Resilience, Hope: India in the Time of COVID-19 & Climate Change
New Worlds is a three-part digital series by the India Climate Collaborative to discuss resilience and recovery in the face of our two planetary challenges: COVID-19 and climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the inequities in our vulnerability to global threats. These disparities are heightened by a rapidly warming world. Part 1 of the series was a discussion on lessons from the ongoing crisis that will help us build a resilient, equitable, and sustainable India. Rohini was in conversation with Jairam Ramesh and Navroz Dubash and moderated by Barkha Dutt.
0:00:00 Shloka Nath: A very, very warm welcome to all of you and thank you for joining us today. My name is Shloka Nath and I’m the Executive Director of the India Climate Collaborative. The ICC as we refer to it, is India’s first ever collective response by business and philanthropy to enable climate action. We created new worlds, India in a rapidly changing climate, a three part digital series to discuss resilience and recovery in the face of our two planetary challenges, Covid and climate change. We’re doing this because we recognize the current trade off that is already being made between recovery and long-term resilience. In many ways, we have prioritized development first, but climate change will not wait for our development. Instead of pitting climate and development against each other, instead of pitting recovery and resilience against each other, we have to find ways to work on both simultaneously to secure the double or triple events. Our first event in this series focuses on resilience. If this crisis shows us anything, it’s how unequal our development stories are. And this crisis also gives us the chance to ask the question, “What’s the path we want to take?”.
0:01:09 SN: We are lucky to be joined tonight by a truly remarkable panel. I was really stumped on how to introduce this collective tremendousness. And then I thought of Rabindranath Tagore. This Friday was the birth celebration of the great poet and philosopher. Tagore was also a humanist and a deep lover of the natural world, and it was his life’s mission to seek out harmony between progress and preservation. And one of his most beautiful sayings is, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” And it’s this quote that came to mind when I thought of our four panelists tonight. They are humanitarians with an abiding love for the world around them, who literally and figuratively have spent their life’s work in planting trees for the rest of us and for generations to come.
0:02:00 SN: So without further ado, I wanna hand this over to Barkha, who of course, is on the road and reporting live on the ground. None of our panelists need an introduction. I wanna welcome Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister for Environment and Forests, Rohini Nilekani, our philanthropist and founder chairperson of Arghyam, Navroz Dubash who is the professor at the Centre for Policy Research. He leads their initiative on climate, energy and environment. And as I said, our moderator for the evening Barkha Dutt, renowned television journalist who is reporting currently on the ground from Surat. She’s been traveling across the country, covering the current COVID crisis from the ground up. Thank you all for being here. Barkha, over to you.
0:02:55 SN: Barkha you are on mute. I just realized you are on mute, thank you.
0:03:03 Barkha Dutt: Let’s just do that. Hi everyone. I’m going to try this again. This is the perils of trying to do something like this while you are on the road. I’m just on the outskirts of Surat, at a little dhaba and I’m hoping that you can all hear me. Welcome Rohini, Jairam and Navroz and all the other 300 people in the room. I’m hoping many more of you will join as we go along. I was really struck by what Shloka said at the beginning about how this pandemic and the lockdown has exposed the unequal nature of our development models, of even what we think is the best way to approach this pandemic. If there is anything that my travels on the road over the last 54 days have taught me, is that we have been really ignorant of our own elitism, of the bubbles we have lived in, the class divide of this sort has never been exposed as starkly before as India has had to confront in these days.
0:04:02 BD: But alongside we have also seen stories of resilience, of hope and that is what we are here to talk about today. We’re also here to talk about the education. That small really is beautiful, that managing this pandemic would not be possible without instruments of local administration, that this pandemic and the lockdown is being handled at the smallest units of governance, smallest units of administration, and that’s how it’s working. Now I know a lot of people in the room today are experts at the subjects we’re gonna talk about but my job here is to reach out to a general audience, to reach out to people who might be wondering, “Why the hell are we even talking about climate change, when we should be talking about Coronavirus or migrant workers or how the economy will revive?”. “Isn’t it counterintuitive?”, “Are we being too academic?”. So I want to start with that very basic question. And I’ll take that to you Navroz before I get Jairam and Rohini in. Why are we talking about climate change? After all, we’re not doing instagram posts on the Covid blue sky, which has become the new fashionable trend, the number of reckless posts we’ve seen on how beautiful the planet looks. The people who are posting this are perhaps not making the connection or not joining the dots between climate change and this crisis that we are in the middle of.
0:05:26 Navroz Dubash: Thank you, Barkha and thank you to the India Climate Collaborative for organizing this. I’m very happy to be on a panel with Mr. Ramesh and Rohini Nilekani. So to try and get your question, why are we talking about climate change and at one level these are very, very different sorts of issues. The COVID is very specific, tied to a particular virus. Climate change is a systemic threat to our way of living on this planet. So yes, at one level, they’re very, very different. What ties them together is I think they’re both rooted in one thing. That we have this illusion of control over nature. We think that we can control our lives, that we’re insulate. Can we insulate ourselves or rapidly figure out how to move past this zoonotic virus that has now set… Effectively shut down our economies across the world. And of course, we have not been able to. And the same illusion of control pervades our conversations about climate change. We think that we can actually manage our way out of this and really we can’t. We have scientific information that tells us the scale of risk that we face to our seas, to our monsoons, to glaciers and so on.
0:06:31 ND: And we still have retained this illusion of control. So that’s one kind of thing that ties it together. But the second thing that speaks to what you just said Barkha, which is that really the front line for this crisis are the poor and vulnerable in India and the world. And what we have learnt from this crisis is that we’re not a resilient society. We do not have systems in place to take care of the poorest, when faced with something like this crisis. And after all, climate change is nothing, if not going to be a series of shocks. Whether it’s heat waves, whether it’s violent weather events, whether it’s crop yield declines, whether it’s disruptions of all sorts to our water system. We are facing a world that is going to be shock-ridden. And this crisis has basically shown us, we are not resilient. We don’t have systems of resilience. And we can talk a little bit more about the ways in which that is so, but at core, we are not a resilient society, we don’t know how to do resilience. And that’s going to cost us with COVID, it’s going to cost us with climate change.
0:07:32 BD: So I think the interesting point Navroz that you make is that before this pandemic and the kind of absolute lock downs that it has triggered across the world including here in India, there was a kind of complacency, a kind of smugness, a kind of disbelief, “Oh, this is not going to happen in our lifetime. You know, even if climate change and global warming is going to change the world, it isn’t going to happen while we are alive.” I think the one thing that we’ve all learned from this is that cataclysmic events will happen in our lifetime, while we’re on this planet. Now Jairam, I was just reading a BBC report that actually said that as many as 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, that’s about 8% of the estimated total of the year will not be released this year. So our climate change activists have been fighting for, for years. It took a horrific pandemic to actually enforce that. But that’s not lasting or sustainable ways to get a blue-er sky, to get air to breathe in. I think the real question that Navroz chose up is, if we are not inherently resilient, if we do not have the structures and the systems in place to provide us security; food security, water security. When a climate change catastrophe hits, and please note that I’m saying when and not if, we will not have those mechanisms in place. And how do we explain to people that the pandemic is a wake-up call for the larger conversation about the state of the planet?
0:09:02 Jairam Ramesh: Well Barkha, first of all, I don’t think we should pat ourselves on the back on environmental benefits because they are coming, if any, at grave economic and social costs. So I would not have such environmental benefits if this is going to be the cost that is going to be imposed on society. I prefer to look upon this as a loss of ecological balance. It’s not so much climate change per se, but it’s the manner in which the ecological balance has been disturbed. And this pandemic is the reflection of a disturbance in that ecological equilibrium. And I think it gives us an opportunity to sit back and ask ourselves this question, “As to how we came to this situation” And more importantly, “What’s the step ahead? Now for example. I’ll give you two simple examples. On the one side, there is now accumulating evidence to show that air pollution has actually accentuated the impact on people of this crisis. So there is a direct connection between what we do to the environment and what has happened as a result of this pandemic.
0:10:18 JR: And we all know that one of the reasons for this pandemic is the existence of wet markets and the way wet markets operate. And that has caused… That’s the immediate proximate cause for this crisis. Now, you look at the response and one of the responses is, in order to get out of this economic situation that we are in, we need to liberalize our land laws, we need to liberalize our labor laws and more importantly, we need to liberalize our environmental laws. So that we get more investment into this country. This is going to be a recipe for even greater disaster. And I think the important question that Navroz has raised is really this “Grow now, pay later” model. You know, let’s have economic growth now and lets worry about the consequences of the economic growth 15-20 years down the road. That is a discredited model.
0:11:16 JR: And we really need to sit back and ask ourselves this question and not at a philosophical level, but at an operational level. “How do we integrate environmental concerns into economic growth?” Most importantly, because they have public health consequences. Pollution, chemical contamination, land degradation, these are all issues. Climate change, has to be looked at now from a public health perspective. And I think that’s the real question, “Are we going to seize this opportunity for going beyond lip service to environmental issues?” Or are we going to use this as an opportunity for actually saying, “Hey, wait a minute, environment is not the priority now. The priority now is economic revival.” I’m afraid that the signals are on the latter and we are headed therefore into a greater disaster.
0:12:19 BD: Rohini, in some ways, at the heart of the climate change conversation, at the heart of the conversations around the lockdown, are the same principles. The role of community, the role of civil society and limitations of government. I think it’s very important to highlight that at least in India, the way government structures have been developed. And I’ll just share a small example before I ask you my question. In Surat today, we were looking at community initiatives where women in housing societies were making lunch and dinner, and I’m sorry, it’s women and not men, but that’s how it is. The women who were making the rotis decided to make five extra rotis in every house and then these five extra rotis are being collected by housing societies, being sent to a community center where they’re being supplemented and being sent out to migrant workers in food packets. Now, when I was talking to the local administration, they actually said that NGOs are feeding one lakh people every day and the local administration simply lacks the capacity to feed these many people. It may have the resources, but it doesn’t have the capacity while it’s also battling a pandemic. So we’ve really fallen back on civil society, on community linkages, on community initiatives and that has for long been at the heart of the climate change conversation as well.
0:13:40 JR: Absolutely, I think one of the lessons that…
0:13:42 BD: Jairam, Jairam. Can I take that to Rohini and then I’ll bring you in on that?
0:13:44 JR: Yeah, please. Go ahead, go ahead.
0:13:45 BD: Rohini, go ahead.
0:13:48 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much Barkha. It’s great to be here on this panel. I couldn’t agree with you more. The one stark thing that has come out in the last 45 days is that the community trusts the civil society sector. And I have to use this opportunity to say, that we have been pushing the civil society sector back for the last few years, and unfortunately, it was really under stress but who are the first responders? Who went out? Who have the first mile connect to the citizens? Who can give good, quick, feedback loops? It is the civil society organizations that are in touch with contextual issues and contextual responses. So and that has become extremely clear to the state, at the center, at the state level and at the local level. So, you’re absolutely right, that it is the samaj sector that has stood right there with the sarkar sector, and of course the bazaar sector to respond to this, and we need to help, even for the learning from this, to build the capacity of the civil society sector to create resilience, which we’ve been talking about in the communities that they serve. And it’s not impossible to do that, but we have to start now.
0:15:02 RN: And the philanthropy community has to also contribute very seriously to this, because yes, we have been doing an immediate response, but it is really time because you’re seeing the impact on livelihoods, people are nervous about their futures. It’s time for civil society and philanthropy to move into a mid-term strategy now, and that is all about developing resilience.
0:15:26 BD: Now, Navroz, the climate change conversation has been haunted for many years by the old or the old sort of collision between developing countries and the more developed economies and developing countries like India. Jairam will notice from his own climate change negotiations have argued that we cannot be expected to carry the cross for what other countries have already done. If I were to break this down to a very micro level, I think that’s the exact debate at the heart of this lockdown. As I have walked on literally now every National Highway across eight states of North India with migrant workers, to me it seems as if this lockdown is all about the poor carrying the cross to keep the middle class and the upper middle class safe. So class and inequities of economics are at the heart of both of these debates. So I just want you to speak to that.
0:16:20 ND: Alright. I couldn’t agree more. It struck me as well that you see this sort of reproduction in a sense, of some of the tensions that we’ve seen in the climate debate. I think there’s no doubt that at the moment, the focus has to be on the migrants, on the poor communities who are bearing the brunt of our lockdown and the effects to try and limit the COVID outbreak. I want to just reinforce I think what Mr. Jairam Ramesh said here. That we should, that it would be very, very damaging, and damaging including and even particularly for the poorest to take the message from that, that we need to actually set aside all kinds of environmental constraints, in order to jump start the economy, because I think that’s actually a false dichotomy. And actually, there are several things that one can do which would both be good from a lockdown lifting point of view as well as from an environmental point of view. Let me just take a couple of examples, right.
0:17:22 ND: So those who really are worried about opening up the economy and I think that’s fair, we have to be worried about opening up the economy. One of the areas that’s most at risk is the power sector. The power sector has seen declines in demand of some 20%-25%, power plants are losing money, generation companies are going bankrupt that has ripple effects to the banking system. Now, here’s an opening for us to rethink the kind of power sector that we want, right. If you actually were to shut down the older, more polluting plants, that would create space for the newer cleaner plants and for renewable energy to actually return a profit. Those older plants are crowding out the newer plants. That would be good from an economic point of view, it’d be good from in terms of getting the economy back on its feet and getting jobs going, and it would be good from an environmental point of view, including air pollution, long-term climate impacts and so on. So those are the kinds of openings we have to see. Another example is rethinking agriculture, right.
0:18:21 ND: So those are the sorts of… And we can talk a little bit more about that. So I think that we have to actually be creative now in the ways in which we think about the intersections between the economy and the environment. And certainly going back to a model that pits one against the other, is deeply problematic. Just to sort of conclude this point, what is often forgotten is that the most vulnerable and the greatest victims of pollution are in fact the poorest, right. So similarly as with COVID, air pollution, we… That the rich can insulate ourselves to a certain extent from water pollution, from air pollution. The poor can’t. So I think the sense in which right now what we have do is focus on growth and set aside environment, would actually compound the problems and compound the injustice rather than making them any better.
0:19:11 BD: So Jairam, I know that you chair a Parliamentary panel on the COVID response. But I’m intrigued to know where you stand on this because there is such a panic about the economy right now. And there’s a panic, in a sense, about whether these workers, the migrant workers who have been stripped of all dignity, will even return to many of these villages or rather cities that they worked in. Certainly many of the workers I’ve met say, “We do not even want to go back.” Now, given that kind of panic, do you think that the current suggestions, Navroz is making right now, very informed, very valuable suggestions, have political viability in this larger environment of absolute panic about the state of the economy?
0:19:53 JR: Well, as I told you Barkha, my greatest fear, and this is what I have been trying to raise virtually with my Parliamentary colleagues. My greatest fear is that because we have to jump start the economy, because the economic damage has been horrendous and there is now a marked tendency towards relaxing. We’ve already relaxed labor laws, some of the states have relaxed labor laws. There is talk now of relaxing land laws, this has been on the angle. And there are proposals in front of the government for relaxation of environmental laws as well. So I think, the three casualties in terms of regulations will be labor regulation, land regulation, and environmental regulation. And that would be in my view a recipe for disaster. I have raised this even this morning with the Minister concerned and with the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Unfortunately, Parliament is not scheduled to meet till the middle of July. We’ve been asking for virtual meetings of standing committees, but that’s not been agreed to. But in the meanwhile, all these relaxations are taking place. And one of the arguments that is being given is that foreign companies are vacating China and India should attract these companies. And the only way we’re going to attract them is if we loosen our labor, land, and environmental laws. This is hogwash, this is a completely bogus argument. However, it’s an argument that’s very seductive. And that seems to have captured the imagination of the government.
0:21:43 JR: One point I want to make Barkha, you raised this about resilience of local communities. Eight years ago when the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, we were thinking of restructuring MGNREGA. One of the ideas was, “How do you use programs like MGNREGA to build climate resilience at the community level?” You know, through water conservation, through land improvements and not just by giving public works but actually creating assets that leads to climate resilience. And I’m glad to say that in a number of states, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, this in fact was accomplished. And that’s really the way to go. Today even the greatest critics of MGNREGA have discovered its virtues and we should use these programs in order to build resilience of local communities. I entirely agree with Rohini that civil society and their capacity for building resilience of local communities far exceeds the capacity and capability of governments. And that’s something that’s been a casualty. An I hope that we rediscover the virtues of civil society working in tandem with local governments.
0:23:05 BD: Oh, I think without civil society, there would actually be no relief work on the ground. That’s certainly something I can validate from everything I’ve seen over the last 50 odd days. Rohini, I want to talk about water and the reason I want to talk about water, and I know this is a space that you work in, is that I’ve been haunted by a village I visited where they were all daily wagers. So like all daily wagers, they had no wages right now. They had very little food, very little access to ration. But then they brought out these buckets of water in their village. And the water was chemical yellow, it was chemical yellow. And they said that they keep trying to petition every body that they knew for years, but they couldn’t even get people like myself, journalists like myself, mea culpa. Without this pandemic, I would never have been reporting this story. But I suddenly discovered this yellow water in this village. And then I said, “Obviously, you can’t drink it. So what do you do?” And they said, “We have to buy water for Rs 10. Rs 10, we have to buy water to drink.” These are daily wagers without money, without access to food. So I think that we have totally underestimated the water crisis and I think that’s our segue into have the climate change conversation, that linkage could not be more stark.
0:24:18 RN: Yeah. Thanks, Barkha. Of course water is going to be a very critical issue. I’ll come to it in a moment, but I do want to diverge from you, from what you said in the beginning because I think it’s important. Even based on what Jairam and you said. You said that it’s the elite that are taking pictures of the blue sky, right? But I think we should not pitch it as to divide the elite and the poor because it is not something you can divide. Blue air and blue clean water is in fact more important for the poor than it is for the elite. They can take pictures and they can just, that’s not… So… But, to be able to see, is to be able to solve. If Delhi’s little children and young people have never seen clean air, how are they going to even fight for pushing for all the effluents to be put out of the air? Similarly, I will tell you in Bangalore today, you were speaking of water, our lakes… Just 45 days… Our lakes have become cleaner. We have a city river that was black and frothing which is running clear, you can see to the bottom. And how did that happen? The sewage didn’t reduce, right? So it’s the industrial effluents from small, small units that stopped because of the lockdown. And this river which could become the lifeline for my city is suddenly… Now people can see, imagine a possibility.
0:25:42 RN: So I wouldn’t really rule that out as something that just the elite… It’s most important for vulnerable communities to have clean water. And that in fact, is what you’re talking about. The quality situation of water, the quantity situation of water in India, varies very widely. And climate change is going to make that worse. So in this pandemic, we have learnt even more about the importance of water. If you don’t have water, how on earth are you going to wash your hands? Everybody doesn’t have a sanitizer.
0:26:11 RN: So, that brings us back to community resilience. The government does have two very ambitious and large programs which have been announced for which I hope money will start moving. We are also looking Jairam to MGNREGA, of course, to be able to start work. The Atal Bhujal Yojana and the Jal Shakti Abhiyan for drinking water and for ground water management. Arghyam, the foundation I work with, we’re very… Trying to be closely involved. And what we’re trying to do is to say, communities have a good sense of their water resources, help build their capacity, think digital infra for water to build the capacity of local communities, to separate and segregate their good water resources for drinking and you learn to augment their ground water, make ground water which is invisible water visible. Local, local, local, give local people the knowledge and the training and the tools like water quality testing kits. This doesn’t cost so much money, but do it now, use civil society and push out the water agenda this summer.
0:27:19 BD: So, you know, Navroz we could go in two directions from this place, we could go in the direction where, as Jairam alluded to, the whole emphasis is, “How do you jump start the economic engine?” Or we could say, “Okay, this is what this pandemic and this lockdown actually taught us and going forward, this is what we could change.” Now you referred to how even crop patterns, this is the moment to re-examine that when we look at food security. Do you want to explain that in a simple sort of way? I know there are crops that use more water, there are crops that use less water, but I leave it to your expertise to elaborate on that.
0:28:01 ND: Right. Now thank you Barkha. I think the thing to do, what we have to make sure we don’t fall into, is that it is a choice between jump starting the economy and having a clean environment. There are various ways to jump start the economy, there are the better and the worst ways to do it. And some of the paths, if you go down the path of relaxing the environment and labor regulations, and so on, you will jump start the economy at the cost of future harm in particular to India’s most vulnerable. Right? So there are better ways and worst ways of doing it. Now, many things that we did in the past didn’t work so well. I talked about the power sector. Similarly in agriculture, we were locked into patterns in agriculture that were really sub-optimal. Many of us would not want to go back to that. We have to use this as an opportunity to think about better ways forward.
0:28:49 ND: So let’s take agriculture. In agriculture, in Punjab and Haryana, as many of us know, we have been locked into a rice and wheat cropping cycle. Now rice in Punjab and Haryana is not such a great idea because water is relatively scarce. It has led to this problem of stubble burning which contributes to air pollution in the months of November. And this is a cycle that we were locked into, it was supported by a regime of minimum support prices for cheaper varieties of rice. Now, what we see is that Punjabi farmers, distressed Punjabi farmers, absolutely that they’re distressed in that they’re trying this, are now thinking about maize and cotton. There are some wonderful reporting by Harish Damodaran and others talking about this.
0:29:31 ND: Now, maize and cotton. And Cotton is a historic crop in Punjab, that is what they used to grow. Now if the government could actually support production of maize and cotton by actually providing mills for maize, finding other uses for it, then what you might see happening is that a low end rice production could shift east where there’s abundant groundwater. And what’s interesting about this is all the labor that actually transplants rice in Punjab and Haryana comes from the east. So you now have a system where migrant labor has to move for jobs. If the production moved to the east, they wouldn’t have to move. You have more economic growth where people actually are and where the resources, that is where the water is. Now, everybody has known this is a possibility. It was just very hard to shake free of the existing arrangement. Well, the virus for better or for worst has shaken us free. It’s forced us to rethink things. Now, it is up to us whether we want to actually move to a better outcome that is good from the point of view of the economy, good from the point of view of labor and good from the point of view of water in the environment. So these are the kinds of openings we need to look for.
0:30:40 BD: Jairam, you said in the beginning that you would not celebrate or romanticize the environmental benefits because they’ve been triggered by a kind of economic catastrophe, but I think the point that both Rohini and Navroz are making here is that these binaries are dangerous, they suggest an either/or, they suggest that you can only obtain one at the cost of the other and you know better than that, that it’s much more complex. And we need parallel tracks on this. I have to ask you this. There seems to be a more or less political unanimity in how the chief ministers are responding on the lockdown. Do you believe that this kind of enforced safety from the virus and thereby as an accidental consequence, cleaner air and all of that, do you do support this lockdown any more?
0:31:37 JR: Well, I think the consensus view amongst the chief ministers whom I have spoken to and I have spoken to a lot of them over the last couple of days, is that the time for a centralized diktat is over, that the central government should set broad parameters and guidelines but What is red, what is orange, what is green, should be left to individual state governments to decide. And I think there is a lot of merit in this. I support this and I think now at the end, we’re looking at May 17th, if after May 17, we are not going to give flexibility to state governments, I think it’s completely counterproductive. This lockdown has lost its value, because the cases are keeping on increasing. The Director of AIIMS has said yesterday that the peaking will take place sometime in early July. So are we going to have a lockdown till early July? I mean what… The goalposts, like in demonetisation, the goalposts kept changing, even in lockdown the goalposts are keeping on changing. And I think that the time now is to say, on May 17th, we’re going to get out of this one-size-fit-all type of a lockdown. We will set broad parameters. State governments will be free to decide red, green and yellow. However, physical distancing, not social distancing, physical distancing and masks may continue to be enforced for a reasonable length of time. This lockdown, the way we are having it today must end, Barkha, on the 17th of May.
0:33:25 BD: I couldn’t agree with you more because at least from the ground, I can tell you that the humanitarian crisis will be much bigger than anything so far the numbers tell us about the capacity of the virus towards us. So we have a problem in this country that other countries do not have. Rohini, this is a transformative moment. The question is, “Will it transform us? And in which direction can it push us or persuade us to travel in?” Personally, and I want to make this personal because that’s the way to make it accessible. Personally do you find yourself different? Do you find yourself thinking of different things? Do you find yourself re-prioritizing your life? In what way do you want to be different after this lockdown lifts and maybe we can say that we are safe from the virus?
0:34:11 RN: Well, I didn’t expect that in a climate change discussion, but maybe the personal is political and the political is about development. So maybe I’ll use that. No, it’s taught me a lot. I think it’s taught us all a lot. It’s taught us all a lot about ourselves. It’s taught us all about the societies that we live in. And it’s taught us all about the governance systems that we are experiencing. These three things very clearly. No, certainly I’ve learnt more to live in the moment. Because who knows about the next moment, so the elite control is a bit gone. And no, also in my philanthropy, very clearly, some of us have made a pledge that we will deploy more generous capital, more flexible capital, we will build and sustain trust networks by starting with trust ourselves, trust the partners that we are going to work with, allow them the freedom of choice to respond to what’s happening on the ground. So as a person, of course, one is really trying new kinds of mindfulness, but at a philanthropy level also, trying to do whatever it takes, so that civil society can have the power to be more resilient.
0:35:21 RN: And this moment has also really taught us that we need the more judicious balance between centralization and decentralization as you were just speaking about. And that, if we can think rather than pushing solutions or diktats down the pipeline, how can we distribute the ability to solve? And how can we build people’s capacity to solve? Rather than telling them this is the way to solve. I think there is a way to do that. We are trying that, we call that societal platform thinking. And our teams are working very hard right now in many sectors to make that happen. So that people build agency. People are not stupid, they know what they need. They need some help of course, but you give them freedom to respond and they will. Look at… You’ve seen the migrants have decided what to do on their own. They’re not waiting for the state to say when they should go back. They are saying, “Okay, I’ll walk hundreds of kilometers.” So giving people more agency, distributing the ability to solve and using decentralization judiciously is what some of the things I’ve learnt on the governance side.
0:36:29 BD: I’ll tell you why I asked the personal question because I think the climate change conversation always boils down to, “What are you willing to change about your life?” Every argument or conversation I’ve had with friends about climate change, Navroz comes down to that. Are you willing to fly less? Are you willing to give up meat? Are you willing to not use your air conditioners? Are you willing to not leave your tap running when you brush your teeth? It is actually that small. And if there’s anything this pandemic has taught me, it’s the small stuff that matters. So that’s why I asked that personal question. So let me bring you in on that, Navroz.
0:37:02 ND: So I think it’s a very important place to start, right. This pandemic has forced each of us in our own ways to confront things about our own lives. And coming back to where you started this conversation, Barkha. We are in a situation right now where the elite among us are basically been able to insulate ourselves. We sit at home, we’ve managed to get our supplies one way or another. It’s the poor that really have borne the brunt of this. So, yes, personally, we can change some things. But I think we have to also take what Rohini was just saying, we have to look at the larger governance system. This is both personal and political. We have a governance system right now, which has failed, the PDS has basically failed to reach many people. Social order has been maintained, but at the cost of a lot of disrespect of people. We need to work on that, that part of it. We talked about the federal system and the way in which there’s been this creeping, more than creeping centralization.
0:38:02 ND: So coming back to the fact that we’ve learnt, we don’t have a resilient society. We don’t have institutions and governance that can protect the poorest in India. So part of it is personal, yes, but part of it has got to be about system change. So it’s us acting as consumers but it’s also us acting as citizens. We need to demand a society that can handle these sorts of disruptions in ways that are kinder and more fair and that involve everybody and in particular safeguards the poorest. We don’t have that at the moment. That to me is the biggest learning from this.
0:38:35 BD: I absolutely agree. But I’m starting to get questions now. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to… If a question is for a particular panelist, I will direct it to you. If you want to jump in or add on to what someone says, please feel free. Jairam I’ll start with you. Niranjan Demanna has this question, “While I’m enjoying this thought provoking discussion, I hope to receive some insights on solutions. Which impact areas should be prioritized? Who should act? And what should be the solution focused on?” Jairam.
0:39:04 JR: Well, it’s really simple. We have laws to protect the environment, enforce the laws. We have institutions to enforce the laws, strengthen those institutions. Don’t subvert those institutions. I mean the solutions are staring us in the face. We have laws, we have standards, we have regulations, we have institutions, respect them. Respect their professionalism, respect their autonomy and make sure that you know what you say is actually enforced. I think, there’s no great rocket science. You don’t need to invent anything. We don’t need to get solutions from outside. In the last 10 years Barkha, the frequency of natural disasters in India has exceeded the frequency in any previous decade. Now, if this doesn’t awaken us, wake us up to the fact that if you disturb nature’s balance, nature will hit back at you, what will? So, this is what I’m saying. Use the laws, use your standards, use your institutions to the purpose for which they have been created. To put it very bluntly, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is meant to protect environment and protect forests. The Ministry of Environment and Forests is not there to liberalize environmental laws and forest laws, so that we can have more environmental destruction and more deforestation.
0:40:39 BD: Okay, but we always know the tussles that go on in government, you had to deal with your own share in the UPA, it’s no different in the BJP. Nikhil Anand, Rohini I’ll take this question to you. “The COVID crisis reveals that the idea that it’s environment or health versus the economy is the false distinction. So why is it that 30 years after the start of the environmental and social movement, the government is still talking about balancing one with the other?” And I think this is a really important question, Rohini because actually, theoretically, everybody agrees. Practically no government actually agrees on this.
0:41:13 RN: Yeah, no, I… Look, first of all, if we… There is a role for samaj, bazaar and sarkar. Sarkar actually should not fall into the trap in the name of reviving the economy to disturb the ecology. And we, as Jairam says, we have the laws. Please don’t fast track the destruction of our natural environment. You’ll just be inviting the next pandemic send sooner and sooner. And we know that, the science is very clear on that. But I would also to say to the bazaar sector, the market sector. Tomorrow’s company, tomorrow’s successful company is not a company of the kind that I have seen in the Himalayas, for example, where debris from power plant is shoved down the hillside, that’s not going to be tomorrow’s successful company.
0:41:54 RN: And tomorrow’s successful company is going to be about sustainability. And we have seen enough surveys to say that when companies are actually balancing the environmental question with their bottom line, they are succeeding, they’re developing. So I think there is… It’s not an either/or. Of course, there is obviously some fast profits to be made by ignoring societal labor and environmental laws, but the smarter companies have already launched. And I feel like they must help smaller companies, the polluters etcetera. They must use their CSR to help create common, shared effluent treatment plant or think like that rather than doing CSR in the way it is designed today. I think there are genuine opportunities. People want to do better, the state has to help. And the business sector which is doing well has to help the smaller units to also be smarter. That’s what their CIIs and ASSOCHAMs and everything is for. So that’s what I look forward to. So that we create an “and” and not an “or”. It’s not impossible. Some countries have shown the way and we can follow. And we can do totally indigenous innovation on this.
0:43:10 BD: Okay, Ganesh Nirav has a question. I’ll take that to Navroz. “What do you strongly recommend for smallholder farmers in the years to come vis-a-vis COVID? And reconciling that animal agriculture/livestock practices contribute a significant amount of India’s total carbon emissions?” Now, this is another question where, Navroz, that binary will come up. We’ve seen for example, in particular poultry farmers, really badly hit up by this sort of WhatsApp fake news that there was a correlation between chicken and the pandemic. At the same time, if you look at it within a carbon emissions argument, there will be a huge push for vegetarianism, so just comment on that.
0:43:53 ND: Yes. Okay. Thank you. So I actually don’t see a dilemma here. The fact that poultry and the livestock industry contributes in some small measure to greenhouse gases, doesn’t really stand up when you contrast against the livelihood needs of those farmers who tend to be smaller, poorer and so on and so forth. So to me this isn’t about squeezing wherever you can. This is about smart choices about, as Rohini said, looking towards the future in ways that allow us to provide people livelihoods in ways that also expand environmental quality. Just because you have emissions from a particular sector, it doesn’t really mean that that’s the sector you focus on. And just to come back to the earlier question which I thought was to Mr. Ramesh about solutions. We’ve had a bunch of solutions thrown out in this call. It’s worth just very quickly inventorying them. We’ve talked about I think a very important point about using the money that is meant to jump start employment, the stimulus, to invest that money in more resilient rural livelihoods around water harvesting and so on and so forth, using MGNREGA. That is absolutely something we should do.
0:45:05 ND: We talked about the power sector, there’s an opening there to have gains across the board. We talked about shifting patterns of agriculture, we haven’t talked about it yet, but certainly I would ask the elite to now learn from all these Zoom calls, we’re all doing and travel less for business, find ways of staying in touch more virtually. That’s much more important than the livestock farmer shifting their patterns. We now have work from home as a big national and global experiment, that’s something we should explore, that could actually bring down congestion on our roads and help with air pollution potentially and not in a marginal way, in actually quite a big way. So, I think we have to actually… What we’ve learnt from this COVID situation too, is that the elite among us have to be willing to change. There’s no point calling for public transport for somebody else. Yes we need better public transport, but we need to be willing to hop on the bus. So, those are the kinds of changes that I think we should use this moment to pursue.
0:46:03 BD: But I just want Rohini to add to that because I know we were talking about this earlier, to put the onus on a citizen completely Rohini, it is also letting the state go off the hook. Right? So, I am ready to take the metro, maybe as a young woman working in the city but I need some assurance of public safety. Just to give an example of what a number of female colleagues would say or similarly you need some sense that maybe I am a doctor working on a late shift and I need the subway to run even after midnight. There are all kinds of things that the state has to provide before the citizen can be asked to step up. Rohini?
0:46:38 RN: Yeah, I know… Look, we need more effective governance, we all know that. And I’m the first to say that blame doesn’t work, that we can’t just be automatic consumers of good governance, citizens have to co-create good governance. So, I’m not shifting the onus completely away from the citizen but really the state has to respond much more effectively so that the public can also follow. Public transport, if it was great, I would take it. If there was safety to walk about at night for women, I would go out or so would everybody. So, there is a very strong role that the state plays and we have to collectively demand but also co-create those system responsiveness-es. See, the responsibility, some of it we have taken, we have a good rights regime, we have fantastic policies but the responsiveness of the regime to that system of rights, to those policies, to those laws. I think we cannot shy away from the questions of better governance. To enable exactly what we are saying, for citizens to be able to do their duties better, to change their habits, you need certain public infrastructure that is enabling. And we don’t have that enabling public infrastructure. We need much more of it and much sooner.
0:48:05 JR: Barkha.
0:48:07 BD: Okay, I have time for just… Yeah, sorry Jairam. Go ahead.
0:48:09 JR: Barkha, I just want to add one thing that in terms of governance. I think one of the great lessons from this crisis if ever we needed a lesson, was that while we’ve been very successful in terms of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, in creating panchayats, in creating elected bodies in rural areas, the 74th Amendment has just not been taken seriously. So urban local bodies are starved of finances, they’re starved of managerial and administrative powers. And this crisis that we have seen has been in many ways an urban crisis, the ripple effects of which are being felt in rural areas. So, I think one immediate solution is to revisit the 74th Amendment and go back and implement it with the same degree of seriousness with which we have implemented the 73rd Amendment.
0:49:05 BD: That is…
0:49:05 JR: All said and done the 73rd Amendment has been useful.
0:49:09 BD: That is such an important point because if you talk to the city administrations, they often don’t even know who’s a migrant worker, which neighborhood the worker’s in and there’s a complete contrast in the rural bases and the urban areas…
0:49:22 JR: Use this opportunity, no. Use this opportunity, you have a framework, use it to revisit the 74th Amendment and create viable urban local bodies.
0:49:34 BD: Yeah. Okay, agreed.
0:49:36 RN: I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Jairam, Barkha. This is a serious opportunity to re-imagine both public spaces and city planning, because you’re going to have to do that. So, this is a perfect time to do that and the 74th Amendment is the way to go.
0:49:49 BD: Okay, we have five minutes left, so I’m going to just read out the next two, three questions together and you can all respond in concluding comments. We have Shambhavi saying, “Some economists are arguing about creating large scale jobs and will that lead Indians to do low-scale, “dirty jobs” often with polluting aspects. What kind of other policies apart from NREGA can Jairam Ramesh point to?” So Jairam, we’ll just park that for you to respond to. Bala Prasad has a question, “How do we create sustainable livelihoods while addressing climate concerns? Can we look to rural industrialisation?” Sameer has a question specifically for Rohini, “Are the philanthropic initiatives that you’re taking focused more towards treating issues arising out of disasters? Are you looking at taking on the root causes such as population control? How do you see your philanthropic priorities changing after the COVID-19 crisis?” Rohini I’ll start with you. There’s one more question, I’ll bring that in, but Rohini I’ll start with you.
0:50:49 RN: Okay, thank you so much. The philanthropic community in India has been responding very quickly to this disaster. And even before that. For the last few years, some of us have been coming together as collectives, philanthropy collectives, like this India Climate Collaborative, which is hosting today’s show. And we are saying, “Lets think long term, lets collaborate and lets be much more strategic in our giving.” So, we are not talking about population control but certainly disasters and resilience is a big focus of the India Climate Collaborative and we have more than 15 funders, big funders, and more than… I don’t know, the numbers will be given by Shloka because they keep increasing, and I’m really hopeful that we’ll get some serious stuff. We are talking about working with civil society, we are talking about working with states. So that is my answer on the philanthropic response and yes, I have learnt a lot through this. So we are going to be thinking about strategic philanthropy even more closely and how can we work better with government.
0:51:57 BD: I just… Before I ask Jairam, I just want to say that population control, this debate scares me, that if after this, what we’re going to hear is, “Why do these poor people have four children without any understanding of reproductive and sexual autonomy for women, the fact that women can’t often access contraceptions, that they do not have that independence in their relationships.
0:52:18 RN: No.
0:52:18 BD: That’s a trigger…
0:52:20 RN: No, Barkha. Sorry, just one sentence. Population control, we are going to… We are rapidly aging in the next 20 years, so we are going to be an old society, so we are gonna have the opposite problem very soon.
0:52:34 BD: No, no. I’m just saying, it should not become the next bogey. The next bogey out here is going to be this kind of draconian enforced population policy as a lesson, as the wrong lesson to take away from this pandemic. Jairam, I’m adding one more question for you and then you can respond to what you’ve heard so far. Jagdish is saying that, “The Ministry of Environment should actually be backing on behalf of the ecology. But it’s role has become clearing some very controversial and damaging projects, bringing into question it’s inadequate stewardship of India’s ecological security.”
0:53:06 JR: Well, I’ve answered this question before. The job of any Ministry, particularly the Ministry of Environment is to protect the environment, protect the forests but unfortunately, that’s not been the priority in the name of ease of doing business. And I hope that we change gears now. The question that related to, “Are we going to get revival through having a lot of polluting jobs?” Obviously, we can’t pollute our way to prosperity. We’re talking of green jobs. We are talking like Rohini said about sustainable jobs and you need ecologically sustainable… You don’t need just financially sustainable but you also need ecologically sustainable jobs and I think that’s the type of jobs that we need to be creating. This is an opportunity for a Green New Deal. You know, why not? Why not look at a green revival? Why not look at a green new revival? Why are we talking… Why don’t we talk about a green stimulus? So you know these are opportunities for revisiting some of the issues that have bedeviled us. And every crisis creates an opportunity, Barkha. In 1991, there was a crisis, and that was an opportunity for economic reform. In 2020, we have another economic crisis, and we have a social crisis, and I think this is an opportunity for ecological reform, for bringing ecology into the mainstream of governance.
0:54:33 BD: I’m gonna give the last word to Navroz for the question on sustainable livelihoods. You listed some of the things that could change, work from home, more Zoom meetings, more virtual meetings. What are you confident or optimistic will change after this?
0:54:50 ND: So I… Before I come to your question, I wanna take 10 to 15 seconds on the population issue because I completely agree with you.
0:54:57 BD: Sure.
0:54:58 ND: And I just want to say that when I hear people say population is the root cause. Listen, in Environmental Sciences, there is a very standard equation right. It says, “Impact is equal to population times affluence times technology.” The impact of every American on this earth and nature is many, many times that of an average Indian because of affluence. It’s not about population. It’s actually about the confluence of these three things, and it’s the affluence part of the story that is actually where most of the damage happens. So I… And we have a history of when you talk about population, you start talking about draconian measures, impacts on civil liberties. That’s not where we wanna go. Population comes down when women have access to reproductive rights, when women have access to education and then that happens in its own course. So that’s… I really wanna pull that conversation out of this conversation to reinforce your point.
0:55:50 BD: Yeah.
0:55:51 ND: In terms of what we take from this. It’s worth pausing and thinking about the scale of changes that we’ve seen in the last 45 days and what has suddenly become possible. I alluded to the agricultural story. We talked about work from home, things that we didn’t think… And I’m somebody who’s worked on climate change for many years. I actually, as a self-criticism of me and my community, we have been limited by our imagination. We don’t think we can get the world to change very much. And you suddenly turn around on that because of this one virus, people are talking about things that were unimaginable, talking about ways in which they’re changing their personal behaviors, reflecting on living in the moment, talking about using opportunities to shift things we thought were really hard to shift. So I think we have to liberate ourselves to think big now. And I take Jairam’s point about the language of opportunity, but I worry about it too because people are using opportunity sometimes in ways that I want…
0:56:51 JR: I agree with you. I agree.
0:56:51 ND: And you, in fact, said that, right? It’s an opportunity to shut down labor laws, opportunity to shut down… This language of a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Also opens the door to all kinds of things that are problematic.
0:57:04 JR: I agree.
0:57:04 ND: And so I would prefer to say, we need to use this moment to re-imagine. We need to try and re-imagine what a more progressive life looks like, a life with dignity where livelihoods are possible without people, huge numbers of people having to leave their homes and criss-cross this country. I think, for example, having an economy that is built on the scale of migrancy, in a country with as poor a safety net as we have, is something we should try and move beyond. I don’t… I’m not a big enough thinker to imagine what that looks like, but that means we want our objectives. We don’t want an India that depends on poor people having to move around in ways that expose themselves to things like this in the future. How do we imagine big at this point?
0:57:45 BD: Or re-imagine abundance because you see, people want abundance, prosperity as abundance, not just one way of looking at prosperity perhaps.
0:57:55 ND: Yes, yes. I think these are the kinds of conversations we now need to try and open and they will happen in particular areas. I think the governance story is very clear that comes out of this. We can’t re-imagine if we have centralized governance. So we need to be opening up that space as well. So these are the sorts of things that this crisis is leaving me thinking about at the moment and I think there are many echoes of these thoughts in what all of us have said today.
0:58:22 BD: Yeah, absolutely, and I just wanna say in conclusion that the magic of technology is something we didn’t talk about. If someone had told me one year ago that I could be sitting on… By the roadside on a highway just outside of Surat, having this conversation on my phone, which is on a little tripod in front of me with all of you, with 300 people in the room. And by the way, a bonus, this dhaba where we are, the owners were keeping a Roza and we got a big bowl of fruit as they broke their fast, so there are re-imagined notions of abundance and I’ve never felt so happy to look at food. So there are all kinds of life lessons in this. Thank you Rohini, Jairam, Navroz. I learnt a lot. I’m going to hand it back to Shloka to wrap this up for us. Shloka, are you there?
0:59:07 SN: I’m here. Thanks so much, Barkha. Thank you to all our panelists. What an incredible, moving and meaningful discussion. I can’t thank you all enough for taking the time. Thank you also to the ICC team, you guys have worked night and day to make this happen. Thank you to our partners, The Tata Trusts, Dalberg Advisors, Asia Society, IUCN and of course, The Indian Express where it’s being live streamed on YouTube as we speak. I just wanna end this on one last note which is, as individuals we struggle with our helplessness in the face of COVID. Does what I do matter? What can I even do? For many of us tackling climate change feels the same way. The current crisis is also a moment in time to acknowledge the importance of community. We’re getting through each day by leaning on each other, whether it’s helping our neighbors, donating or even clapping for front line workers, it’s our way of connecting in a world that has a human nightmare unspooling in overloaded hospitals and unemployment offices with un-nerving speed, creating a sense of community and working together to combat a crisis we all face. Nothing could be more important. And that is our aim at the ICC. No action is too small. Every single individual can change, and your change accrues to a much greater whole.