Climate change is taking its toll on India

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on November 27, 2019

Its ill-effects are now visible across the country. A people’s movement is needed to make combating toxic air a top priority

TV motoring star Jeremy Clarkson is now a believer — in climate change, that is. For years, Britain’s self-described “petrolhead” insisted global warming was a global-sized hoax. His conversion took place when he was filming his hit show The Grand Tour and found drought-hit stretches of the Mekong river system reduced to a “puddle,” a situation he called “genuinely alarming.”

Closer home, we’ve been seeing signs of climate change all around. In earlier decades, Delhi residents pulled their woollens out of mothballs by mid-September when early mornings and evenings turned chilly. This year, the woollens are aired and ready but aren’t yet needed. The weatherman has promised chillier temperatures ahead, but it doesn’t require an expert to tell us winters are coming much later than before. Even fans, which should have been enjoying their off-duty season, are putting in overtime.

Winter in Delhi was also once the season when the city heaved a sigh of relief after summer’s furnace blast and was a time for outdoor parties. This year, there’s a mucky smog so bad that the Supreme Court this week called it “worse than hell” and apocalyptically offered the opinion it would be “better to get explosives and kill everyone”.

We reminisce about how we once looked at photos of Beijing under a similar grimy pall and wondered how they lived there. Now we know — not well, and it’s defiling the air we breathe, causing higher rates of respiratory and heart disease, strokes and cancer, as well as making summers hotter and winters shorter.

Economic costs

Then, there’s the economic costs. Global warming’s made India’s economy 31 per cent smaller than it would otherwise have been according to a new Stanford study highlighting how temperature changes have widened inequalities between cool countries like Norway while dragging down growth in hot places like India. The World Bank calculates climate change will shave nearly 3 per cent off India’s GDP and depress living standards of nearly half its population by 2050. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates India’s suffered $79.5 billion in economic losses in 19 years due to climate-change disasters.

Delhi, of course, gets all the publicity as the world’s most-polluted capital. But the dirty haze has spread over a string of north Indian cities and even drifted southwards as Punjab farmers burn stubble. Indian cities easily cornered 22 out of 30 spots on a Greenpeace list of the world’s 30 most polluted cities. City-dwellers can don masks and pray their lungs aren’t too horribly affected by air pollution.

But farmers can’t get through a season if weather patterns start to alter. And that’s indeed what happened in a large swathe of southern and western India this year. In parts of Karnataka, there wasn’t enough rain in June-July, so farmers postponed crop sowing. But then heavy, unseasonal rains in August destroyed a quarter of their crops. Kodagu, the coffee-growing region, was particularly badly hit.

We may not know its causes entirely, but the harsh reality of climate change has been visible all over India this year. It’s time we began searching for solutions, but the political class doesn’t appear to be ready to spearhead innovative initiatives. The Delhi Government, faced by the smoggy reality of climate change, quickly brought its odd-even number scheme back into action and banned construction. But this year’s odd-even scheme was even less effective than its implementation the earlier time because two-wheelers, which contribute mightily to pollution, weren’t included this time.

Delhi’s woes

Another cruel fact is that imposing an odd-even scheme isn’t going to work unless it’s imposed in the entire National Capital Region. But it would be tough to introduce vehicle curbs in Delhi’s satellite cities like Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad which don’t have effective public transportation.

Incidentally, it should be mentioned that the number of vehicles in Delhi alone have soared stratospherically. In 1988, some 2.3 million vehicles plied on Delhi roads. Now there are 11.2 million. Effective public transportation — with electric or CNG-run buses — must become a top priority in Indian cities.

Pollution and climate change ignore borders but it’s cold comfort to know Lahore may be the one city that’s, if anything, worse than Delhi. Maybe we should take a glance across the border to see the conversation there. On Monday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Clean Green Pakistan Index in which 19 cities from Lahore to Rawalpindi and Bahawalpur will compete for awards and be measured on scores from clean drinking-water to solid-waste disposal.

Khan’s talked airily about a scheme he calls the Billion Tree Tsunami. He possibly pulled the number out of a hat but, for once, he’s thinking on the right lines. One immediate solution before us is to plant millions of trees and ensure as many survive as possible to help suck up pollution. India’s the third-largest emitter of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (behind China and the US), though still one of the lowest per-capita emitters. So shifting away from coal use to renewable power and other low-carbon infrastructure would be a key step to mitigating local pollution.

We shouldn’t expect too much help from other parts of the world. President Donald Trump’s yanked the US from the Paris Accord. Even China has cut back on its ambitious renewable energy programme. Climate-change experts now say it will be almost impossible to cap global warming to 2oC as sought by governments worldwide. They forecast temperatures will rise 3oC by 2100. The higher levels of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere have risen alarmingly in the last four to five years (

The UN has been warning of runaway climate change with disastrous consequences. By 2030, India will lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs due to global warming, particularly in agriculture and construction, an International Labour Organisation forecast, based on the discredited global temperature target of a 1.5-degree C rise. So the outlook could well be worse.

In truth, though, we don’t need the experts to tell us what is happening. It’s visible before our very eyes. Don’t expect the politicians playing their numbers games in State Assemblies to take action. It’s time for a people’s movement to make combating toxic air and climate change a top priority. And it must start now. Pollution-sucking smog towers being sought by the Supreme Court may be a band-aid but they aren’t the answer.

Published on November 27, 2019

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