Cooperative federalism may help India bridge its climate adaptation deficit

Beyond economic concerns, climate change signifies an existential crisis for India, which is home to a sixth of humanity.
Beyond economic concerns, climate change signifies an existential crisis for India, which is home to a sixth of humanity.


  • Effective climate action requires developing a national awareness and action plan, involving experts, and incentivizing the private sector to create frugal and local solutions. The 16th Finance Commission should make this a priority: a comprehensive plan backed by resources at all levels.

India has seen several transformative innovations in recent years. The development of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), particularly the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) mechanism, has made lives easier and worked in favour of the cause of financial inclusion. 

Similarly, the Public Distribution System (PDS) has ensured food security for the underprivileged and proved its mettle during the recent pandemic. These achievements underscore India’s ability to solve complex problems through the implementation of ingenuity.

However, if one were to look at our looming challenges, the scariest appears to be that not enough is being done to deal with climate change. Such inertia, which seems most evident in climate adaptation, poses a severe risk to India’s future, threatening to undermine all other progress.

With a vast and diverse geography, the impacts of climate change manifest in various devastating forms: erratic monsoons, extreme heatwaves, rising sea levels and increasing frequency of natural disasters like floods and cyclones. Not only do heat waves last longer and touch higher peaks, we also face the rising risk of wildfires in forest areas. 

Also read: Heatwaves and cyclones: India’s tryst with climate change

Beyond economic concerns, climate change signifies an existential crisis for India, which is home to a sixth of humanity. The majority of our population is vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters. Additionally, India still largely relies on agriculture for employment and food security; this is a sector that critically depends on favourable climatic conditions to thrive.

Despite foreknowledge, India’s climate adaptation efforts seem largely reactive. While there have been initiatives such as the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and its associated missions, their implementation has mostly been slow, fragmented and underfunded. The focus of the NAPCC is more preventive than adaptive. 

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change (PMCCC) meets infrequently and seems understaffed. Local and state-level adaptation plans frequently lack the necessary coordination and resources to be effective, leaving communities vulnerable to the escalating impacts of global warming.

Beyond quality-of-life issues, when people are unable to deal with extreme heat, economic productivity and livelihoods suffer. A large proportion of Indian workers have to work outdoors. Their safety, productivity and daily income are at stake. So far, there seems little-to-nil action on a cohesive climate-action framework for how we can cope with extreme heat waves, and almost no comprehensive data on illnesses caused by extreme weather patterns.

It is clear that the world, and India in particular, is going to get hotter, with heat waves potentially becoming the new pandemics, leaving large numbers dead in their wake. Rainfall will become even more inconsistent both temporally and spatially, necessitating aggressive water conservation measures, the creation of strategic water reservoirs, inter-basin water transfers and groundwater replenishment through effective policies. 

Also read: How hot is too hot? A data-driven approach can help India beat the heat.

Climate change-resistant crops need to be developed for every region’s climatic conditions, with no further time to lose on long lab-to-farm cycles.

All of this will require developing a national awareness and action plan, involving experts, and incentivizing the private sector to create frugal and local solutions.

Domestically, India does not have formal climate legislation at either the federal or state level. To a large extent, the problem lies in our missing institutional design. While the central government drives most of the initiatives along with its financial powers, sub-national units lack the capacity and fiscal resources to take action, despite being tasked with implementing India’s international pledges. 

Most state-level initiatives to implement India’s global commitments, such as the big one on net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, are driven under the State Action Plan on Climate Change. Most of these state action plans have lacked committed leadership and made little or no progress in the absence of resources.

While more states are starting to adopt Heat Action Plans (HAPs), there are concerns over the extent to which these are being implemented. For instance, only two of 37 HAPs currently in place in India conduct vulnerability assessments to identify and support affected communities. 

Further, HAPs include the need to develop and institutionalize monitoring systems to ensure compliance. As the climate crisis and increasing urbanization start to produce more episodes of extreme heat, we must invest in long-term programmes for reforestation and urban green cover enhancement.

Climate action, including energy transition efforts, can only succeed if they are tied with development promises and communicated in a way that resonates with the country’s masses. Currently, there appears to be a disconnect on this front: politically, India’s core development agenda aims primarily at the poor, while the country’s climate agenda seems directed at global event platforms and domestic elites. 

For India to see the impact of climate action, more businesses must be asked to effect changes across their entire value chains.

Is there political hesitancy at both the federal and state levels to integrate substantive climate action into public agendas? Is there a fear that it could alienate powerful industrial constituencies and disrupt the politico-industrial status quo?

Also read: Heatwave: 56 heat-related deaths, 25,000 heatstroke cases reported in India from March to May

It’s a given that cooperative federalism is essential for the decarbonization of industrial assets as well as for the adaptation efforts needed to mitigate climate change. Therefore, climate adaptation needs to be taken up as an agenda priority by the 16th Finance Commission that was recently set up. It would demonstrate a national commitment to the cause.

The sooner governments at every level accept that development and other fulfillers of people’s aspirations have to be designed in the context of climate realities, the smoother our path will be. Indian climate adaptation efforts need to show how innovation can assure survival and ingenuity can outshine denial. Let us treat climate action as a national security issue.

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