Ranjit Barthakur is a social entrepreneur, committed to pursuing social change through innovative cutting edge concepts, ecological neutrality and impactful action. He has pioneered the concepts of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures, with a view to inspiring community-based conservation and livelihoods in the Eastern Himalayas. Though his journey began with ITC Mumbai, his heart and soul has always been in Assam. Partnering with Globally Managed Services & the Balipara Foundation, he gives back to the indigenous communities of the Eastern Himalayas via projects focused on strengthening ecological civilizations and building social mobility through natural capital.
The Global Climate Risk 2020 index ranks India the 5th most affected country in the world due to the climate crisis. In the last couple of decades, India has witnessed rapid changes in weather conditions across its length and breadth, and the subsequent impact on life and economy. These changes are viscerally apparent: while North India swelters under a record-breaking heatwave, the North Eastern state of Assam is experiencing unusual, unseasonal floods.
While approximately 70 percent of the country is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, they face the brunt of frequent natural calamities like artificial floods, droughts, low rainfall, among many other disasters, resulting in severe land degradation, heavy exploitation of natural resources, loss of income, migration and poor quality of life, as the developmental indices reveal a spiralling crisis.
As an emerging global leader, India’s climate action right now will have significant regional as well as global impact. The Glasgow Climate Pact’s commitment to fight climate change and restrict global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius is still a distant target and concrete measures to reduce emissions are the need of the hour. At the COP26 conference, India pledged to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2070, with enhanced targets for renewable energy deployment and emissions. Still, in the face of economic development and ecologically compliant growth, these announcements made by India have raised a global debate amidst escalating levels of uncertainty.
Why ecologically positive adaptation?
As a recent report by the World Bank states, failure to protect ecology – pollinators, fisheries, natural forests – will cost the global economy 2.7 trillion USD annually by 2030. Global businesses and countries now realise that there is an increasing need to transition to an economic paradigm that recognises the interdependence of ecology and economy, as well as integrate nature capital into value accounting systems and indices of development and growth. Small developing countries that are majorly at risk to the effects of climate change, like Bangladesh, argue that the ‘ecology is economy’ model is the only way for such countries to face the high risks that climate change poses.
India is also facing threats to its biodiversity and overall ecological resilience. Under the Paris Agreement, India has committed to restoring 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020. Despite annual gains in forest cover, on the whole forest cover has barely increased. Independent data from Global Forest Watch, in fact, suggests an overall decline in forest cover. 90% of the area that constitutes biodiversity hotspots have been lost, according to the Centre for Science and Environment’s State of India’s Environment 2021 report. A significant proportion of this loss has occurred in the North East: also one of the few parts of the country facing net deforestation.
The result of this loss in human terms and impacts is the increased vulnerability of rural communities. Already struggling with declining crop yields spurred by desertification and overall decreasing soil fertility, rural communities find themselves increasingly on the frontlines of climate change in India. In the recent Climate Vulnerability Assessment for 2019-2020, poor forest distribution per capita, high dependence on rainfed agriculture and marginal holdings ranked among the highest causes for vulnerability in rural India.
With the vast majority of India’s population concentrated in its rural areas, creating resilience and minimizing vulnerability in these areas is crucial. Estimates by PWC and the World Economic Forum suggest that nearly 60% of India’s economy is highly to moderately dependent on nature covering sectors ranging from natural resources, to food, fisheries and tourism. Building an economy that is nature positive, especially for rural communities, is one of the low hanging fruit that we must build on in the coming years.
Creating a nature positive economy
India’s 2022 budget with a renewed focus on agroforestry, with special support to encourage traditional agroforestry systems of ethnic communities is a step in the right direction. This needs to be bolstered with a robust climate-smart agricultural policy that is tailored to meet local conditions and needs that can help small and marginal farmers build sustainable businesses that can increase their incomes. With over 250 million people either fully or partially dependent on forests, a full-scale restoration plan for forests across the country could easily create jobs to minimise the pressures to migrate or build lasting social mobility.
The business sector as well needs to be encouraged to transition to environment-positive and adaptive models that can actively create resilience for the future. This can be achieved through a regulatory frameworks for environment impact assessment that positively grades, incentivises and benefits businesses (smoother clearances, tax benefits and more) that are creating positive impact for the environment. With an adequate support system, greater investor outreach and awareness that is needed in India, the opportunity is ripe for a sustainable, regenerative economy, by unlocking the potential of our formidable nature capital. The 2021 stimulus package is more climate-friendly than earlier editions, with two-thirds allocated to green recovery and a shift from fossil to non-fossil resources. Incentives for setting up designated manufacturing hubs for renewable energy in India, providing support for renewable energy and extending the timelines for renewable energy projects affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns are welcome. India is now one of 90 countries to sign up to the UN’s SEEA to value nature in policymaking.
But to reach anywhere near the 2070 target, more and more complementary policy and investment is required along with coordinated mechanisms to fast track climate action and engage all stakeholders. For example, a rural recovery plan to rewild the North East’s forests and agricultural lands – 4.1 million hectares – would generate earnings up to INR 450,544 crores annually over a 30 year period through agroforestry produce and sustainable bamboo. Investing these earnings back in the community could deliver universal basic assets such as healthcare, education, energy, water access to over 6 million households – with spending on healthcare and education matching international OECD standards.
At this point in human history, we are poised to make some crucial decisions. As IUCN states, ‘we rely on nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people, optimise infrastructure and safeguard a stable and biodiverse future’. For India to become a global leader in climate-positive adaptation and mitigation of the present crisis, the time has come to seize the opportunity to create better, sustainable, encompassing mechanisms and structures that put nature back at the heart of the economy, as it was always meant to be.