Climate Solution: Candid, helpful book on India’s Climate Crisis

November 3, 2019 SANDRP
Book Review: The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It. By Mridula Ramesh. Hachette India. 2019. Pp 344 + viii.
Rarely you would see a book terming India’s Climate Challenge as CRISIS. “The Climate Solution” by Mridula Ramesh does that then explains why it is being termed as a crisis, what is the science behind it. The book then goes on to provide a wide range of steps to help tackle the various aspects of the crisis. All in an eminently readable form. This is certainly a better book on this important subject than whatever I have read so far.
Tough Questions The author divides the book into two sections: first eight chapters are on “Understanding” and next eleven on “Actions”. In the first section, the author makes quite a lot of effort to explain the rather complex science and politics of climate change in simple language. She asks some tough questions too. At the end of a rather dramatic prologue, she concludes that even in a rather grim situation, “there is still hope”. At the end of the first chapter, after showing how inequalities increase in changing climate in an unequal world, she asks: Why there is so little meaningful action to avert certain disaster? Another tough question at the end of Chapter 2 after warning of dire consequences: how come politics play such a big role in delaying meaningful climate action? Chapter 3 ends with a telling quote from an Indian business leader that implies why Indian business companies are generally not taking necessary actions in the context of global warming: “When a bear is chasing me, I can’t stop and to yoga to build my long term health.”
The last five chapters of section 1 are focused on describing how climate change will impact India. In first of this chapter, after describing the health implications of various climate change-related impacts, the author provides clear conclusion: “climate change will increase inequality by striking hardest at the health of the weakest and poorest sections of the society.” The fifth chapter describes how climate change impacts will further impoverish the already poor farmers. However, the author here blames the farmers for most of the problems like depleting groundwater. There is not a word of criticism against the wrong policies of the all-powerful government in dealing with water policies, plans, programs and projects, which has led to this situation.
In chapter 6 on cities, Mridula Ramesh explains the situation through the story of three protagonists, a young IT professional, a 55-year-old slum dweller woman and a builder. She concludes by saying: “Climate change will hit Indian cities with a deadly cocktail of floods, heatwaves, water shortage, sea-level rise and infection… much of the coping lies in local action.” She continues to refrain from criticizing the government, saying that is not helpful and asserts: “We need to examine our role in propagating the prevailing social contract.” It seems she has chosen to ignore the elephant in the room. For example, there is nothing about the government’s water unsmart “Smart City Program”, nor about lack of Urban Water Policy. She describes Chennai floods but does not mention how the wrong operation of dams worsened the floods there, as concluded by the CAG report.
In chapter 7, Ramesh looks at the drought and strife that would result following climate change and provides the frightening description of conditions that prevails in Syria, so similar to that in large parts of India. However, the raising of the bogey of China building too many dams on upstream of Brahmaputra (actually its upstream of Siang; it becomes the Brahmaputra only after the confluence with Dibang and Lohit) is completely unwarranted, the author has accepted the claims of a couple of references rather uncritically. In fact, the statement that these dams would end “India’s debated river interlinking projects” shows that the author has neither studied the hydrology of Brahmaputra nor the details of the ILR program. The last chapter on the first section concludes powerfully how the enormous vulnerabilities and violence that women face, would worsen in changing climate.
The author pointedly says in concluding page of the first section: “The need of the hour is to build our resilience. That’s what part II is all about.”
Action Plan As the introduction to Section II of the book says, this section is supposed to “act as a what to do and how to do it guide for different readers to build climate resilience in their own lives.” In the first chapter here, the author talks about the monsters like ignorance, doubt, tokenism, greenwashing and how to fight them with awareness, resolve and following role models of strong personalities. In the next chapter, the author provides interesting insights into how Israel manages its water using the use of pricing, water law, reliable information, regulation, technology and institutions.
Chapter 11, “The Last Mile of Agriculture” is basically a plea for GMO crops, saying that we need it to provide resilience and increase productivity. Both resilience and higher yields are possible, along with lower input costs for farmers using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) kind of method for various crops, but there is no mention of it here. Possibly shows the bias of the author. There is no mention of the Precautionary principle in her misguided advocacy for GMOs.
Now comes an interlude titled: “Me, myself and my Planet”. The inspiring example of how Krishna’s lecture jolted Arjuna to take up the Mahabharat fight, signals the chapters on individual actions. The first chapter on transportation rightly makes a strong plea for cost-effective and convenient public transport along with ease of cycling and walking.
The figures on solid waste management in Chapter 13 are striking: “By managing urban India’s 150 000 tonnes of municipal waste urban India could generate 600 000 to 750 000 jobs while creating a cleaner environment and ensuring dignity and safety for millions.” The key is to segregate and pay for our waste to be managed. Next chapter on electricity is brilliant in many respects, except when it says hydropower is cheap (should have mentioned that many costs are externalized), renewable (should have mentioned that it kills the river and the site) and has no direct greenhouse gas emissions (only mentions in footnote that the reservoirs in tropical countries can generate methane, the same gas that is burning in biogas that the author so rightly pushes elsewhere).
Chapter 15 on Water drops provides several fascinating examples of how individual actions brought about changes, the author is undoubtedly gifted storyteller. But here again, the author ignores the governance. The author keeps saying we are so dependent on groundwater but does not provide the basics of dynamics, policies and governance around groundwater, for example. In in the next chapter on food, she mentions methane emission from flooded rice fields and its carbon (and water) footprint but does not mention that SRI can help take care of that, as you do not have to flood the rice fields in SRI method. The analysis and solutions here are less convincing then elsewhere. They, in any case, seem focused on the urban middle class.
The chapter on Climate Heroes provides some very interesting examples, including that of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar district in Rajasthan, led by Rajendra Singh. Such narration also need to lead to questions on public policy: why is the government not following this, why is the institutional innovation like the Arwari River Parliament has no recognition or reflection in the way water and river are governed? But the author refrains from asking such questions.
Exclusions Some of the things not covered with necessary emphasis in the book include: Critique of government actions and inactions on climate change, including National Action Plan on Climate Change; sufficient forthright critique of what are some of the fake climate change solutions (e.g. big hydro projects, GMOs or Clean Development Mechanism. The author does critique and dismiss geoengineering projects in chapter 7, but it does not list all the fake solutions); nailing the notion that if we take sufficient actions, business as usual growth & high consumption-oriented economic paradigm is an option; highlighting how India’s elite consumers are on par with the citizens of western economies that are blamed for climate change; how our “development” projects are worsening the resilience capacity and climate change impacts for the vulnerable sections and lack of identification of the vulnerable sections as climate victims and steps to mitigate that situation.
There are also some production-related issues. For example, the text at the end of the Appendix on “Solution to our Pollution Problem” on p 306 ends in half sentence. It is not clear why this appendix is included in this volume (there is no discussion how this is part of climate change crisis), and why such a general title to the appendix, when it is dealing with specific pollution topic of air pollution in Delhi, particularly due to stubble burning in Punjab-Haryana. One would have expected the author to mention SRI here as a method of rice cultivation as one of the options that can help tackle the issue, but there is no mention of it here.
Missing actions “A Checklist of Actions” in Chapter 19 seems to miss a lot. In individual-level actions, it should have included how individuals can participate in collective actions against wrong government programs or policies. The food choices one makes sends a strong water signal, as she narrates in the specific chapter, but not here. One also needs to understand the water systems beyond the tap and the wastewater system beyond the flush. Rainwater harvesting can also include groundwater recharge and individuals can also participate in that at society level and beyond. Use of Right to Information is a major individual-level action option.
Similarly, at the institution level, there can be actions to support or oppose a specific government program or policy. The checklist of what government can do seems most deficient. Governments (at a different level) needs to make the governance much more transparent, participatory and accountable. It’s good that the author emphasizes the need to “Ensure up-to-date, accurate, easily available data.” She may have listed some of them for important sectors like Water, Power, Agriculture, etc. Most disturbingly, there is no critique of public policy and programs of the government either on climate change front (e.g. National Action Plan on Climate Change & several national missions that are part of it, their formulation, content and governance) or on any of the key sectors that the author elaborates at different places. There are also some questionable suggested actions like the need for universal water price, claiming misleadingly in the same para that Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh governments were voted back “because of strong water governance”. This is rather simplistic and highly questionable, in at least one of the states, Madhya Pradesh, the ruling party has since been voted out. And Gujarat’s “strong water governance” has been repeatedly exposed including in the summer of 2018 and 2019 and now in the monsoon of 2019 when it is using submergence behind Sardar Sarovar as a weapon to destroy a people’s movement in the Narmada Valley.
However, in spite of these shortcomings, this is a must-read book for anyone trying to understand India’s Climate Change Crisis and wants to find what one can do about it.
Himanshu Thakkar (SANDRP,