What does the Paris deal mean for India?

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Price of progress? India’s right to development does not necessarily ensure decent living conditions for all
Price of progress? India’s right to development does not necessarily ensure decent living conditions for all

Around last December, I had trouble getting up from bed every single morning. I repeatedly told myself that perhaps it was the end-of-the-year-wintery-chutti days that brought such laziness and the bitter north Indian cold reaching the bones.

But, deep down, I knew there was more to it. Every morning I woke up with an itch in my throat, and my regular 30-minute run around the Lodhi gardens was leaving me more fatigued than refreshed. Moreover, there were tons of flu and other viruses going around as they often do during each seasonal change. Yet, I felt instinctively that the air was a lot worse than it was during my previous years in the city. There was the news telling me that I was breathing the most toxic air in the world. The shroud of smog clouding Delhi felt like a knife being twisted slowly in my stomach but choking my lungs.

One year down, it has been rather intriguing to witness Le Bourget in suburban Paris turn into the proscenium stage for the ‘act of negotiations’ performed over the past two weeks with leaders from 195 countries. And it had all the right ingredients: tragedy, emotion, drama, suspense.

There was enfant terrible India in the beginning, there were the eternal good guys, France and the US. And at the end, there was the all-important, quintessential catharsis — tears of joy, thundering applause, cheer. As the curtains have fallen, everyone has gone home with the relish of having delivered an excellent spectacle.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, too, has returned with a flourish that they have been able to include the principles of equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR), saving India’s face fractionally on the international stage. India has also been able to stamp its idiosyncratic trademark on the agreement, with a clause on the importance of sustainable lifestyles and sustainable consumption patterns included in the text.

At the outset, it seemed that India was being set up to be the blackguard in case these negotiations failed. But Javadekar clearly has reasons to celebrate as the commander-in-chief Modi tweeted his support: “Outcome of #ParisAgreement has no winners or losers. Climate justice has won & we are all working towards a greener future.”

In this theatre of geopolitics and energy economics, there are always winners and losers, whatever Modi might say. From the analysis of Indian political pundits and commentators, it seems that it has been ‘win some, lose some’ for India, though it could have come out either better and worse.

If you see the glass half full, as I often do, I would say that India did not come out all that bad. India trumpeted the discourse of ‘climate justice’ right from the launch of its “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC). It would be the defender of the rights for the developing world, taking on the cape that China seemed to have discarded. It was determined that poor, developing nations, which are at the cusp of turning into major industrial nations, will not be obliged to pay for decades of climate warming emissions by the US and Europe. “We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice,” Javadekar said in an interview in September.

Indeed, from the very beginning of climate negotiations, India has been voicing its right to ‘develop’, which, in our topsy-turvy world, also means its right to pollute. And is there really an option for a country that is home to 30 percent of the world’s poorest, those living on less than $2 a day? Yet, over the past few years, social scientists have often called out India on hiding behind its poor while acting in ways that contribute to climate change.