Vulnerable India 3: The politics of vulnerability

What is the nature of India’s vulnerability to climate change?

This is a very important question. How we choose to answer it will determine whether we see and respond to the whole picture; or whether we choose to see only part of it and address it with ineffective, inefficient, inequitable and piecemeal solutions.

Let me begin with an example. I visited an adaptation project funded by a bilateral donor in a village in the Gangetic plain in West Bengal. This is typically a flood-prone area. No surprises then, that a climate vulnerability assessment identified the need to respond to current and future floods as a priority. The three-year project accordingly promoted flood-resistant paddy varieties and fisheries as an alternative source of nutrition and livelihood. But the very first year that these measures were implemented turned out to be a drought year. Both the paddy and fisheries failed. During the second year, the floods came – but with far greater force than even the flood-resistant paddy variety could stand. Once again the paddy crop was lost.

In our conversation with the villagers, it became clear that there was far more to the vulnerability of the local farmers. It seemed somehow inappropriate to even talk to them about climate change, when they lacked access to basic needs like cooking fuel, water and sanitation and health facilities. According to the farmers, they did not support the political party currently in power in West Bengal, and paid for their choice by being ignored for the duration the party was in power. They barely had access to any of the state or central schemes they were rightfully entitled to.

Hence, the village did not have access to any of the government schemes for crop insurance, and were at the mercy of loan sharks because they had little access to low-interest credit. The men in the predominantly Muslim village had only recently come around to letting their wives participate in self-help groups. The villagers had no voice in the local government – most of them were afraid to speak up at Panchayat meetings because they feared retribution (they told us a brutal political murder had taken place in the area a few days before we arrived). A government-built structure was compounding the flooding in their fields and causing them even more losses, but they had not been able to get it addressed after years of trying.

Clearly, there were political, social, economic and cultural problems here that go well beyond the remit of what would be defined as “climate vulnerability”. Yet, these problems were a major reason why each climate calamity took such a heavy toll on the villagers, and why many of them were eventually forced to abandon farming and migrate to cities in search of livelihoods. Although the adaptation project did try to address the low political capital and lack of credit of the villagers, far deeper systemic changes are needed, changes that are well beyond the scope of any single short-term project.

Defining climate vulnerability                                                                                        Early definitions of vulnerability in the climate change context focused mainly on geography and “systems”. The 2001 Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defined vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes”. In contrast, the disaster management community defines vulnerability in more human terms, as “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard” or “the diminished capacity of an individual or group to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard”.

The early IPCC definition may have to do with the original perception of climate change as primarily an environmental issue. It focused mainly on biophysical vulnerability – where the most vulnerable are considered to be those living in the most precarious physical environments, or in environments that will undergo the most dramatic physical changes. This definition was found to be too narrow as it would result in an incomplete “diagnosis”, and hence an incomplete “cure”, as researchers from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Oslo point out. Solutions based on this definition would only address the biophysical aspects of vulnerability to climate change, and not its social, political, cultural and economic causes.

The CICERO researchers give the example of the US Country Studies Program and the UNEP Country Studies, where the seven steps of climate impact assessment outlined in the 1994 IPCC Guidelines were followed. The approach to these country studies was largely biophysical. The end result was generally a list of activities that could be achieved through economic assistance and enhancement of institutional capacities: irrigation schemes, drought-tolerant seed varieties, raised bridges, structural improvements in housing, and so forth.

Such an approach may suit the limited remit of “donors” not wishing to, or not permitted to, stray into sticky social, political and cultural domains, and interested mainly in a list of projects to fund. But it can be ineffective and risky.The biophysical aspects of climate vulnerability are among the most uncertain as they rely on predictions, and they are often tied to heavy infrastructure or technological investments because they tend to focus on particular climate hazards.

A definition of vulnerability that takes social, political, cultural and economic causes into account, on the other hand, can offer more holistic solutions that are less susceptible to uncertainty, and more effective and efficient. These solutions need not be linked to a specific hazard, and can offer “win-win” gains in development and resilience against future climate impacts. Boosting the political, social and economic capital of the villagers from West Bengal mentioned earlier, for instance, will build their overall resilience and help them tide over any disaster more effectively.

The problems with the 2001 IPCC definition of vulnerability to climate change are acknowledged in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which recognises the role of vulnerability assessments as a framework for policy measures on social aspects, including poverty reduction, diversification of livelihoods and protection of common property resources. The recent 2014 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report defines vulnerability as “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected” (cleverly avoiding reference to systems, communities or individuals), and notes that “vulnerability encompasses a variety of concepts and elements including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt”.

Climate change researchers now increasingly view climate vulnerability through the lens of social vulnerability – the exposure of individuals or collective groups to livelihood stress as a result of the impacts of climate extremes and climate change. This definition takes into account not just the physical impact of climate change, but also draws focus to a range of other causes that contribute to the vulnerability of individuals or groups. The extent to which these definitions are willing to take on boarder elements that relate to what is sometimes called the “development deficit” is still a politically sensitive issue in the international domain. However, this international debate need not and should not influence how vulnerability is defined in the national context in India. Let us not fool ourselves that we will be able to address the vulnerability of India’s poor without first addressing the development deficit.

Why is this discussion relevant to climate vulnerability in India?                 Indian policy makers have demonstrated an unrelenting predilection for biophysical diagnoses and cures in the past, while ignoring socioeconomic factors. They have, for instance, relied on physical barriers (like designating areas out of bounds for people) to deal with environmental degradation. These barriers fail to stand up to socioeconomic pressures. Food security and poverty in the agricultural and rural sectors is addressed through a pesticide and fertiliser-laden focus on increasing agricultural production. Big dams are seen as the solution to water scarcity. I will provide specific examples when I examine each of these sectors in future blogs in this series, but a clear preference for top-down, heavy infrastructure-based solutions is a key reason why many past developmental efforts in the environmental, agricultural, rural development and water sectors have yielded poor results.

Despite a growing recognition of the follies of such an approach, India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) already shows a disturbing tendency to favour technological fixes, while ignoring aspects of social vulnerability. The activities listed are strikingly similar to the outcomes of the Country Studies mentioned earlier – irrigation schemes, drought-tolerant seed varieties, structural improvements in housing etc. Thus the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture under the NAPCC will “identify and develop new varieties of crops”. The National Water Mission will promote water conservation, efficiency, “increased storage capacity”, and “water-neutral technologies”. The National Mission for a Green India will “enhance ecosystem services including carbon sinks”, and focus on the national target of 33% tree cover.

The technocrats have been beavering away once again, and the people of India are conspicuous by their absence in this document.

This tendency at the national level will be fuelled by donor agencies and their predilection for neat lists of “fundable” projects and activities, and also possibly by global requirements to delineate adaptation funding from development funding. This will spell disaster in a country where climate vulnerability is clearly related to the ability of people to prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate impacts.

Clearly, India’s “climate vulnerability meter” needs to switch to the metric of social vulnerability, so that efforts to reduce climate vulnerability take careful account of issues such as poverty, access to resources, policy frameworks, political institutions and inequalities.

This entry was posted in Civil Society, Climate change, Decentralisation, Global governance, India, Millenium Development Goals, Poverty, Swaraj, UNFCCC and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Vulnerable India 3: The politics of vulnerability

  1. Pingback: Vulnerable India 4: Modi must deal with the ecological vulnerability of India’s poor | It must be said!

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