November is almost over now but until a few years ago, November would mark the onset of winter in Assam.
As I travel across the state, interacting with a wide range of people, there is one common complaint on everyone’s lips – how much warmer, both summers and winters in Assam have become. Along with temperature changes, rainfall patterns too have become erratic.
This comes as no surprise, with data from the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Watch revealing that between 2001 and 2021, the Northeast region saw the highest loss of forest cover in India, accounting for 76% of India’s total tree cover loss. My home state Assam was the largest contributor, accounting for 14.1% of India’s total tree cover loss alone.
Further, within the Northeast region, Assam and Mizoram have been identified as particularly vulnerable states to climate change as per a Climate Vulnerability Assessment in 2018. This raises serious concerns about how the Northeast region intends to tackle climate change going forward.
While the effects of changing climate are far-reaching, and something all of us will have to reckon with, it is crucial for us to centre the struggles of the poor and vulnerable, who are disproportionately affected by this climate crisis. From rice to tea, crop cultivation across the board has been affected by variations in temperature and rainfall, causing distress to agricultural workers.
Fluctuations in water flow and erratic flooding have exacerbated riverine erosion, which hinders the lives and livelihoods of communities residing near the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. A large fraction of settlements on forest reserve areas and grazing lands, that the present government is on a mission to evict, are communities that have been previously displaced by riverbank erosion. These communities fall within the category of climate refugees, a term coined to describe the increasing number of people displaced due to environmental disruptions.
Data suggests that climate change has displaced 1.4 crore people in India so far, and estimates a rapid rise to 4.5 crore by 2050, far exceeding even displacement due to conflict. Without any guarantee of compensation or rehabilitation, the recent series of evictions in Assam signal a crude loss of humanity under the garb of environmentalism.
The truth is that government policies and administrative decisions, both at the state and Union level, demonstrate a critical lack of political will for meaningful climate action. Amidst both the looming threat and manifestations of climate change, the government’s approach to ‘development’ reveals a deep sense of apathy.
Whether the proposed highway that would claim 6,000 trees from the Doboka Reserve Forest or the plan to expand the area under palm oil cultivation in the Northeast – which poses a threat to the region’s rich biodiversity, soil quality and water supply – environmental concerns have been completely sidelined. Further, given the extent of forest cover depletion that the Northeast region has already seen, it is worrying that the recently proposed amendments to the core of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, if enacted, will weaken the existing law.
This is done by providing more scope of exemption for certain categories of infrastructure projects from seeking clearances to use forest land for non-forestry purposes. Another legislation in the pipeline is the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Amendment) Bill 2021 which, if enacted, will ease regulations for private companies to enter into coal and lignite mining contracts. This comes at a time when 40 countries pledged to phase out coal completely at the recent COP26.
Meanwhile, here in India, our dependence on coal-fired projects is only increasing. India’s abstention at COP26 from signing the Global Methane Pledge towards reducing methane emissions, as well as the Glasgow Declaration on forest and land use, to ‘halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation’, only further reflects our national priorities when it comes to effectively addressing climate change.
While I am a firm believer in the need for economic progress to improve welfare and living standards, this cannot be pursued at the cost of the environment.
The binary between economic development and environmental conservation is a constructed one by governments with vested interests and a lack of foresight. The solution lies in envisioning sustainable forms of development that secure the well-being of both the present and future generations. To this effect, a participatory consultation process must lie at the heart of our environmental policymaking, one that readily engages with grassroots stakeholders and is prepared to be continuously reflexive.
In the status-quo, the directive of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy to ‘give wider publicity to reach the affected people’ in case of legislation concerning a specific group of people, is rarely followed when placing legislation in the public domain for consultation. In fact, of the 29 bills listed for the upcoming session of parliament, 60% of the bills did not undergo any form of public consultation.
The government must ensure that proposed legislation is made available in local languages, easily accessible in both online and offline formats while taking necessary steps to ensure consensus is built.
With the winter session of parliament beginning shortly, as elected representatives, we must ensure that issues of climate change and sustainable development, especially in the Northeast, find room in the course of parliamentary discussion. Particularly in the context of the Northeast, there is a need for a holistic flood management programme (such a programme conceived earlier perished along with the dissolution of the Planning Commission), as well as a framework for guaranteeing rights to climate refugees.
As citizens, we must also think of how environment conservation and climate change can be made into key electoral issues going forward. This will ensure that government policies best serve the public, and are accountable to all, especially to forest and agricultural dependent communities, those living on the floodplains and others rendered vulnerable by the ongoing climate crisis.
Time is of the essence, the parliament of India must set a new and inclusive agenda for addressing the climate crisis, which can no longer be ignored.
Pradyut Bordoloi is a Congress Lok Sabha MP from Nowgong, Assam. He received assistance from Evita Rodrigues, LAMP fellow, for this piece.