A note to UN Climate Champion, PM Narendra Modi.

23 Apr

It is not that, there is no progress in the last 25 years, there is indeed more awareness that Climate Change is a problem which needs to be tackled. But that awareness has come more from civil society and NGO’s who have been able to bear a certain amount of pressure for the governments to act. However, when it comes for the governments to take the onus and do better, they have always hidden behind the glib text, to show more than what happens at the ground level.

This article shall attempt to point at the dangers & alternative opportunities that lie in the wake of the new political discourse that is taking place in India vis a vis; Climate Action. India is going through a great change in its political and social space. Any government which would come into power must fully align with the spirit of the 3 crucial agreements namely – The Paris Agreement, The Sendai Framework & The Sustainable Development Goals.

But before we begin let us remind ourselves that we the people have been given a seat at the CoP24. Now we need to add some more of them in CoP25 if a change is to come.

Together with the UN, Sir David Attenborough has launched a climate action campaign inviting people around the world to share their thoughts on climate change. Thousands of influencers from around the world are joining him by inviting their social media followers to use the hashtag #TakeYourSeat to gather people’s experiences and opinions.

To start with, let us look at some of the points mentioned in the 2018 IPCC Special Report on Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

B. Projected Climate Change, Potential Impacts and Associated Risks:

B.1 Climate models project robust differences in regional climate characteristics between present-day and global warming of 1.5°C, and between 1.5°C and 2°C. These differences include increases in: mean temperature in most land and ocean regions (high confidence), hot extremes in most inhabited regions (high confidence), heavy precipitation in several regions (medium confidence), and the probability of drought and precipitation deficits in some regions (medium confidence).

B.2 By 2100, global mean sea level rise is projected to be around 0.1 metre lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C (medium confidence). Sea level will continue to rise well beyond 2100 (high confidence), and the magnitude and rate of this rise depend on future emission pathways. A slower rate of sea level rise enables greater opportunities for adaptation in the human and ecological systems of small islands, low-lying coastal areas and deltas (medium confidence).

In the cacophony of the largest democracy of the World, the above two paragraphs have not even figured in any major Newspaper, TV or social media which is consumed by the general public at least in a consistent enough manner.

Around the World, each political party are coming up with their own “development” agenda which looks more like electoral appeasement than a real long-term plan of action.

The Modi government which came into power on the development plank has also got trapped into the discourse that has been the bane of India’s development in the last 70 years! That PM Narendra Modi got selected for the UN Champion of the Earth Award makes it all the more important that his government which is most likely to continue for another term is able to understand all the aspects beyond the obvious. It is only then good governance is possible. And India can be the torch-bearer on Climate Change Abatement & Mitigation.

Let us discuss four Mumbai related projects to see how the development discourse which should have by now turned towards Sustainable Development Goals, is not up to mark.

1.The New International Airport at Navi Mumbai ( New Bombay); 2.The Metro Yard at Aaery Forest area, 3.The Coastal Road project & 4.The Shivaji Statue.

The thing that one finds in common with all the four projects at a glance is the huge environmental impact it will have on the ecosystem. And how the complete governance machinery has been able to bulldoze its will to prove otherwise. Stating it as a public requirement while giving lip service to the recommendations from expert environmentalists who know better.

It is not that we do not need to develop, but why is it that Economic considerations always surpass Ecological considerations? Why does it become too costly & unviable to take measures which are ecologically sound while designing a project? This is a question we must answer.

The New International Airport at Navi Mumbai:

The development of the Navi Mumbai airport will lead to the destruction of the local wetland ecosystem (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

Although cities rely on the countryside for their survival, the rural areas are often ignored and neglected. Faced with expanding its infrastructure, urban planners set their sights on swathes of forest, mangroves and wetlands. There has been no attempt to understand the extent to which new investment in infrastructure is resilient to the changing climate requirements. Emerging economies like India is investing billions in durable infrastructure every year. However, it has often failed to take into account future climate change in their planning. This leads to high risks of loss and damage. The NMAI project, planned to ease the traffic of the burdened Mumbai international airport, is one such endeavour where climate-related issues have not been taken into account in the planning specifications.

There are two thoughts that get comes to the mind, could the government not have tried to decongest the existing airport by removing encroachments and illegal construction? And a bit controversial as it may sound, demolishing certain parts around the city-airport & redesigning the area by relocating the project affected people with proper compensation? While also making an attempt to extend the air-strip at the Juhu airport, again by not attempting to take the sea but along the coast. By realigning the airstrip and allowing smaller aircraft & private jets to operate from there. I confess I may be completely wrong in this assessment as I am not an aviation expert, however, when one looks at the image below of both the airports, the runways are not exactly identically aligned. That perhaps gives me the hope that things could still have been done.

However, if one looks closely at the slums in an around both the airports, well that is a lot of space for expansion! Maybe an alternative solution could have come out? And the ecology of Panvel at Navi Mumbai may have been left untouched.

The Metro Yard at Aaery Forest area :

This Garden of Eden has been earmarked by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) for constructing a metro car shed over an area of 28 hectares. This will lead to the uprooting of 2,298 trees. According to MMRDA, 2,044 of these trees could be transplanted, but the rest of the 254 trees would have to be cut down. While inadequate knowledge is dangerous, so is the habit of a simplistic way of looking at things. For instance, trees are just a unit of complex ecosystems. Even if we manage to successfully transplant trees outside, what happens to the layers of complexity in the habitat matrix that renders Aarey its veritable uniqueness?  Aarey was once a part of the deciduous stretch of forests, now restricted to the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park and hillocks. With the coming of the Aarey dairy co-operative, the thickness of the forests was broken up to create open ecosystems of grasslands, scrubs, marshes and water bodies, giving refuge to an interesting assemblage of species. The large open para grass fields are feeding grounds of Munias, Drongos and Egrets which have been cleared for the metro car shed. The drains that nurture these grass pastures are home to native fish species, crabs, shrimps and Checkered Keelback water snakes that are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, by virtue of being Schedule II creatures.

Yet again, Economic consideration won over ecological considerations. The question that comes into mind is if one looks up North of the place labelled Aarey is Nagri Niwara Cooperative Housing Society. Adjacent to it is a patch of barren land. Why could this area not have been selected? If Metro which is an engineering feat, crisscrossing the length of Mumbai, why the shed could not have been placed somewhere off-track, so to speak?

As an engineer, I understand design challenges, cost escalation and the horrible state of affairs to get anything done in Indian cities. But, once more the cries of the other living beings of this planet are simply ignored – uprooting of 2,298 trees! imagine if these were human lives!

The Coastal Road Project:

One look at the above image and the advantages versus the disaster is obvious. But what is more dangerous and not being put forth is the fact that the coastal road would change the Development Plan of the Mumbai City to a large extent.

The Coastal Regulation Zones rules have recently been amended. Let us have a look at that before I point to the crux of the problems by highlighting a few paragraphs below.

Cabinet approves Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2018:

FSI allowed as per current norms in CRZ areas Greater opportunity for Development of densely populated rural areas Tourism Infrastructure for basic amenities to be promoted CRZ clearance streamlined No Development Zone of 20 meters for All Islands Special importance to All Ecologically Sensitive Areas Special focus on Pollution abatement

Salient Features:

(i)         Allowing FSI as per current norms in CRZ areas: As per CRZ, 2011 Notification, for CRZ-II (Urban) areas, Floor Space Index (FSI) or the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) had been frozen as per 1991 Development Control Regulation (DCR) levels. In the CRZ, 2018 Notification, it has been decided to de-freeze the same and permits FSI for construction projects, as prevailing on the date of the new Notification. This will enable the redevelopment of these areas to meet emerging needs.

One look at the size of the land which is being reclaimed, the gleam in the eyes of the builder-politician lobby is obvious. And they have patience. They will let about 10 years pass by, which is the amount of time needed to fill up the bonanza of extra FSI they would receive with the change of CRZ due to the coast being pushed further back.

Once that happens & with woeful lack of space for further expansion some “development” would be allowed on the reclaimed land, which at present are being promised to be left as “open space” as shown in the illustration above. And to justify it, we already have the CRZ’18 notification para (i) -“redevelopment of the areas as per emerging needs”.

(iii)       Tourism infrastructure for basic amenities to be promoted: Temporary tourism facilities such as shacks, toilet blocks, change rooms, drinking water facilities etc. have now been permitted in Beaches. Such temporary tourism facilities are also now permissible in the “No Development Zone” (NDZ) of the CRZ-III areas as per the Notification. However, a minimum distance of 10 m from HTL should be maintained for setting up of such facilities.

While Toilet Blocks & Drinking Water Facilities & Waste Management facilities should be allowed, it would be a disaster to allow Shacks etc to come up around the Marine drive coastline. The unscrupulous would point to clause (iii) in its whole form. One must be careful and DP laws of the city must over-rule such situations from occurring in the future.

(iv)      CRZ Clearances streamlined: The procedure for CRZ clearances has been streamlined. Only such projects/activities, which are located in the CRZ-I (Ecologically Sensitive Areas) and CRZ IV (area covered between Low Tide Line and 12 Nautical Miles seaward) shall be dealt with for CRZ clearance by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The powers for clearances with respect to CRZ-II and III have been delegated at the State level with necessary guidance.

This is classic. Now, the developer-mafia doesn’t really need to go all the way to New Delhi. Their work can easily be justified at the local level citing para (i)! One wouldn’t be the least surprised to know that those who would be giving clearance would be Neta’s whose qualifications would be basic with no or little understanding of the complexities of Ecology.

(v)       A No Development Zone (NDZ) of 20 meters has been stipulated for all Islands: For islands close to the mainland coast and for all Backwater Islands in the mainland, in wake of space limitations and unique geography of such regions, bringing uniformity in treatment of such regions, NDZ of 20 m has been stipulated.

This was surely done with Mumbai in mind. But when a Tsunami comes, or there is a storm surge, the maximum impact is within 500Mt. There needs to be a Hazzard line drawn up. The Hazard Line is an advanced warning system that helps to not only prevent deaths but also save crores in property loss.

What is most amazing is that India was supposed to get a Hazzard Line in 2015! A Hazzard Line is the line that demarcates the coastal area that is at high risk from flooding, coastal erosion and emerging threats like sea level rise. It would help the 13 coastal states and Union Territories be better prepared for disasters like cyclones and storm surges.

Further, with no serious action and awareness program created till date, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction to which India is a signatory has been completely set aside on this matter.

(vi)       All Ecologically Sensitive Areas have been accorded special importance: Specific guidelines related to their conservation and management plans have been drawn up as a part of the CRZ Notification.

One would be amazed at how the law enforcement agencies as well as the government agencies who but are humans with a designation and duty would pass by the very roads which are encroached, the playgrounds which have been usurped by the greedy developer or slums & even by that famous “paan” from a pavement shop opposite an upmarket eatery, very well knowing that it is illegal. Then one fine day they would wake up and give a demolition order!

Therefore the question is, who would enforce the strict guideline? When the damage is already done?

(vii)      Pollution abatement has been accorded special focus: In order to address pollution in Coastal areas treatment facilities have been made permissible activities in CRZ-I B area subject to necessary safeguards.

Just recently there was a hue & cry about single-use plastic with the Government of Maharashtra coming down heavily on the manufacturers, who were lackadaisical for years on the ruling. Plus single-use plastic is freely available all across the city and state. Therefore para (vii) inspires no confidence.

The point that needs to be understood with the Coastal Road, which is facing huge legal & social challenges is to try and decongest Mumbai. To create a Development plan which matches the carrying capacity of the Island City & take the hard measure to shift out people towards Navi Mumbai townships. Places like Palava City, Ulwe etc can absorb the flab that is within Mumbai. It would be a win-win situation for all. While human tendency would be to resist. As there would be legitimate fears of loss of livelihood and lifestyle. Politics especially dirty politics would come into play. But, all these can be tackled with honest intention and scientific approach.

The 1st step would be to remove illegal encroachments, be it homes, shops or any other. The 2nd would be to create by enacting laws which compel business districts to come up in a uniform manner allowing people to shift to the newer locations.

Costs can be calculated, losses can be estimated and compensation can be built around it. It would cost far less than to undo the damages which are sure to happen should development without proper thought is taken up. No one is denying that the job of the government is easy. But it is easy to talk to experts and stakeholders without an eye towards the next election result. For good has a tendency to prove itself. And it would always bring in the desired price.

The only thing is to inform and explain it to the people in a proper manner.

The Shivaji Statue:


Somehow development and politics have got confused in the midst of building statues around the Nation. While it is true that to boost economy job creation is must & in that process one creates projects which have the ability to cater to all sectors of industry and trade. The Shivaji Statue project could have avoided & can still avoid controversy & greater damage to the marine ecology, but by shifting the location of the Statue. It would be the best face saver if the location from the midst of the sea is shifted to the Elephanta Caves island, which is already a tourist destination & it would perhaps be easier to safeguard the ecosystem around the already human settlement areas.

To end, let us go back to CoP24 and re-read the words that were spoken –

Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said that “COP24 will be Paris 2.0.”  

However, the best summing up of the event was by Dr Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, talking to Carbon Brief;

“Under the Paris Agreement, emissions and proposed emissions reductions will be regularly compared, added up, and assessed in light of their adequacy for limiting warming well below 2C and 1.5C. This requires common rules for emissions reporting. But instead of requiring countries to adhere to scientifically robust methods, the final Katowice text now allows countries to use ‘nationally appropriate methodologies’, which, in all likelihood, will only be used to do some creative reporting and portray emissions of specific countries in a better light than they are. This is particularly an issue in the land-use sector.”

With a year almost over and as we are moving closer to the next CoP the events that have taken place doesn’t inspire much. We can once more safely assume that Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation requirements have been pushed under the carpet.

Just as it has happened for the last 24 times and we can not have really much hope that the 25th CoP will be any different. Unless the people who would be making the policies are not those who are governing the Nation as political parties. The complete process has to be de-linked from the political agenda and directly controlled by a world level ombudsman. Maybe such a thought must find its place in the deliberations that would take place in Chile.


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