How Climate Change Affects Indian Political Stability

Dec 17th, 2012 | By | Category: Adaptation, Advocacy, Capacity Development, Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Disasters and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Environment, Food, Global Warming, Governance, Government Policies, Health and Climate Change, International Agencies, Mitigation, News, Opinion, Population, Poverty, Resilience, Urbanization, Vulnerability, Water, Women

In July, The Economist published a piece describing the effects of climate change in India and discovered two prevailing trends: first, India is getting warmer, and second, the summer monsoons are coming later and later in the year. Time Magazine recently looked into the phenomenon and found that India’s energy supply and distribution problems may be exacerbated, even caused by ecological factors. Believe in global warming or not, India’s cities are getting hotter. Indians, particularly in the Northern regions of the country most affected, have been forced to crank up their air conditioning, putting immense pressure on the already overburdened, haphazard electric grids. Last July, The New York Times reported three regional electric grids completely collapsed, blacking out half the country. Catastrophes like these are bound to continue. Wheat, the primary grain both produced and consumed in India, is reaching its maximum tolerance for heat. As temperatures continue to rise, and they have for the past six decades, supplies of basic grains will diminish. Considering that over 600m of 1.24 billion depend on the grain for subsistence, wages, and breakfast, it would nothing less than a disaster.

India’s national success can always be traced by the trajectory of the population’s successful harnessing of summer rains. The Mauryan, the Ashoka, and the Gupta empires of old all grew to prominence from their agricultural workers in the northern regions of India, called the Indo-Gangetic Plain, coming to understand the monsoon patterns. Throughout history, farmers have learned to irrigate and channel the water, and sailors have learned to track the winds’ patterns and navigate accordingly.

However, the summer patterns that have been observed in the last three decades deviate from the ancient rule of monsoon-law. As The Economist noted, even the most learned climatologist would have trouble explaining how heat affects monsoon systems. Typically, a landmass whose temperature rises faster than the oceans’ will experience higher levels of precipitation. And yet, India proves to be an exception: at the same time that temperatures have risen, there has been a 4.5% decline in monsoon rains. That’s not the worst of it.

The real fear is that when monsoons hit, they hit hard. Think back to July of 2005 in Mumbai. Thirty-seven inches of water fell in less than 24 hours; the city was paralyzed. Even more daunting than a lack of rain on a normal schedule is that even India’s most developed city cannot handle the rains. “Mumbai is a unique city that has grown, and continues to expand, without any physical planning in terms of land use or planning for emergencies and natural disasters,” said P.K. Das, an urban planner and architect who heads P.K. Das and Associates, a Mumbai architecture firm, to The New York Times. That doesn’t bode well for the hundreds of rural villages with inferior or non-existent infrastructure.

Panic! at the (U.P.A.) Disco

India’s inadequate infrastructure is symptomatic of a much larger problem the country faces: political dysfunction. India is a democracy. Led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in power since 2004 and is acutely corrupted, bedeviled by pervasive graft. Americans often complain of gridlock and congressional dysfunction- if they only knew about India. Because of the widespread corruption, the opposition parties simply protest all parliamentary procedures. Rarely does a day go by when floor debates commence and are not quickly overwhelmed by opposition parties’ chants: “Nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi” (“will not function, will not function”) and “Manmohan Singh gaddi choro!” (“Manmohan Singh, leave the chair”).

But why stir when you can shuffle? The UPA, of course, prefers retaining power and shuffling the political players in its top positions. Since 2009, Prime Minister Singh has overseen three reshufflings of his ministers. Satish Misra, a senior fellow in politics and governance at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai, called it “an inevitable consequence of the instability of coalition politics in a parliamentary democracy.” The last two reshuffles of the ministers in India have been understood as a way of insulating the office of the Prime Minister from popular criticism from Singh. However, the most recent one seems to hold much more meaning.

The most recent reshuffling has been described as being aimed at revamping the image of the regime, to cast a youthful one, and not a gray, wrinkled, weary one. Manmohan Singh is 80 years old, ruling over a country with a faltering economy, social tension, income inequality, and countless other problems. In the last several years dissention has mounted, a populist party led by Anna Hazare has risen, terrorist attacks have been carried out, the income gap continues to widen, and the list goes on and on. Despite the impressive legislative efforts Singh has championed to handle some of India’s most pressing social and economic problems, the government still lacks capacity to deliver. Adding to the mix of instability is the overwhelming percentage of Indians under the age of 25, the most unstable segment of any society.

“There is a storm coming, Mr. Singh.”

India is by far the greatest commercial prospect in history. India has a population of 1.2 billion. The middle class of India has grown immensely and will continue to do so. Its buying power is expected to triple in the next 15 years. Already, corporations like Wal-Mart and Tesco have reacted by attempting to increase investments in Indian markets. Surprisingly, the UPA has made the wise decision of liberalizing foreign investment restrictions to 51% for retail and 49% in aviation sectors in an attempt to change the mounting perception of policy paralysis. As middle class wealth slowly but surely accrues, and the government liberalizes restrictions on foreign investment further, consumer markets will grow at astonishing rates. Growth comes at a cost, however. These growing pains are oftentimes not reflected on price tags: environmental degradation, wasteful consumption, no waste disposal, and pollution. As the consumer markets of India grow (and they will, no matter what the UPA does), the country will face externalities the likes of which have seldom been observed, especially those dastardly monsoon patterns. Consider a basic model: a factory is opened, hiring 1 billion Indians, all of whom are given wages, and each begins to consume. In this model, even if each worker were paid five dollars a day, five billion dollars worth of consumer goods, cars for instance, have just been purchased. India is now covered with an umbrella of greenhouse gasses, raising temperatures, worsening the monsoon system’s developments.

India is an anomaly for Asia. In most other Asian parliamentary democracies (i.e. South Korea and Taiwan) democracy developed with a middle class overthrowing central authority and creating popular government. Not India. India was born out of a rare alliance between affluent and impoverished Indians, largely without the support of the middle class. The power dynamic has seen little change; the government as well as large industry is still controlled by a few families (i.e. Ghandi, Nehru, Tata, Kumar, etc.), and according to voter participation rates, the middle class is far and away the least participatory. Sound strange? Democracy is the West’s answer for all societal ills; why then does India stumble? It is not disenfranchisement but rather political dysfunction that is at the root of India’s problems. India may be a Gordian knot of struggles, but there is a great opportunity to be had.

Commercial activity and economic growth will come for India; this is beyond contestation. Government is in place, and weak though it may be, it is in a position to channel its economic potential towards a path of massive growth while also preventing externalities. India has the opportunity to be truly sustainable, economically and environmentally. Proponents of the free market might argue this will hinder economic activity, and regulation should be avoided at all costs. I contend otherwise. In America, framework for economic development came before that of democracy, and government had the power to regulate, effectively curbing externalities. But when efficacy of government caught up with that of industry, regulations were put in place, and low and behold, both industry and democracy survive.

India is no America, however, not yet. Its political system is strained. Income inequality is acute. Environmental degradation is worsening, climate change is rearing its ugly head, and infrastructure is crumbling. The time for change is now. Mr. Singh focuses on short-term change, constantly shifting one minister to the next ministry to in attempts to ameliorate his own regime’s image. What Mr. Singh ought do is engage in long-term reform efforts. Continue liberalization of direct foreign investments barriers. Invest in manufacturing and other domestic sectors. Institute a progressive tax structure. Root out graft, ministry by ministry. Will these measures hinder economic growth? Certainly. But economic growth is not a stock value; it is a flow measure. The rate of growth will be slowed, yes. But in the long run, such policies save the Indian economic and political system from future partisan battles over regulation and scope of government we face in America. Monsoons afflict India now, and they will continue. If India’s economic potential is realized, with no effort to curb its environmental implications, the current monsoon phenomenon will be petty in comparison to the degradation and exploitation Indian’s natural resources will experience.  Bound together in developmental symbiosis are India’s natural and economic welfare. India may achieve the latter alone, only to arrive at a point where externalities unchecked outweigh growth. To beget one, the other must be fostered.

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