The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) scheduled for November 2020 was deferred to November 2021 on the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. Developed countries have shown reluctance in fulfilling their commitments in providing climate finance for the (climate-related) loss and damages to developing and under-developed countries. Indigenous leaders across the world pointed out that despite 80% of the planet’s biodiversity surviving in their territories, they weren’t part of the negotiations. At the same time, at least 500 lobbyists affiliated with the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants were given access to the Glasgow conference.
India vouched for inclusivity with other Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) at the conference. In his COP26 speech, Modi proposed a ‘One-word movement’—L.I.F.E. which he described as Lifestyle For Environment. Prior to Glasgow, he had also attended the G20 summit. He opined that the summit—which featured conversations on issues such as curbing the Covid-19 pandemic—was ‘fruitful’. At G20’s Climate Change and Environment session he had asserted that India had made climate mitigation a major responsibility. Further, he also expressed his pain regarding climate justice, particularly with respect to the inequities between developed and developing countries. Despite his proclamations on a conscious lifestyle and India’s efforts to alleviate poverty at conferences of global importance, reality closer home remains grim especially in the context of the pandemic.
If anything, the pandemic—causing 4.64 lakh deaths so far— laid bare the structures of inequity in India. Even as a massive vaccination drive is underway, it is likely that those out of reach of mainstream healthcare systems will be excluded again. Ten months since the start of the vaccination drive, only 38% of the eligible people have received the second dose. In a list of 90 districts with more than half of the population being tribal, 24 were identified by the Centre as having low vaccination coverage.
Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities, having been hit harder in the second wave when even remote tribal regions were not left untouched, bore the brunt of both the health and climate crises. The meagre resources available to them otherwise were diverted for Covid-19 response, severely limiting their capacities to respond to seasonal and other diseases such as dengue, malaria, typhoid, etc.
Our ongoing study, ‘Assessing the Impact of Covid-19 second wave on Adivasi and Forest-Dwelling communities’ highlighted that the vulnerability experienced by the indigenous communities due to climate change events is exacerbated significantly in the event of a health crisis, and renders their situation extremely precarious in the absence of substantial government efforts to mitigate the loss and damages. The study involved civil society representatives from scheduled areas across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and opened up avenues for investigating the inequality that affects these areas.
Several representatives recounted incidents of forest department-led plantations on forest and farm lands during the pandemic. Such plantations, as part of India’s climate change policy, have only caused havoc. In Uttarakhand, a state that frequently witnesses climate-related disasters, these plantations have been known to cause forest fires. Monoculture practices by India’s forest agencies on the pretext of management and restoration have become common. Inevitably, these plantations have impacted the indigenous and local communities who were helpless to respond to expedited planting during the pandemic. Van Gujjars, a nomadic community in Uttarakhand who depend on grazing lands around forests for livelihood needs, face the repercussions of such fires and lose crucial pastures. Moreover, over time, the plantations have changed the nature of forests and grasslands, and animal-human interaction.
These communities were affected by not just the lockdowns and concomitant healthcare system failures but also by the knock-on effects on their livelihoods, rendering their situation extremely precarious. Again, the period during which India went into a nationwide lockdown—starting in March 2020 and extended through statewide lockdowns during the second wave—coincided with the forest produce-collection season, and with climate and state disasters such as forest fires, cyclones and unseasonal rainfall. In Maharashtra, one of the states worst affected by the pandemic, activists lamented the impacts of the two cyclones, Nisarga and Tauktae that hit several far-flung villages and tribal areas. Due to heavy monsoons and flooding, many tribal hamlets’ access was cut off and these turned into islands disconnected from basic facilities for several days. At a time when Covid-19 wreaked havoc in these areas, being hit by cyclones not only cut off the communities from basic healthcare but also any relief or livelihood measures.
Indian states with the highest populations of indigenous communities (Scheduled Tribes as per the government) such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh have also been identified as states with ‘relatively high vulnerability’ to climate change. And importantly, these communities also are hit harder during health crises such as Covid-19, as our experience shows. The talk of climate change adaptation at a global event, thus, flies in the face of the state-sponsored accentuation of the climate crisis. India’s climate ambition relies heavily on modifying forestry and land use rather than curbing emissions from large, extractive industries. Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities in India are regularly excluded from policymaking, finding no mention in domestic plans such as the 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). Even the ministry that represents them is kept out of climate strategy discussions. In 2020, a committee constituted to ensure that India meets its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) commitments featured members from as many as 14 ministries of the Union government, except the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
As C R Bijoy, an expert on natural resource governance points out, technocracy and techno-managerial propositions have taken over the climate change discourse. “Targets spun around economic advantages have become central to the negotiations instead of communities and democracy. Community-determined climate action instead of national/state action plans is the way forward,” he says. Policymakers need to take into account the intersections of sectors such as health, environment and others, and the fact that these are informed better by communities’ participation.
Sushmita, Independent researcher and journalist working on forest rights; Suraj Harsha, Researcher & former assistant professor of Sociology (firstname.lastname@example.org) (email@example.com)