Northeast Echoes 03-02-2014

Are we ready for climate change? Survival blues Lone voice Future tense

By PATRICIA MUKHIM
  • Published 3.02.14
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Are we ready for climate change?

Climate change is not just a fancy word. It is real and we are experiencing it. The extreme cold in Shillong in the first week of January is just one example. It is in this context that the Indian Mountain Initiative (IMI), an NGO born out of a special concern for mountain states and cities and the impact of climate change, held its fourth conference at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie, in Uttarakhand on January 19 and 20. The theme of the summit was Mountain Cities.

Following the disaster that visited Uttarakhand which took a heavy toll of human lives and virtually left the state debilitated, it was only appropriate to discuss the extent to which the calamities are man-made and if there are corrective measures. The summit also deliberated on how mountain cities could be made more resilient and liveable considering that they attract enormous number of tourists annually.

Climate change hit the organisers hard. IMI chairperson and former chief secretary of Uttarakhand, R.S. Tolia and his team had a tough time rearranging things after a heavy snowfall in the wee hours of January 19 left Mussoorie completely snowed in.

Participants were held back at Dehra Dun until the Mussoorie municipality, assisted by the paramilitary and police, were able to clear the snow from the road leading to this picturesque mountain city. Meanwhile, news about the snowfall, the heaviest in 19 years, had spread. Thousands of visitors from Dehra Dun rushed up the mountains doing the 90-minute journey to witness this rare splendour. This created an unprecedented traffic jam. The fun-seeking travellers were nearly all young people on two-wheelers, each of which carried three or four pillion riders. So fascinated were people by the snow that they took back large chunks of it on their car bonnets and roofs.

Survival blues

The snowfall left the town in darkness. At the academy, we survived on one single point in the room which was powered by an inverter and to which one could plug one’s heater into. It was freezing cold. Since Mussoorie was unused to the snowfall, it was also unprepared for the exigency. The vehicles transporting us to Mussoorie could not travel beyond a point for fear of skidding, so we had to cart our luggage over the snow into our hostels. We were advised to trudge over fresh snow as it was safer than the melting snow. But that aside, none of the heating implements worked all of Sunday and Monday morning so most people had to forego their bath. Some were ingenious enough to boil water on the single point power on their one-litre electric kettle several times over to do a body wash.

Speaking at the summit, Tolia said the Mussoorie snowfall only confirms our worst fears about climate change. The snow was 24 inches. But what was evident is the lack of preparedness of the administration to handle this exigency. It took over 24 hours to restore electricity. Clearing of the roads was a nightmare. A deputy mayor from Shimla, a scholar of social sciences, said in a similar snowfall in Shimla a couple of years ago which was also preceded by a storm that brought down at least eight giant trees which fell on an electric pole, the electricity authorities restored power within six hours. He said this was possible because of their disaster preparedness and an efficient local governance system.

Lone voice

Curiously, a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, Vandana Chavan, who was earlier the mayor of Pune, also attended this summit. Her take is that Pune which she represents is also similarly affected by the Western Ghat range of mountains and the attempts by the real estate people to construct buildings on these mountains. She narrated how, as mayor, hers was the single voice out of 145 corporators that vetoed the construction proposal. While she lost out at the meeting within the room, she was able to mobilise public opinion outside it. So vociferous were the voices against construction in the hills (considering that they are the catchment area for the entire city of Pune) that the proposal had to be dropped. Vandana also suggested that fragile mountain cities which are also favoured tourism sites impose tourism tax and environmental taxes because every tourist leaves behind messy garbage, apart from carbon footprints. In the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim and the hills of Arunachal Pradesh, while winters have become colder, the summers, too, are hotter. Fans and air conditioners have become part of the fixtures in Shillong homes, an unheard of thing in the past. But while the affluent can “control” both heat and cold, it is the poor who are most afflicted by climate change. The poor and marginalised have the least adaptive capability. Hence, climate change has direct links with poverty and should become an integral part of the deliberations. In fact, climate change platforms for farmers should be created so they can share their experiences since they are so dependent on the weather and temperature fluctuations.

Many of us today experience a strange phenomenon with our fruit trees. Our pears and plums fall off the trees before reaching maturity. Those that remain on trees are infested with worms at their core. Horticulturists say this is because earlier, during the flowering season it used to be colder. This was a natural deterrent against insects and worms.

Now that it is getting warmer, insects are active and lay eggs in the flowers and the worms grow inside the fruit. The only way out of this predicament they say is to spray the trees and flowers with pesticides. But who wants to eat pesticides with fruit? Hence, fruits are wasted by the tonnes in our gardens. Till date the state horticulture department has not figured a way out of this foreseeable disaster for farmers who subsist on fruit growing.

Future tense

The Union ministry of science and technology has instructed all state governments to set up state-level climate change cells. Many states have not begun this process although the impact of climate change which is a rise in day temperatures, sudden flash floods, extreme cold and change in vegetation have already impacted humans and the environment. We know from scientific journals that Bangladesh, the Maldives and other such countries surrounded by the sea will be sinking in 50 years’ time because of climate change. India’s Northeast, too, is listed among the fragile zones which will be most affected on account of its bio-diversity.

The chief ministers and elected MLAs in our region are so steeped in the politics of survival that they cannot think beyond a point. Our forest bureaucracy refuses to update itself on the horrors that await us in the region due to climate change. The state agriculture departments, too, have not built the resilience of farmers and helped them develop coping mechanisms. We are yet to hear of seed banks that will be repositories of indigenous rice seeds, which geneticists like Suman Sahay tell us are more able to cope with extremes of temperatures than the high-yielding varieties. Do we need to wait for an Uttarakhand-like disaster before we act?

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)