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OPINION: Government leadership on climate change is happening


I was reassured during the discussions at the conference on ‘Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation for development’. Cynical minds, of which mine is admittedly one, tend to look at governments and their functionaries as being indifferent to climate change.

Not these officials.

At this particular conference in Lucknow which was organised by Uttar Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority (UP-SDMA), Govt of Uttar Pradesh (GoUP) in association with NIDM, GEAG, ISET, UNICEF and CDKN on 20th October 2014 and attended by over 150 people, a steady stream of bureaucrats, elected representatives, government officials, academicians and development workers took the stage to speak of how climate change affects their work and what they are doing about it. (Read the summary workshop report for more details of the programme and speakers)

As Ms. Aditi Umrao of UP-SDMA pointed out, mainstreaming – which includes review of policy, inclusion in organisation policy and procedures, knowledge management, and implementation- is necessary because disasters tend to set back development, while some development measures can exacerbate disasters.

Time and again, the speakers proved that their engagement with the issue was not just externally driven. The National Action Plan for Climate Change and external funding agencies were providing them with mandates to include climate change as an unavoidable factor in their planning. The motivation turned out to come from entirely another direction-from the people these officials met as they went about their work of managing a district.

It came as no surprise that the most emphatic pronouncements and the most convincing arguments were offered by these officials who had first-hand experience of what climate change means to a poor farmer. The surprise lay in the diversity of these experiences.

Mr. V.N Garg, Agriculture Production Commissioner, Govt. of UP spoke about meeting a farmer in Hardoi and how that conversation made him realise the futility of our present level of weather forecasting when it comes to protecting a farmer’s investment. Mr. Dinesh Chandra, Assistant District Magistrate of Gorakhpur pointed out that district-level statistics can hide the truth, for example a 50% loss in production for the district actually may mean bankruptcy for several farmers.

The well-being of the subsistence farmer turned out to be the primary concern of most speakers. Several suggestions for diversifying risk in the context of unpredictable climate patterns were put forward to ensure this well-being. Suggestions included effective programs of contingency crop planning, crop diversification including the use of hazard resistant crops as well as promoting supplementary income generation from off-farm (e.g. animal husbandry) and non-farm activities (e.g. handicrafts). It was also considered important to promote effective insurance and credit schemes to compensate for crop damage and losses to livelihoods due to natural hazards.

A number of key recommendtions emerging from the group was documented in a ‘Lucknow Declaration on Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management in Development Planning’. This included a number of necessary inputs required to faciltaite mainstreaming, including making downscaled climate data more accessible and refined at the district level. Existing infrastructure design codes and standards need to be revised to accommodate current and future climate and development risks. Dedicated funding could also be considered for the specific integration of adaptation to climate change and disaster management. Financial services also need to allow for the interruptions that occur due to disasters. This can be made possible by micro-financing schemes that have flexible repayment schedules that can be activated in the event of recipients being affected by natural disasters.

However, speakers acknowledged that putting in place these necessary actions to build resileince will not be possible if government officials themselves are not offered the help they need. The main obstacle in the path of government departments being able to address climate change concerns is personnel. Officials keenly feel the responsibility upon them of managing India’s most populous state. Several speakers listed the qualities that an official needs to have in order to function effectively. Mr. Dinesh Chandra said that an official needs to have empathy with the diverse people he or she is responsible for. One often overlooked skill was communication. Officials need to learn how to present their information and data effectively. This is important to convince the government, especially while asking for resources.

Present officials need to drastically change the way in which they operate. As Prof. Shyamala Mani of NIUA pointed out, working in silos is now a luxury that no one has the time for. We need to work together, on many fronts- climate adaptation, resilience building, climate mitigation all need to be addressed simultaneously.

The power that rests within an individual official to bring about change was best illustrated by Mr. A. A. Khan, OSD – Directorate of Environment, UP who admitted that the country’s success in drastically reducing loss of life during the two recent cyclones was not because of the efficiency of the systems. The credit for managing the disasters with phenomenal success goes entirely to the individuals in place at that time. This, Mr. Khan emphasised, is finally a matter of luck. Individuals and their capacities vary; systems are essential. It is important that systems work even in the absence (or despite) individuals. There is a pressing need for such systems and procedures.

The community was not absolved of responsibility either. For example while governance has a key role to play in building resilience, it is ultimately the citizen who is the first person on the scene of a disaster. Mr. Suresh Chandra, Principal Secretary, Govt. of UP said that any plan that is not inclusive of community is not efficient. It is necessary to train every citizen to be capable to fight in times of disaster, so that they are not dependent on government help.

The effort made in Gorakhpur, where citizens got together to develop a climate resilience plan for their city in conjunction with city officials and supported by CDKN came in for much praise. Efforts are now being made to replicate the ‘Gorakhpur model’ in other districts.

I wish the farmer that Mr. Garg met in a drought stricken field in Hardoi was present at the Lucknow meeting. He too, would have come away convinced that inspired efforts were being made by motivated people to save his crops and his future.

The author Chicu Lokgariwar was part of a team organising the workshop in Lucknow as part of a CDKN supported learning programme on climate-compatible development at the sub-national level. An ‘Inside Story’ documenting GEAG’s work in Gorakhpur on district level disaster planning provides further details on the specific project. 

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