A Tale of Neglect: From Kashmir to the Indian Sundarbans

9 June 2016

My first trip to the ‘paradise on earth’ was 25 years ago when I was a little girl of ten. My memories of the Valley were full of green meadows, blooms in the garden and the transparent blue water of the River Lidder. I was very excited while planning for a well-deserved holiday to Kashmir this year where I could relive my childhood memories with my 6-year-old son. We reached Kashmir and I found the valley as beautiful as I remembered it 25 years ago. We were invited by some of our old and new friends of Kashmir to taste the authentic delicacies of the state –‘Wazwan’ (multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine) –and needless to say we were overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth offered to us. 

Kashmir - Photo credit: Nasir Patigaru

The flood in The Valley

While chatting with our friends, from different generations and backgrounds, we navigated around our usual topics for discussion: local politics, separatist movements, issues of insurgency, military vigilance and so on. There was very little talk about the worsening effects of the local environment, which over the last 60 years culminated in the calamitous flood in 2015 that left the people of the Valley incredibly vulnerable last year. 

With a death toll of over 200 and huge loss of infrastructure and livelihoods, it is hard to escape the realities of this ecological change. The causes of the disaster are down to the unplanned urbanisation near the riverbank coupled with the effects of the melting of the Himalayan glacier. 

Despite the know causes of this flood, little was done about it. 

Was it because of the sensitive political context? Or was it due to an ingrained apathy in policymaking combined with the country’s eternal plague of red ‘tapism’? 

A choice between ecological safeguards or political freedom?

One of our young friends, echoing the concern of the Kashmiri youths, argued that if they started on demanding ecological safeguards for the state, the political parties would make it their election agenda and start negotiating with the Government and public. This in turn would dilute the cardinal of their political freedom, he opined.

I argued back – how could they just shut their eyes to the inevitability of future disasters that would have the power to devastate the paradise and its people? He replied, ‘We are resilient. Let us deal with our political and social uncertainties first. The rest we will deal with later.’

The young man’s words reminded me of the words of the 65 year-old villager of the Sundarbans through my work on climate and health issues as a part of STEPS Centre and IIHMR research on ‘Uncertainty from Below’ and subsequently for Norwegian Research Council study on ‘Climate Change Uncertainty and Translation’. This man had lost his homestead and agricultural land due to gradual rise in sea level – a consequence of climate change –and had been reduced to surviving on ‘occupational flexibility’ within a very short time blurted, ‘don’t ask a starving mass what hunger is. Let us deal with the uncertainty of life first, the rest we can take care of.’

Uncertainty in Kashmir and Sundarbans

Both Kashmir and Sundarbans are top priority areas in the list of disaster prone zones according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

Uncertainty looms large in both these areas: While Kashmir is faced with melting of Himalayan Glaciers due to Global warming coupled with unplanned infrastructural development in flood plains, in the Sundarbans, sea level rise, coastal erosion along with embankment politics has exposed both the communities vulnerable towards climate change. 

Despite the fact that, in both the cases scientific predictions regarding the impacts of climate change in the life and livelihood of the people of these regions are well established now, the policies of preparedness and mitigation devised by the ‘above’ (policymakers, planners and modelers) have very little to do with how a ‘nadru’ (lotus stem) cultivator in the Daal or a ‘meendhar’ (traditional prawn seed collector) in a river of the Sundarbans is going to manage in future decades with growing challenges of climatic and related socio-economic uncertainties. 

The ‘middle’ (national and international NGOs and donor agencies) can play the undoubtedly crucial role of savior, but have done so only at the time of big climatic events like the Cyclone Aila in Sundarbans in 2009 or the floods in Kashmir in 2015. Their operations and funding related to helping people cope with the aftermath of the floods stopped after a year and again zeroed in on the agenda of the conservation of the Royal Bengal tiger and Mountain Wolf in the Sundarbans and Kashmir respectively. The ‘below’, that is the general public and communities of both the regions, appear to be quite far from demanding ecological safeguards as they have learnt to be resilient in these unfair and unpleasant circumstances. They have bigger matters at hand to deal with, whether it’s the sensitive political context in Kashmir or extreme hardship of livelihood uncertainties in the Sundarbans. 

What’s the solution?

What is the way forward? The answers are of course highly political, both nationally and globally. In Paris COP21 India asked the West to be more ‘flexible’, as we are now in the third position of emitting greenhouse gases after China and USA. In the Paris climate negotiation, India was criticised for trying to weaken the legal rigour of a five-year review mechanism and engaging in brinkmanship. Now with this global standpoint what is clearly absent is the creation of a space for dialogues between the three layers, the ‘above’, ‘middle’ and ‘below’. To ensure that truly viable and lasting alternatives can emerge, that voices of every layer must be represented equitably.   

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