Development priorities must be sustainable

The Bundelkhand region comprising 14 districts (seven each in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) in central India has frequently been in the news because of large-scale distress, migration of workers, acute water scarcity and other problems, mostly related to poverty.

Development priorities must be sustainable

Representation image

The Bundelkhand region comprising 14 districts (seven each in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) in central India has frequently been in the news because of large-scale distress, migration of workers, acute water scarcity and other problems, mostly related to poverty. Unless adequate precautionary steps are taken in time, these and other problems can easily be aggravated rapidly in this region which is regarded as being highly vulnerable to climate change.

These questions are being discussed this year when one of the most acute summer months has been experienced during May and several elderly people have said that they never experienced such terrible heat in their lifetime. While earlier a stretch of days experiencing maximum temperatures of 40 to 45 C would be regarded as a terrible heat wave, now for a stretch of days people are experiencing between 42 and 49 C, they say.

The poorest families suffer the most. Although the poorer and weaker sections of society are least responsible for climate change, they are likely to suffer the most from its ravages. Despite this, their concerns and voices are frequently ignored. A lot can be done by integrating their yearning for improved and sustainable livelihoods with climate change concerns of mitigation and adaptation but often this important task does not get the priority it deserves.


Instead agricultural/ rural change is pushed in such ways that business lobbies vying for more control of farm and food systems get strengthened, at the same time weakening the sincere and genuine efforts for ecologically protective farming by small farmers. Projects which displace poor people in the name of protecting the environment are wrongly prioritized, alienating them. Hence it is important at this stage to warn against misuse of funds marked for climate change mitigation and adaptation. These funds should reach those who need this help the most and are likely to put this to the most just and ecologically protective use.

This means in practical terms that most funds should reach small peasants and rural landless workers for taking up mitigation as well as adaptation work. Indigenous people and tribal communities have a particularly important role in this as they have been closer to nature. What is more, this concern should be extended to wider planning in which reduction of GHG emissions is linked to meeting basic needs of all people, with emphasis on justicebased resolution of climate change challenges. Small peasants should be supported for ecologically protective farming including soil and water conservation work which can improve organic content of soil in a few years.

Organic content of soil spread over vast areas can be a very big absorber of carbon dioxide. At the same time by avoiding or reducing chemical fertilizers, pollution by nitrous oxide is reduced, which is about 300 times more potent as GHG compared to carbon dioxide. Mixed farming including indigenous trees can be well integrated, supplying more staple foods, produced in healthy ways and close to home, reducing long transport burden. While contributing to mitigation, vast acres under organic/natural farming will make small farmers less dependent on expensive chemical inputs and improve their adaptation capacity. Hence both adaptation and mitigation can be achieved on a sustainable basis at the same time, instead of being segregated.

This is a particularly important aspect of such efforts. In fact the more the organic content of soil improves with the passage of time, the more the mitigation and adaptation capacity will increase. Such efforts improve food sovereignty at the same time, reducing dependence on polluting and expensive inputs. Land reforms can help the landless to emerge as small farmers and be a part of such efforts. In addition the landless should get assured employment close to home in various tasks of ecological rehabilitation of villages and nearby areas.

If properly used, the existing, legally protected, programme of rural employment of India called MG-NREGA can be a big facilitator of such efforts, although unfortunately this potential has not been adequately tapped so far. One possibility is protecting degraded land and giving nature time to regenerate it. Yet another is to increase protection steps for the remaining natural forests. New afforestation with indigenous species of trees should seek to mimic local natural forests. Apart from fair wages, the landless should get longer-term rights to non-timber forest produce. This again helps mitigation as well as adaptation at the same time.

All these efforts should seek to tap and encourage creativity of participants – workers and farmers – for local solutions and innovations. To give just one inspiring example, a farmer from Bundelkhand region of India, Mangal Singh, had invented a special turbine which can lift water from streams and canals without using diesel or electricity. Although the primary aim of the inventor was to help farmers and reduce costs, calculations show that a single unit serving over 15 years can reduce use of 125,400 litres of diesel oil and 335 tonnes GHG emissions. This can increase further if with a few adjustments this innovation is put to additional use like crop processing. This has been highly praised by many senior experts including those in official positions.

Still its tremendous potential has not been tapped yet, even though the Maithani Committee appointed by the Union Rural Development Ministry strongly recommended its rapid spread. Potentially tens of thousands of units can be installed worldwide wherever suitable conditions exist. Innovations such as this by villagers can help greatly in climate change mitigation and adaptation at the same time. If there is better support for such initiatives, the creativity of farmers and workers can contribute much more because they are the most familiar with local conditions. Democratic participation systems based on transparency and honesty should be established to implement such initiatives. Such work is best achieved by grants, not loans.

Hence climate funds should be based on grants and not loans. If implemented properly and sincerely and with the right priorities, climate change mitigation and adaptation can progress a lot in the villages of vulnerable regions like Bundelkhand in such ways that poverty is also reduced in a big way and sustainable livelihoods are also improved significantly.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.)