Climate change is landing blow after blow upon humanity and the planet, an onslaught that will only intensify in the coming years even if the world begins to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. That is the clear message of UNEP's Adaptation Gap Report 2022: the world must urgently increase efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. India is already experiencing manifold impacts. It is steadily getting warmer, and the country's average temperature is expected to rise by 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. There is a slow but steady decline in the total quantum of rainfall, while intense rainfall events accompanied by floods and landslides are frequently increasing. The sea level is rising, and more and more super-cyclones are hitting the west coast. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas threatens to dry up the Gangetic plains.
That is the reality of climate change, but what are the world's leaders, including our own country doing? The young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg sums up the situation in her inimitable fashion. As she asserts, they are not going beyond blah, blah, blah. She says we are sacrificing our civilisation for a tiny number of people's opportunity to continue making enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like Sweden (and our India) can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.
We have an excellent example of the hope coming from the people of Kerala, the state that has made remarkable advances in making India's democracy meaningful. In 2008 Maju Puthenkandam as the president of Kadanad panchayat, set up the Biodiversity Management Committee that involved experts and volunteers in all 13 wards of the Panchayat and by pooling together information from farmers and other members of the community, prepared the People's Biodiversity Register. This document noted that the quarrying of rocks in the biodiversity-rich Perumkunnu hills was detrimental to it and should be halted. Kadanad BMC requested Kerala State Biodiversity Board to appoint experts to assess the environmental impacts of quarrying and crusher unit; KSBDB duly did so on 24.12.2011. The Kerala High Court examined this case in 2012 and upheld the Kadanad GP's decision not to allow quarrying as it was based on solid evidence. The vested interests then swung into action and convinced the Panchayat that their resolution would only bring the area under the stranglehold of a tyrannical Forest Department and that they would suffer more in its grip than because of the quarry. Worried, the Panchayat rescinded the resolution. Regretfully, the Forest Department serves as the country's crony capitalism tool to turn the common people against environmental protection.
But this has extracted its price. Kerala's Idukki and Kottayam districts reported intense rainfall and major landslides around October 16, 2021. Eleven people died in Idukki and 14 in Kottayam; the worst to suffer was Koottickal in Kottayam, close to Kadanad, where people have been agitating for over a decade to stop the operation of rock quarries. The quarries kept operating even during torrential rains on the day of the disaster; sounds of explosions from the quarries could be heard all through the disaster. Although only three quarries are mentioned in the official data, such deception is exposed in today's knowledge age, and more than 17 were spotted in the satellite image. As many as 5924 quarries continue functioning in Kerala despite such calamities. The government approved 223 new quarries after the 2018 Kerala floods. This is going on, although it is well established that there is a close link between hard rock quarrying and slope failures in the form of landslides.
Take the example of Goa which for centuries retained its green mantle thanks to the tradition of village community-based gaonkaris. The government is now taking power away from the people to support the enterprises of India's super-rich. The Union Ministry of Shipping is backing a project, despite strong objections from the Pollution Control Board, to deepen the Marmugoa port channel to enable the docking of larger cargo vessels to serve the coal berths operated by the triumvirate of Ambanis, Adanis, and Agarwals (Vedanta). Outside the port, the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways supports nearly Rs 1,000 crore worth of road projects. These are geared towards linking the port with Karnataka across the Western Ghats to transport coal, cutting a swathe through Goa's villages and forests. The extensive destruction of tree cover that this entails includes the cutting through of Mollem National Park by a railway line. The people of Goa are protesting and going to court to save Mollem while the foresters enthusiastically participate in cutting the trees.
At the Glasgow summit, our government loftily talked about equity and chanted the mantra of LIFE- Lifestyle for Environment to combat climate change. It emphasised that Lifestyle for Environment must be taken forward as a campaign to make it a mass movement of Environment Conscious Lifestyles. India emphasised that the world needs mindful and deliberate utilisation instead of mindless and destructive consumption.
Then what of these quarries that the people of Kadanad and Koottickal are protesting? And what coal berths are the people of Goa crying hoarse against? They manifest crony capitalism, an economic system in which businesses thrive not as a result of risk but rather as a return on money amassed through a nexus between a business class and the political class. Under this system, inequity is growing to support the opulent lifestyle of a minority of our citizens. The climate crisis is worsening by promoting the burning of coal, accelerating deforestation, creating local heat islands, and adding to the aerosol load of the atmosphere. Indeed, a reality check is urgently needed, and it is the common people of India who will force this reality check.
Ecologist, academic and author