Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan Is Ideal for Climate-Resilient Development

COVID-19 offers a stark and memorable lesson that the development path humanity has been on was not designed for such shocks.

India’s efforts to contain COVID-19 have garnered praise across the world, although many grievances are also noted within the country. A complete talley of negative  impacts of the lockdowns on India’s economy will not be known for sometime. Nonetheless, neither an indefinite continuation of lockdowns nor a sudden relaxation is possible. Some economic stimulus was to be expected in the meantime to help the populace survive the lockdowns.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the concept of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ that serves as a massive stimulus package as well as a move towards making India more self-reliant in the post-COVID world. The stimulus is argued to strengthen India’s cottage and home industries, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and other industries. A new atmanirbhar (self-reliant) India is envisioned to be built on five pillars: economy, infrastructure, a system driven by technology and forward-looking policies, demography, and economic demand.

No explicit mention was made about India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. COVID-19 has exposed the fallacies of the development model societies have relied on since industrial revolution. Traditional approaches focusing on cost-benefit ratios and return on investment as the bedrock of economic development have treated the environment and ecosystems as externalities. Such a development has also left us unable to deal resiliently with shocks such as COVID-19.

The poor have not only missed the bus of this economic development but they have once again faced the brunt of COVID-19 in terms of the number of infections, morbidities and mortalities. They have also been paying a disproportionately high price for climate impact.

Climate impact assessments have been put through the economic lens in terms of their costs to life, property and infrastructure. Climate adaptation has been the tool to deal with climate impacts that are unavoidable. Climate adaptation has largely been considered independently  of economic development. This has already cost us dearly in terms of  adaptation being ineffective or only marginally effective in reducing inequities of  climate vulnerabilities. A concept called Adaptive Development proposed by Agarwal and Lemos back in 2015 seems most timely now during the raging devastation of COVID-19 on economies and the human psyche at large.

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Adaptive development relies on closing climate adaptation gaps to reduce risks of abrupt shocks or disruptions that are slow moving. Adaptive development aims to enhance society’s ability to respond to and mange such risks by treating adaptation as an integral aspect of economic development. Adaptation has always focused on mitigating climate change risks but treating it as separate from development has often resulted in development working against adaptation goals.

For example, urbanisation and other kinds of land use changes are an essential component of economic growth but they exacerbate environmental damage and climate change risks. Adaptive development can ensure low-regret and no-regret options for reducing risks without negatively impacting economic development. Traditional economic development can be argued to have caused the current predicament of climate change. Such arguments are now being used to advocate reductions in consumption as a new way of life for the post-COVID world.

However, such arguments of making extensive behavioural changes are mere fantasies.  The resource- and energy-intensive lifestyles of a large fraction of humanity shows no signs of slowing down. The rush to rebuild economies to the pre-COVID levels across the world is bound to return the emissions levels and pollution to the same levels. The clean air, water and oceans with a myriad instances of birds and animals roaming freely is not expected to last in the post-COVID world. Arguments about reducing consumption levels also do not address the continued poverty and lack of access for the poor to food, water, energy and health systems.

Adaptive development can be deliberative and purposeful in addressing these chronic socioeconomic issues. The political deliberations of economic development and societal needs for climate adaptation should be combined to identify, map and mitigate climate risks. Climate risks are well documented as the frequency and intensity of climate impacts, and exposure of life, property and infrastructure  to these risks. The preparedness and ability of governments and societies to respond to climate hazards are  not explicitly considered in traditional economic development.

Agarwal and Lemos suggest interventions consistent with adaptive development such as safety nets for migrant labourers, protecting agricultural land, promoting crop diversification, subsidies for sustainable water and energy use, higher insurance premiums or taxes for the privilege to live in flood planes and coastal regions, etc. While these are also advocated under climate adaptation, adaptive management should integrate these holistically with development choices.

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Appropriate socioeconomic and climate data gathering for comprehensive risk and vulnerability mapping must be integral to adaptive development. Early warning systems for managing food, water, energy and health systems are essential for risk management as well as for ensuring economic returns from adaptation investments. Appropriate incentives, interventions, and institutions need to be developed to complete the implement of adaptive development to serve  Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Country’s socioeconomic risk tolerance as well as meeting the obligations to  global climate agreements can be accomplished in this framework.

COVID-19 offers a stark and memorable lesson that the development path humanity has been on was not designed for such shocks. Any post-COVID policies and strategies for development must offer a pathway to continuous reduction in vulnerabilities for all. Adaptive development will close the adaptation deficit while also reducing risks for all. Adaptive development can serve Atmanirbhar Bharat by also reducing exposure of supply chains and resources to climate change risks.

Adaptive development would naturally sustain the ability  of both the government and the society to respond rapidly and effectively  to shocks such as COVID-19. India has made some progress on reducing the socioeconomic vulnerability of its citizens to hydroclimatic hazards. Continuing on this trajectory under the Atmanirbhar Bharat will require closing the gaps in adaptation in the food, water, energy and health sectors.

Existing tools such as insurance for health, crops, and property can be inadequate under many climate change scenarios. Adaptive development can intrinsically focus on  reducing and managing risks to greatly complement other risk management tools to make India truly Atmanirbhar.

Raghu Murtugudde is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science and Earth system science at the University of Maryland. He is currently a visiting professor at IIT Bombay.