Why we must tackle the climate crisis from the bottom-up in India

By Sharlene Gandhi

Updated May 18, 2020 at 05:54 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Climate change

Jan 16, 2020

Climate denialism is a privilege limited to developed, western nations. In countries like India, where temperatures have soared to over 50 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan, the air pollution in Delhi is reaching fatal levels, coastal cities like Mumbai are at risk of sinking and 24,000 people have allegedly lost their lives in climate-induced circumstances, the climate crisis is simply unignorable.

What hinders large-scale effective action under these circumstances is bureaucracy. India is a country comprised of 28 states and 9 territories, spanning snow-capped peaks to deep rainforests, and working to bridge linguistic, cultural and systemic barriers. While it may be obvious that combating the climate crisis is going to require blanket legislative and cultural change, achieving this on a broad scale is more likely to lead to inertia once we realise the true scale of the problem.

In light of this, communities on the front-lines, those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, are increasingly taking matters into their own hands: what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to as community-based micro-resilience. These are bittersweet stories of villages and societies whose very existence is challenged by the climate crisis, and whose drive to survive is commendable.

Screen Shot spoke to Bhavna Maheriya, programme manager at the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), a non-profit working across eight Indian states. While the primary motivation of the organisation is to uplift, empower and educate women in slum communities, the organisation has recently introduced a climate resilience programme. Not only does the programme raise awareness of the climate crisis itself, but it also trains women to help their communities pivot efficiently should they ever face a climate-induced crisis.

The programme began in 2016 and focused on four key stressors that informal communities in India are particularly vulnerable to heat, water scarcity, flooding, and water-borne disease. Maheriya tells me that new technologies, as well as some simple ingenious methods of resilience, have been developed over the course of the programme. For example, most residences in slum communities are built with adjoining walls and lead roofs, which not only lead to high temperatures, but also to higher costs of indoor cooling facilities. By simply installing ceiling ventilation in the roofs of each residence, both temperature and costs are brought down for the whole community.

Regardless of the regions and their specific problem, community action groups are taking responsibility and displaying autonomy in how they tackle these problems. MHT trains climate ‘sathis’, or climate friends, to provide advice and consultation, and thus both mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis and future-proof their own communities.

Maheriya stresses that MHT is a grassroots organisation, and that while none of the employees or ‘sathis’ are formally educated on the climate crisis, they learn through experience, mentoring and knowledge-sharing. It would be debilitating to depend on action from the authorities, she tells me, “All experts have their own philosophy, and most are not ready to come into the [slum] communities. They don’t want to leave their air-conditioned offices.” The irony is alarming.

MHT is just one example of a bottom-up initiative that recognises the criticality of dealing with the climate crisis. There are a plethora of other bittersweet tales of villages creating their own irrigation systems and even reverting to mud houses in order to overcome severe flooding. There is, however, a risk with celebrating these stories too much.

As positive and hopeful as such stories are, they subtly take responsibility away from those in power and open up space for the latter to deflect and divert attention, rather than being held accountable. Increasingly, we are seeing that those in power are, and will continue to be, able to shelter themselves from the impacts of the climate crisis. And while power itself might come in a variety of forms—financial, cultural, hierarchical—it allows those at the top to turn their backs on something that does not immediately impact them.

Music producer Aditya Virmani, also known by his stage name Nivid, reveals the blindness that power affords in these circumstances. Virmani recounts how this year the change in climate patterns and monsoon expectations has meant that the state government of Punjab forced farmers to delay rice crop cultivation. Although the initial motivation behind this legislation was to motivate farming communities to diversify into environmentally-friendly crops, those working the paddies have been left with financial hardship and failed crop yields. There is speculation that the age-old tradition of burning crops was intensified due to wastage, leading to the air pollution crisis in the nearby city of Delhi. Virmani has recently released The World Around Me (Infinite Support)/Sanskaari, a track that speaks of the impact of power in the environmental crisis in India.

I use India not only because of its particular vulnerability to the climate crisis, but also because of its stark income and power disparity; there is no doubt that the two are interconnected problems. But India is merely a case study for almost every other nation, whereby top-down climate action is paralysed by power, politics and fear.

Unfortunately, communities must kickstart the revolution and protect themselves from the inevitable, banding together to drive change from the bottom-up. Those with resources, infrastructure and budget to help might continue turning a blind eye as long as it is convenient for them.

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