The meeting was the first step in improving climate literacy amongst legislators who influence policy decisions. While several leaders were receptive to warnings given by environmentalists, some were not convinced.
It was a humid summer evening in April, and across the country heat wave warnings were being urgently communicated by state governments, which were recording never-before-seen temperature rises. In Chennai meanwhile, 28 legislators, two Members of Parliament and two sitting ministers were getting together at the Anna Centenary Library for a discussion on climate change and its impact on Tamil Nadu. Arriving straight from an Assembly session, the leaders all greeted each other enthusiastically with familiar grins and folded hands. But within minutes of the conversation beginning, the smiles were completely wiped off their faces. The mood in the room changed from polite interest to rapt attention and just as swiftly to abject alarm. But the warnings being spelt out in the room only grew graver.
“If you’re wondering if the melting of the Arctic glaciers is connected to Chennai, it is. Today, it takes just 6 hours for a depression to become a cyclonic storm like Ockhi (2017), not 40 as it should. 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 G Sundarrajan, the organiser of the meeting and head of Poovulagin Nanbargal, a voluntary organisation 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.
The two experts were spelling out, in no uncertain terms, a bleak future for the state if the elected representatives present there did not immediately act towards strategising mitigation and adaptation plans to prepare for the worst of the consequences of climate change. With the three working group reports presented over the last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the subject of discussion, Poovulagin Nanbargal had gathered parties in the ruling alliance for a historic meeting. 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 comprises scientists across the world, has been studying climate change, temperature rise, vulnerabilities, adaptation and mitigation that can be carried out 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.
But back in Chennai, despite these dire warnings, leaders present there were divided on the way forward, giving a glimpse into the status of this discussion at the political level.
It was obvious to any observer that several of the legislators present at the meeting had never fully heard the findings and warnings of the IPCC report before April 20, when the discussion was held.
“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. The greed of 25% of people is responsible for these problems and 75% are getting affected. We have to change,” he insisted.
But not every legislator present there was open to change. While some simplistically looked at tree planting as an immediate solution, others questioned why they were being made to feel frightened.
“Why not set conditions for industries to grow trees? Why not produce waste from electricity? 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. Both he and Janakarajan had offered several changes that could be implemented, most important of them being a climate change act, which will include various government departments and can oversee mitigation across them. But the MLAs were sceptical.
Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal
“We’re ready to do all this, we have a proactive government. But what are other states and countries doing? Just because we do this, will it reduce the problem? 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. But this does not mean that Tamil Nadu can throw up its hands and build 10 thermal plants or ports. 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.
Economist Dr J Jeyaranjan, the vice chairman of the State Planning Commission, however was not convinced.
“Okay, let’s say we do all this and explore alternatives. But what will be the cost? Can we afford it? Do we have revenue matching 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 we been putting into 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, the 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 say reduce water guzzling crops. But when the population density is high, rice is the only crop that gives enough output compared to seeds used. Others are imaginary solutions. Can we kill half the people? Do we look at the problem at hand, or this?” he asked.
The MPs and Ministers present at the meeting, however, effectively silenced any further arguments.
“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 need to leave a liveable world, not just development, for our children. Tamil Nadu has the responsibility to make the rest of India understand. We will lead the way,” she added.
Environment Minister Siva V Meyyanathan too quoted Bhutan as an example and pointed out that the country has chosen happiness and nature over development, adding that every state and country will have to decide what its priorities are.
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.”
Environment Minister Siva V Meyyanathan
“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. Some of the legislators like Raja, Jawaharullah and Velmurugan are already familiar with the reports. But for others, it was natural that it caused a sense of alarm,” he added.
He pointed out that the state had just faced its hottest March in the last 122 years and that it was time to take note of the indications that nature is giving us.
“All problems are important,” he admitted, referring to the arguments made at the discussion. “Other problems can be fixed with time. But when it comes to the environment, there will be nothing left if we wait. This is an existential crisis,” he insisted.
Poovulagin Nanbargal had been planning this discussion for a month and ensured that it coincided with the Tamil Nadu Assembly session to ensure that the turnout was good. The attendance, they told TNM, was higher than they had expected and the meeting was their first step in improving climate literacy amongst legislators who influence 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 organisation has when it comes to environmental matters in Tamil Nadu. A member of the organisation told TNM that the association with leaders has been built over decades.
Sundarrajan with Professor S Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies
Poovulagin Nanbargal was started in Chennai in the late 1980s by an Indian Overseas Bank employee named Nedunchezhiyan, who was 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 organisation, 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. Its Tamil literature on environment and ground knowledge is also seen as a resource by the current government.
Earlier, in January, a smaller discussion was organised by Poovulagin Nanbargal with a few MPs from the ruling alliance. For the April meeting, the organisation also invited MLAs from the opposition, but allegedly none of them showed up.
DMK ready to act?
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 no secret that the previous government was at the helm during some of the biggest demonstrations concerning environmental violations, including agitations over the Sterlite power plant, hydrocarbon projects, and 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 formation of the Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company (TNGCC), a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation activities. The SPV has been accorded permission to implement three key missions – Tamil Nadu Climate Change, Tamil Nadu Green and Tamil Nadu Wetlands,” she explained.
For the Climate Change mission, the Environment Department has recently made District Collectors the district directors of the mission and District Forest Officers (DFOs) the climate officers. However, the bureaucrat admits that these developments are not without 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. But we still have a budget of Rs 77 crore allotted for climate literacy. We have to tell everyone over and over again about the dangers of climate change and this will take time,” she explained.
Sundarrajan too said that environmentalists are gearing up to hold more presentations and discussions about 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.”