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At historic meeting of TN Ministers & TN LLAs, climate crisis is in focus

At historic meeting of TN Ministers & TN LLAs, climate crisis is in focus

In historic meet of TN Ministers & MLAs, urgent need to tackle climate crisis in focus

The meeting was the first step to improve climate literacy among legislators, who have a direct influence on policy decisions. While many leaders were open to environmentalists’ warnings, others were not convinced.

It was a hot, humid April evening. State governments across the country were distributing heat wave warnings as they were experiencing unprecedented temperature rises. In Chennai, 28 legislators, two members of Parliament, and two sitting ministers gathered at the Anna Centenary Library for a discussion about climate change and its effect on Tamil Nadu. Straight from the Assembly session, the leaders met with enthusiasm and smiles. After a few minutes, the smiles disappeared from their faces. The mood changed rapidly from polite interest and rapt attention to alarming alarm. But the severity of the warnings made in the room only got worse.

“If you’re wondering if the melting of the Arctic glaciers is connected to Chennai, it is. Today, a cyclone, such as Ockhi 2017, takes only 6 hours to turn into a depression. It should take 40. We’re not able to predict the deluge of rain that we saw on December 30 (2015) and we can’t because temperature rise is affecting multiple weather systems. Our monsoons are affected and these weather events are only going to get more frequent and intense,” warned R Sundarrajan, the organiser of the meeting and head of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO that works in the field of environment and climate change.

“If Chennai is suffering today with rising temperatures today it is because of climate change. By 2030, this will cause coastal flooding, and several parts of the city will become uninhabitable, and by 2050, the Marina beach as you know it could be completely devoured by the sea,” added Professor S Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

Two experts warned of a grim future for the state if elected officials did not take immediate action to plan mitigation and adaptation plans to address the worst consequences of climate changes. Poovulagin Nanbargal, a leader of the ruling alliance, had assembled parties to discuss the three reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) working group. This was the first time in Tamil Nadu that elected representatives had gathered to discuss the reports’ repercussions at a state level. The IPCC, which is made up of scientists from all over the world, has been studying climate changes, temperature rise, vulnerability and adaptation that can be performed across the globe. The last report – presented on April 4 – came with the warning that it was ‘now or never’ and that if countries did not work together to bring down carbon emissions and keep the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees celsius, there could be irreversible and catastrophic consequences to the world as we know it.

However, in Chennai, despite these dire warnings leaders were divided on how to move forward. This gives us a glimpse at the status of the political discussion.

Leaders divided

Anyone who was observant could see that many of those present at the meeting had not fully heard the IPCC report’s warnings and findings before April 20, when they were discussed.

“Even educated and aware people like us understand the depth of the problem only when you tell us,” admitted ER Eswaran of the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi. “We can change the situation only if every individual changes their ways. 25% of people are responsible for these problems, and 75% are affected by their greed. We have to change,” he insisted.

Not every legislator was open to changing. Some people saw tree planting as a quick solution, while others felt scared.

“Why not set conditions for industries to grow trees? Why not generate electricity waste? Instead of scaring us in a meeting, why can’t you tell us what solutions will work?” asked Sattur MLA ARR Raghuraman of the MDMK, turning the tables on the organiser.

Sundarrajan was quick to say, “We’re not trying to scare you,” but it was drowned in further questions and complaints. Janakarajan as well as he offered several possible changes, with the most important being a Climate Change Act, which will encompass various government departments and can monitor mitigation across them. However, the MLAs were skeptical.

Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal

“We’re ready to do all this, we have a proactive government. But what is the response of other countries and states to this? This will not reduce the problem just because we do it. We’re not responsible for the pollution,” said Thiruporur MLA SS Balaji of the VCK.

“Yes,” acknowledged Sundarrrajan. “The US and European nations are largely responsible for carbon emissions and the situation today. This does not mean Tamil Nadu cannot build 10 thermal plants, ports, or other infrastructure. Even though we’re not responsible, we will face the brunt of the consequences of climate change. So we have to protect ourselves,” he added.

Dr. J Jeyaranjan was the vice-chairman of the State Planning Commission but was not convinced.

“Okay, let’s say we do all this and explore alternatives. But how much will it cost? Can we afford it? Is there enough revenue to match that? You’re telling us to adopt green public transport… what is the outlay for that? We can’t even manage the existing outlay. How many years have you been investing in the metro? Because we didn’t build the metro on time, most two-wheelers registered in India are in Tamil Nadu. Has the metro reduced that?” he asked the gathered audience.

Dr J Jeyaranjan (Vice Chairman of the State Planning Commission)

“You say that every department has to be tuned in to climate change. Okay, let’s take the Agriculture Department. You suggest reducing water-guzzling crop production. Rice is the only crop that can produce enough food when there is a high population density. Other solutions are speculative. Can we kill half of the people? Do we look at the problem at hand, or this?” he asked.

However, any further arguments were effectively silenced by the Ministers and MPs who attended the meeting.

“This is a climate emergency and we have to be concerned. We can compete and say developed nations are responsible, but we’re the ones who are going to be affected,” said MP Kanimozhi resolutely, effectively silencing members who seemed to be on the fence. “In my constituency of Thoothukudi, I can see the sea destroying houses. We can’t wish it away or decide to wait. We must leave a living world for our children, not just development. Tamil Nadu is responsible for making India understand. We will lead the way,” she added.

MP Kanimozhi

Siva V Meyyanathan, Environment Minister, also cited Bhutan as an example. He pointed out that Bhutan has chosen happiness and natural resources over development and said that every country and state will have to decide its priorities.

Acknowledging that it is the most marginalised who are heavily affected by climate change, the Minister said, “I believe solar energy, e-vehicles and green hydrogen are important for the future that we must build. If not, it is the poor who suffer from extreme weather events, while the rich are protected within their homes.”

Siva V. Meyyanathan, Environment Minister

‘Never easy’

“These meetings were never meant to be easy. We will continuously engage with lawmakers and keep them informed of developments,” said Sundarrajan, speaking to TNM. “Of course, it is alarming to hear facts from the three IPCC reports all at once. Raja, Jawaharullah, and Velmurugan are familiar with the reports. But for others, it was natural that it caused a sense of alarm,” he added.

He said that the state just experienced its hottest March in 122 years, and that it was now time to pay attention to the signs that nature is giving us.

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“All problems are important,” he admitted, referring to the arguments made at the discussion. “Other problems can be fixed with time. When it comes to the environment, however, we can’t wait. This is an existential crisis,” he insisted.

The NGO had been planning the discussion for a month. They made sure that the meeting coincided with the Tamil Nadu Assembly session to ensure a good turnout. TNM was informed that the meeting attracted more people than expected. It was also their first step towards improving climate literacy among legislators who have an influence on policy decisions.

It is no easy feat to bring so many lawmakers, ministers and parliamentarians together in one venue to discuss a subject as neglected as climate change and Poovulagin Nanbargal’s ability to do that showed the very influence the NGO has when it comes to environmental matters in Tamil Nadu. TNM was told by a member of the organization that the association with leaders has been established over many decades.

Sundarrajan, Professor S Janakarajan of Madras Institute of Development Studies

In the late 1980s, a former employee of Indian Overseas Bank named Nedunchezhiyan founded the NGO in Chennai. He was also associated with Amnesty International India. The  organisation introduced environment related literature in Tamil. After the founder’s death, nine men, including Sundarrajan, regrouped to revive the NGO, which has since then dealt with a variety of environmental issues in Tamil Nadu, including the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, Neduvasal hydrocarbon project, the eight-lane Salem-Chennai highway, etc.

While its relationship with the previous AIADMK government was affected by its stand against several projects announced by them, Poovulagin Nanbargal has been constantly in communication with the DMK – which is now in power – over the last 10 years. The NGO’s Tamil literature on environment and its ground knowledge is also seen as a resource by the current government.

An earlier discussion was held by the NGO in January with a few representatives from the ruling alliance. The organisation also invited MLAs of the opposition to the April meeting. But, it is alleged that none of them showed.

DMK ready for action?

To activists and bureaucrats in the government, the DMK’s receptiveness to existing problems is already a step ahead from the previous administration’s record with environmental issues. It is not secret that the previous government was present during the largest demonstrations regarding environmental violations, including the Sterlite power station, hydrocarbon projects, as well as the Salem eight-lane highway.

“Climate change is now officially a part of our Department’s name. That in itself indicates the intentions of the current administration,” said IAS officer Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary to the Government, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests. “In just the last nine months, we have announced several path-breaking initiatives. We have announced the creation of the Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company, a special purpose vehicle (SPV), to focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The SPV has been accorded permission to implement three key missions – Tamil Nadu Climate Change, Tamil Nadu Green and Tamil Nadu Wetlands,” she explained.

The Environment Department has made District Collectors the district directors for Climate Change and District Forest Officers the climate officers. However, the bureaucrat admits these developments are not without their challenges.

“Climate change is one area that will take time for people to understand. There is only so much you can show through presentations,” she said. “When people see droughts, floods and feel the temperature rising, they are more likely to act. However, we still have a budget to support climate literacy at Rs 77 crore. We have to tell everyone over and over again about the dangers of climate change and this will take time,” she explained.

Sundarrajan said that environmentalists are getting ready to hold more presentations and discuss the subject with different stakeholders. “We will go district to district to address specific issues there concerning the climate. These meetings with leaders will also continue, we’re planning the next one in September where the IPCC is likely to release another report,” he explained. “We have to engage constantly with policy makers and influencers to ensure that Tamil Nadu will keep moving towards a zero emission goal.”

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