On the Frontlines of India’s Climate Challenges: Stories of Struggle and the Search for Solutions

BBC journalist Rajini Vaidyanathan recalls the stories from communities affected by climate change in India which she has been told over the last decade and more.

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One of the biggest takeaways from the COP summit in Glasgow has been India’s pledge to commit to net zero emissions by 2070. Some around the world have expressed frustration that the country is signing up to meet these targets two decades later than many Western nations, but many here in India argue those goals are pragmatic. Tackling climate change in India is often seen as a fine balance between the country’s economic and environmental needs. 

Away from the policy makers and politicians, it’s an even starker narrative – one based on circumstance as much as choice. For the millions in India who are at the sharp end of global warming, debates at the COP summit are far removed from their lived realities. For well over a decade I’ve been reporting from communities across India that are impacted by climate change. Here are some of the stories of struggle – and solutions – that I’ve explored during my travels for BBC News

 “I was up to my neck in mud, I didn’t know if I’d make it”

Three-year-old Sachu was one of dozens who died last month after heavy rains, flash floods and landslides in the South Indian state of Kerala. “He was brushing his teeth when we heard a thunder-like sound,” his mother Sofia told me as she lay in hospital, covered in bruises and scratches.  “I was up to my neck in mud,” she said. 

As the thick, heavy sludge began to trap her, she didn’t believe she would make it. Somehow she did, after her husband Shamshul rescued her. The grieving couple are taking care of their two other children, who were badly injured.

Also read: COP26 Draft Deal: US and China Unveil Joint Bid To Save Climate Talks

As Shamshul cradled their two year old daughter on a nearby bed, one side of her face was completely scarred. Seated close by was their five-year-old son, whose tiny leg was in a cast. They now face life without their sibling. “We couldn’t save Sachu, nor could we see him for one last time,” Sofia said. 

Once the family leaves the hospital they have no idea where they will live. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced in South Asia every year due to extreme weather events; experts say rising sea temperatures are to blame for the unseasonal weather. It’s often the poorest and most vulnerable communities who are hit the hardest. 

“We used to drink water without thinking about it…now we won’t take it for granted”

Just like Kerala, this week the South Indian city of Chennai has experienced unseasonal heavy rains, which experts say is because of climate change. 

In 2019, Chennai had hit the headlines for the opposite reason; when it ran out of water. As supplies were brought in on trucks and trains from other parts of the country, one of the country’s largest cities was left scrambling for every last drop. We watched as dozens ran from their houses clutching bright plastic buckets as a tanker delivered water to one neighbourhood.  Residents jostled and shoved to reach one of the two water hoses attached to the tanker. 

In the sticky, humid weather, things got heated. A woman named Vallarmarthi argued with a man over who should fill up first. “Until we get more water, these fights will continue…one lorry load is not enough,” she told me afterwards. Vallarmarthi said she had to rely on just two buckets to drink, cook, do the laundry and wash.

“We need to wake up to the looming water crisis,” Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization said last month. “More than two billion people live in water-stressed countries and suffer lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation,” he added. 

Experts say climate change has led to erratic weather patterns –the unseasonal monsoons and drought. Increased urbanisation is also being blamed for water shortages, with the number of lakes and ponds which store and collect rainwater, drastically dwindling.

“The race to economic prosperity, with commercial and residential properties being built over these water bodies has definitely had its impact on water conservation,” Arun Krishnamoorthy from the Environmental Foundation of India told me, as we walked along a bone dry lake that summer. Back at the water truck, the words of Gowri, a young mother, served as a stark reminder never to take anything for granted.  “Water is more precious than food and gold,” she said.

“We can’t survive without coal”

As she squatted by a smoky open fire heating up her chicken broth, Jamuna Munda, a day labourer,  told me how much she relies on coal. “If we do not have coal, we can’t cook. At night, we burn it and keep it in the house so we also have some light,” she told me as we met in the eastern state of Odisha, part of India’s so-called coal belt. 

Jamuna is one of tens of millions in the country who still don’t have access to electricity. Her desires reflect India’s growing energy needs, which are predicted to rise more than any other nation’s in the years ahead.  

In the last decade, India’s coal consumption has nearly doubled – such is the demand that the country is planning on building or expanding dozens of mines and continues to import coal. With ambitions to derive 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030, there’s already an aggressive switch to cleaner sources like solar and hydro. But cutting the cord with coal means striking a tricky balance. 

I remember a conversation I had in 2006 with Shaunak, a young entrepreneur in Mumbai. “Why should Indians be asked to reduce carbon emissions when the West has been polluting the planet for decades and reaped the benefits?” he asked. Shaunak owned a shoe factory which exported to the UK.  “It’s like the West has just exported its emissions to developing countries,” he said. 

The average Indian still consumes far less power than a Brit or an American. As India pledges to hit net zero by 2070, the way ahead, in many ways, rests on balancing environmental concerns with economic ambitions. 

Also read: For Its Corporate Sponsors, COP26 Is a Platform for Greenwashing Their Polluting Practices

“People think that one person can’t change anything, but look at Greta Thunberg.”

India is also at the forefront of the world’s climate solutions and many young activists are leading the charge. It was during a break from her homework that I met 15-year-old Asheer Khandari, who worked hard to stop businesses using plastic in one area of Delhi. “People think that one person can’t change anything, but look at Greta Thunberg, she started a movement and now millions of children have joined.”

Inspired by Thunberg, Asheer and her friends formed a group to eliminate single use plastic from as many shops and restaurants in Delhi’s Defence Colony market, back in 2019.  I met her in a cafe there. As she drank soda using a paper straw, Asheer told me how she was spurred into action after reading about how much plastic in India ended up in landfill sites. “I remember meeting a few people who threw us out of their shops because they thought we were a bit too forward. But after we talked to them, they realised how important our issue was.” Two years on, Asheer is less upbeat. Many of the same stores have switched back to using plastic, she says. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that India will phase out single use plastic by 2022, but Asheer feels the government needs to get much tougher with businesses for any real change to happen.  

Miles away in the state of Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges, I met another young climate activist, 14-year-old Ridhima Pandey, who has been nicknamed “India’s Greta Thunberg”.  Ridhima’s activism saw her file a petition against India’s National Green Tribunal at the age of 9, calling on the government to do more to tackle climate change, which was later dismissed.  

“When I started seeing flash floods and all that destruction, I started having nightmares. I want to save the biodiversity here, because I’ve been brought up next to it and I want the coming generations to see this too,” she said.

Ridhima also took her fight to the United Nations in New York, where she joined Greta Thunberg and other children in a landmark complaint against a number of countries. “We need to do more to change people’s mindsets here in India. Many people don’t believe climate change is real,” Ridhima said. “Their kids are going to be the ones who suffer in the coming years.” 

Rajini Vaidyanathan is the South Asia correspondent, BBC News.