Monday, February 8, 2021

Uttarakhand Floods | A disaster foretold


International geologists and glaciologists studying satellite imagery say the cause of the flooding disaster to be a landslide and not a glacial outburst 

February 09, 2021 / 08:22 AM IST

Multiple agencies are working at rescuing over 30 workers feared trapped inside a big tunnel at Tapovan. (Image: PIB in Uttarakhand)

Multiple agencies are working at rescuing over 30 workers feared trapped inside a big tunnel at Tapovan. (Image: PIB in Uttarakhand)

Climate Change? Glacier lake outburst flood? Natural disaster? Manmade calamity? Deforestation? Dams? Roads? Greed? Gods?

The jury is out on what caused the latest Himalayan disaster, when a part of Nandadevi glacier broke off in the Uttarakhand's Chamoli district on February 7 morning, causing massive floods in the Dhauliganga and Rishiganga rivers.

At the time of writing, at least 19 people have been killed, and 150 are missing. The floods also caused major damage to the National Thermal Power Corporation's (NTPC) recently commissioned Tapovan Vishnugad 520 MW hydro-electric project and the under-construction 13.2 MW Rishiganga mini-hydel project, as well as to several homes, roads and at least half a dozen bridges. Most of the missing persons were workers deployed at NTPC's hydropower site.

While media and commentators were quick to attribute the disaster to Climate Change and melting glaciers, specifically GLOFs (glacial lake outburst floods), activists and experts in the Himalayan region have blamed the ecological destruction caused by the unholy rush to build ill-advised dams and roads in this fragile region for the loss of life and property.

Meanwhile, international geologists and glaciologists studying satellite imagery say the cause of the flooding disaster to be a landslide and not a glacial outburst. Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary, who specialises in high altitude glacial and geologic environments, used satellite images from Planet Labs, captured before and after the disaster, and identified a steeply hanging bit of a glacier which likely developed a crack and caused a landslide, triggering an avalanche and the subsequent flooding. Images from the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite also showed the formation or opening of a crack in the Nanda Devi glacier that is believed to have triggered the landslide.

The truth is that Uttarakhand's upper reaches, source of several small rivers that feed the Ganga, already has 16 dams, and another 13 are under construction. The Uttarakhand government has proposed another 54 dams on these rivers. On the Dhauliganga River, eight back-to-back new hydel projects are proposed in addition to NTPC's Tapovan project. Blasting of mountains, stone quarrying and digging of tunnels in the fragile mountain system base for the two back-to-back under-construction dams on Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers has played havoc with the local ecology.

Incidentally, the Tapovan project started in 2006 and was scheduled to be commissioned in 2013, but the devastating flood in 2013 affected the construction process. Earlier, the project's cost was estimated to be Rs 2,978.5 crore, which was later revised to Rs 5,867.4 crore due to time and cost overruns. The NTPC has already spent more than Rs 4,467 crore on the site.

Although further investigations are required, the fingerprint of Climate Change cannot be ruled out; after all, the India Meteorological Department has recorded January 2021 to be the warmest January in Uttarakhand in six decades.

According to the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), in many high mountain areas, glacier retreat and permafrost thaw are projected to further decrease the stability of slopes, and the number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase. Floods due to glacier lake outburst or rain-on-snow, landslides and snow avalanches, are projected to occur also in new locations or different seasons.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's resource centre on Himalayan glaciers reveals that glacier melting in the Central Himalayan catchment area, where Chamoli is located, has increased in the first 20 years of this century.

According to the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), co-ordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), glacier retreat (and some advance) in the face of Climate Change will make the fragile mountains more prone to natural disasters such as landslides, and will make the impact of other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, far greater.

Variations in rainfall will continue to rise, setting in place the possibility of catastrophic flooding. At the same time, springs have been reducing their flows in the hills, which may increase, leading to drought among communities that already have higher-than-national-average rates of poverty.

Ironically, lest we forget, Chamoli, home to Badrinath, Hemkund Sahib, Nandadevi Biosphere reserve and Valley of Flowers, is also the birthplace of the ‘Chipko movement’, and the famous slogan of Sunderalal Bahuguna, “Ecology is the permanent economy.”

We were warned.

Shailendra Yashwant is senior advisor, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal. 

First published in Moneycontrol Opinion


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Budget 2021 could have gone ambitious with green initiatives


At a time when countries including the United States and China are increasing their climate change ambitions ahead of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, sadly, there was no mention of ecosystem restoration, forest and wildlife protection, phaseout of coal, etc

February 01, 2021 / 08:07 PM IST

Early in the morning on February 1, I spoke to a few experts in the environmental and climate change movements regarding their expectations from the Union Budget 2021, and got the usual checklist of fantasies of the ‘green lobby’: clean air, clean water, plastic ban, phase-out of coal, wildlife and forest protection, ecosystem and river restoration, renewable energy and resilience building.

With no personal expectations, except counting how many times 'climate change' is mentioned in the speech — in 2020 it was five —I settled in front of the TV for an afternoon of no surprises.

First the good news. In the background of the pandemic and increasing climate-induced disasters that has exposed the abysmal conditions of India's public health infrastructure, various health experts and doctors were expecting an increase in the outlay for the health sector, and their expectations have been fulfilled to a large extent with a whopping increase of about 137 percent in healthcare spending totalling ₹223,846 crore.

To tackle air pollution, ₹2,217 crore had been allotted for 42 urban centres with a population over one million to tackle the crisis. Also mentioned was the reduction of air pollution by effectively managing waste from construction and demolition activities.

For clean water, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission Urban programme with an outlay of ₹2.87 lakh-crore for five years. The minister also said that as the World Health Organization has repeatedly stressed the importance of clean water, sanitation, and a clean environment as a prerequisite to achieving universal health, the mission aims at better water supply across India. About 4,378 urban local bodies would benefit, and liquid waste management would be carried out across 500 AMRUT cities.

Stressing on 'Swachch Bharat, Swasth Bharat', the further strengthening of the 'swachhata' (cleanliness) campaign of urban India, to focus on complete faecal sludge management, wastewater treatment, source segregation of garbage, reduction in single-use plastic and bioremediation of legacy dump sites, was announced. The Urban Swachch Bharat Mission 2.0 has been allocated Rs 141,678 crore.

On renewable energy, the focus seems to be on capturing the emerging energy transition trends — from hydrogen to smart metering. The sector received an additional infusion of Rs 1,000 crore to Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and Rs 1,500 crore to Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA). She also announced the launch of a National Hydrogen Mission in 2021-22 for generating hydrogen from green power source.

The Budget also lays focus on an increased outlay for the expansion of the City Gas Distribution (CGD) network and Ujjwala beneficiaries, to cover over 10 million more families. This will ensure that India has a 100 percent blue fame coverage of all willing household access to clean cooking fuel — that’s up from 55 percent households with access in 2014.

A new scheme will be launched on public transportation at the cost of Rs. 18,000 crore to support the augmentation of public bus transport services. It is unclear whether this will be for electric buses or not, and one hopes it is to tackle air pollution and improve mobility.

The Indian Railways will soon be a major contributor to India's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as the eastern and western dedicated freight corridors will be commissioned by June 2022 and 100 percent electrification of broad-gauge routes will be completed by December 2023. According to the World Resource Institute, dedicated freight rail corridors can lower India's cumulative railway emissions over the period 2019-2046 from 1.26 billion tonnes to 0.29 billion tonnes.

So in general that was it on the environment and climate change front. It was more or less business as usual, with no vision of a green recovery or a post-pandemic new world that many were expecting.

In the 75th year of Independence, a year after the hottest year of the century, at a time when countries including the United States and China are increasing their climate change ambitions ahead of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, sadly, there was no mention of ecosystem restoration, forest and wildlife protection, phase-out of coal, adaptation or resilience building and to my personal dismay, 'climate change' was not mentioned even once in the almost two-hour-long budget speech.

Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

 Published in Money Control Opinion on 1st Feb 2021.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Is India Really A Global Climate Leader?



Five years ago, on December 12, 2015, world leaders agreed on the Paris Agreement and set themselves three goals to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change: adaptation for addressing and reducing vulnerability to climate change, mitigation for reducing emissions to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2°C up to 1.5°C, and making financial flows consistent with climate goals.

By the end of 2020, we already know what a 1.2°C warmer world feels like – wildfires, floods, cyclones, droughts, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, species extinction, crop failures, the decline of fisheries, and a full-blown global pandemic. We also know that it is going to get worse unless world governments take drastic and bold action.

It may surprise many that India is the only G20 country that is currently on track for the 2°C degree scenario, according to The Climate Transparency Report (CTR), the annual review of G20 countries' climate action. India also figures in the top 10 for the second year in a row in The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2021. The CCPI analyses and compares climate protection across 57 countries (plus the EU as a whole) with the highest emissions. The truth is that the world is not doing anywhere near enough to meet the 1.5°C target.

According to the latest UNEP Emissions Gap report, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C degrees this century.

India ranks high in these reports, merely due to its ambitious renewable energy and energy efficiency targets that include 33-35 percent reduction in the emissions intensity of GDP (compared to 2005 by 2030), at least 40 percent non-fossil-fuel electric power capacity by 2030 and additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e by 2030 through additional forest and tree cover.

These rankings, however, stand in contradiction to the Indian government's overall track record on the environment. It is well known that the current government is on a 'dilution spree' of laws pertaining to India's forests, coasts, wildlife, air, and waste management to favour "ease of doing business" and to lure investments under the guise of development. Its outrageous obsession with coal and ill-conceived infrastructure projects are endangering the last remaining pockets of biodiversity and reserves of natural resources, thereby weakening our resilience to climate change challenges.

At the last count, the Indian government has approved 278 projects in and around India's most protected environments, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks, since July 2014. India incidentally stands 168 (out of 180 countries) on the 2020 Environmental Performance Index.

For a country battered by climate-induced disasters, India must recognize the role of nature-based solutions to adapt to climate change's adverse effects and foster climate resilience.

Already 8 out of the 10 highest-ranking years of heat wave exposure in India have occurred in the past 20 years, with heat-related mortality in people older than 65 years reaching a total of 296,000 deaths in 2018. Cyclone Amphan, which brought destruction to West Bengal in India and Bangladesh in May 2020, was the "costliest tropical cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean," with India's economic losses from the disaster totalling about $14 billion.

The International Labour Organisation has projected that productivity loss due to heat stress in India will be equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs in another 10 years.

An October 2019 study by the Climate Impact Lab says that by 2100, around 1.5 million more people are likely to die every year in India due to climate change. This rate is as high as the death rate from all infectious diseases in the country in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic not only spiked those numbers but also demonstrated the real cost of rampant forest destruction.

The pandemic-lockdown induced reverse migration of millions of workers to impoverished villages and hinterlands has further exposed India's lackadaisical climate change adaptation efforts. Moreover, missing a significant opportunity for a just and green transition, India's COVID-19 economic recovery spending failed to invest in building climate change resilience in agriculture, water, urban planning, coastal planning, and public health.

Going forward, the Indian government needs to prioritize and incorporate adaptation and mitigation measures into decision making at every level. It has to recognize that a local resource-based approach to infrastructure development can be a significant contributor to assisting its citizens in adapting to climate change while contributing to the economy. Community-based natural resource management programmes for water and land resource management in rural areas, promoting climate-resilient agriculture, and building a climate-proof rural infrastructure will ensure livelihoods and reduce emissions.

But most of all, India must protect its biodiversity fiercely and strengthen its natural systems. To quote Antonio Guterres, "Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere."

First published in MoneyControl on 29 December 2020.


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Will China lead the global fight against climate change?


On September 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to the world that China, responsible for 28 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, would phase out any conventional use of coal, oil, and gas to achieve the goal of “carbon neutrality”, i.e., zero additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere, by 2060.

Under the Paris climate deal reached in 2015, China had pledged that its emissions would peak ‘around 2030’, Xi addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, said that he was moving up that timetable to ‘before 2030’.

If China is able to deliver on the climate neutrality pledge by mid-century, it will lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius, the single-biggest reduction measured since countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, according to an analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, which measures government commitments on climate against the Paris Agreement goals.

Carbon neutrality refers to the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions by stopping emissions altogether or by balancing carbon dioxide emissions with some form of carbon removal. It is important to note that carbon neutrality differs from climate neutrality because it does not consider other greenhouse gases.

More than 60 other countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, a consensus deadline that scientists believe must be met to have a reasonable chance of averting the worst climate catastrophe. Those countries are small compared to China. China’s total emissions are about as much as those produced by the United States, European Union, and India combined.

Sceptics have been quick to point out that Xi’s announcement means China will have to stop burning coal, a tall order in a country that is home to half of the world’s coal power capacity and another 210GW to be added soon. Others have expressed concerns about China exporting emissions, as it is financing a quarter of coal plants under development in other countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, with 102GW capacity.

Then there is the timing of the announcement, before the US presidential elections, which could mean China is trying to get out in front of any US pressure in case Biden is sworn in, or maybe even yielding to bilateral pressure from European Union that has been threatening carbon taxes on imports from China if Beijing did not raise its ambition.

Yet there are reasons to believe that Beijing may have acted unconditionally, given that China outperformed its 2020 carbon emission target, reaching the goal three years ahead of schedule. There are strong indications that China could meet its 2030 carbon intensity peaking targets by 2025.

“China rarely makes announcements unless it is confident that it will move towards achieving them, the new pledge indicates that the government could be moving towards a commitment to phasing out the fossil fuel. ” said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics.

According to Harjeet Singh, global climate lead at Action Aid, “The fact is that even as it appears to cling to coal, China has also emerged as a leader in clean energy technologies, including solar panels and wind turbines. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric cars and buses...”

It is important to note that China’s efforts to cut emissions so far have been more about pragmatism than climate leadership. Pollution and other environmental threats are increasingly seen as threats to the communist party’s standing. “Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature,” Xi told the General Assembly. That was evident in this summer’s devastating floods on the Yangtze River and its tributaries in central China.

Xi has already pledged to increase government support for new technologies while fighting pollution, protecting natural resources, and expanding the country’s national park networks.

However, if Xi is serious, then the ambitious target of climate neutrality must find space in the Chinese government’s soon-to-be released 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), with detailing of the structural changes in energy production and consumption and long-term decarbonisation road maps that are economically and technically viable.

Whether Xi will save the world from runaway climate change or not remains to be seen, but the pressure is now on India, China’s partner-in-chief at the UNFCCC in resisting calls from the West for firm commitments to decarbonisation, to make a similarly bold climate announcement.

First published on Money Control on October 5, 2020.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Is corporate hypocrisy fuelling plastic waste crime?



While you were quarantined, plastic waste piles have been growing exponentially around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment and a massive spike in the use of single-use plastics due to hygiene fears over reusable alternatives. Even before the pandemic, the global plastic waste production had steadily increased by 10 million metric tons every year in the 2010’s decade, to reach almost 360 million metric tons per year in 2018. Plastic waste is pouring out into the natural world at a rate of 8 million tonnes a year, or one garbage truck per minute.

A new report ‘Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions’ from The Changing Markets Foundation alleges that for decades the oil industry, consumer brands and retailers have proactively obstructed and undermined proven legislative solutions to the plastic crisis. The report points out that one of the key tactics of the corporations has been to saddle ‘litterbug’ consumers with most of the blame — and public authorities with most of the cost, even as they lobby at every level to fight against proven solutions, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that would drive mandatory collection of packaging, policies to increase reuse and phase out of certain problematic plastic types or products, as that would require them to take on the true costs of plastic pollution.

Even the much-touted voluntary initiatives and commitments are a farce and nothing but a tactic to delay and derail progressive legislation — all while distracting consumers and governments with empty promises and false solutions. The report has critically analysed voluntary commitments from the 10 biggest plastic polluters (Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever), who have a joint plastic footprint of almost 10 million tonnes per year.

All these companies are complicit in spreading the false narrative of recycling. For example, Coca-Cola, responsible for 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution per year, had committed to using at least 50 percent recycled material in its packaging by 2030. Currently, the company reports that recycled content makes up about 10 percent of its total plastic-packaging volume.

Meanwhile, our landfills are groaning under the weight of the plastic waste, our waterways are choked, dumpsites are burning relentlessly adding toxicity to our already polluted air and marginalised communities are left to deal with tonnes of waste that is not of their making.

Interestingly, a recent Interpol strategic report on global plastic waste management has found an alarming increase in illegal plastic pollution trade across the world since 2018. Difficulties in treating and monitoring the plastic waste surplus in both export and import countries have opened doors for opportunistic crime in the plastic waste sector, both in terms of illegal trade and of illegal waste treatment.

According to the Interpol report, plastic waste processing is a high-value market, providing business opportunities and revenue through energy recovery (via incineration) and raw material generation (via recycling). The global recycled plastics market alone was valued at $34.80 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $50.36 billion by 2022 — not counting the traditional waste processing market, including incineration and landfill.

The plastic waste market entails processing costs at different stages of the plastic waste value chain, notably infrastructure and labour costs, as well as taxation, especially taxes imposed on incineration and landfill in countries that encourage recycling. Plastic waste crime consists of efforts to reduce or circumvent those costs, or to make profit by charging those costs to clients.

The report goes on to say that waste criminals have proven to adapt their modus operandi to regulation changes fast and criminal trends have shown rapid evolutions in the past couple years. Moreover, when changes are not well regulated, they offer opportunities for new criminal businesses to grow.

Reading these two reports together paints a deadly picture of corporate irresponsibility on one hand and illegal waste trade on another that has almost certainly allowed illegal recycling facilities to thrive, that are profiting by circumventing license costs and environmentally sound treatment costs.

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at the Changing Markets Foundation, sums it up, “The voluntary initiatives and commitments by the industry have failed. Policymakers should look past the industry smokescreen and adopt proven, progressive legislation globally to create the systemic change that this crisis so urgently needs.”

Shailendra Yashwant is senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Views are personal.

First published on 23 September 2020 on MoneyControl

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Coal ash is a serious hazard to our health and the environment

 India has to strictly regulate the disposal of toxic fly ash from coal-fired power plants to minimise environmental and health risks to local communities

An earthmover levelling a fly ash pond in Korba, Chhattisgarh, to make way for more coal ash from power plants (Photo by Ishan Tankha/Clean Air Collective)

An earthmover levelling a fly ash pond in Korba, Chhattisgarh, to make way for more coal ash from power plants (Photo by Ishan Tankha/Clean Air Collective)

While a lot of attention is given to the mining and burning of coal that leads to huge carbon emissions, the dangers of fly ash, the residue left after coal is burnt in thermal power plants, have received less public attention, despite the risks to our health and to the environment.

A new report released last week — Coal Ash in India – A Compendium of Disasters, Environmental and Health Risks — seeks to remedy that. It shines a spotlight on 76 major coal ash pond accidents between 2010 and June 2020 that have caused deaths and loss of property and have resulted in extensive pollution of nearby water sources, air and soil.

Fly ash is left behind when coal is burnt. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest sources of fly ash, which contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, nickel and lead, among others. These are known to cause cancer, lung and heart ailments and neurological damage, and contribute to premature mortality.

Published by Healthy Energy Initiative India and Community Environmental Monitoring, Chennai, the report claims that the accidents it has complied form just the tip of the iceberg as many incidents of fly ash spills go unreported, though they occur on a regular basis.

Despite several policy and regulatory interventions, coal ash management in India remains a challenge. Power utilities usually store the coal ash in landfills or unlined ponds close to water bodies and rivers. Breaches in the landfills and ash ponds frequently lead to environmental contamination, damaging local ecosystems and harming the health of local communities.

Unregulated disposal

Since coal ash is not classified as hazardous waste, there are no guidelines to regulate its disposal or measure the leaching of chemicals from it into water bodies and groundwater.

“In 2000, the classification of fly ash was shifted from the category of hazardous industrial waste to the category of waste material, without any supporting health-based scientific rationale for the re-categorisation,” said Dharmesh Shah, public policy analyst and co-author of the report.

Coal ash dumped by power plants on agricultural land in Gharghoda, Chhattisgarh (Photo by Manshi Asher)

Coal ash dumped by power plants on agricultural land in Gharghoda, Chhattisgarh (Photo by Manshi Asher)

India generated 217.04 million tonnes of ash in 2018-19, of which only 168 million tonnes (77.5%) was utilised, according to the Central Electricity Authority.

“The term utilisation is a misnomer for some of the uses like filling of low-lying area reclamation and mine void filling are means of disposal that are prohibited under the environment clearance conditions for power plants,” claimed Shah.

Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have the highest concentrations of coal-fired thermal power plants, and top the list of coal ash accidents, according to the report.

In the most recent incident in April 2020, a breach in the fly ash dyke of Reliance Power-owned Sasan plant in the Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh led to fly ash slurry entering nearby farms and villages, resulting in the death of six people. The Madhya Pradesh pollution watchdog sought an interim compensation of INR 100 million (USD 1.34 million) from the company and asked it to start remedial and restoration work within 14 days.

In July, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed a petitioner, who sought plant closure and cancellation of environmental clearance to the Sasan plant, to approach a monitoring committee on the issue.

Environmental harm

The report has many such incidents of environmental damage. In October 2019, a coal ash dyke breach in state-owned utility NTPC’s Vindhyachal thermal power plant in Madhya Pradesh led to more than 3.5 million tonnes of fly ash flowing into the Govind Vallabh Pant Sagar, also known as the Rihand reservoir.

The reservoir, the only source of potable water for people in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, was contaminated, making the water unfit for drinking.

NGT asked NTPC to pay an interim compensation of INR 100 million and directed the Anpara and Lanco-Anpara power plants in the vicinity to stop ash pond overflow discharge into the Rihand reservoir.

“Coal ash ponds are (also) one of the biggest sources of air pollution,” said Shweta Narayan of Healthy Energy Initiative and co-author of the report. “Communities living close to coal ash ponds often experience coal ash storms during the dry seasons.”

When accidents involving fly ash are brought to the attention of NGT, it has penalised power plants and ordered them to pay compensation. For instance, on July 22, the tribunal directed three coal-fired power plants in Punjab to pay INR 15 million (approximately USD 200,000) as “environmental compensation” over their failure to scientifically dispose of fly ash.

Water bodies are regularly used as disposal sites for coal ash in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh (Photo by Amirtharaj Stephen/PEP Collective)

Water bodies are regularly used as disposal sites for coal ash in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh (Photo by Amirtharaj Stephen/PEP Collective)

The fly ash report tracks dilutions in the regulatory framework of coal ash management over the years, which has allowed power producers to flout environmental safeguards and public health protocols.

“A gazette notification on January 2, 2014 made coal washing mandatory, to reduce ash content, before supplying to all thermal units more than 500 km from the coal mine,” said Shah. “However, on May 21, 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change made coal washing optional through a controversial amendment based on economic rationale offered by India’s NITI Aayog and ministries of power and coal. This rationale, however, does not account for the resulting increase in the fly ash generation and pollution caused by it.”

“Heavy metals from coal ash affect the aquatic ecosystems adversely, which in turn impacts the livelihoods and nutrition security of fishermen,” said K. Sarvanan, a fisher associated with The Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai. “Fishing communities from Ennore told the NGT-appointed expert committee about the significant decline or even disappearance of many species of prawns, crabs and sea bass, among others. The expert committee found high levels of heavy metals in the fish, prawn and oyster from the Ennore river (due to fly ash contamination).”

Fly ash can be used to make bricks, as part of road building material and to make cement, but the utilisation has lagged far behind potential in India. Coal-fired power plants in West Bengal have been exporting their fly ash to Bangladesh for the purpose. The problem with that is that barges used to transport the ash have a high capsize rate. See: Barges carrying toxic ash from India to Bangladesh keep sinking

Impact of climate change

Climate change heightens the risk from coal ash ponds in areas prone to flooding. In addition to the increased risk of spills, scientists say the heavier rains expected to come from a warming planet also threaten to bring a more hidden peril — rising water tables that seep into the ash ponds, contaminating groundwater used for agriculture and drinking.

The report recommends that India should develop regulations for the scientific containment of pond ash. This would require retrofitting existing ash ponds with impermeable materials and linking the scientific landfilling of ash with environmental clearances.

This would also entail a rigorous environmental monitoring protocol around the fly ash dumps to check for leachate and contamination of groundwater, the report added.

The report also puts the onus of responsibility on power plants, which burn coal and generate ash, to ensure safe management and the environmental health impacts emerging out of its utilisation, disposal and reuse.

In the event that there is ash discharged in the environment or unaccounted for, the report suggests further defined mechanisms for remediation and payment for health and environmental damages under the polluter pays principle.


This article was first published on India Climate Dialogue.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Covid-19 hits Bhutan-India water cooperation

 Bhutanese officials scramble to restore irrigation channels after farmers thwarted by sealed border

Bhutanese officials overseeing repair work to allow water from Kalanadi to flow into irrigation channels in Assam, India [image by: Tshering Darjey]

In Baksa district of Assam in north-east India, right next to the Bhutan border, hundreds of farmers held a demonstration this month. They alleged that Bhutan had blocked the flow of water from the transboundary Kalanadi river to irrigation channels.

In normal years, the farmers walk into Bhutan through the open border and repair the channels before the monsoon. They were stopped this year because Bhutan has closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bhutanese officials point out that they have repaired the channels themselves.
There were reports in the local media saying Bhutan had blocked water to the dongs, as the traditional mud and stone irrigation channels are called.

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” said Ugyen Rabtan, vice-president of the Bhutan India Friendship Association’s (BIFA) Gelephu chapter. “Why should we stop water flowing down from the hills? The farmers from Baksa wish to cross the border to repair the dong channels but due to Covid-19 related protocols this cannot be allowed as Bhutan is taking strict measures to keep the country pandemic-free. But instead of having a dialogue with the local authorities about our efforts, these farmers have been misled into believing that we have deliberately stopped the water.”

Sewali Borgiary, a member of the local association that organised the demonstration, told news site East Mojo, “At this time every year farmers of the locality enter Samdrup Jonkhar [a town in Bhutan] and repair the irrigation channels to carry water of Kalanadi river to the paddy fields on the Indian side. But this year, due to Covid-19, the authorities in Bhutan have refused the entry of Indian farmers. Because of this, for the last five days the dongs have not been able to carry water to the paddy fields. We need water. Otherwise, we won’t hesitate to intensify our agitation.”

Explaining the situation, Tshering Namgyel, the BIFA focal person in Samdrup Jongkhar, said in a Facebook post that for the past three months since the lockdown started, officials and communities in Bhutan, “have been doing our best to ensure continuous supply of water to our farmer friends of India… Due to frequent rainfall in the mountain ranges resulting in sudden increase in the flow of water sometimes our hard and sincere efforts go in vain.”

Officials in Bhutan supervise the repair of irrigation channels so that water can flow
 to farms in India [image by: Tshering Namgyel]

When in spate (containing more water than usual and flowing fast), the river washes away the mud and stone walls that farmers put up to channel the water.

Dahal Narzary, who works in an NGO in the nearby town of Kokrajhar in Assam agreed with Namgyel. “It is difficult to understand why these farmers are agitating,” he said. “If anything, the DC (district commissioner) of Samdrup Jongkhar himself oversaw the repairs to channel the water to Baksa district. Unfortunately, due to heavy rains, the repairs were washed away last week. Following the news of the farmers’ problems, he hired another JCB [earth mover] and had the channels repaired once again.”

The dong system
This part of Assam bordering Bhutan is peopled largely by Bodos, believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the state. They practise a highly efficient community-managed irrigation system called Dong-Jamphai, which is over 100 years old. Dongs are created by digging canals that channel water from the many rivers and streams flowing down from Bhutan to Assam to reach fields and homesteads in the villages downstream.

Typically, a dong network starts at the point of diversion from a river or water source. The larger systems have subsidiary channels, around 3-5 feet wide, taking off from the main dong channel (7-12 feet wide). These subsidiary canals branch off eventually into jamphai, or field channels that supply water to the farms. Usually dongs dry out naturally at the end of their course or meet other large water bodies like rivers or wetlands.

The dongs are narrow but very long, with branches and sub-branches extensively throughout the paddy fields that are the main source of livelihood in the area. They can irrigate up to 5,000 hectares. The longest dong is reported to be 10 kilometers, but most are between 2 and 5 kilometers long.

A typical dong [image by: Shailendra Yashwant]

Community institutions called ‘dong-bandh committees’ oversee each point of this intricate network. These committees are found throughout the four districts of Bodoland Territorial Administration Council – Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri, and Chirang.

There is a long history of cooperation between the people of Bhutan and Assam over the maintenance of dongs and an informal early warning system on floods. Villagers, NGOs, and local administration from both sides of the border are very proud of this long-standing cooperation.

See: Villagers in Bhutan and India come together to share river
See:  WhatsApp messages from Bhutan save lives in Assam

The farmers in Baksa district decided to hold a demonstration despite this history. It may be a coincidence that elections in Bodoland are just around the corner. One observer said, “As soon as the Bhutan officials realised what was up, they took immediate measures to fix the problem and allow the water to flow. The problem is solved now.”

Animesh Prakash of Oxfam India, who has been studying the dong system as part of Oxfam’s Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme, said, “In the long term, this people to people cooperation needs to be institutionalised where both governments including local administration should have significant roles to play. Already the cooperation between the civil society organisations on both sides of Indo-Bhutan border is considered unique in the region. Such cooperation is very significant in these trying times.”

This report was first published on

Thursday, June 18, 2020

India’s first climate change report offers a stern warning

A new report by the Government of India reveals that local climate change is influenced not only by the increase in greenhouse gases but also by the increase in air pollution and the local changes in the land-use pattern. The report goes on to warn that the rapid changes in India’s climate will place increasing stress on the country’s natural ecosystems, agricultural output, and freshwater resources, while also causing escalating damage to infrastructure and economy.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences’ (MoES) ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ is the first-ever attempt to document and assess climate change in different parts of India. The report describes the observed changes and future projections of precipitation, temperature, monsoon, drought, sea level, tropical cyclones, and extreme weather events.

The report is edited by scientists of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, and unlike the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports that are global, this report looks at regional climate change projections based on the IITM Earth System Model and Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment datasets.

According to the report, India’s average temperature has risen by around 0.7°C during 1901–2018 and projects that the frequency of summer (April–June) heatwaves over India will be 3 to 4 times higher (approximately 4.4°C) by the end of the 21st century as compared to the 1976–2005 baseline period. This, in turn, will lead to a high likelihood of an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts (>2 events per decade), compounded by the increased variability of monsoon precipitation and increased water vapour demand in a warmer atmosphere.

The seasonal monsoon rains during the June-September months, which contribute to more than 75 percent of the annual rainfall, and are vital for India’s agriculture and economy, has declined by around 6 percent from 1951 to 2015, with notable decreases over the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the Western Ghats. There also has been a shift in the recent period toward more frequent dry spells (27 percent higher during 1981–2011, relative to 1951–1980) and more intense wet spells during the summer monsoon season.

This trend of increasing year-to-year rainfall variability will disrupt rain-fed agricultural food production that will adversely impact food security in the future.
The report further cautions that the growing propensity for droughts and floods because of changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change would be detrimental to surface and groundwater recharge, posing threats to the country’s water security.

At the end of the 21st century, sea level in the North Indian Ocean (NIO) is projected to rise by approximately 300 mm relative to the average over 1986–2005, with the corresponding projection for the global mean rise being approximately 180 mm. Low-lying coastal zones, especially on India’s east coast, may witness rising sea levels damaging property and increasing groundwater salinity. A rise in cyclone intensities will result in increasing inundation from the accompanying storm surges that will turn coastal agricultural lands and lakes saline, and imperil wildlife.

Climate models also project a rise in the intensity of tropical cyclone intensity and precipitation in the NIO basin during the 21st century. Already, observations indicate that frequency of extremely severe cyclonic storms (ESCS) over the Arabian Sea has increased during the post-monsoon seasons of 1998–2018. Cyclone Nisarga that devastated parts of Maharashtra coastline earlier this month practically proves that the climate modelling in this report is remarkably accurate.

The report observes that the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau have experienced a temperature rise of about 1.3°C during 1951–2014. The warming trend has been particularly pronounced over the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), which is the largest area of permanent ice cover outside the North and South Poles. Popularly known as the ‘Third Pole’, the meltwater generated from the Himalayan glaciers supplies the rivers and streams of the region, including the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems of India. These rivers collectively provide about 50 percent of the country’s total utilisable surface water resources. Several areas of the HKH have experienced a declining trend in snowfall and also retreat of glaciers in recent decades. By the end of the 21st century, the annual mean surface temperature over the HKH is projected to increase by about 5.2°C.

Finally, the report concludes that rising temperatures are also likely to increase energy demand for space cooling, which if met by thermal power would constitute to global warming by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, a rise in water withdrawal by power plants would directly compete with water withdrawal for agriculture and domestic consumption, particularly in water-stressed areas.

On the other hand, power plants located around the coast that use seawater for cooling are vulnerable to damage from sea-level rise, cyclones, and storm surge. In short, climate change could impact the reliability of the country’s energy infrastructure and supply.

Although this path-breaking report is not intended to be ‘policy prescriptive’, the message is clear — in the absence of rapid, informed and far-reaching mitigation and adaptation measures, the impacts of climate change are likely to pose profound challenges to sustaining the country’s rapid economic growth and achieving the sustainable development goals.

First Published in Moneycontrol

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

India’s water wisdom in times of climate crisis

Ahar in Nawada revived by Ahar Pyne Bachao Abhiyan organised by Janhit Vikas Samiti of Bihar (All photos by Shailendra Yashwant)

The worst impacts of the unfolding climate crisis, on both people and ecosystems, will be felt through its effect on water. In India, erratic monsoons, prolonged dry spells and extreme rainfall incidents are already overwhelming its 1.3 billion citizens.

Relentless groundwater extraction, unprecedented pollution of surface water, and alienation of communities from their water resources have further compounded the water stress situation across the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For decades, environmentalists and social scientists have repeatedly pointed to India’s long history and diversity in water harvesting and conservation. For centuries, Indians have crafted ingenious water conservation system of all size and varieties that channel water from rivers and monsoon runoff and nearby hills and elevated areas.

The water is usually directed to storage tanks, sometimes built in a series, with overflow from one becoming runoff for the subsequent one, like Talaabs, Pokharas, Ahars, Johads, and Eris. There is a plethora of such traditional, low-cost, easy to maintain, and community-run examples of water systems all over the country.

A number of these ancient traditional water harvesting, and irrigation practices have survived the test of time and social upheavals and continue to give sustenance to communities through periods of water scarcity.

Ahar Pyne of Bihar

Jalsar Ahar, Siur, Nawada, Bihar. Ahars are reservoirs with an embankment on three sides while Pynes are diversion channels laid from the river or the catchment area for impounding water in the Ahars and channels
Ahar Pyne is a 5,000-year-old floodwater harvesting system that evolved during the Mauryan Empire to bring water to the undulating and rocky terrain of Magadh, in south-central Bihar. In Hindi, it means to capture rainwater in channels — Aa (to come), Har (to capture) and Pyne (water channels).

Jalsar Ahar, Siur, Nawada, Bihar. Ahars are reservoirs with an embankment on three sides while Pynes are diversion channels laid from the river or the catchment area for impounding water in the Ahars and channels.
Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes where necessary diversion works are carried out.
Bansi Mohana Pyne, Sakri River, Bihar. Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes, artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in South Bihar, which is otherwise unsuited for this crop
Bansi Mohana Pyne, Sakri River, Bihar. 
Water supply for an Ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed Ahars) or through Pynes, artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in South Bihar, which is otherwise unsuited for this crop
Water for irrigation is drawn out by opening outlets made at different heights in the embankment. It is this system that made paddy cultivation possible in south Bihar, which is otherwise unsuitable for this crop. In particular, it helped farmers meet the crucial water requirement for paddy during hathia (the grain-filling stage).

Pyne, Nawada, Bihar
Pyne, Nawada, Bihar
Pynes are constructed by considering various parameters like the slope of the terrain and the location of crops grown. To create a network of Pynes well-connected with Ahars is a labor-intensive job requiring a considerable amount of work and engineering skills. Ahar and Pyne assist in controlling floods by distributing surplus water into its system. Drought is also managed as it makes water available in the reservoir for a year.
Through this system, one Pyne can irrigate up to 400 acres. For decades, the system is not just used to collect, store, and distribute water but also hold people from various castes and classes together resulting in group action for irrigation operation and maintenance.

Farmers checking Pyne level, Nawada, Bihar
Farmers checking Pyne level, Nawada, Bihar
Ahar beds were also used to grow a Rabi (winter) crop after draining out the excess water that remained after Kharif (summer) cultivation. While Ahars irrigating more than 400 ha are not rare, the average area irrigated by an Ahar during the early 20th century was said to be 57 ha.
The area irrigated by the Ahar Pyne systems has witnessed a sharp decline and yet, even today, they constitute nearly three-fourths of the total irrigation facilities in south Bihar. More than 60% of these are defunct, and the rest is poorly managed.
These structures not only have relevance for sustainable water management but also have essential socioeconomic importance as it allows community participation and distribution of responsibilities simultaneously opening alternative avenues for earning a livelihood for the local population.

Paddy fields, Siur, Nawada, Bihar
Paddy fields, Siur, Nawada, Bihar
One Pyne can irrigate up to 400 acres. It helps controls flood and drought and acts as a protecting mechanism for the villages. These channels may be of various sizes. The small ones are those found originating in Ahars and carrying the water of the Ahars to cultivable plots.
Ahar and Pyne assist in controlling floods by distributing surplus water into its system. The routine upkeep work involves cleaning and desilting of Ahar and Pyne and maintaining the water conveyance network is done by the cultivators before the onset of monsoon.

All farmers grow the same crop (paddy) all over the irrigation command around the same dates. As a result, agricultural operations undertaken by all cultivators are similar throughout the irrigation command. Since Ahars and Pynes have to be used collectively, all farmers have to synchronise their operations.

Johad of Uttar Pradesh
Baba Bhurewala Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh revived by Development Centre for Alternative PoliciesBaba Bhurewala Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh revived by Development Centre for Alternative Policies

Johad, a crescent-shaped dam of earth and rocks found in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and the Thar desert of Rajasthan, is probably one of the oldest rainwater harvesting systems in India. Archaeologists have dated some of these rainwater storage structures in India as far back as 1500 BC.

The water collected in a Johad during the monsoon is used for irrigation, drinking, livestock and other domestic purposes while recharging the groundwater. During the dry season, when the water gradually recedes, the land inside the Johad is used for cultivation.

Typically, building a Johad involves digging a pit and shaping the excavated earth into a semi-circular mud barrier. A stone drain is sometimes set up, allowing excess water to seep into the ground or connecting it with Johads nearby. When many Johads are built in one area, they have a cumulative effect, resulting in the replenishment of whole aquifers.

The height of the dam varies from one Johad to another, depending on the site, water flow, contours of the land, etc. In some cases, to ease the water pressure, a masonry structure is added for the outlet of excess water. The water storage area varies from 2 ha to 100 ha. The villagers share the expense, supply labour, and materials like stone, sand, and lime.

Reed bed channel, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Reed bed channel, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
In the 1980s, deforestation, reduced rainfall, depleting groundwater, polluted surface water, and the failure of the modern irrigation and water supply systems brought back attention to the forgotten, decrepit and silted Johads. A mass movement for the revival of traditional methods began in Rajasthan and quickly spread to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

In the last 20 years, several innovations have improved the efficiency of the Johads. An initiative by New Delhi-based Development Centre for Alternative Policies (DCAP) in the Dhikoli village of Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh stands out for replication.

In 2001, the Dhikoli block of Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh was declared a dark zone by the Central Ground Water Board due to excessive groundwater exploitation. With no sewage system in place, the ponds in Dhikoli, like other villages in Baghpat, were overflowing with domestic sewage. DCAP’s project included an innovative reed- bed system, also known as the biofilter system, for treating wastewater before it reached the ponds.

Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Seven years later the villagers of Dhikoli are benefitting from the higher water table that ensures round the year water supply in their wells but also are grateful to the unique sewage treatment system that has also dealt with the menace of mosquitoes and malaria making this traditional system, that came into existence decades ago, as relevant today as it was then and perhaps even more given the water crisis and problems like water pollution, scarcity and climate change.

A 650 ft long channel — 8 ft deep and 10 ft wide — with weirs that had alternating tiny waterfalls and ditches brought the sewage water and rainwater overflow from the village drain to the lower Johad that was constructed on the panchayat owned land.

Since the project was completed and the three Johads have been able to capture around 5.5 million litres of rainwater per annum from the surrounding catchments per year, recharging the groundwater in the process. In addition, every year, 11 million litres of treated wastewater go into the newly made big Shamshan Johad. Several tube wells downstream of the Johads have also reported an increase in the water table.

Lower Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
Lower Shamshan Johad, Dhikoli, Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh
The success of reviving these traditional practices illustrate the urgent need to reengage communities in water management, using simple, low-cost, traditional and highly efficient systems to ensure water security. They demonstrate how empowered communities, having access to and control over water resources, can significantly contribute to reducing poverty and inequality, and achieve prosperity.
The efforts by local communities in India to improve water availability are lauded universally. A widespread revival of these traditional practices will contribute to India attaining its Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring water security, food security, and disaster risk reduction.

Extracted from Water Wisdom in Times of Climate Crisis, published by Oxfam India for the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project.
First published on Indiaclimatedialogue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Tourism | Bhutan puts ecology before the economy

Putting ecology before the economy, Bhutan is going to charge regional travellers from India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $16.85 (Rs 1,200) per day from July. Predictably, tourism operators on both sides of the border, that were riding high on the recent tourism boom, have expressed serious concerns about this move.

Bhutan adheres strictly to its policy of ‘high value-low impact’ tourism based on its unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy that is based on four principles of sustainable development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of cultural values, and good governance.

To achieve these goals, barring regional tourists, visitors from all other countries pay significantly higher costs, including a Sustainable Development Fee of $65 (Rs 4,650) as part of a mandatory package of minimum $250 per day which includes, visa fees, sightseeing entrance fees, meals, local transport, and accommodation. The SDF is a direct revenue contribution for the maintenance of ecology and local development in the country that is also famous for being carbon negative.

However, this "high value, low impact" strategy was failing in the last few years following a spike in the numbers of regional visitors, especially from India, that were exempt from SDF levy. Bhutan received a total of 274,097 visitors in 2018. Of the total arrivals, 202,290 were regional tourists. Indians make up the majority of these regional tourists and had sparked worries for the unique Himalayan kingdom's star attraction, its cherished ecology.

Bhutan’s biggest attraction is its natural heritage and it is a fact that tourists in large numbers, running around some of the world’s most pristine landscapes, are going to damage the ecology, resulting in a loss of flora and fauna and posing a biosecurity risk. Go to any hill station in India, from Manali to Munnar, to witness the devastation caused by Indian tourists.

In its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report in 2017, the World Economic Forum noted that degradation of the natural environment was having a serious effect on the tourism sector: natural capital depletes — because of overfishing, deforestation or water and air pollution — so tourism revenues decline.

UN Environment’s research has shown that the industry’s use of key resources, such as energy and water, is growing commensurately with its generation of solid waste, including marine plastic pollution, sewage, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Tourism accounts for around 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, to quantify the industry’s total carbon footprint. The report concludes that flying less and investing in payment schemes to offset the damage caused by travel will be essential to avoid “unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions”.

It’s quite simple, a country that has a tourism sector that both cares about the sustainability of the environment and nurtures its places of natural beauty is going to attract discerning international and local visitors who are willing to pay the extra dollar. That extra dollar can go into restoration, conservation and well-being of the local biodiversity.

For example, Rwanda’s strategy to focus on high-value/low impact responsible ecotourism, aka Gorilla Tourism, rather than mass tourism has resulted in funding for the government’s programme for the protection of gorillas. Since 2010, Rwanda is considered to be one of the safest destinations in East Africa for wildlife and biodiversity experiences.

Several studies, including one by the Nielsen and Cornell University’s Centre for Hospitality Research, have estimated that 75 percent of Millennial and Gen Z travellers would be willing to pay extra for sustainable tourism. Fifty percent of the older generation or Baby Boomers are also willing to pay more for environmentally responsible destinations.

Cox & Kings carried out a survey in India’s key cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Thiruvananthapuram. About 5,000 respondents aged between 20 and 35 took part in the survey, and a whopping 87 percent of the respondents felt strongly about saving the environment.

These are encouraging trends, and may just augur well for the tourism sector.
We need carbon neutral, zero-waste, environmentally-sensitive tour packages to destinations that have environmentally-conscious, free and fair societies that value the ecosystem.

Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Views are personal.

First published in Moneycontrol

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Budget 2020 | On climate change, it was business as usual

Presenting the Union Budget 2020-2021, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that India’s commitment towards tackling climate change made at Paris conference will kick start from January 1, 2021.
She also referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two international initiatives in the climate change arena; namely, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) and the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which according to her will also help achieve India’s commitment to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, enhance adaptation and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The efforts to this end, she said, will be executed in various sectors through normal budgeting process.
Rs 4,400 crore has been allocated to give incentives to large cities (more than one million population) to formulate plans for ensuring ‘cleaner air’. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) will notify the parameters for such incentives.
Sitharaman also announced that old thermal power plants that do not meet prescribed emission norms will be asked to close down and their land will be used for unspecified alternative purposes. She also said PM-KUSUM scheme will be expanded to help 2 million farmers in setting up standalone solar pumps. A slew of other announcements for uptake of renewable energy and organic agriculture were also referred to in her speech.
The only thing remarkable of today’s budget speech was that, ‘climate change’ found space in her over 2 hour 40 minutes long budget speech after four subsequent budget speeches (2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19) under the same government had ignored it. The last time we heard climate change referred to in a full budget speech was in first budget presented by Arun Jaitley in 2014-15.
However, today’s announcements are nothing but a lip service to climate change and the proposed incremental measures fall short in their intent to transform India into a sustainable, low-carbon, high-growth economy is disappointing.
As Nicholas Stern famously said, “Climate change is the biggest market failure the world has ever seen”, Budget 2020 with its deafening silence on budget allocations to the National Action Plan on Climate change (NAPCC) and the National Adaptation Fund, does not augur well for India’s campaign to combat climate change.
Instead of a strategy that will re-orient how we execute climate action via an economy-wide green industrialisation that puts money into low-carbon and climate-resilient sectors such as renewables, public transport, ecological restoration, what we got was yet another set of vague and unclear announcements.
“She did not recognise climate change as a major threat to people and economy, ignoring the estimates that climate change impacts could cause a reduction of 2.5 to 4.5 per cent of GDP, and did not give any indication of revising its emission reduction targets. The message to the states on old and polluting coal fired power plants is weak and advisory in nature,” said Harjeet Singh, global climate change head of Action Aid International.
“…the finance minister had no clear allocation or incentives in today’s speech on how India intends to develop resilient infrastructure, retrofit existing infrastructure for resilience, and to enable a measurable reduction in infrastructure losses, ” said Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia.
While forest cover has been increasing in India as claimed by the MOEFCC in its recent report that will put India on track to achieve Paris Accord target of creating an additional carbon sink by increasing forest cover, the Finance Minister was silent on any further investments required for research into restoring biodiversity, conserving landscapes and preserving the natural balance of biodiversity in various parts of India.
Considering that she referred to climate change as part of the three themes woven around ‘aspirational India, economic development and caring society’, there were high expectations that the Finance Minister will go the extra mile to mainstream climate change in the design of the first budget of the decade — but it was business as usual with no real incentives to mitigate or adapt to climate crisis.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.

First published in Moneycontrol