As India’s already warm cities get warmer, the real danger of the climate crisis lurks in the form of a water and food crises for the country’s large urban population, and experts warn that only a systemic transformation can reverse the grim trajectory that we find ourselves on. Aromar Revi, director of the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements and a coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told Shivani Singh about the challenges that Indian cities face. Edited excerpts:
How serious is the climate crisis in Indian cities?
The climate crisis will quickly become an existential crisis for Indian cities. But it’s not just an urban crisis. It is also a rural and agrarian crisis and fundamentally a development crisis.
A significant driver of this crisis will be water – flooding and drought, which could lead to a food security crisis in the future. If we go back in time to cities like Fatehpur Sikri and Tughlaqabad, we realise what happens when cities are faced with systemic water crises. This climate-induced food crisis cannot be addressed in cities because most cities don’t produce much food. Unless we address the balance of development between rural and urban India, we will not be able to address the climate crisis.
India has a huge opportunity because, unlike China, we are not barrelling down a highway to hyper-urbanisation. We can keep the balance between urban and rural areas. This is not just about cities getting hotter and more difficult to live in, it is about understanding the relationships between cities and agriculture, cities and water, and cities and biodiversity.
The challenge with implementing climate action across the urban-rural continuum is that our systems of governance and finance are not organised to do this, in an integrated manner.
Where do Indian cities stand in this discourse?
Most cities across the world, including in India, are well beyond the 1.5°C guardrail for climate change because of the urban heat island effect. Our cities are densely built and use heat-absorbing materials such as concrete and asphalt, and thus are much hotter. Many Indian cities are already experiencing a 3°C temperature elevation.
One of the reasons is that as some people get richer, they use more air conditioners. ACs cool the inside of the house by heating up the outside. We also have this new fashion of buildings that look like glass boxes and trap heat. We’ve forgotten simple lessons from traditional architecture and systems of planning, which helped shade and cool cities by using green areas, urban forests, and lakes to offset the urban heat island.
In the face of extreme heat, many Indian cities have started developing heat action plans, which is a good thing. But this is trying to address the symptom (unbearable temperatures), not the cause of the disease (greenhouse gas emissions). We need to coordinate both climate adaptation and mitigation in cities.
You mentioned an impending water crisis. How will that affect our cities?
The most proximate risk to cities, especially in the peninsular and parts of northern India, is that we don’t have enough water for residents. So, we’re forced to take a pipeline several hundred kilometres to carry water from far away, like in Delhi, or dramatically over-extract groundwater, like in Gurugram. That’s not a sustainable solution. We have to reorganise and reform our urban water systems.
First, we need to plug the leaks in most cities, because a third or more of the treated water leaks. We need to use water efficiency measures so that everybody has access to adequate and safe water. We also need to deal with flooding, because we have disrupted natural drainage and paved over large areas of cities.
Lack of water for drinking and sanitation translates into diseases like diarrhoea and hepatitis. We’re still using colonial-era systems for sanitation, which use so much water. Faecal sludge treatment systems that serve 15 million people in Tamil Nadu use a lot less water and have been deployed much faster than sewerage systems at a fraction of their cost. They are a climate-relevant innovation that Swachh Bharat should pick up and scale.
So, we need to recalibrate basic civic upkeep and governance in climate terms?
The climate will not only kill people because it becomes too hot. We also pay high costs vis a vis health or the economy, like the impact of local flooding that we have seen repeatedly in our cities. We can reduce climate risks by raising the floor of urban service delivery. Everybody has to have access to clean water, sanitation, and clean energy, delivered by resilient infrastructure that doesn’t collapse when there is heavy rain, or a cyclone or flooding.
But most of these systems are currently based on fossil fuels. You can get an electric vehicle (EV) and reduce your personal carbon footprint. But, if that EV is powered by a grid that is based on 80% coal-fired power plants, you’re not doing much.
Many countries are literally putting solar panels on everybody’s roof. You sell your power to the utility during the day, and you buy it back during the night when you need it. But to do that, you have to be connected to the grid. Our institutional arrangements don’t allow that in many states. That must change.
Do you think efficient governance of cities can help in climate mitigation and adaptation?
It has been 30 years since the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, which was meant to devolve core governance functions to municipalities. But this hasn’t happened in most states. In addition, in most Indian cities, the governance framework is fragmented. Climate action is almost impossible to implement in this context.
Bangalore, for instance, has a very well-run water utility, and people pay their bills. But the bulk of the city gets its water from tankers because of issues with distribution. The city’s residents have invested hundreds of crores in pumps to draw water from the ground. If that investment went to the water utility, it’s possible it could supply water 24×7, like in Cuttack.
Integration across mandates is a challenge. Unlike other cities in the world, where mayors manage things, we have no political systems to enforce integration. The governance arrangements at city and state levels are rarely coordinated, which slows down implementation, even when there is an interest in making things happen. Indian cities suffer from a lack of accountability and chronic underinvestment. We need to have an integrated regime involving the government of India, state governments, city governments, and private and citizen participation to make things work.
Is there a case for separate climate financing or can it be addressed with state or municipal budgets?
First, the national and state budgets and the finance commission need to make sure that we are not investing in assets that create emissions. We need to undo climate-insensitive subsidies and incentives. There is almost no scrutiny of this in our Budgets. Without that climate financing, it is like pouring money into a leaking bucket. We have to end energy poverty in villages and in cities, but do that using renewable power. This needs dedicated climate-sensitive development and infrastructure finance.
Improving logistics and using low-carbon systems like rail and shipping has economic co-benefits as in India, logistics costs are more than 15% of the cost of manufactured goods. For more energy-efficient logistics, we’ll have to shift our mode of transportation back to electrified rail from the road. Similarly, we need to efficiently deploy electrified mass transit using renewable energy in most of our larger cities.
China has done this by building a high-speed rail system that connects even smaller cities into the network. This model gives you multiplier gains in the manufacturing and even in the service will improve.
Many cities have formulated their climate action plans. How’s their journey from plan to action?
They have not been effective. The core challenge of effective climate action is that of integration. A climate action plan has to be implemented by multiple city institutions that rarely coordinate. Most have limited accountability for climate action and financial flows and expected outcomes are rarely related to each other. This is the classical challenge of fragmented Indian urban governance.
In addition, our climate plans are divorced from economic development plans, which in turn have no relationship with spatial or city master plans. The urban development authority prepares a physical plan. In parallel, transportation agencies develop their mobility plans that are not linked to the city master plan or even to areas where firms are investing and creating jobs. Finally, climate institutions come in to try to retrofit their decarbonisation or adaptation plans, which need to be embedded in all these processes but land in the chaos of conflicting incentives.
How do we integrate all the city plans, policies, and missions, some of which have overlapping mandates?
It is very difficult to integrate all these plans into practice because of the urban political economy — the person capable of holding these agendas together can become very powerful. Cities generate a tremendous amount of wealth, are centres of power and are increasingly significant in the political process.
Integrated city governance calls for empowered political leadership, supported by highly competent professionals. In which city, in recent memory has a mayor become the chief minister?
How do we bring accountability to climate action?
To bring accountability, the governance, economic development, infrastructure, and planning systems of the city have to work together for the common good and not at cross-purposes in favour of special interests.
Citizens and firms pay much of India’s direct taxes and GST. But our city systems are chronically underinvested. Most municipalities are unable to even operate and maintain their services.
Successful climate action is not charismatic piecemeal solutions like painting roofs green or white, or harvesting rainwater from all roofs – even though these are useful things to do. Climate change is a systemic crisis.
Part of the solution is the devolution of power and finances to urban local bodies, and the building of a civic polity, where you can demand accountability from somebody who lives and works in your neighbourhood, rather than distant state capital or Delhi.
What about reducing consumption and demand-side management through lifestyle changes?
The challenge of limiting unsustainable consumption in urban India is a very real one. If the Indian middle class continues its current path of conspicuous consumption, it will make life miserable for itself and everybody else. India has to deliver everybody the basics — access to jobs, safe and affordable housing, water, energy, transport and at the same time we need to talk about lifestyle change, with the better off. That is part of what the government’s LIFE programme is about.
But isn’t higher consumption also aspirational?
In India, we privilege conservation as a cultural practice. The challenge is the late 20th-century idea that consumption is a driver of growth and that it’s great to consume as much as you want. This is in deep contradiction with most of our shared values and the lived reality of poverty and inequality that surrounds us.
It is through solidarity that we can address the climate question, not just through the blind application of technology. If you don’t share the benefits with me, how can you ask me to share the risks? This is a question of climate justice, not only between India and other countries but also within our cities and between our cities and villages.
We are also too invested in what we’re comfortable doing. We are now addicted to fossil fuels, which in turn have created an addiction to fossil groundwater, in many parts of the country. We are addicted to a form of development that doesn’t work for most people. And when it doesn’t work for all of us, it will not work to accelerate and deepen climate action.