India’s Domestic Climate Policy is Fragmented and Lacks Clarity

India’s domestic climate policy is outdated and relies on a disjointed institutional architecture, without having clarity on foundational values. There is a pressing need to revisit the National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008, and to reformulate domestic climate policy in India. Policy integration, institutional design for effective implementation, and climate justice must play a central role in this new vision for India’s domestic climate policy. 

The official Indian position in international climate negotiations and domestic climate policy debates is expressed in troubling binaries: economic development versus climate change mitigation, centralised command-and-control environmental governance regimes versus decentralised adaptive governance mechanisms, transitioning to renewable energy versus carbon sequestering through forests, and so on. The characterisation of India in the international climate landscape, “as a minor contributor to past emissions, but a significant contributor to future emissions, albeit not on a per capita basis” (Dubash et al 2018a), is suggestive of India’s Janus-like dualism towards climate change.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 decisively expressed an in-principle commitment to strengthening the global response to climate change, including by “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” and “[i]ncreasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production” (UNFCCC 2015). The parties to the Paris Agreement are obliged to “undertake and communicate ambitious efforts” in the form of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to achieve the goals of the agreement (UNFCCC 2015).

Issues with the enforceability of the Paris Agreement occupied the centre-stage at the recently-concluded 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Katowice, Poland. After days of divisive negotiations, countries at COP24 managed to agree to a highly contested Paris rulebook to enforce the 2015 agreement (Al Jazeera 2018; Sethi 2018a). Environmental groups have criticised this rulebook saying that it lacks ambition and clarity on key issues, including financing for climate projects for developing countries (Batchelor 2018). While India’s NDCs do articulate the country’s stated commitments in strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, in this article, we suggest that it is important for us to look beyond the rhetoric and numbers of India’s NDCs and focus instead on the domestic climate policy regime in India. 

India’s Nationally Determined Contributions and the Progress So Far 

The quantification of goals in India’s NDCs is threefold: first, reducing the emission-intensity of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 33%–35% (vis-à-vis 2005) by 2030; second, achieving 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030; and third, creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5–3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 through additional forest and tree cover (GoI 2016).

The non-quantified goals in India’s NDCs include putting forward and propagating a healthy and sustainable way of living based on traditions and values of conservation and moderation; adopting a climate friendly and cleaner path than the one hitherto followed by others at corresponding levels of economic development; better adapting to climate change by enhancing investments in development programmes in sectors vulnerable to climate change; mobilising domestic and new additional funds from developed countries to implement mitigation and adaptation actions; and building capacities and creating a domestic framework and international architecture for quick diffusion of cutting edge climate technology in India and for joint collaborative research and development for such future technologies (GoI 2016).

Overall, India has improved its ranking in the Climate Change Performance Index 2019 by climbing three places to rank 11 (Behl 2018). The government’s pledge to strengthen its renewable energy capacity, coupled with market factors, such as falling renewable energy prices (Dubash et al 2018a), suggest that India may meet its NDCs target of achieving 40% electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based resources well ahead of schedule (Goswami 2018). Similarly, India is also expected to achieve its quantified NDCs goal of reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity (Sethi 2018b).  

On the other hand, India is far from meeting its NDCs goal of carbon sequestration and afforestation. India’s second Biennial Update Report (BUR), submitted on 31 December 2018 (UNFCCC 2018), indicates that India’s carbon sequestration from forests has, in fact, worsened from its 2010–14 levels (Sethi 2018b). Further, the technical body of the UNFCCC has raised questions over the definition of “forest” used in India’s second BUR, suggesting that the forest data submitted by India represents an exaggeration of India’s true forest cover and masks ongoing deforestation in the country (Nandi 2019). An obfuscation of the distinction between native forests and man-made plantations in the definition of “forest cover” used by the Forest Survey of India means that the official Indian data on forest cover is a considerable overestimation (Srinivas 2018).  While it is difficult to evaluate the progress made in achieving the non-quantified goals in India’s NDCs, it is worth noting here that India continues to increase the number of coal-fired power plants in the country (Behl 2018), as also its CO2 emissions (Dubash et al 2018b).

This article provides an overview of India’s domestic climate policy and related environmental policy, and identifies key shortcomings that must be addressed by future planning efforts. We use the term “climate policy” to broadly refer to the system of goals, principles and processes that currently guide India’s domestic response to climate change. On the basis of such an understanding, India’s climate policy is located in a variety of sources, including international treaties, parliamentary legislations, government regulations and policy documents, planning and guidance documents, and judicial decisions. Accurately locating some of the main sources of India’s domestic climate policy is therefore the first challenge to be met for any assessment of climate governance in the country. 

Fragmented and Outdated Policy    

India is a “dualist” system, which means that international agreements (such as the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC) must be translated into domestic law to become enforceable within the country (Ranjan et al 2016). Article 253 of the Indian Constitution vests in the Parliament the power to make laws applicable to the territory of India in order to implement international treaties. Further, Article 73 extends the executive power of the Union of India to matters on which the Parliament has the power to make laws. International agreements reflecting overarching normative goals do not, however, specify the modalities of implementation and enforcement within the domestic legal systems of individual signatory countries. As such, there is no time-bound requirement for India to enact domestic legislation to give effect to the provisions of international agreements on climate change either. 

The wording of international climate agreements has, therefore, allowed the Indian government to avoid comprehensive domestic legislation and clear regulatory frameworks focused on the threats of climate change (Mehta 2017). Such domestic legislations and regulatory frameworks, for example, the Climate Change Act 2008 in the United Kingdom, would normally specify clear national goals, authorities, processes, and responsibilities. At present, India has not formulated any law (through Parliamentary legislation or through delegated legislation by the union government) for the purpose of giving effect to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2008, is the Indian government’s official recognition of climate change concerns and the need to appropriately respond and adapt to climate change. 

“The NAPCC addresses the urgent and critical concerns of the country through a directional shift in the development pathway … The National Action Plan on Climate Change identifies measures that promote our development objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively” (GoI 2008). 

The core of the NAPCC approach is the creation of eight national missions[1]  “representing multi-pronged, long-term and integrated strategies for achieving key goals in the context of climate change” (GoI 2008). The NAPCC and domestic climate policy received detailed attention in the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012–17) document of the erstwhile Planning Commission, which emphasised that “[c]limate change concern should permeate all processes of planning in the long term … for any mission to succeed, it must have separable objectives, dedicated implementation machinery and adequate funding” (GoI 2013).

As a document with certain normative goals, including (at least, formally) a co-benefits approach that stresses on the synergies between climate response and development needs, the NAPCC forms a useful starting point in India’s climate change policy narrative. However, as pointed out in a detailed evaluation, the NAPCC approach is “too broad and lacks specificities”, some missions have quantified mitigation targets while others are purely adaptive, and while the “solar and energy efficiency missions are considered successful, the mission-mode approach for dealing with cross-cutting subjects has not worked” (Rattani 2018). Unfortunately, the Twelfth Five Year Plan’s recommendation for comprehensive climate policy integration across sectoral planning in India has not materialised. There is a need to revisit the NAPCC in order to decisively re-assess and reformulate climate policy in India. 

The technical document of the NAPCC mentions that legislations may be required at the central and state level to arrive at appropriate delegation of responsibility and authority for meeting some of the goals of the policy (GoI 2008). India’s second BUR also states that “[t]o support the NAPCC, legal amendments have been carried out, wherever necessary, to improve monitoring and compliance under the missions” (GoI 2018). However, no comprehensive details on what legal amendments have indeed been carried out have been offered in India’s second BUR, and the policy framework today continues to operate in a fragmented sectoral fashion. 

In the absence of a comprehensive climate change legislation, or an updated policy document that effectively guides the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC, one must turn to India’s general environmental policy for answers on specific aspects relating to climate change. India’s policy framework concerning the environment, however, is an aggregation of a variety of uncoordinated sources relating to discrete environmental topics such as pollution, water, energy, transport, waste management, agriculture, mining, forests, environmental clearance, finances, etc (Naik 2018). The National Environmental Policy 2006 summarily lists out  a catalogue of the essential elements of India’s response to climate change without any indication of relative importance or modes of workability (GoI 2006). 

Individual legislations such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 depend on a number of governmental departments and specialised regulatory institutions, including central and state-level pollution control boards, the central and state-level environmental ministries, and specialised central and state-level regulators (Naik 2018). Notably, most of these legislations were passed several decades before there was awareness and recognition of climate change, and do not reflect important concerns of the current national and international climate discourse. A guiding document embodying a vision for climate change adaptation and mitigation across sectoral legislations and policy documents is conspicuously absent. 

India’s domestic climate policy is further complicated by the country’s federal structure wherein the legislative domains of the central government and the state government are distinct. While “climate change” does not figure on either list as a distinct head of legislative competence, various related topics do find mention. Areas such as treaty-making, certain specific industries, atomic energy and regulation of interstate waters are in the Parliament’s domain. State legislatures, on the other hand, can make laws pertaining to local government, public health and sanitation, certain roads, bridges, and inland waterways, agriculture, irrigation, canals, water storage, regulation of mines, and certain industries. Some relevant overlaps exist under the Concurrent List, for example, in relation to subjects like electricity, forests, and protection of wild animals and birds. Climate change, and more broadly, environmental concerns, can be traced to a number of areas of legislative competence spread across the Seventh Schedule, with no overall authority or clear responsibility being identified at either the central or the state level.[2]

The NAPCC and India’s second BUR cursorily mention several of the sectoral laws and policies, but fall short of providing an integrated and unifying policy framework. Even as some interesting state-level climate policy formulations, such as integration of energy planning for all new developments in Kerala or functional reorganisation of existing institutions in Odisha for promotion of renewable energy, are recently emerging in India, there continues to be considerable policy ambiguity and inadequate research available on questions of exactly what states can do in terms of India’s overall climate change challenges and the unclear horizontal and vertical diffusion of existing policies (Jörgensen et al 2015). 

India’s domestic climate policy urgently needs a coherent vision for tackling climate change, that should be clearly reflected in the framing of legislation and policy documents addressing multiple sectors and aligned with multiple federal levels, and in the design of appropriate institutional frameworks to achieve climate policy objectives of mitigation and adaptation in a holistic and non-fragmented way. Recent research on climate policy integration by Gregorio et al (2017) is of particular relevance here in planning the way forward for Indian domestic climate policy.  

Disjointed Institutional Architecture

The NAPCC, unfortunately, does not do anything notable to improve the capacity for implementation of climate change responses (GoI 2008). It has been pointed out that the NAPCC is also ill-suited institutionally to effectively seek a synergy between climate and development concerns in India (Dubash et al 2018a). Critics have suggested that institutional, systemic and process barriers,  including financial constraints, inter-ministerial coordination, lack of technical expertise and project clearance delays, stand as major challenges in the efficient implementation of the missions (Rattani 2018).

In 2009, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called upon states in India to devise their own climate action plans, in line with the principles and missions identified in the NAPCC (Jörgensen et al 2015). There is tremendous variation between the different State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs), due to differences in ascribing priority to climate change, institutional heterogeneity, developmental circumstances, and resource availability (Atteridge et al 2012).

The SAPCCs have been noted to be inadequate in many respects, particularly in terms of capacity and well-designed institutional mechanisms at the stage of implementation and monitoring (V Kumar 2018; Dubash and Jogesh 2014; Vasudha Foundation 2018). Budgetary allocation for the implementation of climate policy by the centre and states does not recognise that certain states may be more vulnerable to climate change than others (Sartori and Bianchi 2018). Most states have also shown reluctance in adopting the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) even after a decade of its release (Mishra  and Singh 2018). The emergence of India’s climate policy in a top-down fashion (with the central government taking the lead) and financial bottlenecks in the form of dependence on financial transfers from the centre, have also limited the scope for bottom-up action by the states in spite of them possessing legislative competence over a number of important climate and energy policy topics (Jörgensen et al 2015). Aside from budgetary facilitation, the centre can also play a crucial role in providing relevant data to the states. States must have access to scientific predictions of climate impact in their territory, for which the centre can play an important role in facilitating the transfer of relevant data (Dubash and Jogesh 2014). India’s second BUR contains only a brief mention of the SAPCCs, merely enumerating some of the broad topics that the SAPCCs deal with (GoI 2018), without offering any substantive detail on the measures undertaken by the states and the progress made so far.      

While a third tier of governance in India does exist at the local level in the form of rural village councils and urban municipalities, significant devolution of powers relating to environmental and climate change concerns has not taken place at this level in most states. Most major cities in India do not provide incentives for green buildings, apart from not having sustainability plans, sustainability/resilience strategies, or comprehensive mobility plans in place (ASICS 2017). It is particularly worrisome to note that Indian cities effectively have very little functional autonomy in embarking upon climate change responses.

Unclear Foundational Values

An excessive focus on quantified mitigation goals often diverts attention away from core questions of environmental and social justice involved with climate change response in India. One of the important themes of COP24 at Katowice was “just transitions,” which the host country Poland pushed for, through the Silesia Declaration. The declaration emphasises that efforts by countries to address climate change must include transitioning the workforce in an equitable manner, including through the creation of decent work and quality jobs. Notably, India did not join the parties to the Silesia Declaration. India’s domestic climate policy, particularly the NAPCC, prioritises the country’s development objectives while also achieving climate change co-benefits, but provides very little clarity on foundational values necessary to resolve specific cases of potentially conflicting or competing interests (Dubash et al 2013). 

Although India’s second BUR speaks of the creation of “green jobs” (GoI 2018), it is conspicuously silent on the future of those who depend on coal for a livelihood. Further, communities in water-stressed areas in India are likely to be affected by the water demands of thermal power plants (Krishnan 2018) as well as solar power projects (Chatterjee 2018). The fact that urban elites are responsible for the highest share of climate change damage in India (Michael and Vakulabharanam 2016) is conveniently avoided in most discussions of macro per capita emissions. 

A decision is currently awaited from India’s National Green Tribunal on a petition filed in 2017 by a nine-year old girl (on behalf of all children and unborn generations) who argued that the Indian government had failed to take any effective science-based measure to combat climate change and had also failed to implement environmental laws across India (Ridhima Pandey v Union of India 2017). 

India’s climate policy reflects an ambivalence in foundational values.. The idea of climate justice is useful in overcoming some of this policy ambivalence and adds an important element of normativity to India’s broadly defined co-benefits approach. Fundamentally, climate justice is predicated on viewing climate change as more than just a scientific concept, and the focus therefore shifts towards gaps in the equity dimensions of climate change (Adams and Luchsinger 2009).  Such an approach compels us to understand the challenges faced by communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and also informs how we should act to ensure that the transition to a zero-carbon economy is just and that it enables all people to realise their right to development (Canzi 2015).

In the past, India has strongly invoked the term “climate justice” in international negotiations with a focus primarily on equitable considerations between developing countries and developed countries with regard to past emissions and financial assistance (Venkat 2016). A more robust account of climate justice that includes intra-country social justice and environmental sustainability concerns would certainly be more in accord with the Constitution of India and the needs of the people of India. 

How to Move Forward

India strongly needs a comprehensive policy document with a new vision (if not an integrated national legislation) to guide it forward in responding to the rapidly closing window against climate change. Such a new domestic climate policy must result from a collaborative and democratic exercise that actively seeks and incorporates inputs from policymakers, natural and social scientists, the academic community, civil society and communities from across the country. Stakeholder engagement must be based on equitable terms, with due recognition and compensation for the utilisation of the local participants’ knowledge, research, time and resources (Klenk et al 2015). The role of villages, cities and states in co-creating India’s climate policy must be explicitly endorsed and promoted. Simultaneously, the Parliament, state legislatures, and courts must carefully re-examine the existing policy framework through the lens of climate change, and revise the framework, as necessary. This is a prospect for future research and deliberation.

The authors are grateful to the anonymous reviewers of the Economic & Political Weekly for incisive comments on an earlier version of this article.

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