Climate change management and environmental protection are the way forward in India's outreach plans for the subcontinent and beyond.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna shows his wry sense of humour every once in a while. Asked about seeming differences between him and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on dealing with China recently, he answered “Well, environment knows no boundaries and our Environment Ministry similarly transcends boundaries.”

Mr. Krishna may have meant the comment in a lighter vein, but what he said has serious, even exciting, possibilities for India, and must be looked at more closely by his own Ministry as it makes its moves in the subcontinental ‘great game'.

Last week, British consultancy Maplecroft listed India as second in the group of countries most at risk from climate change. Bangladesh came first, facing the loss of a large part of its coastal landmass to rising waters. Also prominent, apart from the African nations, were Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar, and a little further down the line, Pakistan. Maldives, though not studied for the list, is of course, at the top of the list of islands likely to disappear under water. In short, it is South Asia that will bear the brunt of climate change in the coming decades. While every study these days is received with a certain scepticism, the focus is really not on whether or not this is true but on whether India can turn its plans for climate management into a game-changer for subcontinental relations. To paraphrase Mr. Krishna, can environmental diplomacy transcend political boundaries and help India forge closer ties in the region?

At the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Thimphu, Bhutan, this year, South Asia nations agreed on a 16-point action plan, including measures like planting 10 million trees in the next five years and setting up inter-governmental marine, mountain and monsoon initiatives. Unfortunately, given the SAARC's track record of allowing subcontinental rivalries (primarily India-Pakistan) to overshadow their implementation of decisions, those initiatives are unlikely to see quick action. However, the urgency of the situation, particularly the prospect of thousands of ‘climate refugees' being forced out of their homes, requires India to lead the way as the subcontinent comes to grips with global warming.

Two recent projects may serve as role models — the first is an initiative to save the Sunderbans. Earlier this year, India and Bangladesh decided to set up the Sundarbans Eco-System Forum to protect the 10,000 sq.km of mangroves that span both countries. According to a study at Jadavpur University, global warming is causing the sea to rise 3.14 mm a year — far higher than the global average. The study, undertaken by oceanographers in 2009, estimated that about 10,000 inhabitants have already been forced out of their villages and 70,000 more would have their homes inundated in the next 30 years — not to mention the impact on the fast-disappearing Bengal tiger. While India and Bangladesh have spent much of this year ironing out their differences over terror groups, trade barriers and border fencing, they can and must take quicker strides on an issue like joint management of the mangroves before 75 per cent of them disappear, as is predicted by the university survey.

A similar concern led India to join hands with China and Nepal this year to agree on a framework, the Kailash Sacred Landscape initiative, to conserve the ecosystem of Mount Kailash. “India must see climate change management as a strategic investment,” says Mr. Jairam Ramesh, proposing a series of such engagements with other countries on our land and sea borders.

India has much to learn as well as impart to the SAARC region, whether it is about coastal zone management from Maldives or forestry management from Bhutan, a country whose Constitution mandates 60 per cent forest cover, and it actually manages about 70 per cent. On the other hand, Afghanistan could benefit from the Indian experience of managing the degradation caused by the plunder of its mining and mineral resources that is bound to follow any degree of peace and stability in that country, and Sri Lanka from Indian technologies on harnessing its wind energy of an estimated 20,000 MW.

The melting Siachen glacier is another border-transcending issue. After the devastating floods in Pakistan this year, there is much that India and Pakistan can share on managing river systems. In fact, in a year when dialogue on all other bilateral issues floundered, the discussions of the Indus Water Commission in the Pakistani Parliament this month shone by comparison. Water Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf acknowledged that India had addressed all Pakistan's concerns like the Nimmo Bazgo and Chutak hydel projects on the Indus and Uri-II on the Jhelum, even as the third dispute, over the Kishanganga project was headed for international arbitration. The message is clear. While talks break down frequently on terror and strategic issues, dialogue on environment can ‘flow' more naturally to a resolution. To that end, South Block must look at ways of collaborating on research, encourage scientist exchanges and build capacity for decades to come, opening new avenues of engagement with each of India's neighbours.

Climate change studies, though, are only part of the race against nature's anger at industrialisation — the future will quite clearly belong to countries and regions that are able to harness renewable energies best. It's disappointing that India, which practically pioneered solar technology, has lagged behind in that race. In the 1980s everyone who had access to Doordarshan heard of indigenous solar cookers and waterheaters. Today it is China that leads the world in manufacturing capacity of solar, wind and biogas energy, investing close to $35-billion in renewable energies last year, a figure that put it ahead of the U.S.

Interestingly, India does fairly well on the renewables index: according to the latest Ernst and Young survey, it ranked fourth behind China, the U.S. and Germany, though none of its South Asian neighbours figures anywhere in the top 25. In the past year while India has looked to spend more than $1 billion on infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, it may well consider substantial investments in renewable energies in each of these countries.

Finally, environmental negotiations give India and China another opportunity to work on their otherwise tricky relationship. With every indication that this year's climate change conference in Mexico will again see an equally tough fight between the developed world and the developing world, India and China are once again working together on their strategy for 2010 — carrying the spirit of Copenhagen to Cancun, as it were. This despite all the bad blood over China's aggression on visa issues, and Indian ire over the border.

The changing environment offers India new avenues to forge ties within the neighbourhood and beyond, as it claims its position both as a subcontinental leader and Asian power. Perhaps the big push will come with the Environment and External Affairs Ministries working in tandem: because climate change, like terror, cyber warfare and other 21st Century threats to the world, knows no boundaries.

(Suhasini Haidar is the Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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