[Dreaming] Climate & Policy Talk circa 2040

Walking to greener flourishing pastures…

The ideal world and ideal governments were shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic and frequency of climate change events in the world. India, with the largest population, was still a developing nation with the ambition of being a superpower on the back on industrialization, read burning fossil fuels. But she knew that the progress was unsustainable with climate change knocking out coastlines with rising sea levels, monsoon variability causes droughts and floods in the same year in the country, unplanned urban growth creating a centre of urban heat islands. All together leading to environmental degradation. Covid-19 served like a crude refresh button and ideal India did really well. This is my talk on 2nd Jan 2040.

Happy New Year 2040 to you all! This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Coronavirus pandemic. A virus that infected more than 30 Mn, leaving 1Mn died starting from December-19.

The world, as we knew it then BC, an incessant race to GDP and per capita income growth, came to a standstill. We were in a state of lockdown - no trains, roads were empty, airports deserted with no flights. Local inter-district travel was halted, let alone interstate or international travel. National and global supply chains were frozen and industries shut down as well. Construction activity in cities was halted. People lost jobs, labourers and migrant workers headed back to their villages, some walking miles together.

For all of us (then in our 20s), our parents, and even our grandparents we had never seen the world so restricted. Here was a world, constrained both physically and economically, in stark contrast to a one-nationalised but globalized-free-economy that many world leaders were trying to achieve.

As the world came to an abrupt standstill, there were changes around us. The air was cleaner, the skies were blue and not smoggy grey, temperatures lowered in the evenings, sounds of birds and bees signalled to humans that nature was healing. Or was it?

One important question was that did we need a death-based environmental change or a design-based one? (Duh, of course, the later!) It was a constant reminder to all — engineers, doctors, industrialists, policymakers, politicians, financiers, economists, and me- ‘That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees’.

This set in motion several ideas and actions. I joined a sustainability think-tank. To be better equipped at climate change, I registered at Terra.do. A first small step, like many of you, learning for action to best utilize the platform I had. Before we proceed to what we did at the think-tank to make our communities, country and the world a better place, I would like to set the base of what was already being done by the government and institutions:

  1. Being an agrarian economy (with more than 60% of the population dependent on agriculture for their living), agricultural reforms were at the forefront of Indian policymaking
  2. In the history of agri-reforms in India, we hear about the Green revolution, hybrid seeds, 0% interest loans, loan waivers, fertilizer & machinery subsidies, direct benefit transfers, etc.
  3. As a result of these reforms, India’s agri-output increased manifold. During the 1990s and 2000s, India soon became an agri-surplus nation in line with India’s GDP growth
  4. However, this GDP growth was inequitable. Farm incomes did not grow in-line with inflation or economic opportunities in other sectors. This gave an impetus to urban migration
  5. To course-correct and to substantially increase farm incomes and protect farmers against excessive price falls during bumper production years, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy was initiated by the Government of India. However, this failed to achieve the desired results as only 7–10% of the total farmers benefitted - depending on which political party’s narrative you pay heed to.
  6. Due to the pandemic, daily migrant laborers who lost jobs moved back to villages. We witnessed a large scale reverse-migration from cities to villages. Given the lower density of the population in villages and care taken by panchayats in villages, the spread of the pandemic in villages was largely arrested.

Our work at the think-tank was aimed at policy advocation and execution in the following fields:

1. Infrastructure policy centred around villages:

· Rural to urban migration often results in overcrowding, pollution, and poor sanitation in urban areas. Massive sprawling in India’s Tier I and Tier II cities had also caused deforestation. This stress and concentration on resources damaged the environment. A research paper pointed out that urbanization was impacting the environment and ecology.

· The cause of such migration was three-fold. In India, ruralites moved to urban areas in search of employment, educational and economic opportunities.

· If the economic opportunities are taken out of the equation and basic facilities are added, a national survey pointed out that migrant workers are healthier and happier in the villages — the majority of villages are hygienic and food quality is better and cheaper.

· An infrastructure policy providing these in the rural heartland was the only way villagers could be retained in villages. With infrastructure facilities like water, electricity, education, and health provided to the villages, it created a conducive environment for the villagers to strive at home.

2. Execution & Project Management

· Apart from policy advocacy, the think-tank also stepped up as an execution partner.

· They helped local governments and bureaucrats identify key projects based on the impact created on communities.

· A few of these projects were also outcome funded by multilateral agencies with structured development impact bonds. The think-tank stepped in helping structure these deals and bring in investors as well.

3. Agriculture & allied activities:

· Dismantling a monopsony

i. In July-2020, the Government of India opened up the market and gave farmers more choices. Farmers were able to sell their product to anybody or in any mandi of their choice. It limited intermediaries and boosted farm income. It fundamentally changed the way Agri commodities are marketed in India.

ii. With a great implementation both at the centre and state levels, farming incomes increases and farming was again economically viable and profitable.

iii. The impact investing firm invested in multiple startups concentrating on the farm to fork model. Eliminating agents and partnering with farmers giving them a higher price for their produce.

· Irrigation, Ground Water Replenishment & Rain-water harvesting

i. Indian agriculture was notoriously known for its dependence on monsoons. Given climate cycles and climate change, monsoons were known more as monsoon droughts. In the years of drought, the interiors of the country were savaged with ill health and malnutrition, high individual debts, rising farmer suicides, etc

ii. While government-sponsored irrigation schemes and projects were launched, very few saw the light of the day.

iii. The think-tank partnered with locals and governments as execution partners in many critical projects

· Adapting Farms to Climate Change

i. Climate change was and is inevitable. Our mere presence and lifestyle trigger it. The think-tank partnered with local communities, co-operatives, panchayats to create awareness of climate change at the ground level.

ii. Agricultural interventions that can power climate change adaptation like agroforestry, permaculture, integrated systems agriculture, sustainable forestry

4. Economics & Finance

· The think-tank lobbied with RBI and Ministry of Finance for conditions precedents for fiscal stimulus. Both these organizations had set up multiple committees to device an action plan (read fiscal stimulus) for industries and banks

· The push was for 50% of the stimulus money injected into the economy should go to green initiatives like renewable energy, electricity transmission systems, modernizing railway systems, electric cars, green-building renovations.

· As the RBI committee on debt resolution was set up, the think tank pushed for priority for ‘green’ projects like infrastructure projects in rural areas (schools, hospitals, roads & highways, irrigation, rooftop energy) and green covenants while restructuring loans in various industries. Eg. reduction in carbon emissions by 3% pa, building green spaces around factories and buildings, etc.

One of the key learnings from the last 20 years has been — Simple ideas efficiently done at scale over a long period have a compounding effect and yield mindblowing results. I feel each of these ideas has contributed to making our communities better. As we see fruits of these successes today, we are reminded of a key lesson in economics.

Stability is more important than growth; and that growth is not evidenced in GDP, per capita income but in health, education, and hygiene.