Workshop report: Political feedbacks in climate and environment
This workshop – organized on 09 February in Kolkata in collaboration with the University of Calcutta’s Institute of Foreign Policy Studies – aimed to provide a better understanding of the role of human agency and feedbacks to behaviors, values and norms that affect the functioning of Earth Systems.
Prof. Dan Banik’s initial remarks sounded the warning note that the year 2018 has been the warmest year in human history. He argued that the discourse on climate change and environmental degradation is primarily Western-centric and underlined the need to actively incorporate non-Western perspectives, including those from India. This has been the fourth year towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and progress happens to be quite slow insofar as addressing issues of environmental degradation are concerned. It is quite ironical that there is an obsession in India as well as in many parts of the world with achieving higher GDP growth rates, which in turn is one of the root causes of environmental degradation. It is important that we create political incentives for the local leaders that will make them adopt measures for achieving the SDGs. Among Indian states, Himachal Pradesh has been doing well with regard to the SDGs. West Bengal is placed 15th in terms of overall SDG performance. Prof. Banik also emphasized that implementation of SDGs calls for sacrifice by all parties. And recent scientific evidence shows that ‘business as usual’ approach will not serve any purpose.
A general discussion followed Prof. Banik’s talk.
Prof. Zamensky from the University of Warsaw mentioned the necessity of paying greater attention to the nature of state-market relations in order to understand and combat different kinds of environmental challenges. He emphasized the need to think beyond neoliberal ideas in promoting more environmentally sustainable politics.
Prof. Shantanu Chakrabarti from the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies at the University of Calcutta, argued that governments at different levels in India (federal as well as provincial) are trying to address issues relating to the environment. However, there appears to be a mismatch between policy priorities adopted by governments at different levels in India as far as threats to combat different kinds of environmental degradation are concerned.
Ambassador Sarvajit Chakraborty mentioned that India had unfortunately failed in convincing the market about the need for protecting the environment. In India, the judiciary has been doing what it could in this respect. There is also an urgent need for obtaining and channelling adequate funding for adopting environmentally sound policies. The business elite in India are not at all favourable to the idea of adopting environment-friendly technologies. There is lack of will among most sections of the society in India to address these problems. There is a need for more environmentally sustainable industries in India.
Prof. Hari Vasudevan from the University of Calcutta highlighted the need for creating institutions to deal with environmental issues – at global, regional and even sub-regional level. He stated that different global, regional and sub-regional institutions need to discuss and thrash out an agendum for sustainable development within their respective forums.
A good deal of discussion revolved around the environmental issues of the Sundarban delta. Dr. Bishnupriya Basak drew the attention of the participants to environmental refugees. She referred to various debates that centre on the very idea of development and outlined the impact of rise in the sea level in the Sundarban delta. Dr. Basak focused on the issue of man-made displacement and the poor air quality in the city of Kolkata.
Dr. Anindya Batabyal also referred to the impact of climate change in the Sundarban region as a result of various anthropogenic processes and argued that it is ironical that people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the Sundarban region have least contributed to the problem in the first place. It is important to note that the amount of sea-level rise along the coast of West Bengal is more than the national average mean sea-level rise in India, which further accentuates the problem of submergence of low lying areas in the Sundarban delta. Also the dual role of the neoliberal state has been mentioned in this respect, which has made the task of sustainable development even more challenging: On the one hand it adopts so called green measures like eco-tourism and different conservation policies for protecting the environment while on the other hand it tries to attract foreign capital to promote unsustainable industrial practices that result in further environmental degradation. The rampant violation of the Coastal Regulatory Management Zone Act (CRA) at many places throughout India, particularly in places like Mandarmani in West Bengal due to close nexus between sections of the political and business elites has been outlined.
Social activist Debishankar Middya highlighted the communication gap between the political decision-makers and key stake holders at the local level. He talked about the problem of salinity of water in the Sundarban region. The number of Sundari trees – a potent source of the mangrove forests - is alarmingly decreasing in the region. Mangrove forests play a critical role in containing soil erosion and coastal subsidence. The crude oil used by country boats plying in the Sundarban region – the only means of transport - is further degrading the environment there. Plastic industry has emerged as another source of environmental degradation in the Sundarban region. Ground water level is also sharply receding in the Sundarban region along with the problem of arsenic poisoning. Installation of 4G mobile phone towers is also destroying the local ecology and biodiversity in the area.
Mr. Sanjoy Ghosh, social activist, discussed how local community initiatives in the Sundarban region could not be implemented due to political interferences. We need to keep local peoples’ interests in sustainable development above the interests of political parties. For, after all they are the ones who have to pay the price of degradation. There is need to educate local people about sustainable development.
Prof. Aniruddha Mukhopadhyay in his concluding remarks argued that there is always a debate on what is sustainable development? There is a need for focusing more on anthropocentric development than eco-centric development. There is also need to take into account population pressures in any discussion on sustainable development. India is very rich in biodiversity and there is need to protect India’s rich diversity through sustainable development measures. He also mentioned about the importance of plants that can absorb arsenic. Also, access to safe drinking water will be a major environmental concern in India in future. Also another critical area of concern is waste management in India.