This recommendations has been prepared with the inputs of individuals, organisations and academics who have engaged in Covid-19 relief work during the lockdown and have directly worked with low wage workers, farmers, urban poor and livelihoods groups . It reflects the collective hope of people who are keen on a clean, green, just and sustainable India.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged many aspects of our economic and social life fundamentally. We witnessed a significant breakdown of food security and livelihood systems across the country. Millions of people lost their jobs, and struggled for access to food for prolonged periods. Farmers were confronted with the labour crisis during the peak harvesting season. Many farmers had to struggle1 very badly to access the market/consumers for their products. The economic crisis2 has further deepened in the last few months.
As the crisis played out, over the lockdown months, there were reports of reduction in air pollution, anecdotes of people reporting clear skies and recovering habitats, and relatively cleaner air3 in our cities and homes. Water quality of our rivers improved significantly4. Butterflies, birds, honey bees and many other under stress species could be seen even in the otherwise congested and polluted big cities. These months have allowed us to experience a completely different environment, seemingly a system that was healing itself. The easing of the lockdown is seeing a reversal of many of these changes that we noticed in the ecological health of our nation.
In considering the stimulus packages needed for rapid and sustained economic and social recovery, it is time to make a conscious decision whether we want to move in a direction which takes us back to the old normal or move towards a better future? A choice has to be made between a system that has been exposed as unviable and ineffective or move towards a better future, which leads us to an economically and ecologically just, sustainable and resilient future. At the same time being wise on continuing or strengthening those systems which either helped in the past or continue to do so. A future which ensures equity and justice for all. A future that has hope of welfare and wellbeing for all as an integral to it.
The future choices should foreground inclusive, holistic and comprehensive systematic changes which make us resilient and responsive to further environmental, economic or health crises of even greater magnitude than Covid-19. The plan based on a green stimulus should address both short-term economic decline and rise to the challenge of realising the economy’s and the planet’s long-term recovery potential. The recovery pathway must reflect the resolve towards mitigating and ameliorating climate change issues. We have to act to mitigate the revelations made in the first ever, climate change assessment report5 titled, “Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region” and acknowledge the reality that along with the economic decline, dangerous climate change poses a permanent and far more serious threat to human development and prosperity in India.
Recommendations for Action
Listed below are key areas for action for the Government of India to ensure inclusive, sustainable and socially just recovery from this crisis towards better.
Clean Energy and Transportation for Clean Air
Fossil fuel burning is a major component of the hazardous air pollution problem facing virtually all cities in the country. In contrast, renewable energy technologies use much less water, do not generate air pollution, and generate more employment along the value chain, in a more decentralized manner.
Promote a decentralized model of renewable energy: According to the UN SDG policy brief6, renewable energy distributed through the grid (27 per cent) as well as through mini-grids and off-grid installations (3 percent) have provided power to 30 per cent of the people who have gained access since 2000. To achieve universal energy access by 2030, this share will need to increase significantly. For over 70 per cent of those who gain access in rural areas, decentralized systems based on renewable energy will be the most cost-effective solution. The decentralized model of renewable energy will not only help us to get universal energy access but it can also help us to mitigate climate crisis by replacing fossil fuel based energy production.The government needs to Support rooftop solar and other forms of decentralized renewable energy solutions that reduce the demand for coal-based electricity. Moving our energy generation sector from fossil fuels to renewables would help to prevent premature deaths and vast savings in health costs. Provide support to clean technology businesses affected by the crisis to help them sustain and grow.
Employment with Ecology: Resolve the eternal contradiction between employment and carbon emissions: we can have sensible economic growth cycles, with new green and sustainable models, that generate employment and be emission neutral. Analysis7 estimated that more than one million jobs can be created by the renewable sector by 2022 if India can achieve its ambitious renewable target of 160GW. The transformation of the automobile sector to the electric vehicle 8 could be an important generator of employment in this transition, because it allows the sector jobs to be maintained through a process of reconversion and training. Similarly millions of jobs can be created in the renewable energy sector.
The strict enforcement of new9 emission standards (notified by MoEFCC in 2015 ) for coal power plants on sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter is critical. Older power plants that are near or past their 25 year life span and cannot meet the new standards must be shut down, with their generation being replaced with non-polluting sources.
Increasing demand and promoting electric vehicles. The automobile industry is expecting10 a ‘relief package’ from the Government of India and after the pandemic, it will take some considerable time to remove the fear of using public transport amongst people and hence would prefer using their private vehicles like cars, bikes, and scooters. This is an opportunity to promote e-bikes and e-scooters. Also, cycling should also be promoted to near-distant traveling. The government must further Purchase electric buses for cities and towns. The government needs to formulate a comprehensive electric vehicle policy that lays out clear milestones and incentives and offers guidance to industry and planners alike on the road to the 2030 EV target11.
Develop Safer Public Transport to Rebuild Trust:Report suggests that travel via public transport can present a heightened risk of infection with COVID19 ( Troko et al 2011, Gosce and Johannson 2018, Sasidharan 2020), especially if ventilation or the space for physical distancing is limited during a journey. As fears around the spread of the virus remain, public transport will face a massive capacity challenge, as maintaining strict social distancing will mean these will have to operate with significantly less capacity per trip. That’s why it’s important to provide clear guidance for safety and implement sanitation measures like cleaning regimes; issuing PPEs to drivers and staff; mandating face coverings for passengers; and increasing trips to account for limiting the number of passengers per ride.
Redesign urban transport to prioritize low-cost, active and carbon-neutral transport options like walking and cycling, The local authority needs to promote low-cost, active, and carbon-neutral transport options like walking, cycling, and public transport. It’s important to create a safe walking and cycling route with the initiative to identify the car-free zone. All cities should implement the advisory13 released by Ministry of housing and Urban affairs that Encourage & “Revive Non-Motorised Transport (NMT)- As most of the urban trips are clocked in under five kilometres, NMT offers a perfect opportunity to implement in this COVID 19 crisis as it requires low cost, less human resource, easy & quick to implement, scalable and environment friendly.”
Public transport should be free for all:Due to COVID 19, socially and economically marginalized people are the worst hit by the economic slowdown and most of them can’t afford the expensive mode of transportation. Public transport is a vehicle for mobility justice and public welfare at large. Therefore, once COVID-safety measures are fully in place, public transport should be made free for all. This will help us to discourage the use of personal automobiles.
Stricter laws and/or enforcement of regulations on air quality: Every polluted city immediately announces and implements the clean air action plan with a sectoral reduction target and specific timeline. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP14) should be urgently notified under any relevant act. Unless NCAP has legal binding on both authorities and polluters, reducing the pollution will remain a challenge. Every non attainment (polluted cities) needs to be included under NCAP.
Climate resilient infrastructure: Invest in infrastructure projects that promote climate change resilience. Public participation and consultation are essential to ensuring implemented infrastructure is fair to all and has sufficient public support and forths a stronger Environmental impact assessment process is essential.
Living Soils for Resilient Future
Shift the agrochemical subsidies in developing decentralised infrastructures for farmers for boosting Soil Organic Carbon (SOC): Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and hazardous pesticides in agriculture pollutes our ground and surface water15 sources. SOC16 has the potential to improve the soil structure and enhance the groundwater level, both qualitatively and quantitatively. SOC not only minimises emissions17 of GHG gases but is capable of trapping the atmospheric carbon in the soil hence improves the air quality. In the Covid 19 recovery plans, the aim should be to help farmers in building structures and capacities to increase SOC content in agricultural fields upto 2% by the end of 2030. This will also help achieve the 2030 commitment of restoring 26 million hectares18 of degraded land.
Protection and enhancement of biomass should be incentivised: Burning of crop residue and cattle dung for cooking and farm cleaning purposes have huge health19 and environmental20 consequences. To positively restrict these unhealthy practices, the government should proactively invest in creating infrastructures that help farmers in converting these biomass residues into nutrient-rich organic fertilisers. The subsidies on Biogas plants for cooking purposes should be increased upto 75% for general farmers and 90% for small and marginal farmers. This will significantly reduce the existing load on fossil fuels and the emission levels.
Shorten the food supply chain: In the existing system a sizable amount of Post harvest food loss21 is due to lack of storage and swift marketing facilities. Globally, food waste alone produces 8%22 of the total GHG emissions too. Gram Panchayat level procurement and storage facilities should be developed for foodgrains and perishable food materials and should be connected with the Public Distribution System (PDS). This will not only protect huge amounts of food and agricultural inputs from getting wasted but will reduce the fossil fuel consumption and emissions caused during transportation.
Empowered Farmers for the Safety and Security of Food
Announce special packages for small and marginal sustainable farmers: Small and marginal farmers constitute more than 80% of indian farmers and are the backbones of our food security. The recovery Plans should envisage special programmes to create an enabling environment for small and marginal farmers to steadily move towards natural and ecological farming methods. Subsidies for adopting water conserving irrigation systems such as drip and sprinkler irrigation and installing solar pumps should also be higher for this segment of farmers. Such initiatives will boost the prospects of achieving the target of converting 20 lakh hectares23 of lands into organic farms.
Incentivise organic and ecological farmers: Farmers practicing ecological farming methods are producing safe, diverse, nutritious and tastier food and helping in rejuvenating degraded soil and the dismantled biodiversity in and around their fields. They should be entitled for special incentives such as higher MSPs for organically produced products and environmental service fees.
Empower24 Women25 Farmers26: Women play the most critical role in a sustainable and resilient food system. Organising and empowering them will directly strengthen the steps towards food and nutritional security.
Invest in Community food and biodiversity Parks: Food forests27 and Forest Foods28 can ensure not only food security but also in enhancing nutritional security among the most food vulnerable communities. They can also help increase the incomes of farmers and other rural communities while building the food production system ecologically and economically resilient. The government schemes under different departments such as Horticulture, Agriculture and Social Forestry could be converged with an increased budgetary allocation and increasing the decision-making powers of the implementing communities could be the bold steps towards a more resilient future.
Seed sovereignty to Farmers: Native and landrace seeds provide significant self reliance for farmers and are good for ecological resilience too. In the pursuit of recovering from the crisis, it should be ensured that native seeds are promoted and made available to farmers. Seed varieties which can reduce farmers’ seed sovereignty or have the potential to threaten the environmental biodiversity should be strictly restricted.
Converge government programmes for a Groundwater-depletion Free India29: Water conservation programmes are scattered under different government programmes and departments. The recovery plans must work for converging all these under one Mission for a Groundwater-depletion Free India. Construction of rainwater harvesting systems such as small and micro check dams, lakes and ponds, shallow wells and micro canals and bunding of farm fields should be done as the top priority. To create decentralised livelihoods opportunities, these works should be done using manual labour.
These recommendations reflect collective hope and confidence that the government will consider these areas seriously to turn this crisis into an opportunity and set the direction firmly towards building a climate-proof, equal, sustainable and resilient India as we emerge from this pandemic.