Amid the larger pall of gloom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic over recessionary concerns and geopolitical tensions, a buzzword that has captured the policy discourse is ‘K-shaped’ recovery. Time and again, for example, reports depict the dichotomy of rising demand for SUVs and high-end residential sales sitting alongside sluggish sales of scooters and more affordable housing.
However, beneath such dualities enabled and exacerbated by structural faultlines, fundamental dilemmas and a general perplexity linger amongst the hardpressed section of our populace. They are torn between pressing concerns of livelihood and daily survival on the one hand and the rhetoric on sustainability and climate adaptation that they encounter on the other.
Threadbare Deliberations and the Wide Disparity at Ground Zero
To be sure, the incontestability and severity of climate change are only getting cemented further, and a dogged denial, or even a lax response, risks erasing the existing chances of surviving on this planet. Neither is it prudent for governments to loosen the resolve against climate change while tackling economic challenges or negotiating geopolitical discord. At ground zero, however, there has been a renewed and painful realisation of the wide disparity in terms of life-resources and circumstantial conditions.
This is visible across various spheres of one’s daily being. The living spaces of an overwhelming part of Indians are bereft of air conditioners, making them hot cauldrons well into the night, thereby causing distress and affecting much-needed sleep. The weaker structures among these are even more risk-prone to gusty storms or torrential rains which are more frequent courtesy of climate change.
In mobility to workspaces, the focus often circles back to personal cars and emissions, but the fact is that even public transport is segmented, with air-conditioned metros often out of reach for daily wage-earners and buses woefully short and overcrowded. After battling through such trying conditions under unforgiving temperatures, the workplaces themselves often entail high physical exertion, accentuated further by severe heatwaves and/or draining humidity that encapsulates an agonising state of being.
It is in this same context that threadbare deliberations continually transpire around issues like Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), Lifestyle for the Environment(LiFE), and scaling up of renewables in our mix of energy production - emanating from annual COP meetings in various locations as well as the relevant G20 working groups. However, the question that gets buried under the weight of policy drafts and confabulations behind them is, do the poor and deprived feel their concerns being inserted in these?
This is not to suggest an absence of awareness - often the effects of climate change are more acutely felt by the marginalised folk, with rising sea levels, inundation and salination of coastal crop fields, and increasing occurrence of disasters in general, putting the greatest strain on this very section. Yet, the exhortations on ‘saving the future’, ‘sustainable lifestyle’, and ‘reducing carbon footprints’ will remain paternalistic and distant unless the structures and processes in which everyday livelihood and survival are predicated are transformed.
Going beyond technically dense policy packages, a fundamental overhauling of approach is needed, that acknowledges that top-down policies with complex intricacies can be optimised only by taking into account their last-mile reception by the people. Central to this is whether the macro-policy changes or directives actually cohere with the set of adversities and opportunities which people have to already negotiate on a perpetual basis.
A Fundamental Overhauling of Approach With Respect to Policy
Among the palette of policy tools, talks go on around mechanisms like carbon taxes, market-based emissions caps, regulations, or subsidies to ramp up renewables. Even if we fully accept the technical rationale of these, rarely do we witness local people’s participation in forging the consensus. Policy referendums, like those in Switzerland, are infeasible given the organisational logistics and susceptibility to partisan divisions among people having little parity in technical know-how of matters at play. People's participation can thus take the form of awareness drives and deliberative meetings, with the political parties and their mass organisations possessing the potential to catalyse the process further.
This is especially necessary as the causes and detrimental effects are dispersed over time and space and effects are slowly tangible over a longer time frame in the future. This will enable a bottom-up understanding and policy framing, without prior presuppositions and prescriptions that we are often prone to.
It still wouldn’t be enough without being rooted in conducive life conditions. This entails the provision of tangible protective infrastructures and ensuring access to economic and technological resources, for all of which continuous state support is central. A vital complement to these would be local practices and indigenous knowledge bases. For example, as the UNEP has documented, the Bambuti-Babuluko community of Combois plays a crucial role to protect one of Central Africa’s last remaining tracts of primary tropical forest.
The contextual current remains relevant even as larger waves lash against each other. As stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab brings up a yearly war of words and blame games, crop residue machines are yet to be welcomed by farmers of the latter state. The chief reason cited is they are uneconomical even after being subsidised, with diesel costs being one. It only underlines that ongoing adversities will never be fully ameliorated amidst accelerating climate change, and the integrated push has to be resolutely pursued.
Right around us, some devastating changes are already underway like slashing tree covers for beautification drives or the unbridled construction of residential complexes and highways. In this context, centring the discourse exclusively around individual lifestyle changes also misses the pervasive yet discrete push of the state and capital in synergy.
This is grounded in, among other factors, a thoroughly instrumental treatment of environmental resources. In his recent work ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis’, author Amitav Ghosh has brilliantly underscored this radical shift - from an organic, integrated component of human lives to a passive repository of resources waiting to be subdued and used for fulfilling human needs.
Such an instrumentality stems in turn from a foundational anthropogenic prism, that views human activity and well-being as pre-eminently important. A cognitive outlook that discards this presupposes fulfillment of basic life-necessities invariably requiring an instrumental outlook towards nature and natural resources. Unless this causal link chain is recognised and worked upon, bringing everyone on board, and in equal measure, to do their own fair share in this fight will remain a tall order.
In conclusion, the failure to reverse or arrest the widening divide in incomes and life chances cannot be wished away by steamrolling on the people the necessity to avoid failure on another front, i.e. the climate emergency. It is thus no surprise if the discussions on the empirical rationale and urgency of adoption of climate mitigation and adaptation measures remain limited to a minor segment embedded in elite education, a professional cushion, and most importantly, the mental space to think beyond the near and immediate.
(Ritabrata Chakraborty is a graduate of Political Science from Hindu College, University of Delhi. He's interested in questions around development and politics. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)