Has India's Supreme Court taken a step towards climate compatible development?

Has India's Supreme Court taken a step towards climate compatible development?

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Date: 23rd May 2016
Type: Feature
Countries: Asia, India
Tags: drought, economic development, heatwaves, sustainable water management


Mihir Bhatt, CDKN's Senior Strategic Advisor in India - who heads the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) - reflects on an historic judgement by India's Supreme Court this month in response to the country's severe drought.

Has the Supreme Court of India leaned towards climate compatible development? It has recently judged to treat ongoing severe drought as a disaster event and also as a development challenge that needs sustainable solutions by all.

In a historic verdict on May 11, 2016, India's top-most court directed the Government of India and the state governments to show far greater will and capability to tackle the drought that has paralysed life in the country, and affected an estimated one fourth (over 330 million) of India’s citizens.

The court ruling came in response to a petition demanding that the States and the Centre be directed to officially declare a state of drought and immediately initiate measures to bring long-term solutions to citizens affected by one of the worst natural disasters in India in recent times.

The petition stated that States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chhattisgarh were suffering from drought and the authorities had yet to provide adequate relief.

Justices Madan B. Lokur and N.V. Ramana issued transformative directions on how to address the ongoing drought. Among the steps that the Bench suggested include activating the National Disaster Response Force to enhance the implementation capabilities of the government, and the creation of a Disaster Mitigation Fund to invest in climate compatible economic development as a drought-relief measure.

The Bench also encouraged the Government of India to use its “federalism” to work more collectively with the states in declaring and managing drought and in providing financial aid. The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) was one of the first initiatives to suggest a subnational “federal” focus on development and climate action in India. CDKN  has found that India’s federal structure demands a greater ability to listen, to build relationships of trust, and to respond flexibly and adaptively to the needs of citizens. This need becomes even more important and urgent for citizens facing drought.

The court pointed out the need to review and update the Manual for Drought Management of November 2009 and the National Disaster Management Guidelines for the Management of Drought. Both  documents require a complex involvement of multiple stakeholders at multiple stages and levels to take decisions. CDKN is supporting the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) based in Delhi to develop and spread such a method, titled, “Multi-Stakeholder Decision Analysis”, which can also be used for the review of the drought manual.

The Court asked the Government of India to take following actions on a priority basis:

    • Set up a National Disaster Response Force with a specialist cadre in six months. The CDKN experience in fostering the capabilities of speciatist cadres in India shows that such a force can not only address extreme events such as drought, but if trained well with the benefit of learning tools and entrepreneurial orientation, it can take adaptation measures to turn dry areas green through water harvesting and conservation agriculture. It is not the activation of the force per se but the fostering of state capabilities to address drought which is key to this directive by the Bench.


    • Set up a National Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months. The global expertise of CDKN in setting up financial tools and instruments for better access by key users like district authorities shows that even when the money is available, the agencies are not “ready” to access funds. Further, such a fund must be both, stand alone in its operations but integrated into the rapid economic development policies and planning of India. NORAD of Norway, USAID of USA, DFID of UK, and JICA of Japan have active global interest in investing in such funds that have co-benefits, that is, to reduce the impact of drought by reducing poverty. The ongoing global review of the role, strengths, and weakness of the climate funds is already underlining co-benefits and not a trade-off between economic development, climate action, and disaster mitigation.


    • Frame a National Plan on Risk Assessment, Risk Management and Crisis Management to combat natural disasters. The ongoing risk assessment work in the state of Uttarakhand is tapping into the best of global risk assessment expertise. The recent planning workshop on April 26, 2016 hosted by the Integrated Natural Resources Management Consultants Pvt. Ltd., the Indian Institute of Technology - Delhi, the Acclimatise Group Ltd, and the Central Himalayan Environment Association found that such risk assessments must use the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report 5 (AR5) to be up-to-date on science and society interactions. Dr. Gosain, India’s leading water expert, indicated that vulnerability assessment is an essential and dynamic process. Such an assessment must no doubt have implementation focus and use high quality evidence and tools to integrate climate challenges into economic and social vulnerabilities.


    • Update the 60-year-old Drought Management Manual. Keeping in mind humanitarian factors such as migration, distress, loss of livelihood, farmer suicides and the plight of women and children in drought-prone or drought-hit regions and areas, the old Drought Management Manual needs to be brought current. Such updating can be a top-down expert-driven activity or an all-round learning process for all involved. The learning process ensures not only a wider acceptance of any changes, but it also has a longer-reaching impact. CDKN has the capacity to not only lay out the updating process so as to make it both, inclusive and forward looking, but also the know-how to manage drought in a way that it protects the economic growth of agriculture and the rural area.


Any lasting economic growth in India will need to be climate compatible in order to avert the impact of droughts and other natural as well as manmade disasters on the people and the economy. At the same time, any lasting solution to droughts in India will depend on how climate-compatible, and citizen-compatible India’s economic growth is. Perhaps this is the reason to lean more towards climate compatible development?


Image: fetching water, India; courtesy Knut-Erik Helle.

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