half the country's population - and most of tomorrow's voters - is under the age of 25, Congress has put fresh faces in ministries, including some in their twenties. Thirty-seven-year-old Rahul Gandhi is the heralded heir apparent of the Congress dynasty that stretches back to his great-grandfather, India's founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. At 63 years of age, the Republic of India is young again.         

The impending supernova

What could possibly hold India back now? Surely Congress's substantial mandate gives it the power to enact the bold policy measures India requires to overcome the many obstacles in its path to greatness. The list is long: laughably poor infrastructure, desperate farmers committing suicide in droves, peasants and so-called tribals or Adivasis dispossessed of their lands by aggressive resource extraction and industrial expansion (and a related Maoist insurgency), overloaded cities, water shortages, energy deficits, high rates of illiteracy, and a notoriously bad national health care system. Add to these a wealth gap that has widened, not narrowed, in globalization's wake; the fact that the majority of the world's malnourished children live in India; the fact that, while 250,000 Indians may qualify as USD millionaires, 800 million live on less than 2 US dollars per day.

As staggering as these challenges are, they pale in comparison to the one supernova on track to blow them (along with the rest of us) off the navigable charts of human reckoning: climate change.

As every major report on climate change has alarmingly pointed out, the impact of global warming will be most felt by developing countries. In a final injustice of geography and imperial history, the world's developing countries are by and large also the world's warmest and most densely populated. Of all the emerging economies whose fortunes are rising, India is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

A weapon of mass destruction

India has one of the world's longest coastlines. Rising sea levels are already swallowing up the Sunderbans at the mouth of West Bengal's mighty Hooghly River. Next door in Bangladesh, 15 percent of whose land mass will be under water if sea levels rise as predicted, things are even worse. Little wonder India is building a fence along its border with Bangladesh in anticipation of a wave of climate-change refugees. At 4,000 kilometers in length, the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier will rival the Great Wall of China. One can only imagine what rising sea levels will do to the millions crammed onto reclaimed land in Mumbai or in India's new auto manufacturing hub of Chennai, around which one trusts the government of India has no plans to build fences.

Climate change is also already causing the glaciers of the Himalayas to melt at an alarming rate, the rivers they feed are receding. Some scientists are predicting that the sacred Ganga, whose waters have nourished the great grain-producing Gangetic plains as well as the souls of untold millions of Hindu faithful through millennia, is in danger of simply drying up. Three billion people - half the world's current population - depend on the Himalayas for water. The impact of that water dwindling away is terrifying.

If temperatures rise in India by even a couple of degrees Celsius, which they are already well on track to do, the very viability of food plants will be threatened. Yields will plummet in plants simply not evolved to thrive in higher temperatures. More immediately, climate change causes predictable weather patterns to become unpredictable. This is not good news for a country where the vast majority of agricultural production depends on the regular arrival, duration, and bounty of the monsoon rains. No wonder William Cline, in his meticulously researched book Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country (Center for Global Development 2007) projects that agricultural production in India will decline by as much as 38 percent over current levels by 2080 as a direct result of climate change alone. By that year, India will have added 450 million more people to its population.

Shifting priorities

Climate change is a weapon of mass destruction. Mitigating global warming by whatever means necessary should be the new Indian government's priority number one.

The government should make a major push to develop low-cost alternative energy technologies that don't require finite, toxic fuel sources (which means both fossil and fissile energy sources).

It should help India's small-scale farmers return to the cultivation of traditional hardy (and higher in protein) food plants such as millet and buckwheat, and install low-cost, highly effective micro-irrigation systems to get the biggest plant-growing benefit for every drop of precious water.

It should require all new construction across the country to be green construction, naturally cooler with little or no air conditioning, and with roofs that collect and channel rain when during monsoons.

It should recognize that the infrastructure India so desperately needs is green infrastructure that encourages public transportation and the use of bicycles, a realization at long last sweeping cities in richer nations.

India cannot afford to do as the west did: get dirty to get rich, then start to think about cleaning up the mess. It also cannot expect wealthier countries to push the hardest to deal with climate change, the global menace that will devastate India far more than it will them.

A new path

The new Congress-led government should hitch its strong mandate to India's emerging economic power to force the west - sorely tempted by the current economic crisis to ratchet down its efforts - to do the right thing and pay for its share of not only reducing current carbon emissions, but accounting for the carbon accumulated over centuries of western industrial expansion. It should provide incentives to investors willing to put capital behind green technology ventures, especially small-scale technologies quickly scalable among India's still largely poor population, and it should identify and support the untold number of locally-adapted, grass-roots, inexpensive solutions that business is simply never going to be interested in because they cannot be made into profit-making ventures.

India has momentum and history on its side. The new government should propose a new bilateral pact focused on climate change to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visits India in July. And it should do so in a spirit very different from that of the nuclear deal where, at least on the US side, billions of dollars in corporate profits and arms sales were major drivers.

To grapple with climate change, a different approach is required. The new Congress government needs to bring to this task the real spirit of "young India", the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi who warned decades ago that the "earth has enough to satisfy man's need but not every man's greed."

A climate-change pact between the governments of two of the world's great democracies should include agreement on bold commitments that would anticipate real progress when the nations of the world gather in Copenhagen later this year to address this rapidly worsening calamity. There is no better way for two nations so key to our collective survival to address the challenge that imperils us all. India must embrace a new path to equity and sustainability, without which democracy will merely be one casualty among many too terrible to imagine.