April 23, 2021. Uttarakhand’s Chamoli District suffered flash flood yet again. [Ref.1] The previous one was on February 7, 2021. Both took sudden and huge toll of human and animal life and economic loss, including destroying infrastructure of dams and roads. Both occurred because of avalanches possibly triggered by glacier-dam burst.
This writer argues that the avalanches were both the cause and the effect of global warming (GW). Cause: The loss of natural forest cover through large-scale deforestation over years for projects like dams and roads, contributes to reducing global carbon capture, and also making destabilized mountain slopes avalanche-prone. Effect: GW-induced unseasonal/excessive/irregular melt of glacial ice and snow in the high Himalayas forms unstable ice-and-earth dams, which burst and trigger avalanches with catastrophic release of water.
But let us step back in time from Chamoli and see how environment, global warming and climate change became issues.
Forests and rivers
Forest policies were introduced by our erstwhile British rulers in order to exploit forest resources, mainly timber, as commercial products. Especially in the Himalayan region, this resulted in entire mountain slopes getting denuded, with erosion of fertile top soil. Roads constructed to evacuate forest products further destabilised mountain slopes, triggering landslips into water courses, small and large. The rivers began to run turbid, carrying enormous sediment load, which filled the reservoirs of dams constructed downstream and affected river flow even in the plains. Earthquakes exacerbated all these ill-effects of deforestation, quite apart from the horrendous loss of life and property. There were consequent ill-effects on the populations, particularly in the Garhwal-Kumaon Himalayas.
The region became target for “development” by constructing hydel-dams and roads, and tourism. Deforestation accelerated. The combination of the serious social-environmental ill-effects of deforestation were brought to national and international prominence by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, who both worked and agitated tirelessly for forest conservation, and against big dams which destroyed forests. As always, social ill-effects were borne mostly by womenfolk, who became the mainstay of the world-famous 1973 Chipko Andolan to protect forests (trees). They quickly understood that all life depended upon forests and rivers, and that interference with nature would have negative consequences.
Similar development-caused deforestation happened all over the country, indeed all over the world, and its deleterious effect on human societies was the reason for a UN Conference on environment.
India participated in the UN Conference on human environment held at Stockholm in 1972, and resolved to “take appropriate steps for the protection and improvement of human environment”. Accordingly, when the 42nd Amendment Bill was introduced in 1976, this found a place in Article 48A in the Directive Principles of State Policy, by which the State was to “protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”, and in Article 51A, by which it was the fundamental duty for a citizen to “protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”. Thus it was the constitutional duty of both government and individual citizens to protect the environment, although neither were justiciable.
Many aspects of the 42nd Amendment were controversial, having been enacted during the Indira Gandhi Emergency years. So the succeeding Janata Government brought the 43rd and 44th Amendments in 1977 and 1978, to reverse many of the objectionable changes made during Emergency, but Articles 48A and 51A survived, not being objectionable.
As follow-up, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, [EPA 1986] for “protection and improvement of environment and prevention of hazards to human beings, other living creatures, plants and property”, authorized government to prohibit or restrict the setting up or operation of any industrial facility on environmental grounds.
However, economic development through industrialization – manufacturing and extractive (mining) industries, together with construction industry for dams, roads, power generating plants, transmission lines, airports, etc. – accelerated and multiplied the ill-effects on environment, and on people and entire societies. People began to insist and agitate on the strength of Article 51A(g), for just, fair and adequate implementation of Articles 48A and EPA 1986, and sometimes themselves became targets of corporate-instigated government (police) violence. These people were branded by the economic development lobby with the pejorative name “environmentalists”, and even today are usually reviled, sometimes trolled.
Environmentalists are not against development, but they are for People. Fundamental to their contentions, is the understanding that humans and human societies are dependent on nature and the “web of life” including forests, trees and life on land and in water, for their growth and survival.
Decades of development
All worldwide development-by-economic-growth is based on use of fossil fuels for industry, commerce and transportation. The cumulative effect of this “ideology” of unending-economic-growth-at-any-cost over the past century, is environmental degradation, environmental disasters and large-scale social disruption.
Burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming (GW) and climate change (CC). Many people, especially the young generation across the world, are demanding global “climate action” to address and tackle CC disasters. In the Indian context, we need to make the connection between GW-CC and disasters, of which Chamoli is the most recent.
But since the connection may not be fully comprehended by many politicians, it is simplified thus: CC is happening because of GW. GW is because of increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere, which have increased primarily due to burning of fossil fuels for this model of development.
Climate change simplified
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts three major effects of GW-CC which seriously impact societies:
#1. Rise in sea levels due to polar ice melting.
#2. More extreme weather events.
#3. Desertification of many regions due to higher temperatures.
The major points at dispute are, the rate at which GW-CC is happening, and what countries must, should and could do, to slow this down. Scientists argue that the following real-time imperatives can be effective against GW-CC:
#1. Gain time by slowing down the rate of GW-CC through slashing carbon emissions and simultaneously increasing atmospheric carbon capture.
#2. Mitigate the effects of GW-CC by changes in national-level social-environmental-economic policy.
#3. Adapt to the expected social-environmental-economic effects of GW-CC.
Reducing carbon emissions can only be done by reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Technologists and economists suggest shifting to other sources of energy like solar, wind, etc., phasing-out fossil fuels. However, they suggest this without questioning the existing international economic system based upon continuing and increasing industrialization-based economic growth, which is the root cause for growing carbon emissions. Environmentalists argue that this is like using a mug to bail out water from a sinking Titanic – quite ineffective.
For carbon capture, technologists suggest energy-intensive solutions like “carbon sequestration” and economists suggest introducing “carbon credits”. On the other hand, environmentalists insist:
#1. Stop development-based destruction of forests, and of rural and urban natural green cover.
#2. Plant trees wherever possible.
#3. Change the economic-growth model of development and put people at the focus of development, because, as Prem Chandavarkar writes, “Our development model assumes an economy that must grow whether or not we thrive, whereas we need an economy that makes us thrive whether or not it grows”.
World leaders are trying to balance carbon-emission-based development with the imperatives of survival of people and societies in a world changed by GW-CC. Accordingly some countries have prepared national action plans on CC. India’s NAPCC states: “Emphasizing the overriding priority of maintaining high economic growth rates to raise living standards, the plan identifies measures that promote our development objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively”, with missions and implementation programs.
Arguably, the expected benefits of economic growth in terms of raising living standards have failed miserably. India has fallen in several global indices which determine human development including living standards. The economic gap has grown into a widening chasm. Poor millions struggle for survival while an industrialist buys a country club and golf resort in Britain with part of his wealth which multiplied during the Corona pandemic. [Ref.2] Reverting to NAPCC, it emphasises economic growth – addressing CC is merely a “co-benefit”. NAPCC is neither correctly focussed nor adequate, and even what is intended falls short on implementation.
During the April 22, 2021, global virtual summit on CC, India pitched for concrete action at “high speed” and on a large scale to combat CC, asserting that India was doing its part to deal with the challenge. [Ref.3]
On the one hand, industrial projects like dams, roads, airfields, and bullet-trains are being aggressively promoted to boost economic growth to a targeted US$5-trillion by 2025. All of these use, encourage, and multiply the use of fossil fuels, which increase carbon emissions and simultaneously reduce capacity for carbon capture by deforestation. These are a double whammy, increasing GW-CC.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, mandated “to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country”, is engaged in fast-tracking and rubber-stamping projects which do precisely the opposite, and speed-up GW-CC. It gives the lie to PM Modi’s April 22, 2021, declaration in the global summit.
Will the twin Chamoli agonies serve as a wake-up call to our political leaders, who are myopically focussed on elections and unaccountable power? Hopefully the “primer” on GW-CC and arguments in earlier paragraphs will be understood by them. Inaction on climate change will force change in the political climate, already changing due to the worsening pandemic.
- “Another glacier burst at Uttarakhand’s Joshimath puts authorities on alert”; <https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/dehradun-news/another-glacier-burst-at-uttarakhand-s-joshimath-puts-authorities-on-alert-101619232291665.html>; Hindustan Times; April 24, 2021.
- “RIL buys Britain’s iconic country club Stoke Park for 57 million pounds“; <https://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/ril-buys-britain-s-iconic-country-club-stoke-park-for-57-million-pounds-121042300651_1.html>; Business Standard; April 23, 2021.
- PTI; “Need concrete action at high speed and on large scale to combat climate change: PM Modi“; <https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/renewable/need-concrete-action-at-high-speed-and-on-large-scale-to-combat-climate-change-pm-modi/82205809>; Economic Times Energy World; April 23, 2021.
S.G.Vombatkere writes on development and strategic issues.