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India won't halt development to avoid greenhouse gas emissions but is taking steps to adapt to climate change that is already inevitable reports T. V. Padma.

Beni Devi returns home with a bundle of dry twigs perched on her head. Her long morning trek followed the slippery mountain paths near her hamlet in the lower Himalayas of northern India. Now one of her problems for the day is solved — she has fuelwood for cooking. She can only dream of a gas stove, and has not even heard of electric stoves. Three-quarters of India's population, some 825 million people, live in rural areas. Many, like Beni Devi, do not have ready access to electricity, water or cooking fuel.

Four hundred kilometres away, India's capital Delhi bustles with the chaos and din of rush hour. "The traffic is getting worse day by day," mutters Sudhir Miglani, swerving his car to avoid a bus that changes lanes at the last minute. "But at least I don't have to travel like that." He points at two commuters hanging from the back of the bus, and two more at the front. More and more people are migrating to the cities to work in one of the growing number of factories, seeking better employment prospects and higher wages.

Beni Devi and the hapless commuters on the Delhi bus represent two faces of India — a rural community with unmet basic needs and a rapidly growing urban population hungry for transport, power and water.

The struggle for development

About a third of India's population lives below the poverty line, earning less than US$1 a day. India's development strategy focuses on strengthening the economy and alleviating poverty, aiming to increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita income. "Sustainable development must address issues of food, nutrition and energy deficits," says M. S. Swaminathan, chairman of Chennai-based M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

But as India struggles to develop its economy, rising industrialisation and urbanisation will rapidly increase greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat and contribute to global climate change.

According to A. P. Mitra, emeritus scientist at Delhi's National Physical Laboratory and former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, a four-fold increase in the country's GDP would require a 2.8-fold increase in carbon dioxide emissions, 1.3 times more methane and 2.6 times more nitrous oxide unless action is taken. The World Resources Institute, a US-based environmental think tank, estimates that by 2025, India will rank fourth in the world for total greenhouse gas emissions.

Although India signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in June 1992, it has no binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it is a developing country. But India should be concerned about potential climate change for its own sake. For example, it is likely to affect agriculture, the backbone of India's economy. And, as Swaminathan points out, poor agricultural communities already struggle to cope with changing rainfall patterns.

An added concern, says Mitra, is the fast pace of international negotiations. India needs to come up with a better negotiating strategy on energy use and methane emissions and set suitable standards for acceptable risks.


India is vulnerable

In its 2001 Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts global temperatures will rise by 1.4–5.8 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, including a 2.7–4.3 degrees Celsius increase over India by the 2080s. The panel also predicted an increase in rainfall over the sub-continent by 6–8 per cent and that sea level would rise up to 88 centimetres by 2100.

Local climate change will affect the region in various ways. Changing rainfall patterns are likely to affect food security. Extreme events, such as droughts, torrential rain, flash floods, cyclones and forest fires, could become more common. Rising sea levels could threaten coastal mangrove and wetland systems, and increase the flood risk faced by the quarter of India's population that lives on the coast.

Climate change could also threaten human health by favouring water- and vector-borne diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue, says Mitra. His group estimates that by the 2080s, climate could support breeding mosquitos in ten per cent more Indian states.

But India cannot simply give up industrialisation. "Imposing restrictions on development will affect the GDP. A 30 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will raise the number of poor by 17.5 per cent," explains Manoj Panda, a professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Rural Development in Mumbai. He wants the country's economists and scientists to develop ways to cut emissions incrementally over several years.


India has already put some national mitigation strategies in place. It is targeting the coal, transport, petroleum, steel, cement and agricultural sectors by promoting energy conservation, alternative fuels, renewable energy technologies and afforestation. In 2001, Delhi was the first capital city to introduce a public transport system based on an alternative fuel (compressed natural gas) to reduce polluting gases.


Adapting to the inevitable

Experts like Mitra remind us that while mitigation can reduce the effects, it cannot not halt climate change. Some countries have begun emphasising the need for 'adaptation strategies'. The New Delhi Declaration of the eighth Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC urged countries to include adaptation in their development strategies.

But implementing such measures on any scale is not simple. A region or country's ability to adapt depends on its state of development, points out Kalipada Chatterjee, a scientist at the non-governmental organisation Winrock International. "It is not that the risk is unknown, or that the methods for coping do not exist. The problem is the lack of resources needed to guard against these events."

In addition, large regional and socio-economic differences affect local communities' ability to adapt, says Prodipto Ghosh of the Indian environment ministry. For example, almost three-quarters of cultivated land in the western state of Punjab is irrigated, so farmers there can cope with irregular rainfall. But in the eastern state of Orissa only a quarter of farmland is irrigated, and farmers are vulnerable to the vagaries of India's monsoon.

Finance is another problem for government and development agencies. The Global Environment Facility supports adaptation projects with global environmental benefits. But "how do you prove the global benefit of a storm forecasting or cyclone warning system along a specific coastline?" asks Anand Patwardhan, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and executive director of the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council.

And even the issue of adaptation itself is contentious. "By shifting the focus to adaptation, major industrialised polluting countries are side-stepping their responsibility towards mitigation" says Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based non governmental organisation, Centre for Science and Environment.

Small steps forward

Climate change or no climate change, pockets of India face frequent droughts while monsoon floods ravage others. National programmes to improve watershed and ground water management may qualify as adaptation strategies, but they have not been put in place with adaptation in mind.


"It is difficult to distinguish adaptation to climate change from the process of development itself," says Patwardhan.

"In practice, we do not experience climate change—we experience changes in weather patterns," he observes. Local communities find it difficult to visualise life in 2050, or to understand what a half degree rise in temperature will mean. And disadvantaged groups already face pressures from population growth, natural resource depletion and socio-economic inequalities. To these communities in particular, climate change will become an added stress of daily life.

"What we need to do" suggests Patwardhan, "is to link day-to-day choices and activities to the long-term response to climate change". Swaminathan suggests setting up local gene and seed banks, monsoon management systems, and even crop-weather watch groups to help local farmers and fishermen prepare for droughts and floods.

Small efforts are underway. Some non-governmental organisations have already begun assessing the risks of climate change to local communities. The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi has studied climate-sensitive regions of India to assess the dual impacts of climate change and globalisation. "Climate change and economic globalisation are two major processes of global change and yet they are not studied in conjunction," says TERI's Suruchi Bhadwa, adding that the most vulnerable to both are "the poor communities—small farmers, fishermen, labourers, and craftsmen—with the least capacity to adapt".

The MSSRF has analysed 30 years of national data to understand how communities traditionally coped during 'trouble spots' such as severe droughts or floods. MSSRF scientist A. R. Nambi wants to tackle adaptation now. His group uses innovative methods such as puppet shows and street theatre to spread the message on climate change to a local community in Rajasthan state.

But these are small steps forward. Both rural and urban populations, caught in the daily grind like Beni Devi and the Delhi commuters, remain disconnected from the debates on climate change. India's policymakers are walking a tightrope as they try to balance the basic development needs of the rural and the aspirations of the urban to match lifestyles in developed countries. The road ahead is long for India.