Sustainable development that mitigates the impact of climate change for India’s poor can only be achieved by the devolution of the Indian government, stated prominent social activist Sunita Narain at a March 27 lecture at Arizona State University.
“Getting the model of development right so that everyone has access to health care, water and energy supplies is only achievable when the government is de-centralized,” Narain told India-West in an interview after the lecture, which was organized by ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.
The director general of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment,
Narain has received numerous accolades for her work, including the Padma Shri – India’s highest honor – in 2005. In 2007, Narain was named by Time magazine as one of India’s 15 most influential people. Foreign Policy magazine has thrice named Narain one of the world’s best intellectuals.
“Climate change is already hurting the world’s most poor and vulnerable,” stated Narain, explaining that rainwater – a major resource for India’s largely agrarian population – has been inconsistent, with more rainfall, but for a fewer number of days.
“Farmers are very desperate today. This is their livelihood; it is the only thing they know. And we can send them to cities to get jobs, but the urban sector doesn’t have the ability to absorb all those people,” stated Narain.
India has about 600 million people involved in farming-related activity, and more than three-quarters of its population live in rural areas, relying on rain-fed agriculture and fuel from forests, according to World Bank data. The Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute last year released research conducted in India by Meena Palaniappan which concluded that a two-degree Celsius temperature fluctuation could lead either to drought or flooding due to varying rainfall amounts. Scarcity of water supplies was equally acute for the urban and rural poor in India, stated Palaniappan, in an interview with India-West, when the study was released.
“We cannot afford a two-degree fluctuation in temperature,” Narain told India-West, noting that India’s poor have no forecast or insurance systems in place.
Government must be reorganized to let local people have control of their resources, including ponds and aquifers, she stated. An early warning or forecasting system for weather must be made available, along with systems for storing rainwater as it falls.
Narain stated emphatically that India’s resources are often diverted from the poor in rural India to the middle-class and wealthy in urban India.
“Unrest will grow as the poor see their needed resources being taken away,” said Narain, citing the Naxalite rebellion, which has grown out of disputes over control of forested areas.
Since 1982, Narain has worked with CSE under the direction of renowned environmentalist Anil Agarwal, who founded the organization. Besides the organization’s focus on climate change and water access issues, CSE is active in air pollution and food safety issues.
In a CSE blog post, Narain noted: “For the poor, the environment is not a matter of luxury; it is not about fixing the problems of growth, but of survival. It is fixing growth itself.”
“They know that when the land is mined and trees are cut, their water source dries up or they lose grazing and agricultural land. They know they are poor. And they are saying, loudly and as clearly as they can, that what others call development will only make them poorer. It is an open challenge to the development paradigm that we know today,” stated Narain.