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Opinion: On climate justice, India should practise what it preaches

India’s vote against including climate change in the mandate of the UN Security Council was based on the principle of the non-exclusion of the poor, but this is not something the country practises at home
A woman and her family under a temporary shelter after the landfall of Cyclone Amphan in 2020. While it is commendable that India shows concern for the security of other countries’ citizens affected by climate change, it is neglecting the security of its own displaced by climate disasters. (Image: Alamy)
A woman and her family under a temporary shelter after the landfall of Cyclone Amphan in 2020. While it is commendable that India shows concern for the security of other countries’ citizens affected by climate change, it is neglecting the security of its own displaced by climate disasters. (Image: Alamy)

The first ever draft resolution to include climate change in the mandate of the United Nations Security Council was vetoed by Russia on 13 December. The resolution had called for “incorporating information on the security implications of climate change” into the strategies of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on conflict management and prevention. While the UNSC has mentioned the issue of climate change for years, it has not been formally authorised to regard climate change as within its mandate. The resolution, supported by about 113 countries, would have changed that.

Russia, though, was not alone in opposing the resolution. India is currently one of the 10 non-permanent members (who do not exercise veto power) of the 15-member UNSC, and it also voted against the resolution. In his speech explaining the decision TS Tirumurti, the Indian permanent representative to the UN, articulated how damaging the move would be to the interests of developing countries, and the world at large.

India said that including climate change within the UN Security Council’s mandate would exclude most developing countries from discussions

His speech opposing the resolution was a masterclass in both well-articulated principles and the hypocrisy of a country that ignores the very principles, domestically, that he suggested are necessary for the successful management of climate change issues.

The dangers of securitising climate change

India’s argument was simple: the UNSC is dominated by countries that bear the major historical responsibility for carbon emissions, and including the issue of climate change within the UNSC’s mandate would exclude most developing countries from discussions, despite them facing the brunt of the problem. Added to this, developed countries have dragged their feet in delivering on their commitments to support developing countries deal with climate change, recently moving the deadline on a promise to deliver USD 100 billion a year to developing countries from 2020 to 2023.

Not mentioned by Tirumurti, but of potential greater importance, is that securitising climate change may have a devastating impact on climate refugees. European countries have largely dealt with the refugee crisis from Africa as a security issue, ignoring the fact that many people are being forced off their land due to the relentless impact of climate change-induced disasters. This treatment of the problem has led to a human tragedy of massive proportions. A focus on security – the endpoint of an issue – rather than adaptation to climate impacts, offers little hope for a peaceful and dignified management of the crises we face and will continue to face.

The Indian stance at the UN offered a clear-eyed rejection of a dangerously narrow way of dealing with a problem in which every country is a stakeholder. Tirumurti’s speech also highlighted solidarity, parity and inclusion as fundamental principles – repeatedly highlighting the role of African countries and challenges in the Sahel.

Youth at COP26. Isvilaine da Silva Conceicao (left) and Jaciara Beatriz Sousa de Vasconcelos from Brazil said that the high costs of attending a COP in a developed country meant that a lot of indigenous voices were left out. (Image: Disha Shetty)
Isvilaine da Silva Conceicao (left) and Jaciara Beatriz Sousa de Vasconcelos, young climate activists from Brazil, at COP26 (Image: Disha Shetty)

This is why climate diplomacy by poorer countries can never be rejected as “blah, blah, blah”, as COP26 was described by Greta Thunberg. Quite often the opportunity for diplomacy afforded by meetings like COP26 is the only tool that such countries have, the only way they can assert parity with richer, more powerful countries, and so intervene in life-and-death decisions for the people of their countries. At COP26, while many young climate activists were appalled at the unambitious outcomes, they were inspired by speeches from leaders of developing countries such as Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.

Developing countries are not in a position to punish the prime actors responsible for the vast amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere. They cannot sanction developed countries for breaking promises, nor can they threaten to withhold funds. But they can speak up for their rights. Dismissing this as “blah, blah, blah” conflates the delaying tactics of the powerful with the calls for justice of the powerless.

A problem of hypocrisy

All of that said, the speech by the Indian representative to the UN Security Council was also full of half-truths and untruths. At the start of the speech he stated that the Indian government was “second to none” when it came to climate action and climate justice. This when the prime minister’s climate change council has not even met in almost seven years.

Domestically, India practises exactly the opposite of what it preaches internationally

For all its talk of not securitising climate change, the Indian government has repeatedly used security as an excuse to undermine its own environmental obligations. The Indian Army recently stated in court it needed wider highways in the fragile Himalayas – irrespective of environmental impact – due to “security concerns”. In Jammu and Kashmir over 250 hectares of land has been handed over to the security forces since 2019. And while the Indian representative to the UN is happy to mention the Sahel – an area deeply impacted by climate change – he overlooked how his own government has stripped climate refugees of citizenship in the state of Assam. While it is commendable that India shows concern for the security of African citizens affected by climate change, this is odd when it is neglecting – even harming – the security of its own displaced by climate disasters.

Given that indigenous communities are the best caretakers of land from a climate perspective – as has been repeatedly documented – the single greatest act of climate justice in recent Indian history was the Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006. Excluded from ownership rights during the period of colonial rule, these communities remained largely unwelcome from forests as India’s laws even after independence continued with colonial principles that placed caretaking of forests in opposition to the people who lived in or around them.

The Forest Rights Act had the potential to undo this harm, as well as to allow for better forest management practices. Unfortunately, lack of political will and institutional barriers have led to a general failure of implementation, leaving India’s indigenous communities still largely excluded from lands that they should have been able to access. This was highlighted when, during the pandemic, the lockdown rules were used to exclude forest dwelling communities further.

India’s traditional forest-dwelling communities account for more than 100 million people. Only 14 countries have a population larger than that, and yet these communities are unrepresented in India’s diplomacy. Domestically, India practices exactly the opposite of what it preaches internationally. Environmentally unsound ‘development’ benefits a tiny fraction of its population, while coming at the price of its most vulnerable.

This is not true of India alone. Overall, this breeds deep cynicism amongst climate activists about the public position taken by many poorer countries.

The answer to such hypocrisy is not to reject poorer countries’ right to parity in international negotiations. But poorer communities most vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters need greater representation. The Arctic Council is almost unique in being an international organisation that includes indigenous communities in its formal decision-making structure.

India was right to state at the UN Security Council that diplomacy dominated by a small set of actors will lead to bad solutions and deep injustice. But if it really wants to be “second to none” in climate action and climate justice, it needs to fight for the inclusion of the many communities the government is excluding in international decision-making forums. Otherwise, it risks its words being dismissed as “blah, blah, blah”.