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Climate Strategy Is Critical for India's Future
By Anmol Vanamali

THE WORLD cannot achieve its climate and other common goals without engaging with a country that currently houses one-sixth of the global population, is a vibrant democracy (a rarity in its neighborhood) and is an emerging economic superpower.

In recent years the foreign policy arena has witnessed a more assertive and collaborative India. The international climate policy negotiations especially have received a shot in the arm through India's pro-active engagement. Bridging the yawning chasm between the developed and developing countries on such a controversial international topic is not a simple exercise, and India showed unprecedented leadership in moving the sides closer together. However, in spite of the unnatural degree of flexibility and compromise at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, the path forward for international climate negotiations, and India's role in it, remains unclear.

Until recently, India's position in climate negotiations was rigid and overly pedantic. From a developed country point of view, this was archaic, irresponsible and bordering on obstructionist. From a developing country perspective, India was holding a deeply entrenched position that developing countries were under no obligation to take on mandatory emissions reduction targets because the problem of climate change was primarily created by the unbridled industrialization of the West. For more than a few reasons, this position shifted to the point where it was agreed through the Bali Action Plan (BAP) in December 2007 that developing countries would also undertake mitigation actions appropriate to their individual circumstances given adequate support from developed countries. In May 2009, there was also a change in the Indian political structure that few realized would create the sort of impact that we have since witnessed. Jairam Ramesh was given independent charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Hitherto, India's role in climate change negotiations used to be steered by foreign policy mandarins working in lockstep with the goals of the broader external affairs portfolio. Under Ramesh's leadership, climate change policy appears to have taken on a life of its own, and in the process he has stepped on some antiquated toes and ruffled a few moldy feathers.

Since his arrival, India has announced some impressive domestic initiatives (tax on coal production for capitalizing a green fund) as wll as bilateral ones (agreement with the US to discuss the impact of hydrofluorocarbons) and multilateral ones geared towards combating climate change. One such multilateral initiative was the formation of the BASIC group comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China that acted as a strong negotiating bloc both in Copenhagen and Cancun. The combined strength of the BASIC countries acted as an effective counterweight to the more organized so-called Annex 1 group of industrialized countries in Copenhagen and Cancun.


As promising as recent actions have been, it is not clear whether there is enough political momentum and stakeholder engagement to continue making the sort of progress we have seen over the past two years. To the skeptical observer, India's current wave of inspiration in climate change negotiations is probably due to the yeoman's work of certain far-sighted individuals rather than a systemic response to a global policy problem.

As has been the case in the past on other issues, the nation's ambitions seem to be inextricably linked to the person heading the efforts, rather than the institution or the constituency that he or she represents. Perhaps India's long-term commitment to combating climate change can be deciphered from the 2011 Indian Economic Survey announced on Feb. 26. The survey is presented by the Finance Ministry prior to announcing the annual budget. In the chapter on "Human Development, Equity and Environment" is a section on climate change that concludes with the words: "The increasing importance of climate-related issues should not shake the foundations of our inclusive growth strategy. Careful planning and customized policies are needed to ensure that the green growth strategies do not result in a slow growth strategy." This confirms that while India will continue to include climate change mitigation in its overall development planning, it will not be at any cost to its development goals.

Considering the evolution of India's attitude towards climate change and the realization of its leadership role, India needs to lay down a few guiding principles to effectively engage with the world on climate change:

Focus on Pragmatism

If one views India's track record in foreign affairs through the parochial lens of anti-imperialism, one starts noticing a pattern. Hallowed foreign policy claims such as spearheading the non-aligned movement and refusal to sign the nuclear non- proliferation treaty have one distinct central thread. India used to feel a need to assert its individuality by underlining its immunity from the machinations of the Western (read imperialist) nations. The caretakers of the nation were also wary of appearing too close to the erstwhile imperialists lest they attract accusations of cozying up with those very forces that once unjustly ruled the nation.

India also tended to approach global policy issues as if it were the sole moral voice and an upholder of rights for the world's marginalized and oppressed citizens. India has at times clumsily tried to chisel a path that is true to this mission by refusing to take sides in geopolitical gamesmanship, in some cases to its detriment. India in the 21st century, however, has regularly displayed a brand of realpolitik that has a whiff of self-assuredness that one tends to associate with a mature nation, or at least one that has realized that pragmatism often trumps ideology. The recent assertiveness to demand recognition (a permanent seat on the UN Security Council) at the risk of annoying hostile neighbors and the willingness to engage with the same parties constructively on other issues (alliance with China in the BASIC group) are new developments as India grapples with its emerging status as a global economic powerhouse. This ability to conduct geopolitical bargaining on different fronts without being overwhelmed is refreshing and befits a nation that has begun to realize its true potential on the global stage.

The instinct to engage in morally self-serving but pragmatically vapid foreign policies may hopefully — for India's sake and the world's — be a relic of the past. However, there is no dearth of naysayers in the Indian political class who would rather see us go back to a more passive and risk-averse attitude towards foreign policy engagement. A case in point is the bludgeoning that Ramesh received at the hands of the opposition for forging a solution on the issue of measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of climate change actions. He was accused of having compromised on India's national interests in return for nothing. The fact that the developed countries, specifically the US, continued to state that they had not compromised at Cancun and had forced the developing countries to meet their demands further complicated the situation. A more appropriate response from the developed countries would have been to recognize the spirit of compromise and cooperation that was on display at Cancun and India's role in facilitating it.

India's engagement on climate change cannot also be viewed as separate from the larger foreign policy agenda, despite Ramesh's maverick attempts. To ensure India's continued progressive stance on climate change, the global community would have to show the same spirit of compromise and recognition in other areas such as security and trade. Any stalling on those fronts could lead to a more regressive attitude by India that would mean a major loss of momentum for the global climate movement.

Repackage Development Goals

Too often, India's development goals are portrayed by a section of the international community as a threat to the future rather than an opportunity to make it better. For instance, it is obvious that if India's energy planning is done in the absence of a low-carbon imperative it could lead to a "lock-in" of a huge amount of emissions. This may, as many worry, negate a lot of mitigation efforts undertaken by developed countries. However, to pine for a scenario in which India can meet all its energy needs with renewable energy sources is a fantasy. Coal-based power has been, and will continue to be, the mainstay of India's energy needs. Instead of harping on the unrealistic demands of the global community, including NGOs and the environmental movement, India should focus on making coal-based power generation cleaner by opening up its technology markets and encouraging private-sector capital to invest in it. India's development goals are clear; the strategy to engage the developed world's support to help achieve them in a low-carbon scenario isn't. The manner in which foreign heads of state and high-ranking ministers are falling over themselves to visit India with flanks of corporate honchos by their sides makes it apparent that they may not like it or agree with it but they cannot afford to ignore it. India should capitalize on its new found "favorite son" role and put in place long-term relationships and commitments that will help it leapfrog into first-world status without having to go through the regulation carbon-intensive industrial phase.

Leverage Intellectual Capital

India's vast resources of intellectual capital and entrepreneurial drive are best positioned to ride the clean technology gravy train and produce world leaders in R&D, manufacturing and related services. For starters, the hordes of Indian students who graduate with basic training in science and technology can be co-opted to advance humanity's knowledge of climate change and how to deal with it. At the moment, India has few academic institutes specializing in clean technology, but these could provide it with the edge that it needs in what is a very competitive market. While India may have some stellar technical and management institutions that provide world-class education at a fraction of the cost in the US and Europe, they also tend to be a few years behind cutting-edge practices. There is a great case for India to relax restrictions on foreign direct investment in the education sector especially related to clean technology. As with the information technology revolution, there is a great chance that India's true potential could be achieved through a bottom-up process that pre-empts government policies. Notwithstanding the recent overtures from the MoEF, India's stifling bureaucracy tends to act like a barrier to innovation rather than an incubator. India and the world have benefited tremendously from India's private sector ambition in the information technology sector, and the global community should be engaged to create an enabling environment to ensure the same for the clean technology sector.

Demonstrate Accountability and Governance

While it is justified to bemoan the excruciatingly slow pace of financial support extended by the developed world, one cannot perpetually take cover behind it to obscure some real concerns of accountability at home. In a country where billions of rupees can vanish from under the exchequer's nose (a recent telecom scandal involving the ex-telecom minister being a prime example), there is more than a little suspicion that financial transfers promised under the Copenhagen Accord may not eventually be used solely to fight climate change. India's bureaucracy is notorious for red tape and rent-seeking behavior, and corruption is endemic in its culture. All these are very sound reasons for the developed world to try to focus on private-sector activities in India rather than push money through its state-run institutions. India's private institutions have long left its state-run institutions behind in terms of quality of management and governance. Of course, the lack of institutional accountability is nothing but an aggregation of the ethical turbidity of its employees; but there is obviously something wrong with a system that breeds and perpetuates such callousness. India needs to endure some short-term agony and revamp the gilded institutions that are responsible for recruiting and training its future administrative leaders.

The other point that regularly surfaces as a huge concern for foreign investors is the glacial pace of dispensing justice in India. The paucity of adjudicators and the gargantuan backlog of cases are only getting worse, and there seems to be no reversal in sight.

In conclusion, there is now a palpable realization in India that the nation's fate is unequivocally intertwined with climate change given its dependence on monsoon rains and vulnerability to natural disasters. However, this has yet to filter entirely through its policy-making machinery. India and the rest of the world need to work together to ensure that this happens by supporting those individuals and institutions in India that will shape its long-term commitment to combating climate change.

Anmol Vanamali is a Director at the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington DC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and are not related to the Center for Clean Air Policy.

Back to Issue
    Recently, India moved away from its inflexible approach to climate change by helping to build a compromise at last year’s Cancun talks. While the future of that initiative remains unclear, Anmol Vanamali, a Director at the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington DC, argues that India should move aggressively to harness its growth and appeal to investors to become a leader in green technology.
    Published: March 2011 (Vol.6 No.1)
    About the author

    Anmol Vanamali is a Director at the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington, DC.

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