India’s climate change NIMBYsm and middle class apathy

Pradip Saha in Tokyo

Pradip Saha in Tokyo

The global climate is indeed changing, but not everyone is equally affected by it – or bothered about it either. Take, for example, the majority of India’s 300 million+ middle class, which is roughly the size of the entire population of the United States.

According to environmental activist and independent film-maker Pradip Saha, it’s not a question of ignorance, but apathy.

“Our educated middle classes understand what’s happening, but they are also big contributors to the problem – with their frenzy to burn oil and coal. They look for any excuses for not acting on this issue,” Pradip said during a recent regional workshop in Tokyo, Japan.

The Asia Pacific workshop on ‘Changing Climate and Moving Images’, held in Tama New Town, Tokyo, was organised by TVE Japan in collaboration with TVE Asia Pacific and supported by Japan Fund for Global Environment.

Pradip, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment – a leading research and advocacy organisation – has been tracking climate change issues for two decades. He sees this Big Issue in three ways: science of climate change, politics of climate change and feelings of climate change.

To fully understand how the complex Indian society perceives and responds to the climate crisis, all three dimensions need to be studied, he says. And particular attention must be paid to the plight of those who are already experiencing changes in their local climate.

From the Himalayan mountains to the small islands in the Bay of Bengal, millions of Indians are living and coping with climate change. “Large sections of our poor feel it, and are among the worse impacted.”

Many such affected people may never have heard of climate change. They are bewildered by rapid changes in rainfall, river flows, sunshine and other natural phenomena.

Pradip drew an example from the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal. With 10,000 square kilometres of estuarine mangrove forest and 102 islands, it is the world’s largest delta. Here, some islands are slowly being eroded and submerged by rising sea levels. Three small islands have already gone underwater. Others are experiencing problems of salt water intrusion, posing major difficulties for the local people.

Sundarban delta as seen from space

Sundarban delta as seen from space

Analysis of surface data near Sagar island in the Sundarbans reveals a temperature increase of 0.9 degree celsius per year. Experts are of the opinion that this is one of the first regions bearing the brunt of climate change.

But the islanders – like most other poor people in India – don’t have enough or any voice to express their concerns to the policy makers, civil society groups and captains of industry. For these members of the middle class, the Sundarbans mean just one thing: the Royal Bengal Tiger.

And most of them probably have never heard of Sagar island. They might just shrug it off, saying: It’s Not In My Backyard (NIMBY).

During the past few months, Pradip has been filming on these islands trying to capture the unfolding human and environmental crisis. He was inspired by an investigative story that appeared in early 2008 in the Down to Earth science and environmental magazine where he is managing editor.

Pradip screened the 64-minute long film, aptly titled Mean Sea Level, at our workshop. The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.

Confronted with middle class apathy and indifference, activists and journalists like Pradip Saha face an uphill task. “Knowledge is not turning into action because those who know (about climate change causes and responses) are also the biggest culprits,” he says.

To make matters worse, government policies are not formulated with adequate public consultations. Sections of central and state governments in India have also started responding to individual effects of climate change without understanding the bigger picture. Such piecemeal solutions can do more harm than good.

Then there is India’s obsession with motor cars – a topic on which Pradip has already made a short film.

Pradip’s views on climate change activism in India resonates with those of the Filipino academic-activist Walden Bello. Speaking at the Greenaccord international media forum in Rome in November 2007, he called for a mass movement at the grassroots across the developing countries of the global South to deal with climate change – the biggest environmental threat faced by the planet today.

As I quoted him saying, such a movement might be unpopular not only with the Southern elite but also with sections of the urban-based middle class sectors that have been the main beneficiaries of the high-growth economic strategy that has been pursued since the early 1990s.

Read my April 2007 post: Fossil Fools in India

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