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Resilience, Hope: India in the Time of COVID-19 & Climate Change

Civil Society | Climate & Biodiversity | Strategic Philanthropy | Water | COVID-19 | May 9, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Jairam Ramesh (former Minister for Environment and Forests) and Navroz Dubash (Professor at the Centre for Policy Research). Moderated by Barkha Dutt, New Worlds is a three-part digital series by the India Climate Collaborative to discuss resilience and recovery in the face of our two planetary challenges: COVID-19 and climate change.

One may wonder why we are talking about climate change during this pandemic. One is very specific and tied to a particular virus, while the other is a systemic threat. However, what ties them together is the fact that they are rooted in the same thing – our illusion of control over nature. The way we think our lives are insulated is the same manner in which we think we can manage our way out of climate change, when in reality there is scientific information that tells us otherwise.

The second commonality is that both COVID-19 and climate change affect the poor and vulnerable populations the most. One thing we have learned from this pandemic is that we are not a resilient society, we do not have systems in place to take care of the poorest when faced with something like this. And climate change is nothing but a series of shocks – be it heatwaves, violent weather events, a decline in crop yields or disruptions to our water system. As Navroz Dubash puts it, we are facing a world that is going to be shock-ridden, and we don’t have systems of resilience in place.

As a result of the last 45 days, we are starkly reminded of how much the community trusts the civil society sector. We have been pushing the civil society sector back for the last few years, but during the pandemic we saw how they were the first responders. Civil society has the last mile-connect to citizens and they understand the context on the ground, because of which they are able to provide good, quick feedback loops. So their role has become extremely visible to the state and the center.

What we can take from this experience is that we need to build up the capacity of the civil society sector to create resilience, and we have to start now. Here, the philanthropic community has an important role to play, because while we have been responding immediately, we need to also start looking at the impact on livelihoods. It’s time now for civil society and philanthropy to move into a mid-term strategy, and that is all about developing resilience.

The False Dichotomy Between Economy and Environment

As Jairam Ramesh explains it, both COVID-19 and climate change are examples of a loss or disturbance of ecological balance. Both have public health consequences as well. With climate change, that looks like pollution, chemical contamination, land degradation, etc. As a result, we need to start looking at climate change from a public health perspective. While we know that the economic damage as a result of COVID-19 has been horrendous, if we prioritise the economy at the cost of the environment, it will push us towards a disaster. There is already a marked tendency towards relaxing post-lockdown. We are talking about relaxing labour laws, land laws, and there are proposals in front of the government to relax environmental laws as well.

Navroz echoes this statement and builds on it to say that thinking that we need to set aside all kinds of environmental constraints to jumpstart the economy is actually a false dichotomy. There are several things that we can do that would be good from the point of view of lifting the lockdown as well as from an environmental viewpoint. For example, the power sector has already seen a decline in demand, the plants are losing money, and generation companies are going bankrupt. As a result, we have an opportunity to reimagine this sector. If we shut down the older and more polluting plants, it would create space for newer players using renewable energy to make a profit. This in turn, would be good for both, the economy and job market, as well as for the environment.

Now is the time for us to be creative in how we think about the intersections between the economy and the environment, because going back to a model that pits one against the other, is deeply problematic. And since, just like with COVID-19, it is the poor that are often the greatest victims of pollution, if we were to focus on the economy and set aside the environment, we would be jumpstarting the economy at the cost of India’s most vulnerable.

Invest in Governance and Civil Society

This pandemic has taught us all a lot, myself included. It’s taught us about the societies that we live in and the governance systems that we are experiencing. Additionally, in terms of philanthropy, COVID-19 has made some of us pledge to deploy more generous and flexible capital, and to build and sustain trust networks. We want to give our partners the freedom of choice to respond to what’s happening on the ground. So while the pandemic has taught us mindfulness at an individual level, it has also made us think about what we can do at a philanthropy level, to ensure that civil society has the power to be more resilient.

In that sense, this moment has really taught us that we need a more judicious balance between centralisation and decentralisation. Rather than pushing solutions or diktats down the pipeline, we need to focus on what we can do to distribute the ability to solve. This is something that we are trying – we call the approach ‘societal platform thinking.’ Through it, our teams are working across sectors to make sure that people have what they need to build agency.

Jairam notes the role of programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in building the resilience of local communities. MNREGA works to create assets, through water conservation, land improvement, etc., that lead to climate resilience. And as he points out, this is done in tandem with civil society and has been a success in a number of states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa. WIth this in mind he asks, if we know that civil society’s capacity to build local resilience exceeds the capacity and capability of the government, how can we rediscover the virtues of civil society working in tandem with local governments?

Building on the point of government programmes and working in collaboration with civil society, I would like to note two very large and ambitious government programmes which have been announced – the Atal Bhujal Yojana and the Jal Shakti Abhiyan for drinking water and for ground water management. Here my foundation, Arghyam, is trying to be closely involved. As a nonprofit we know that communities have a good sense of their water resources. What we need to do is build their capacity to separate and segregate their good water resources for drinking. In essence, we have to go local, by giving people the knowledge, the training, and the tools they need, such as water quality testing kits. This doesn’t cost much money and if the government and civil society work together we can push the water agenda out this summer.

This pandemic has highlighted the fact that our governance system has failed. The public distribution system (PDS) has failed to reach many people. So while social order has been maintained, it has been done at the cost of a lot of disrespect to people. Navroz connects this failure again, to the lack of systematic resilience we have. We don’t have institutions and governance that can protect the poorest in India, and so we need to think about systems change. We need to demand a society that can handle these disruptions in ways that are more kind, fair, and in a way that safeguards the poorest.

Overall, when looking at both this pandemic and climate change, it is clear that we need more effective governance. And while I’m the first to say that as citizens we can’t be automatic consumers of good governance, we need to co-create it, it is also true that the state has to respond much more effectively so that the public can follow. To enable citizens to be able to do their duties better, to change their habits, we need public infrastructure, which is not something we currently have.

Imaging a New Future

When looking at solutions and the road ahead, our path is clear. We have laws to protect the environment and we need to enforce them. We have institutions that were created to enforce the laws, and we need to strengthen those institutions. The solutions are staring us in the face. We already have laws, standards, regulations, institutions – what we need to do is respect them. As Jairam bluntly puts it, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is meant to protect the environment and forests. It is not there to liberalise environmental and forest laws, so that we can have more environmental destruction and deforestation.

We also need to look at the Bazaar or the market sector. Tomorrow’s successful company is going to be about sustainability. We have seen enough surveys that tell us that the companies that are balancing environmental concerns with their bottom line are succeeding and developing at a rapid pace, which highlights that it isn’t an either/or situation. Of course there are fast profits to be made by ignoring societal labor and environmental laws, but at the same time, there are also smarter companies that have already launched. And it is these smarter companies that need to help small businesses. They must use their CSR to help create common goods like shared effluent treatment plants. They need to think about their CSR in a way that goes beyond how it has been designed today. For this, I think there are genuine opportunities available. People want to do better and the state has to help enable them. In the same way, the business sector has to help its smaller units be smarter. This is what the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) is for. I look forward to them starting this process soon.

We can’t pollute our way to prosperity. We need to be talking about green jobs, and looking not just at financial stability but also ecological stability. With this in mind, Jairam highlights that we have an opportunity for a Green New Deal. Why shouldn’t we be looking at a green revival? Why don’t we talk about a green stimulus? These are opportunities for revisiting some of the issues that have bedeviled us. Every crisis creates an opportunity. In 1991, there was a crisis, and that was an opportunity for economic reform. In 2020, we have another economic crisis as well as a social crisis, and it has given us an opportunity for ecological reform and for bringing ecology into the mainstream of governance.

It is worth taking a pause and thinking about the scale of change that we have seen in the last 45 days, and all the things that have suddenly become possible. Doing so will show us that so far, we have only been limited by our imagination. As Navroz says, we don’t usually think that we can get the world to change very much, and then suddenly that is no longer the case. The virus has got people talking about things that were unimaginable, talking about ways in which they are changing their personal behaviours, reflecting on living in the moment, and thinking about how to shift things that we previously thought were really hard to shift. We must use this moment to re-imagine. To try to think about what a more progressive life looks like, and what we can do to build towards it.

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