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India’s climate disasters are fueled by its governments’ resource mismanagement and fossil fuel consumption, says political economist Shouvik Chakraborty

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GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. A massive heat wave and drought are devastating India at the moment. Chennai, the country’s sixth largest city, whose greater metropolitan area is home to nearly 10 million people, has almost run out of water. The city’s drought is so intense that it can be seen from satellites in space. This water crisis has been accompanied by India’s second longest heatwave on record, and according to the government, has killed at least 36 people. Other sources say that nearly 200 have died from the heat so far. Joining me now to talk about this heatwave and what India can do to address these issues is Shouvik Chakraborty. He is an Assistant Research Professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass-Amherst. Thanks for joining us today.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT So, let’s talk about the water crisis first. Last year, a government think tank found that 21 major cities in India will run out of groundwater as soon as 2020. This includes the capital, New Delhi. It would affect some 100 million people and there is general agreement that this crisis is being fueled by climate change. Monsoon seasons are later, weaker and shorter than usual, and there’s been decreased rainfall in general. And Indians are also protesting in Chennai and elsewhere, saying that the crisis is also a result of government mismanagement. How much of this water crisis was preventable would you say?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY This water crisis is actually related with climate change and the heatwaves, which have been ongoing now in India. Some recent studies done by Columbia University shows that it’s not only the groundwater, which is running dry, but the glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate since the beginning of 2000. The rate at which the glaciers were to melt was at around 22 centimeters from 1975 to 2000, and that pace has almost doubled to around 43 centimeters annually from 2000 to 2008. Now this, as we all know, is related to climate change and which now scientific evidence shows is actually related to human nature and human behavior. Now what the government could have done in India to prevent this was actually to reduce its carbon emissions, which we are experiencing it’s increasing at a rapid pace. The Indian government, we know, has been burning coal. From 2000 to 2008, it has increased the consumption of coal from almost 9.5 quarts to 18 quarts over this period. The number of oils which is being used has increased from 2,200 barrels per day to 5,500 barrels per day. The increase in fossil fuel consumption has gone up tremendously in India.

Along with that, there has been massive mismanagement by the local government. The state governments wanted to help them out. Now they have finally accepted the help, especially I’m talking about Chennai. Like the Kerala government is sending trains filled with water now and the government has finally agreed to accept help from the other state governments. But this crisis is a bigger part, or is a bigger problem. It should not be seen as a sporadic incident that the lakes are drying up. This is eventually related to the intense heatwave experience and the delayed monsoons due to the climate change, which we are experiencing overall. And so, my suggestion or, I think, what the government of India needs to do and also the local state government, is that they have to do everything possible under the radar or under their policy structure to reduce these global greenhouse emissions and also to take charge of the environment so that climate change and the impacts of it can be reduced.

GREG WILPERT Now, I want to turn to the issue of carbon emissions in a moment. But first, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to end the water crisis. His government created a new water ministry and said that it will “improve our coverage of clean drinking water from 18 percent currently to 100 percent by 2024.” Now, what are your thoughts on this water initiative of the Modi government?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY See, it’s very unfortunate, but the Modi government is more about rhetorics and ironics. And what happens is that given the advertisements and the publicity this government dons, the actual schemes or the money spent within these schemes are much less than what is actually being spent on the propagation and advertisement of those schemes. In reality, what had happened is that this government has delivered very less for the environment and for cleaning up the water resources. The biggest project, which they took up in their last government— this is their second term— in the last term, what they took up was cleaning up Ganga, which is the project called Namami Gange. They were supposed to clean up Ganga, which they considered as a holy river, that they will clean that river from all kinds of pollution, and what? They completely failed to deliver on this project, so this government under Narendra Modi is more about rhetorics. It’s more about making false promises to the people rather than actually delivering.

And our experience from the last government, and if you rely on the statistics, which this government itself has provided, that it has completely failed to deliver. So, to be honest with you, it’s really given our past experience of the government from India—I am not so hopeful that he will be able to do this promises of a 100% clean water by 2024. Here are the two facts. One, like its own government report shows, which you just cited a moment earlier that 21 mega cities will run out of ground water by 2020. Then, what is the plan to replace this ground water? And the other source, like I was mentioning to you, are the Himalayan glaciers. There, the study from Columbia University shows that the glaciers are melting and there is a huge problem with this water being running out of the rivers, especially in the Ganges region. I am not sure what alternative plans the government does. Until and unless it really proposes some concrete proposals to replace this depleting groundwater and the melting glaciers, I don’t think it really does have anything to deliver by 2040. It’s mainly rhetorics.

GREG WILPERT Now, I want to turn to the heatwave which also has resulted in widespread devastation. Temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius in the western state of Rajasthan. That’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And heat waves, of course, are becoming worse and more frequent as the climate crisis worsens, but climate change is a global issue. Can India really enact any meaningful change on its own through better climate policy?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY I think it can. One of the most important things, which is related to climate change, is the use of fossil fuels and the emission of carbons. We have to tax carbon. Period. Of course, that would have some regressive effects, like poorer people will be more effected. What needs to be done is the redistribution of these taxes in two ways. One, is to provide energy to the poorer people who don’t have any form of access to energy and second, to replace these fossil fuels with greener renewable forms of energy. Now, earlier there used to be an excuse that solar and wind are more expensive. Today that excuse doesn’t even exist because actually, they’re more cost compatible. In fact, some of those resources like solar is cheaper than using coal, and these are from the statistics from the US EIA, which has shown that the labeled of cost of electricity now has gone down tremendously for solar and wind. Now, there is no reason for the Indian government not to expand those uses of resources like solar.

In fact, they’re doing it, and that’s a welcome gesture, but at the same time, unfortunately, they are also increasing their use of coal and other fossil fuels like petroleum and gas. That doesn’t help and that actually is deteriorating the condition in India. Also having said that, I think, because this is a global problem, the responsibility does not only lie with the poorer country like India. It also equally lies with the richer countries— the United States of America, Europe— to take care of this problem. If these countries—Like in the United States, we see an increasing use of coal day by day, despite the facts assuring that solar and wind is more cost compatible, and even better in terms of cost than coal. But if this thing has to be dealt at a global level, India definitely can be a partner to it in reducing these emission levels— along with other developing countries like China, Brazil, and others.

GREG WILPERT Now, you already touched on the issue of inequality, which is very stark in India. And the climate change-induced crisis basically exacerbate that, which you already mentioned. I mean, one other example of that is how, of course, those with more money can afford to buy more water from deliveries. Also, those who must work outside and don’t have air conditioning are, of course, at a higher risk when these temperatures hit. Now, you were the author of a recent study from the Political Economy Research Institute called “Green Growth and the Right to Energy in India” in which you propose a plan for officials to address inequities while also fighting climate change. Can you give us a brief summary of that proposal, and is there a chance that this kind of proposal could be enacted in India?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY So what we found in that study was striking. It was like, it is mainly the top 10%, which we call the richest of the Indian population, who are the main polluters. Their pollution levels—The top 10% pollutes almost ten times more than the bottom 10%. This is remarkable. And what we are saying is tax carbon. Tax those who drive a BMW, or have private jet planes, and use carbon at an extensive level. These resources, like I was telling you, can be redistributed in two ways. One, the revenue which is generated from the carbon tax can actually pay for the energy access to the poorer people who actually burn, like, [inaudible] or some dirty forms of fuel like coal or any other for cooking. The government can provide them with free energy and that free energy can be clean, renewable energy which will A— which will reduce from the demand side, the richer people polluting their environment. And from the other side, it will give access to clean energy to the poorer people who don’t have access to those resources.

Just to add to this point, see, the impact of climate change or the impact of pollution is more on the poorer people who cannot shield themselves, like you were mentioning, from the impacts of this heatwave. And like a recent study done by the Public Health Foundation in India found, that in the city Ahmedabad, what actually happened was there was a massive heatwave in 2015 in which more than 2,000 people died. It was found that that year recorded 43% more mortality than the previous year. These things usually happen because the poorer people cannot shield themselves from these heatwaves, from this pollution level, and this was also evident in the last year when there was massive air pollution during Diwali, during this season of October and November. Delhi—I was there. You could see that poorer people, walking—There were no masks because the masks were so expensive that they were almost breathing this poisonous air every day and, of course, this would have a long-term health impact.

Now, unfortunately, what we need today from the government of India is to enact these policies rather than doing, honestly, rather than doing this rhetoric that we’ll take care, because as scientific evidence shows based on the PNNL studies and others, that time is really running out, and we need to act now. Just now, and we cannot delay it any further. We are seeing the effects of climate change today. It’s not like—I think, I sometimes jokingly tell my friends, like, the scientists have in fact gone wrong. Things are happening much faster than what they were saying would happen in the end of this 21st century, but it’s happening right now. It’s happening just in front of our eyes, and we need to act.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well, unfortunately, we’re going to leave it there for now, but I’m sure we’ll come back to you again very soon. I was speaking to Shouvik Chakraborty, Assistant Research Professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass-Amherst. Thanks again, Shouvik, for having joined us today.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY Thanks for having me. Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.