For farmers in India, climate change is a 'threat multipler'
A recent Gaon Connection survey conducted across 19 states in the country has gathered that every fifth farmer views climate change as the biggest challenge for farming. The environment minister must address the challenges climate change is posing in rural India because these have far reaching impacts
Ninety-two-year-old Til Bahadur Chhetri is a resident of Hee Patal village perched at 2,000 metres above mean sea level in West Sikkim district. In the last nine decades, Chhetri, a large cardamom farmer, has witnessed several changes in the Himalayan state of Sikkim.
Most of these changes are related to the changing climate. Temperature has gone up, winters have become dry, monsoon rainfall is erratic and new pests have appeared, as narrated by Chhetri. Farmers like Chhetri are concerned about such changes in their environment because these have a direct bearing on their only means of livelihood — farming.
Rising temperature and erratic rainfall means Chhetri's cardamom yield has declined. It has also translated into orchards of mandarin oranges climbing up to higher altitudes in the state, as they cannot survive the rising heat.
And, these environmental changes aren't a figment of Chhetri's imagination. In its 2012 report, 'Climate Change in Sikkim: Patterns, Impacts and Initiatives', the Sikkim government recorded in the last two decades (1991-2000 to 2001-2010), the annual rainfall at Tadong meteorological station had decreased at the rate 17.77 mm a year.
Also, the mean minimum temperature increased by 1.95 degree C between 1981 and 2010. Climate change and its impacts aren't limited to one state alone. These changes are being felt by rural communities and farmers across the country who rightly term climate change as a 'threat multiplier'. Thus, Javadekar ji, first and foremost on the environment agenda of rural India is climate change, a term which is an integral part of the title of your ministry.
As an environment minister, you must address the challenges climate change is posing in rural India because these have far reaching impacts. It would be unfair to write on the World Environment Day and not mention drought that has gripped more than 43% of the country.
People in rural areas of states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh are facing an acute water crisis. Several regions are hit by a combination of meteorological drought (failure of monsoon), agricultural drought (failure of crops), and hydrological drought (groundwater depletion). Farmers have suffered both kharif (summer) and rabi (winter) crop losses in the last one year.
And, some of these drought-hit areas are facing successive droughts for the last two to three years. A below normal monsoon rainfall last southwest monsoon season, poor pre-monsoon showers this year and now a delayed monsoon has accentuated drought conditions in the country.
To top it all, the India Meteorological Department's recent long range forecast of southwest monsoon rainfall — 96% of long period average — may not be able to pull the entire 43% land of the country out of drought. Hence, recurring droughts is the second challenge on environment agenda of rural India.
It is also closely related to the agenda no 1 of climate change. There is enough scientific evidence that links climate change, warming of Indian ocean with the changes in the Indian summer monsoon. Our monsoon is "India's real finance minister" because almost 60% agriculture practised in the country is rainfed. Thus, any changes in monsoon rainfall has a direct impact on rural economy.
Third on the environment agenda of rural India is water, especially groundwater. And this agenda is inter-linked with agenda no 1 (climate change) and 2 (drought). In semi-arid regions like Marathwada in Maharashtra, lack of regulation and an over-exploitation of groundwater has accentuated drought conditions.
Farmers inform how in 1972 during the worst drought in the state, there was no rainfall from the sky, but groundwater was available within few feet of digging. Today, several pockets in Marathwada have no groundwater till 1,000-1,200 feet. Unsuitable cropping pattern of water guzzling sugarcane crop has turned the region into a perpetual drought zone. Thus, when monsoon rainfall fails, water crisis grips the region. There is no water for agriculture, no water for cattle and no water to drink.
Ensuring regulated use of groundwater is crucial. Fourth item on environment agenda is the highly controversial proposal to overhaul the Indian Forest Act, 1927; and the threat of forced eviction of more than 1.89 million tribal and other forest-dwelling households from forestlands across 16 states of the country. The draft Indian Forest Act, 2019 proposes to restore higher management powers and a degree of veto power with the forest bureaucracy over the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
The draft law allows forest officials to deny or extinguish rights over traditional forests of tribals, even those already recognised under the 2006 Act, reduce or restrict tribals and forest dwellers' access to forest produce, and diminish the role of gram sabhas by running a parallel system of "village forests" in which forest officials would have the last say.
Additionally, it provides the forest bureaucracy powers to govern India's forests with policing powers suspending basic human rights of the forest-dwelling people that other citizens are guaranteed under the Constitution.
Meanwhile, a Supreme Court order dated February 13 this year has directed eviction of all tribal and forest-dwellers whose claims to traditional forestlands had been rejected under the Forest Rights Act. This could impact over 1.89 million tribal and forest-dwelling families.
The apex court put the order on temporary hold till June but the threat to millions' lives remains alive. The environment ministry has to play a constructive role in pro-actively protecting the rights of the people and amending its legal stance as well as processes to ensure conservation of forests respecting the Forest Rights Act and not by undercutting it.
Javadekar ji, there is an urgent need to ensure the proposed overhauling of the Indian Forest Act does not go against the provisions of the Forest Rights Act of 2006. In fact, you have to go a step ahead and amend all legislations and regulations that contradict the 2006 Act in letter, spirit or in practice.
Last but not the least, the fifth issue on environment agenda of rural India is the growing problem of plastics waste — plastic wrappers, multi-layered wafer packets, sachets, disposable (Thermocol or Styrofoam) foodware, etc.
As per the Central Pollution Control Board's estimate, over 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in the country. But this data is mostly based on surveys conducted in cities and there is no information on the growing load and impacts of plastic waste in rural India.
Gaon Connection reporters regularly travel to rural India to report on a plethora of issues. In almost all the villages they visit, lack of collection and disposal of plastic waste is a huge concern. Plastic waste not only clogs the local water bodies, but also causes land degradation.
Our focus on waste must go beyond urban India's waste problems and also address the challenges being faced in rural India, which lacks any formal system of waste management and is facing a surge in plastic waste generation. Javadekar ji, it's true that drought monsoon and groundwater do not directly come under the purview of your ministry. But environment does not function in silos. And neither should ministries.