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A long-term, climate-resilient development pathway should guide India’s development

In May, India faced a double whammy – a super cyclone, Amphan, even as the country struggled with coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The cyclone was one of the most powerful to have hit India’s eastern coast in over 20 years. Before losing steam, it achieved sustained wind speeds over 225 kilometres per hour, displaying a peculiar rapid intensification with its wind speeds going up by three times within 48 hours.

This is worrisome. Climate crisis will warm the oceans, helping generate and intensify future cyclones.

Amphan killed at least 86 in West Bengal, the worst-affected state. Though the financial damages are still being assessed, it’s not likely to be as enormous in terms of fatalities as cyclone Bhola (1970) or the Orissa super cyclone (1999) which killed lakhs and thousands, respectively. The success in limiting the loss of lives is evident from the aftermath of cyclone Phailin (2013) and cyclone Fani (2019) in which, despite their ferocity, the fatalities remained in double digits.

The minimisation of loss of lives was made possible by technological as well as institutional interventions. At the technology level, India has invested heavily over the last decade in strengthening its ocean observational network, radar technology, and storm-forecasting abilities to enable a timely assessment of the genesis and physiology of cyclones. Forecasting the tracks and landfall areas in advance helps take precautionary measures. In the case of Amphan, the information on its genesis, its probable track, its advancement, its inherent characteristics such as wind speeds and areas of possible landfall was made available to the authorities and the public at least a week before the actual landfall.

At the institutional level, India has learnt the complex setup to manage disaster relief. While the country faced severe natural calamities in the late-1990s – such as the Orissa super cyclone (1999), Gujarat earthquake (2001) and Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) – the world witnessed much debate and discussion around disaster response and preparedness. It highlighted the need for a comprehensive disaster management plan. This led to the enactment of the Disaster Management Act under the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), that lay down policies, plans, guidelines and response measures in the event of a disaster.

These successes notwithstanding, India still faces a challenge in minimising economic losses. Regardless of early warnings, agriculture and infrastructure continue to bear the brunt of the calamities. A United Nations (UN) report on economic losses and disasters estimates that in the last 20 years India has suffered $ 79.5 billion due to climate-related disasters. The economic damage from Amphan can easily run into millions of dollars. The preparedness to reduce the loss of lives must be extended to reduce the loss of livelihoods, basic amenities and infrastructure.

How does India achieve this? How does it replicate the lessons learnt from minimising the loss of lives and infrastructure?

India urgently needs to develop a long-term vision on climate-resilient development built on social needs, environmental sustainability, and economic viability. Investing in infrastructure on an ad-hoc basis poses the risk of “lock-ins” that are almost impossible to reverse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has aptly referred to infrastructure as a key pillar under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. It was at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit that he launched the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. With the physical infrastructure underpinning the achievement of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and, as highlighted by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), the role of improved disaster resilience, especially of infrastructure, forms a cornerstone in long-term sustainable development.

A long-term climate-resilient development pathway that incorporates the socio-economic prerequisites of revamping infrastructure will help plan a strategy to save infrastructure, livelihoods and millions of lives. It will further enable efficient allocation of resources into climate-smart initiatives to help maximise the gains. With basic infrastructure and alternative sources of livelihoods in place, both the central and state institutions will be better equipped to cope with disasters and recovery.

As we move towards transformative action from an incremental change, it is essential that a long-term climate-resilient development pathway leads the way. It should look at strengthening institutions, both at the national and sub-national levels, along with providing smart incentives to promote state-of-the-art climate-resilient infrastructure. Addressing the compounding vulnerabilities in areas such as agriculture, water resources, urban and rural built environs, and human capital is key to a sustainable, resilient, and self-reliant India.

Karan Mangotra is associate director of Growth, Diversification & Commercialization, TERI. Saurabh Bhardwaj is fellow and area convener at the Centre for Climate Modelling, TERI

The views expressed are personal

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