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Indian civil society engagement with Climate Policy. From the Centre to the Margins

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

Indian civil society engagement with climate change began much before the international community agreed on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the run-up to and at the UNCED, Indian NGOs like the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) played a significant and sometime critical role in shaping the Indian Government position and contribution in shaping the UNFCCC. Since then it has been a gradual marginalisation of the civil society in climate change policy making and negotiations. So much so that when the government formulated the National Action Plan on Climate Change, there was no consultation with the civil society.

However, civil society is active in a range of issues related to climate policy, mitigation and adaptation. It is to its credit that they are able to bring a variety of justice and equity issues and keep the focus on alternatives and a low carbon path of development for the future. But how much of this will translate into the making of climate change policy and address the concerns of the people who will be the victims of climate change remains to be seen.

Mainstreaming the Justice Agenda

Perhaps, the most important contribution from civil society to climate science in particular and the negotiation on climate change was its critique of the report of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in which it claimed that developing countries were just as responsible for global CC as the developed countries. In its counter-report (1) CSE challenged WRI’s results and argued that it was ‘based less on science and more on politically motivated and mathematical jugglery’. The CSE report became a real ‘eye-opener’; not only for the Indian government, but also for the international community. Internationally, it was perhaps the first attempt to bring considerations of equity into the emerging negotiations on Climate Change.

The Indian delegation began to fight hard for equity perspectives in international negotiations and adopted the perspective that a ‘per capita’ approach to international emission inventory and regulation was mandatory. This was, for example, clearly reflected in the Indian draft text proposal and in the sudden concern of Indian delegations that the final text of the convention should differentiate between the responsibility of the industrialised world and that of developing countries (2).

Thus at the first Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC in Berlin in 1995, NGOs from the North and South came together to form a 200-people strong Climate Action Network(CAN) backed the CSE assessment in opposing a German proposal that implicated developing countries by looking only at future emission projections, completely ignoring the past and current emissions of industrialised countries. This remarkable consolidation of NGO opinion at Berlin forced German Environment Minister Angela Merkel to withdraw the proposal. The imprint of this position has been at the core of all international climate change negotiations since then.

Civil society’s role in international climate change began to decline after Berlin, and by the time the Kyoto Protocol was tabled in 1997 they were being edged into the margins and the equity concerns that were in the forefront also were making place to what has been called the ‘business agenda’. At COP-3 in Kyoto in 1997, the principle concern was to get the US ratification rather than climate change mitigation. The word « pragmatic » became the operative and some NGOs took the position that the climate treaty was not meant to deal with inequity in the world, only with climate change. Others are willing to accept the theoretical need for equity in the convention, but are unwilling to push for its definition. The civil society concerns dominated by northern NGO seemed only too willing to abandon principles of justice and equity and they settle down to accept a world where economic might is right (3).

Nationally, however CSE was still active in shaping the governments policy on Climate Change re-activated in 1997 when the then Prime Minister I.K Gujral endorsed a Commonwealth communiqué stating that ‘after Kyoto all countries will need to play their part by pursuing policies that would result in significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions if we are to solve a global problem that affects us all’. CSE sent a letter to the Prime Minister containing a ‘strong protest against your endorsement’ and a ‘call upon you to reject this statement’, ‘not to be swept along by this « one-worldism » and not to sell out the interests of the future generations of the South’ (CSE 1997). The government soon changed track and took CSE-inspired position that ‘India will not be ready to give any commitment on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions’ (4).

It was not until Bali (COP 11) that civil society once again brought into play justice, trade and equity issues and the formation of the CSO (civil society organizations) coalition - “Climate Justice Now!” that saw several civil society organisations (CSOs) which were earlier not concerned with climate change join the traditional environmental groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.

Bali in a sense marked the entry of the global justice movement into the climate change negotiations and an alternative movement-building component outside the existing networks like CAN. These new coalitions criticized carbon trading and called for genuine solutions: « reduced consumption; huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation; leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy; rights-based resource conservation that enforces Indigenous land rights and promotes peoples’ sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and sustainable family farming and peoples’ food sovereignty. »

The movement that re-emerged at Bali on issues of justice and equity finally culminated in Copenhagen with the massive mobilisation of CSOs and representatives of peoples movements that questioned the very fundamentals of the negotiations process on between governments at the conference. The slogan that ‘Solutions are not on the table’ perhaps captures the spirit of the people gathered outside the conference venue, who realised the COP process was heading no where.

Hiding Behind the Poor?

Though Bali is seen by many as a landmark in international negotiations for bringing in the justice, equity issues back on the agenda of climate change, the concern within civil society in India is to bring the issues of the marginalised communities – the victims of climate change – to the fore in framing climate policies at home. This is because of two factors. First, the period where CSOs like CSE’s found common ground had developed between parts of the Indian environmental movement and the Indian government in the pre-UNCED period was not there anymore. Second, there was also an increasing realisation within the CSOs that climate change was not just an environmental problem, but also about development and general North-South political and economic discrepancies.

Moreover, the CSO community in India generally agrees on a position that the north is responsible for the climate crisis and must be held accountable for and pay for remedying it, and so India must not accept any limitations on its emissions other than the per capita norm. Many Indian NGOs close ranks with the government on international climate negotiations”. However, CSO in India engage with the government on the politics of « hiding behind the poor » (5). Thus the India CSO and grass root movements are deeply involved in bringing the issue of equity, criticising governments environmental and climate policies and actions plans, right to common property resources, sustainable development, alternate energy options.

Of Rights and Alternatives

In the Indian context, issues of rights to land, water, forests and displacement from traditional lands by development projects like dams and mining are the primary concern of a great number of grass root organisations and civil society groups that have found a link with climate change issues. For instance, the People Coalition on Climate Change, a national participatory initiative network that includes indigenous forest dwelling communities, dry land farmers, fisherfolk, pastrolists, mountain people in its Community Charter on Climate Crisis calls for a recognition of, “our farming as a ‘holistic system’ in recognition of its potential in combating the climate challenges”.

The formulation of the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008 without any consultation with either civil society groups are mass organisations brought in most CSO involved in climate change once again to the fore.

The most scathing critique of the NAPCC comes from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People‘s reporttitled « There is little hope here ». It said that, “the NAPCC has been formulated through a most non-transparent process; it will help neither the poor, nor the climate. The Climate change provides a unique opportunity to make India’s development path people and environment friendly, but the NAPCC completely misses that opportunity. The National Plan is likely to work only to the advantage of the already privileged elite, with all the adverse impacts going to the share of already disadvantaged. »

The Coalition for Dignity and Survival, a network of trade unions, farmers organisations, forest workers and NGOs issued a folllowing statement: “We view the Government’s formulation and finalization of India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and its eight missions as undemocratic and unilateral. The NAPCC does not question the current non-sustainable, high emissions pattern of economic development. Therefore the Government needs to arrive at a new NAPCC with reference to Parliament, in consultation with state and local governments, and through the widest possible participation of affected people. This must include differentiated eco-zone planning, district level vulnerability and contingency planning for disasters, industry-based reduction of emissions and people’s control mechanisms over the commons. »

In a memorendum addressed to the Government, Climate Justice Activists state :

« Instead of addressing the crisis at its source, the Indian government is pushing for a series of false solutions towards mitigating emissions. Nuclear power is costly, risky, harms communities in the vicinity of uranium mines and nuclear plants and has significant embodied emissions. Agrofuels - which many state governments are promoting through jatropha plantations - take away land from food production, reduces access to the commons used by the poor and consumes enormous quantities of water. The hundreds of hydropower dams being planned and constructed across the Himalayan and other ecosystems, the Northeast region and elsewhere undermines the will of the local communities, and denies decentralized micro energy projects that would be more appropriate. Genetically Modified Organisms being proposed for mitigation and adaptation of cash and food crops will grossly undermine food security, biodiversity and cause unforeseen consequences along with deepening the control of multinationals over our food chain ».

The Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC) commented after a national level consultation that, “the participants felt the need not only to be advocates of equity but also recognise the paradigm shift in the current economic growth model that is required as well as address personal lifestyle contradictions. That requires questioning of the current development paradigm and consumerism. The concept of ‘good life’ and ‘celebration’ has to be re-interpreted from an ethical perspective. The middle and upper classes that tend to benefit from the present form of economic growth at the cost of further marginalising the poor have to consciously commit to a more positive and responsible lifestyle.” (6)

Towards a Pro-active Phase?

India now accounts for more than one third of all CDM projects registered worldwide. The NCDMA (National Clean Development Mechanism Authority) of the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) in India has approved around 1200 projects, of which more than 350 have been registered. The total investment in the carbon-credit market has crossed Rs.1000 billion.

The CDM are mostly in the private sector and civil society has played an important role in exposing the huge hoax that CDM projects in the country. Laya Resource Centre brought this to light in a report titled ‘Money for Nothing!!! A People’s Perspective”. The report undertook a study of 353 CDM projects in the country and arrived at the conclusion that most of the projects were undertaken for profit and contribution very little in terms of climate mitigation or sustainable development. It is to the role played by civil society organisations that much of the irregularities in the CDM projects have come to light.

The National Solar Mission (one of he missions of the NAPCC) aimed at expanding India’s solar capacity from the current 3 megawatts (MW) to a reported 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2020 and 200 GW by 2050 at an estimated cost of US$20 billion to implement. An analysis done by Greenpeace shows that this draft plan will ensure an annual reduction of 434 million tons of CO2 emissions every year by 2050 based on the assumption that solar will replace fossil fuels.

A recent report from Prayas, an NGO concerned with energy issues titled Need to Realign India’s National Solar issues shows how the National Solar Mission can be designed to prioritise equity and development needs. Prayas argues and outlines an approach that will ensure that the poor and their needs are not left out in the plans for a low-carbon development pathway.

In June 2010 the Indian government released the ‘Mission for a Green India’- an ambitious plan to increase the total forest cover in the country by 20 million hectares in the next 10 years. This document in its draft form was placed in the public domain for responses from civil society. Inviting, perhaps for the first time civil society participation in policy making.

Both these examples open up space for a more collaborative engagement with at least a section of civil society in India on government initiated steps for combating climate change.

At a recent gathering of civil society organisations and grass root movements, one of the speakers suggested that the way forward with regard to climate change was, “to demand certain rights and translate them into climate agenda. For instance the right to clean fuel. Why should the poor be forced to burn kerosene? Out of 6 lakh villages in India, one-lakh villages simply have no electricity connection at all. In the remaining 5 lakh villages, less than 30% of the population is connected to the grid. Even those who have electricity don’t actually get power as you know. But that 30% now are also forced to burn kerosene, which is extremely inefficient source of lighting. We must demand that each home, in each village is to entitled home lighting through photo voltage system, which is affordable. We have to do it. It is not enough for the government just to finance it. We have to take some initiatives - so demand clean water, that means don’t give water to Coco-cola as it is happening in Andhra Pradesh. We need that water and we know how we will use it, we know how to conserve it. We use it responsibly.” (7)

1Anil AGARWAL,Sunita NARAIN, Global Warming in an Unequal World, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi,1991.
2Susanne JACOBSEN, India’s Position on Climate Change from Rio to Kyoto: A Policy Analysis, CDR Working Paper 98.11. November 1998.
3Anju SHARMA,Climate Change and Global Equity, CSE, March 31st, 2000
4Economic Times, New Delhi, 25 nov 1997
5 Hiding Behind the Poor, A report by Greenpeace India, New Delhi, 2007
6 Declaration of the Peoples’ Voices in the Domestic and International Climate Change Agenda. November 7, 2008, Eco-Ethic, INECC, 2009
7Praful Bidwai, at the INSAF political Convention in Bangalore, 24-25 April, 2010. Transcript available at CED, Mumbai.


changement climatique, société civile, négociation internationale, ONG, ONG du Sud

, Inde


L’Inde et le changement climatique


This article is available in French : L’engagement de la société civile indienne dans la politique climatique : du centre à la périphérie

Further readings :


Texte original

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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