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No Speaking Tree

Where will Modi’s wishy-washy climate change notions take India?

No Speaking Tree
Mayur Bhatt
No Speaking Tree

Modiisms On Climate Change

E-Book Convenient Action Published in 2011

“The real test of leadership is not only in welcoming this truth (of global warming) but also in devising, formulating and implementing a strategy that results in what I call decisive, appropriate, timely and ‘convenient action’ to deal with this truth and the challenges that it has thrown.”

University Of The Sacred Hearts, Tokyo, on Sept 2, 2014

“Climate change...is this terminology correct? The reality is that in our family, some people are old. They say this time the weather is colder. And people’s ability to bear cold becomes less as they age. We should also ask: Is this climate change or have we changed? We have battled against nature. We should love nature instead of fighting it.”

Sept 5, 2014 Interaction With children

“Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have got spoilt and in the process, we harmed the environment. If we change, nature too is waiting to change provided man does not have a confrontationist attitude towards it. Man should have an attitude of caring for the environment.”

UN General Assembly Speech On Sept 27, 2014

“We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well-being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. It doesn’t mean that economies will suffer; it will mean that our economies will take on a different character. For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism.... Yoga embodies unity of mind and body...”


Is Narendra Modi a climate change sceptic? Many of the prime minister’s statements in the recent past—advocating yoga and a change in lifestyle as an answer to “help us deal with climate change”—had raised concerns that he was trivialising the issue, focussed as he was on with his model of development. Will it mean a change in India’s stand on climate iss­ues ahead of major UN negotiations on the post-2015 targets and commitme­nts? Inexplicably, India’s strident and articulate climate change establishment is lar­gely reticent about the whole issue.

Globally, Modi has been slammed for his apparent volte face on climate cha­nge. The Guardian’s Suzanne Golden­berg wrote that Modi “does not want to have a conversation about what India plans to do about it (climate change). But the real problem could be the fast rising pace of India’s emissions”. India’s emissions are estimated to rise by 60 per cent between 2020-40. That is why, at the start of Modi’s trip to the US, a Washington Post editorial pointed out that “the signals weren’t good that the world’s third- largest emitter of greenhouse gases would change its tone on climate change”.

While these publications will naturally mirror the concerns of the developed world about India’s emissions, it is Modi’s decision to skip the United Nat­ions climate summit which has fuel­led further speculation about India’s inten­tions. “Recent remarks, bafflingly self- contradictory and weirdly flippant, have not soothed these concerns,” a New York Times editorial stated. Unfor­tunately, the high priests of Indian cli­m­ate change are not, at least not publicly, quite ready to bell the cat.

“There is no dilution at all on India’s stand, we are sticking to the UNFCCC-based negotiations.”
Suresh Prabhu, PM’s pointsman

Dr R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel on climate cha­nge (IPCC) is dismissive, stating, “He is not only a believer in climate change but he’s also committed to act­ion on climate change.” On Modi’s posers to schoolchildren (see graphic), Pac­hauri refused to be drawn in except to say that the PM “may have been joking...from what I know of him, he is totally committed to climate change concerns”.

Many among Modi’s supporters point to the push to promote use of alternate energy sources like solar and wind power for electricity generation and ene­rgy sec­urity, his focus on sanitation and waste management as testimony to his commitm­ent to conserving the environment for future generations. Some strive to brush aside concerns by pointing out that climate change has now moved bey­­ond being a foreign negotiations department to a focus area denoted by the name change: ‘ministry of environment, forests and climate change’.

Seen in the context of the extreme weather conditions witnessed in India during the summer monsoon this year, when most parts of northwest India got less than 50 per cent of normal rainfall while Jammu and Kashmir witnessed the worst floods in several decades, a name change is no solace. Nor is it a positive indicator of future government plans (with alarming reports of forests expected to face the axe in the quest to step up mining and business activities).

“Modi’s frivolous and off-tangent remarks have cast some doubts, but that would be stretching it too far.”
Pradipto Ghosh, Former environment secretary

“Modi projecting himself as a sceptic is harmful to the interests of India and efforts to contain the consequences of climate change,” says Himanshu Tha­k­kar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. Thakkar interprets Modi’s confusing remarks to a keenness “to keep his foot in both camps” in order to purse his development model. An overlooked consequence of this is a lost opportunity for India to seek compensation for victims of extreme weather-linked events from developed nations for western-emission induced climate change.

Former environment secretary Pra­d­ipto Ghosh agrees that “some people had interpreted Modi’s frivolous and off-the-tangent remarks to casting doubts on the science of climate cha­nge...but that would be stretching it too far. Maybe he has some doubts, but one cannot put words into his mouth.” Refuting rumours that he had influenced the PM in his line of thinking, Ghosh maintains that the statements made by Modi and his government “have been consistent with the traditional stance”.

But yet again, going by its actions, the NDA government is failing to pursue its own sustainable development path. Modi’s talk like “respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism” rings hollow when one considers water resources minister Uma Bharati’s suggestion of doing away with electric crematoriums and reverting to the use of wood for the last rites. Or even environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s refusal to entertain concerns on emissions. There is genuine fear that in the pursuit of becoming another Chinese model of development, we could be faced with worse smog-enveloped cities and towns, besides filthy rivers and unpotable groundwater.

“Modi projecting himself as a sceptic is harmful to the interests of India and efforts to contain climate change.”
Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP coordinator

Ashok Khosla of Development Altern­at­ives says, “The early signals given by the NDA government on their attitude towards the environment are not cause for jubilation.” Khosla too is confused, for Modi, who has often exp­ressed concerns about the environment in his speeches and in his book, took a completely contrary stance recently. “It does not tally well with what he has said in the past about climate change. Perhaps we need to give him and the government a little time to come to grips with the seriousness of these issues. But certainly not too much time,” he says.

The PM’s newly appointed sherpa, ex-environment minister Suresh Prabhu, refuses to give any negative connotation to Modi’s remarks, while pointing out that by his action of promoting renewable energy security, the government is giving due importance to climate change. “By bringing ‘renewable’ into focus, we are looking at energy security in the national context,” says Prabhu. On the global front too, he is clear that “there is no dilution at all on India’s stance that we are sticking to the UNFCCC-based negotiations, which we have reiterated. There was a lot of pressure on India to move away from it by the developed nations.”

Experts are in accord that if India sticks to the UNFCCC protocol, it stands to gain. However, going by the experience at wto negotiations, there is no certainty on what the Modi regime’s stand could be. India must stick to its guns against the demands of rich countries, but a worry is that a flippant remark or two will harden positions against us. And that may not be good for the (investment) climate.

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