In the wake of Independence, India’s Constitution was an aspirational and audacious commitment to each citizen that held both people and the state to a high standard. Despite deep social divisions and abysmally low rates of literacy, life expectancy and nutrition, the Constituent Assembly developed a social contract that emphasised dignity and well-being for all Indians.
Over the last seven decades, India has made distinct progress, but many core development challenges persist and we are yet to fulfil our constitutional promise. Climate change will only exacerbate existing inequalities through a range of cascading and coinciding crises that devastate the poor, marginalised and vulnerable. This Republic Day, it is worth remembering lessons from our Constitution as we prepare to tackle the biggest crisis that looms over India and the world. In our constitutional commitment to human rights, we also have a charter for climate action.
In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, B R Ambedkar famously asked what Indians must do “if we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact”. In his view, it was essential “not to be content with mere political democracy” but to strive for social democracy as well. Ambedkar believed that we needed empowering, equitable and inclusive principles to govern our relationships with each other and the state.
These words from the Preamble — justice, liberty, equality and fraternity — serve as both hopeful and solemn reminders of the daunting path to achieving social democracy, especially in a warming world. We know that climate change is profoundly unjust, that it will increasingly impinge upon our freedom of movement, and that it could deny equality of status and opportunity to millions of disadvantaged citizens like the forest-dwelling communities who have contributed least to the crisis and yet stand to be hit the hardest. The evidence is clear that unless we rapidly move to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, vast swathes of India could be inhospitable due to floods, droughts, heatwaves and increasingly erratic and unpredictable monsoon rains. The pandemic has provided a mere snapshot of how health and financial systems could be completely overwhelmed by climate impacts.
In order to tackle these challenges, fraternity or bandhuta, the more holistic and less gendered word used in the Hindi language Constitution, is a reminder of how Indians must embrace their interconnectedness. This is something we so easily forget when we buy into the divisive narratives of difference that make us fall apart, and so easily remember when disaster and tragedy unite us into falling together. Bandhuta can particularly serve as a call to action for the powerful to direct their resources towards shaping India’s response to climate change and “assuring the dignity of the individual”, as framed in the Preamble. Indian business and philanthropy can play a key role in building resilience by encouraging innovation, complementing the role of the state, and securing citizens’ legislated rights. Climate philanthropy can help develop and pilot new solutions and inspire ambitious political action. This is crucial in the narrow window available in the wake of the pandemic during which India can build a green and just transition. A plethora of opportunities are currently on the margins but could become mainstream drivers for the three key pillars of jobs, growth and sustainability.
A distinctly Indian, climate-friendly development paradigm powered by clean energy could play an integral role in fostering social and economic justice by uplifting millions of Indians. Imagine rural livelihoods supported by clean-energy appliances such as grain crushers and cold chains that build decentralised access to electricity, reduce drudgery and foster entrepreneurship. Envision pilot projects with urban bodies to create local area plans that develop more habitable cities with renewable energy-driven public transportation, more pedestrian access and rejuvenation of green spaces and water bodies. Picture how Indian businesses can become more competitive for investment, spur innovation and nudge a more conducive regulatory environment through adopting renewable energy.
Our nation’s welfare depends on healing the broken relationship between a broken economy and a broken ecology. We must equip and encourage people to think about the future, as well as the privations of the present. As the Centre for Policy Research’s Shibani Ghosh explains, the right to life enshrined in Article 21 is increasingly interpreted as a right to environment. When this is read together with Articles 48A and 51A(g), there is a clear constitutional mandate to protect the environment that will only grow more important in the coming decades for citizens and the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Central to these considerations is the need for a uniquely Indian climate narrative, one that is both by and for Indians. On January 26, 1950, when the Constitution came into effect, India stepped out of the shadow of the empire to become an independent republic with power held by its own citizens and elected representatives. Seventy-one years later, India can build its own pathway out of the pandemic to become a climate leader aiming to secure a future where both people and nature can thrive. Much of this work can be rooted in the constitutional framework that binds together millions of Indians despite their myriad differences — a framework that is progressive in scope and ambitious in vision.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 27, 2021 under the title ‘The right to life, and environment’. Nath and Patel are executive director and engagement consultant respectively, India Climate Collaborative