Home Magazines Features The Nero Factor: India Has A Choice – Help Put Out The Climate Fire… Or Die.

The Nero Factor: India Has A Choice – Help Put Out The Climate Fire… Or Die.

The Nero Factor: India Has A Choice – Help Put Out The Climate Fire… Or Die.

Methane emissions from large dam reservoirs across the world have been identified as a new and very huge source of greenhouse gases. This knocks the bottom out of the facile arguments put forward by proponents of large dams, which suggest this option as a ‘solution’ to climate change.Photograph by Dr. Anish Andheria.

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus – or Nero, as he was better known – did not really ‘fiddle’ while the Great Fire raged across Rome over six calamitous days. According to Dio Cassius, on those fateful July days in A.D. 64, Nero actually climbed atop his palace roof from where he had a gallery view of burning Rome... and then loudly sang ‘The Capture of Troy’.

There are a thousand parallels that can be drawn in modern times with world leaders such as George Bush and Dr. Manmohan Singh, singing favoured theme songs of unrealistic economic ambition, even as the planet burns. But this is par for the course. Faced with crises, Neros will do what Neros do best – fiddle... sing... anything to escape reality.

The predictions are dire. The climate crisis is real. The Stern Report, the IPCC Report and hundreds of global weather reports churn out evidence of extreme climatic events every day. Meanwhile India slumbers.

Researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), suggest that the growth in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other greenhouses gases accelerated suddenly after 2000, from an average of 1.1 per cent per year in the 1990s, to 3.3 per cent per year between 2000 and 2004. For all the global chatter, such trends show no sign of abating and while this may not be India’s ‘fault’, it is undoubtedly going to be our very own personal disaster.

Andher nagari, chaupat raja – taka ser bhaji, taka ser kwaja. Loosely translated, this popular Indian saying piquantly suggests that if the masses ignore what goes on around them, worthless leaders will cause immense suffering to be visited on the people.

In India, virtually everyone’s life is determined by the monsoon. Farmers, city dwellers, businessmen... everyone in India (the andher nagari) will be adversely affected by climate change. Yet, our leadership (chaupat rajas) chooses to respond to the crisis with a suicidal ‘business as usual’ attitude that is spurred on by a self-absorbed populace that is in the hypnotic grip of their daily grind.

Essentially, India’s leaders have chosen to play Russian roulette with the industrial north, pointing the gun barrel at their own citizens.

Ignorant of the risk to which he puts India, Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, for instance, is pressing forward with plans (financed by the World Bank) for India’s coal-fired thermal plant capacity to be enhanced by 300 per cent in the coming decade.

His office also fights to build hundreds of new large dams, ignoring hard data that suggests that large dam reservoirs may be a major source of methane emissions (one of the most powerful greenhouse gases), released by the rotting vegetation in submerged valleys. Predictably, Indian dam experts deny any such risk and, in collusion with bureaucrats and contractors, they  busy themselves buying time for lucrative projects including the infamous Lower Subansiri Dam, slated to drown evergreen forests in India’s Brahmaputra catchment area.

Like death and taxes, India’s bureaucracy can be counted on to serve political masters of the day. Sadly, it will probably be another year before the IPCC is able to nail down the large-dam-methane connection. By this time, billions more will have been borrowed and lost for projects designed to destroy the forests we need to counter climate change.

No good can come possibly of the climate change brinksmanship that India has chosen to display at every available global arena. If Sir Nicholas Stern is to be believed, these shenanigans have strong economic implications. The Stern Report worryingly states that:

The benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting. Climate change will  affect the basic elements of life for  people around the world – access to  water, food production, health, and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.

A far better option than taking such risks would surely be to steer the Indian nation away from a carbon-driven economy, coupled with a resolve not to allow another sq. km. of tropical forest to go up in smoke.

Far from placing us at a disadvantage, such a step – which would surely have had the approval of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ‘Father’ of the Indian Nation – would strengthen our hand around global negotiating tables and probably deliver unto India the kind of economic gains that economists can only dream of today.

Extreme climatic events such as Mumbai’s Mithi river calamity could become more frequent, more intense.
Photograph by Gautam Pandey.

These gains would primarily come in the shape and form of ecological dividends – water security, food security and ecosystem services – which easily translate into favoured economic indices like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by which economists insist on doing their math. They will also come in the shape of new climate change technologies that India would be forced to invest in, if ever we choose to take the sensible fork in the road ahead of us.

So, what lies ahead? How might we guide India and the planet away from its collision course with climate change?

To begin with, someone like Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC should be asked to head a Climate Commission – with a fixed time frame – to advise the Indian Parliament on India’s best course of action to adapt to and mitigate the worst climate impacts.

This done, our finest scientists need to be asked to catalogue the role played by India’s natural ecosystems in carbon sequestration as a prelude to a major global scientific and diplomatic initiative to dismantle existing (immoral) carbon trading regimes. These would need to be replaced by a combination of subsidies and taxes for carbon use and payments of carbon compensation to countries that set aside tropical forests, mangrove swamps and other natural ecosystems as carbon sinks for the future. Such a position taken by India would amount to turning a necessity into a virtue. As any good negotiator will confirm, nothing makes better business sense.

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII. No. 3. June 2007.


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