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Are India’s state climate plans an opportunity to redirect development towards climate and environmental sustainability, or just vehicles for existing development action?

India’s climate discourse has historically focused on the principles of equity and historical responsibility, with little inclination for domestic action. And yet climate policy in the country is proliferating. Over 28 states and union territories have prepared, or are in the process of preparing, State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC). In terms of scale, this is arguably the world’s largest climate intervention in the sub-national arena.

Far from following the American sub-national climate trajectory, climate plans in India did not emerge in response to federal inaction. The process was conceived by the central government in 2009, with the aim of decentralising action on the National Action Plan on Climate Change. As a result, SAPCCs are shaped by central guidelines.

But despite their federal mandate, state climate plans often act as placeholders for highlighting local development and environment concerns.  A qualitative study by the Climate Initiative at the New Delhi based Centre for Policy Research, examining climate plans in five states – Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim and Orissa – suggests that in the absence of a clear framework to arrive at a climate plan, SAPCCs are in fact sustainable development plans and offer an important opportunity to inject concerns of environmental sustainability in state development planning.

The study, called From Margins to Mainstream: State Climate Planning as a ‘Door Opener’ to a Sustainable Future, was carried out by Navroz K. Dubash and Anu Jogesh.

The Orissa climate plan, for instance, focuses on reductions in electricity transmission and distribution losses. Sikkim’s SAPCC addresses water conservation, as 80% of its rural population is dependent on glacial springs and rivers. The Karnataka plan highlights concerns of inefficient water and electricity usage for agriculture. While one of the drivers for Himachal Pradesh’s climate plan is payment for ecosystem services.

But these climate plans are no panacea. They suffer from a number of conceptual and procedural limitations. Chief among them is the fact that plan outcomes are not dictated by available climate science relevant to the state. Climate plans tend to focus on sustainable development concerns that loosely address climate change – water conservation, better agricultural productivity, improved rural infrastructure, energy efficiency gains etc.

While this is an important step in following the co-benefits based approach, a combination of self-imposed and central government-placed time deadlines coupled with limited access to relevant downscaled climate data have meant that these plans do not examine how future climate change could impact current development trajectories. For instance there seems to be no review of investments in hydropower generation given how intense rainfall and river-run off could impact power generation in the future.

An extension of this concern is that SAPCCs often advocate incremental change and not a transformational shift in existing development pathways. Sub-national entities are often called laboratories of experimentation. In the case of SAPCCs however, time constrains meant that the process, with few exceptions, followed established bureaucratic structures, reinforcing existing departmental silos. The Orissa plan is perhaps an exception, as it presents the composition of its sectoral working groups, indicating some effort at facilitating cross-departmental participation.

Many state governments have claimed that their climate plans were designed in a participatory manner. Himachal Pradesh, at minimum, selected experts to advise officials and vet the document. Madhya Pradesh on the other hand organised 13 regional workshops across different districts apart from 10 sectoral consultations in its capital city Bhopal. However these procedural inputs seem divorced from final sectoral recommendations. It is hard, for instance, to tease out a linkage between specific interjections made at regional workshops – such as recommendations for introducing specific tree species in some districts – and broad sectoral proposals in the final plan that do not reference any of the districts in question. Collating large diverse inputs into outcomes in a state level plan was perceivably a challenge.

In fact, plan recommendations are often a combination of broad statements of intent and specific action, making them neither a vision statement nor an action plan. Here are some proposals across different plans: “promote native forest management and recovery,” “integrated farming practices,” “plans for river bank protection” etc. And yet the same plans also straddle specific suggestions such as “relocating the bus terminal from SNT and the private bus-stop to the lower reaches of Gangtok, in Sokaythang,” “Mandatory water use audit for industries and allied sectors,” or mandating the “reuse of treated wastewater” in public buildings. SAPCCs clearly need a systematic framework to arrive at sectoral recommendations that are prioritised, and of the degree of specificity required to make them actionable.

So far, however, mechanisms for implementing SAPCCs – with some exceptions – are largely nebulous. In many states, nodal departments like the Science and Technology or Forest and Environment departments do not always have the bureaucratic heft required to influence ‘weightier’ departments like agriculture or energy to implement climate action, as implementation remains a line-department prerogative.

So while there is strong intent to garner departmental participation – like instituting a steering committee with the chief secretary and secretaries of other line-departments to scrutinise the plan – the degree of line-department ownership is often low.  To work around this bureaucratic hurdle, Madhya Pradesh is trying an interesting mechanism – to ‘nudge’ line-departments through information-based advisories to mainstream environmental sustainability in departmental planning.

Another critical factor in implementation is finance. There has been general hesitation amongst state officials interviewed, in providing budgetary allocations for sectoral proposals. Many plans state that their figures are estimates at best, with no clear system on how they were reached. As a result cumulative budgets vary considerably. The Madhya Pradesh SAPCC asks for Rs 4,653 crore ($763 million) for five years, the Orissa plan for Rs 17,000 crore ($2.8 billion) for the same period, and Haryana Rs 50,000 crore ($8.2 billion).

Most state plans have also been prepared despite a considerable degree of ambiguity on the source and availability of finance. The original context was an expectation of funds from the 2012-17 12th five year plan of India. It now appears that there is a more modest corpus of money for adaptation work, and only for state plans that have been ‘endorsed’ by the National Steering Committee on Climate Change. So far only nine plans have been endorsed and all of them are largely adaptation-focused, calling to question the degree of independence with which states can shape their own climate mandate.

There are however some plans (Orissa and Himachal Pradesh, for instance) that focus on mitigation because investments in energy reforms are viewed as an intrinsic part of the development and economic process in the state. In fact there is innovation or enterprise in pockets, whether in process design, implementation mechanisms, or outcomes, driven largely by individual initiative in the state. Sikkim, for instance, is in the process of implementing a number of water conservation measures like reviving hilltop lakes and streams using available funds from schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. In addition, in the wake of super cyclone Phailin in 2013, officials in Orissa have stated that they will implement their climate plan without waiting for central assistance.

State climate plans, which were initially driven by the promise of additional finance or the need to appear forward thinking on environmental issues, have become ‘door-openers’ to dovetail environmental sustainability into state planning. However, further iterations of these plans are required to ensure they can be implemented. They need to be participatory in scope, follow a systematic framework to arrive at and prioritise sectoral actions, and importantly, address long-term climate resilience through transformational shifts in state development planning.

Anu Jogesh is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research

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