At present, India’s legal framework for adaptation is largely based on the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that establishes disaster management authorities and funds at the national and state level. The Act, however, focuses more on the response and relief after a disaster, as opposed to disaster risk reduction and building resilience prior to the disaster.
“BIRDS fall out of the sky…” It is hard to dissociate this headline from Gujarat from last month from the iconic scene in the 2012 sci-fi Hollywood movie, The Day after Tomorrow, in which birds fleeing New York City foreshadowed the world coming to an end.
In the last two weeks, intense heat waves have swept through north and central India, with some regions in Delhi reporting temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius – a first for the city. Scientists have attributed the heat wave to climate change, asserting that such extreme heat events, which would have likely taken place once in 300 years, have now become hundred times more likely with a probability of once every three years under present carbon levels.
The southern and north-eastern regions in the country have not been spared by extreme weather events, with the Indian Meteorological Department issuing red alerts in several districts of Kerala, Karnataka, Assam and Meghalaya, warning them against heavy rainfall and floods. Assam witnessed an unprecedented 327 per cent more rainfall than normal in the week of May 12, impacting over half a million people and leading to thirty fatalities.
These events are making it increasingly clear that India is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change.
In this article, I will attempt to review the government’s response to these extreme climate events, and analyse how adaptation measures can be scaled up to be more proactive to the crisis.
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The repercussions of the heat wave were first felt on human health, as evidenced with reports of increasing hospitalizations due to heat related ailments. The national capital reported a rise in the number of cases of dehydration, dizziness and blood pressure fluctuations, particularly amongst women and senior citizens.
Delhi’s state action plan on climate change, introduced in 2019, recommends steps to be taken in the event of heat waves. The Delhi government used early warning systems to declare colour coded alerts in districts and issued an advisory for people to stay indoors. However, these measures offer no respite to the substantial portion of the population who are either homeless, or living in cramped and poorly ventilated housing, or whose livelihood is contingent on working outdoors.
Scientists have attributed the heat wave to climate change, asserting that such extreme heat events, which would have likely taken place once in 300 years, have now become hundred times more likely with a probability of once every three years under present carbon levels.
Ahmedabad and Karnataka’s heat action plans attempt to address equity issues compounded by heat waves by requiring authorities to activate “cooling centres” in public spaces such as schools and temples, and increase the distribution of drinking water pouches to people in high-risk areas. However, public communication surrounding these adaptation measures was limited, particularly regarding where these cooling centres were set up. These deficiencies become more apparent when juxtaposed against the communication efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly regarding information on the location of vaccination centres and COVID care centres.
State-level or city-level plans are guidelines which have no statutory foundation, and are often worded in a recommendatory and not mandatory tone. They neither create a binding obligation on the authorities to take measures, nor do they confer a legal right which may be enforced by a court of law. Given the seriousness of these extreme climate events and their implications, particularly on vulnerable groups, there is an urgent need to strengthen accountability by providing legislative backing for these heat wave adaptation measures.
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In addition to the public health implications, the heat wave also sparked a domino effect of chaos for the power and agriculture sectors. The increased demand for cooling has been considered as one of the reasons for the unprecedented power shortage across the country, leaving three in five households and many industries without electricity for several hours during the day in April-May. Cooling will be at the forefront of India’s adaptation measures against the climate crisis. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (‘MoEF&CC’) projects a tenfold growth in the number of air conditioners in the next twenty years, propelling India to number one position for energy used for cooling. This demand, if met inefficiently, will place a greater burden on the already volatile power sector.
Policy experts predict that power shortages, which were typically only for a month during the monsoon period, could now escalate into seasonal shortages. These realities underscore the need for a more heterogeneous mix of electricity sources, with more emphasis on reliable renewable sources such as solar and a departure from the overreliance on coal.
The heat wave also had a significant impact on the agricultural yield this season. Wheat, which has one of the lowest thresholds for heat at 26 degrees Celsius, saw a 20 per cent reduction in yield because of the heat wave. Even so, the impact was not uniform as farmers who had sown their wheat early in October, escaped the impact of the heat wave. This was most commonly found amongst farmers who opted for the HDCSW-18 variety, India’s first wheat variety developed for ‘conservation agriculture’. It is not as vulnerable to heat stress and uses a zero-tillage technology, allowing farmers to sow the plant on the same day as the paddy is harvested, thereby eliminating the need for crop residue burning.
Given the seriousness of these extreme climate events and their implications, particularly on vulnerable groups, there is an urgent need to strengthen accountability by providing legislative backing for state-level or city-level heat wave adaptation measures.
Despite these benefits, the HDCSW-18 variety accounts for a miniscule portion of the total wheat production. Agricultural choices need to adapt to rising temperatures. This can only be achieved by making farmers more aware of these ‘climate resistant’ varieties, and by introducing initiatives which provide a financial safety net if the crop fails.
Several districts in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka get ravaged by heavy floods every year. Poverty, inequity and financial constraints on the public exchequer to rebuild have resulted in many of these areas reaching their soft limits to adaptation. Nevertheless, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (‘IPCC’) Sixth Assessment Report portends an increase in the frequency and magnitude of floods. Coastal floods that took place once in 50 years will likely occur around three times a year by the end of the century. India’s response and preparedness to these extreme climate events will play a significant role in its development goals.
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The IPCC’s report places a strong emphasis on the use of ecosystem-based adaptation techniques or nature-based solutions. The report’s authors have high confidence that increasing vegetation along the coasts and shifting habitations landwards will help to reduce the impact of floods by dissipating the wave energy. These ecosystem-based adaptation measures are also preferred for their mitigation co-benefits, which are targeted towards carbon storage. Unfortunately, India seems to be moving against the tide of coastal protection, as evidenced by its recent dilution of coastal regulations.
The Coastal Regulation Zone (‘CRZ’) Notification, first notified in 1991 and subsequently in 2011 and 2019, is intended to conserve coastal stretches and regulate human activities along these areas. However, in November last year, the MoEF&CC issued a draft notification which proposes to amend the CRZ Notification, and remove exploratory drilling operations for oil and natural gas from the purview of requiring prior clearance. This comes a few months after the Bombay High Court reprimanded the MoEF&CC for “diluting the rigors of the provisions of the Environment Act and other related enactments” through an office memorandum which sought to regularize illegal projects by issuing ex post facto clearances.
Experts at the National Institute of Disaster Management assert that curbing violations of the CRZ notification will be a crucial aspect of adaptation in India. In the wake of India’s vulnerability to floods, legislation should be focused towards protecting coastal communities.
Also read: Proposed amendments to the CRZ Notification, 2019 and its implications
Another threat to adaptation is the recent mushrooming of seawalls along the coast. These costly concrete structures provide local communities with a false sense of safety against the floods while surreptitiously augmenting coastal erosion. Even so, politicians prefer them since they are visible symbols of effort. Scientists have warned against hard structures such as seawalls since they do little to combat floods, and on the contrary, lock in inhabitants in the future given that they are hard to reverse.
Coastal floods that took place once in 50 years will likely occur around three times a year by the end of the century. India’s response and preparedness to these extreme climate events will play a significant role in its development goals.
At present India’s legal framework for adaptation is largely based on the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that establishes disaster management authorities and funds at the national and state level. The Act, however, focuses more on the response and relief after a disaster as opposed to disaster risk reduction and building resilience prior to the disaster. This gap was sought to be filled by the ‘Climate Risk Management (‘CRM’) Framework’ which was to assess climate risks for sudden onset and slow onset climate events, and identify feasible options to reduce such risks. At present, this framework has only been applied to Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. There is much to be accomplished before India can be called a climate ready State, but attempts to address these concerns through the CRM framework and Bills that focus on climate adaptation provide one with a sense of hope.
Public communication, scientific expertise and stronger legislation will be the key factors in India’s adaptation efforts. While India has come a long way from its days of diplomatic insulation in climate change negotiations, attribution of extreme weather events to climate change amongst policymakers is still ambiguous, posing a challenge to adaptation measures.
In May 2022, environment interest groups and research institutions in Tamil Nadu recognized this barrier and organized a meeting with Ministers and legislators with the objective of improving climate literacy amongst policymakers. Ministers were taken through the findings of the IPCC report, the need for sector-wide solutions beyond tree planting, and the vulnerabilities of communities to the effects of climate change. Taking a cue from Tamil Nadu, other states must also take similar steps towards adaptation, seeing that climate change is no longer a figment of science fiction but is a here and now problem.