how urban poor are being left out of climate actions in india?
India is home to nearly one-third of the world’s poor. At the most basic level, the Human Development Index (HDI) of a country can be used to judge its vulnerability to climate risks. As of 2019, India ranked a lowly 129 among 189 countries in terms of HDI. This is because India has more poor people than all the Least Developed Countries put together.
Globally, there is increased awareness now that extreme weather events are not neutral. It is usually the poorest and marginalized sections who are most vulnerable to climate risks and yet they are left out of climate actions in India.
This is significant, as any policy action will have winners and losers. One person’s resilience is another person’s hazard!
In urban areas in India, the urban poor usually are forced to settle in slums, squatters, and other informal settlements; often on land use that is not only at high risk but also that have a low potential for contestations (such as adjacent to railway tracks, or in low land areas). There has been significant attention globally as well as in Indian cities with regards to climate actions and their impact on poorer households.
Most of the action plans contend that the planning and policy-making process is committed to including the voices of the urban poor. Well, at least rhetorically on paper. In practice, however, there is plenty of politics that happens over their ‘inclusion’. Effectively, the whole process can be described as a tussle between inclusive growth and exclusionary planning in many cities.
India’s Climate Actions
India is one of the countries categorized under ‘high risk’ to climate change. In response to global deliberations calling for climate action by countries, the Government of India launched the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) in the year 2008.
It was a seminal work that outlined the existing and future policies and programs addressing Climate Change mitigation and adaptation in India. The NAPCC led to the formulation of SAPCCs (State Action Plan for Climate Change) in all states under a common framework to guide the making of the action plans, to ensure coherence between national and state-level actions.
These plans have been questioned by experts in the past for their inability to include citizen voices in the actions. I will not reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I will show a small, yet curious case of the Odisha Climate Change Action Plan (one of the first climate action plans to be prepared in India); and show how the urban poor, especially slum dwellers, are often at the receiving end of exclusionary urban planning strategies by the state.
Slum as Climate Risks
After two initial versions in 2010 and 2015, the revised SAPCC for Odisha state was recently prepared with technical assistance from the World Bank for the years 2018-2023. Surprisingly, however, throughout the report, slum settlements and slum dwellers are objectified in various ways by profiling them in terms of geography, social and economic class; by referring to them as ‘unhygienic’, ‘encroachments’ residing in ‘poor building types’, comprising of ‘construction workers’ who have ‘migrated from rural areas’. The political discursive position of state explicitly side-lines the voices of slum dweller groups in the planning process by pushing them towards low moral grounds. See these excerpts below:
“Urban centres, mainly Class I cities of the state, are also facing the rapid growth of the slum population living in poor building types in environmentally vulnerable pockets. The fast growth of these urban centres leads in turn to the build-up of the surrounding areas, thereby encroaching on low-lying areas and increasing the flood risk. The encroachment of low-lying areas and the clogging of drainage due to the increase in solid waste in the city have led to unhygienic conditions and in turn a high incidence of water- and vector-borne diseases.” – Pg. xix, Odisha SAPCC, 2018-23
To make matters funnier, the state claims that the ‘resettlement of slums was required’ (by whom?) is an example of inclusive planning.
“.. redevelopment and resettlement of slums wherever required, are essential for inclusive development and restricting the growth of slums and informal settlements.”
Participation vs Inclusion
In most of the master plans in Indian cities, planners often tend to conflate participation and inclusion as the same thing. This is far from the truth.
Participation entails public feedback primarily on the draft or completed policies and action plans of the state.
On the other hand, the inclusion of stakeholders refers to a continuous co-creation of community objectives based on aspirations which lead to iterative processes and eventually policy or action. Most climate action plans are focused on participation, limited to inputs from concerned groups or citizens once the plan is drafted. In this context, the Odisha SAPCC is quite misleading, even deceptive.
“A consultation workshop was held on October 16, 2015, to familiarise stakeholders from the media, civil society, and academic institutions with the draft action plan and to get feedback on the relevant issues and concerns.”
The document also fails to describe who are these stakeholders. As I dug deeper, in the minutes of meetings of the Odisha Climate Change Cell, I was shocked to find that there is a complete absence of civil society or citizen groups’ voices in the planning process. Records are all over the place, and most meetings were attended by state officials only. Not a single citizen group, or an NGO, forget slum dwellers’ association. The findings are damning!
Well, what do we learn from this case study? I have two key messages here. Firstly, as citizens, we need to relook and rethink the way we look at our action plans and policy documents prepared by state agencies. The plans are part of wider global discourses on climate change and hence are not immune to influences of geopolitics as well as local political expediencies.
The important part is to recognize these weaknesses as citizens so that we can raise more informed voices. Secondly, we are far from being leaders in the climate change game, as often claimed in recent political debates. Our climate action plans continue the old inertia and tradition of master planning in Indian cities that employ exclusionary measures against certain citizen groups, especially the urban poor.
If we need to change that, we must not simply give war cries of a street-level Marxist inspired revolution but instead strive for the constant evolution of planning ideas to build novel climate actions that are more accepting of the informal urbanization patterns that are unique to Indian cities. The first step to that is to facilitate the ‘inclusion’ of the urban poor in the planning process, and the action plan itself.