Forcing the poor to pay the ultimate price of destitution and displacement due to the climate crisis for the comfort of the rich cannot continue if we want to retain social cohesion

India’s poorer classes are paying a heavy price for climate change (Photo by William Michard)

India’s poorer classes are paying a heavy price for climate change (Photo by William Michard)

As the climate crisis deepens, everybody now understands that the world’s poorest, most marginalised communities will pay the greatest price. Efforts in ending hunger have stalled, floods and droughts are wreaking havoc on the lives of poor farmers who have little alternate recourse and no insurance, and rising seas are slowly displacing millions who live along coastlines, while heated seas supercharge cyclones.

Much of this strengthens the argument that developing countries have been making for some time, of the need of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) in environmental law, as well as stressing that developed countries need to address the issue of loss and damage caused by carbon emissions over the last two centuries, the mammoth’s share of which has been produced by developed countries.

Developed countries in the last few rounds of climate talks have effectively sidelined both CBDR and loss and damage, with the US having effectively torpedoed CBDR in the 1990s. Hidden in this debate between developed and developing countries — in which it is easy to portray villains and victims — is the fact the developing countries have themselves not looked at ways that their development paths have reflected the same inequality of responsibility that they have decried on the international stage.

Within India, three broad groups of people are paying the largest price when it comes to climate change: mountain communities in the Himalayan region; marginal farmers dependent on rain for irrigation, and those living near the coast. These groups, on the whole, contribute very little in terms of carbon emissions, but nearly 50% of mountain springs, which provide drinking water for 20% of the people, have dried up or become seasonal instead of perennial.

Staggering impact

The number of farmer suicides over the last few years in India has taken on staggering proportions. In 2015, the last year for which that the National Crimes Record Bureau released data on the subject, more than 8,000 farmers, and over 4,500 agricultural labourers committed suicide. The crisis along the coast is less visible because of the slow nature of the change, but approximately 1.5 million out of 5 million people will have to be relocated out of the Indian part of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, as the sea slowly takes over their land.

Nobody has done an estimate for the rest of India’s coastal communities, but with a coastline of over 7,500 km, this number is unlikely to be small. The Indian part of the Sundarbans has a coastline of approximately 30 km.

While compensation for farmer suicide exists, and the state is making to revitalise springs in mountain areas, there is little in the national conversation about the loss and damage that these communities should be compensated for. Nor is there a framework for common but differentiated responsibilities for these communities.

Instead, the Chief Minister of India’s capital, Arvind Kejriwal, recently announced a subsidy for electricity in one of the cities that emits one of the largest amounts of carbon emissions. While this subsidy may be targeted at low-electricity use consumers (those responsible for the least emissions), it will be little compensation to those living in locations impacted by climate change. One of the ironies being that some mountain communities, displaced and affected by large hydropower dams built in their areas, often do not even receive regular electricity.

This is not a new problem. A 2007 report by Greenpeace estimated that the richest Indians, earning over INR 30,000 (USD 430) a month, contributed approximately five times the carbon that those earning less than INR 3,000 (USD 43) per month. (In per capita terms, this so-called richest bracket still produced less than one fifth the average of carbon emitted by an American citizen.)

More strikingly, as the climate crisis forces us to focus on mitigation measures, governments are focussing on forestation programmes, and this is again putting the poor in conflict with the rich. In February of this year, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of approximately 1 million people – mostly from indigenous communities – from forested areas. These forests are now key to our ability to survive in the rapidly changing climate, and it gives more weight to older environmental actions against poor forest communities, ignoring that forest-dwelling communities are often the best protectors of the environment.

Need for conversation

India desperately needs to have a conversation on who is being affected, and what can be done to prepare for the coming problems. Such an action plan may even help it in international negotiations on issues of loss and damage and CBRD conversations.

A number of those opposing climate action in developed countries have – dishonestly – been using Indian and Chinese emissions (total, rather than per capita) to argue that they would be put at a business disadvantage if developing countries did not abide by stricter norms. This would be an opportunity to shift that discussion, to showcase those most affected.

It would also offer an opportunity for collaborative research and actions to help particularly affected communities, across borders, and in both developed and developing countries. But even if that does not come about, India urgently needs to understand who are the most affected within its own population simply to manage the challenges that are already upon us.

Forcing the poor to pay the ultimate price of destitution, displacement, or even death, for the comfort of the rich cannot continue to be our policy if we want to retain social and political cohesion.


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