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Story Publication logo December 21, 2023

Why Local Initiatives May Be Key to Climate Change Adaptation


a woman walks along a shoreline, India

Forests account for 24 percent of India’s total geographical area, home to Indigenous people and...


The Birjias are a particularly vulnerable tribal group living in Jharkhand’s Netarhat hills. Increasing temperatures and failing rains have pushed many to migrate in search of work. Women from the community have to walk long distances to fetch water. Image by Sushmita. India.

Adaptation plans at national and state levels ignore communities most affected by climate change, but evidence from Jharkhand suggests the way forward is ground-up

RANCHI, India — Dadichapar, nestled in the Netarhat hills in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, is a small village housing about 35 families belonging to the Birjia tribe, one of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups in India. The region is idyllic, with rolling hills covered in clouds and surrounded by dense forests.

Access to the village—30 km away from Latehar city—is via a rocky and winding road, several kilometres away from the main road. As I navigate it and reach Dadichapar, the villagers are coming back from work in fields, in forests and their homes. It is 12.30 p.m. on a hot July day. People gather around, squatting on the ground as I chat with Nirmal Telra, who in the absence of physical records guesses his age to be around 60-65 years.

Telra lives with his family in the village and worries about the extreme heat and lack of rainfall in the region. The state received a cumulative rainfall (seasonal rainfall between June-August 2023) of 502.3 mm against normal rainfall of 798.8 mm. “We don’t have water to drink, the nearby river has dried up. And no water pipelines have reached here,” Telra says.

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The absence of a pucca road has meant a literal disconnect from various schemes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)—the world’s largest make-work programme—or the Public Distribution System (PDS). The nearest fair-price shop is 2 km away, but while some of them do not have ration cards, those who do also do not receive grains regularly.

“We don’t get to know about the schemes [for drought relief or otherwise]," he says. "We are not sure about NREGA works in the area. We don’t collect forest produce in large quantities, so we aren’t able to sell what we collect.” The little forest produce that they do collect is sold at distress rates to buy daily-use items such as soaps.

These hills are the only places where Birjias reside; their numbers are few—6,276 as per 2011 census. They were expert makers of steel before the colonisation of India. Their method of metal extraction—procuring charcoal from Sal trees and using it to smelt iron ore—supposedly yielded rust-free iron. This method was criminalised during the British period.

Sal trees had been central to life in the Netarhat hills, which are also home to other communities. Father George Monipally, who has been working on land and forest rights in the region for decades, says, “Not only was traditional smelting criminalised during the British period, but also their methods of production were replicated.” This was also true for other communities residing in the area, such as the Asurs.

Traditionally, Birjias moved from one village and one forest to another without ever permanently leaving their habitats. When time came to marry, they found their partners from families in nearby homes. They depended almost entirely on the forests for all their needs. However, colonial rule had a drastic impact on their lifestyle. Many were forced to choose a settled lifestyle, relying on the nearby forests for their survival.

Now, climate change is making that difficult. There is a lack of water sources. The nearby perennial rivers--the Duaria and the Sirom—dry up by January and March respectively, every year, and women spend hours walking in the heat to fetch water. Forty-year-old Germena Telra migrated from the village for the first time in 2022 and went close to a thousand kilometres south-west to Hyderabad to work as a daily wage labourer. Germena Telra says that men receive Rs 450 per day for their labour, while women only receive Rs 350.

In these villages, climate change is a complex mesh of many factors. Long months and years of no rains, and lack of government support or intervention, has pushed them to the brink of precarity. An analysis of data in the Jharkhand State Action Plan for the years 1956-2008 found that the average rainfall did not follow a range. The decade 1991 to 2000 received the maximum rain (1,623.5 mm, on average), whereas the minimum was during 1956-1960. In contrast to the observed trend during 1956-2000, the period 2001-08 saw a decline in annual rainfall. The state witnessed severe droughts post 2000.

Another study, by researchers from the Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi and Central University of Jharkhand, published in April 2018 noted the increasing trend of maximum temperature during the summer months for the period 1984-2014.

Figure: Overall average seasonal trends in Jharkhand during 1984–2014 (a) average seasonal trend of maximum temperature during summer season (b) average seasonal trend of minimum temperature during winter season (c) average seasonal trend of cumulative rainfall during monsoon season (d) average seasonal trend of solar radiation during kharif season (e) average seasonal trend of solar radiation during rabi season. Source: Image courtesy of IndiaSpend.

This showed several parts of the Latehar district severely affected by high temperatures during summer months.

High temperatures have affected the village dwellers who depend on agriculture, though that is a recent phenomenon in the region. A combination of agricultural and forest produce—grains (dhaan), corn (makai), wheat, mahua, little millet (gondli), barnyard millet (saanva), bajra, etc.—is grown and collected, and is used essentially for subsistence. Nirmal Telra pointed out that this would’ve been the right time to declare a drought in the region.

Over the years, the process of declaring droughts has become increasingly complex, with several parameters weighing in. Apart from deviation from normal rainfall, district officials are required to collect data from the ground about the area on which crop would be sown, crop condition, soil moisture levels and level of water in storage structures. Drought is declared and funds for relief released only when three or four of these parameters match the prescribed threshold. “Nobody comes to our villages, how will they conduct surveys?” asks Nirmal Telra.

The process of declaring droughts has become increasingly complex. “Nobody comes to our villages, how will they conduct surveys?” asks Nirmal Telra. Image by Sushmita. India.

People and communities adapt to changing climatic conditions in their own ways, but "it is important to look at state policies directed towards adaptation”, says Kundan Kumar, Bousfield Distinguished Visitor of Planning at the University of Toronto, who has worked on issues of environmental and climate justice. "What are the resources, actors at play, the scientific principles behind them, etc.”

Kumar says adaptation can be tricky and variable. "Specifically, in the context of forests, how do people connect with food and forest products, how do people adapt to high temperatures and heat waves? People experience heat waves while they are collecting forest products, too, as the collection season is during summers.

“It has to be seen that in the rural context, what are the adaptation measures that are planned in terms of risk reduction, increasing resilience, short and long term risks, etc. For instance, are the drought-prone areas being provided with water supply tanks? Are irrigation facilities being improvised? How have the adaptation policies manifested on the ground?” Kumar, who has researched and advocated for climate and ecological justice for communities, asks.

Evidence of adaptation measures from India suggests that people have used various measures locally, from construction of smaller check dams using locally sourced raw materials, to protection of forests from the timber mafia, and more. A collective approach has helped make sense of climate change adaptation.

Mainstreaming climate change adaptation

The United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific’s Risk and Resilience Portal estimates India’s annualised average loss (AAL) at 5.9% of the GDP for baseline scenarios, and at 6% for temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Within this, droughts account for an average loss of $72 billion or 2.8% of GDP. The cost of adapting to these hazards was estimated at $29 billion or 1.1% of the GDP.

In 2011, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNDP-UNEP) published a guide for mainstreaming climate adaptation into development planning. The framework necessitates the understanding of the connections between climate change and national developmental priorities, and includes governmental, institutional and political contexts and needs.

It says that such efforts have to be based on country—or region—and local-specific evidence, including impact, vulnerability and adaptation assessments, socio-economic analysis, and demonstration projects. This becomes important for states like Jharkhand with a high degree of climate variability, vulnerability, and with varying and diverse forest and soil types.

Three levels of intervention (Defining Levels of Intervention in Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation). Image courtesy of IndiaSpend.

The publication defines mainstreaming climate change adaptation as the ongoing process of feeding in climate change adaptation considerations into policy making, budgeting, implementation and monitoring processes at national, sectoral and subnational levels. It is a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort grounded in the contribution of climate change adaptation to human wellbeing, pro-poor economic growth, and achievement of development goals.

It entails working with a range of governmental and non-governmental actors. Despite this knowledge, there is sparse documentation of how communities are adapting to climate change locally, especially once they have ownership rights over the lands on which they reside or work.

Thirteen ministries along with the NITI Ayog were represented in the Apex Committee constituted in 2020 to assess the fulfilment of India's Nationally Determined Contributions—but the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal ministry responsible for the welfare of Adivasi and forest communities, was not one of them.

Mobilisation to tackle drought and oppose big dams

In Jharkhand’s Palamu district, a drought in 1994 led people to mull over the solutions for climate change and organise around creating sustainable local solutions. The region depends on perennial rivers that are fed by rains. Scanty and uneven rainfall impact the water supply, and this led to the locals organising dam-building exercises.

“During the year 1993-94, as Palamu, in undivided Bihar, was experiencing droughts, the then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao visited the area, after which a meeting was called by the District Collector at the time, Santhosh Mathew, to strategize to tackle drought,” James Herenj, the state convenor of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha—a national platform of workers, trade unions, organisations and people engaged in implementing the rural employment guarantee scheme—says, referring to the drought in the region that claimed 200 lives.

At that time, people were agitating against big dams, and the slogan was “Bade bandh nahin chhote bandh" ("We want small dams, not big dams"). Herenj says the administration decided that it won’t stand in the way of the campaign, and instead involved civil society and others who were technically sound. This allowed people to take ownership of their lands and involved them in sustainable local solutions like the building of smaller dams.

The people contributed both money and labour (shramdaan) towards the effort, says Jitendra Singh, a local activist. “We didn’t let the Aurangabad dam get constructed; instead we focused on the local and traditional irrigation sources such as wells, smaller check dams, ponds," Singh told IndiaSpend.

“Our traditional dams and systems are robust and don’t cause displacement en masse, unlike large dams," Singh said. "During the 1966-68 droughts, people relied on the forests to fulfil their needs. People would combine their resources and exchange the forest produce as well as small scale crops [that they grew on the lands they tilled]. If a person or family didn’t get any produce, they would be lent food grains and other stuff and they would return the same when they experienced a good harvest.”

Relevance of State Action Plans

India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change formulated in 2008 and updated in 2021 recognised the role of state and local governments in the implementation of plans to deal with climate change. Sub-national authorities at state level are expected to play a key role in actively incorporating climate change considerations into day-to-day governance, adopting climate-friendly policies and programmes, regulations, and investment decisions.

A process for the preparation of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs) was initiated following the announcement made by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the conference of state environment ministers held on August 18, 2009. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) approached all state governments and Union territories (UTs) to formulate SAPCCs.

To this extent, the Jharkhand state action plan said that the change in precipitation and temperature—a major component of the changing climate in the state—will reflect in the economic performance of the sectors. It said, “…. The agriculture [sic] productivity will decrease in the state as the temperature rises. Also, the incidences of pests and other crop diseases will be on the rise. And since most of the agriculture in the state is rain-fed, in absence of a robust irrigation infrastructure the state’s agriculture production will go down over time. Water woes will increase over time, already marred with water stress, climate change will trigger demand for water for agriculture, domestic and industrial sector adding to the stress on the water resources of the state.”

To combat this, the plan suggested that the state will have to adopt a two-pronged approach that would combine adapting to climate change as well as controlling its emissions. It says, “Actions will be required to help the state adapt to climate change to a certain degree and efforts will have to be made to reduce the GHG emissions from anthropogenic activities.”

To this extent, the plan emphasises that “the state will have to invest heavily to safeguard the welfare interests of the population, especially tribals who suffer from acute poverty. Ensuring adequate and quality water and food will become the priority of the state as due to stress on stock and flow of natural resources (water, agriculture, forestry) supplies of critical inputs to economy will dwindle.”

State action plans are being designed to “... secure resources from specific economic sectors,” says policy researcher Kanchi Kohli. For instance, “climate finance is looking to support carbon offsets, automobile technology, i.e. electric vehicles, and energy transition projects.”

“It is important for these state action plans to gradually also bring to the table different concerns and understanding of the climate change discourse," Kohli argues. "One such constituency is the poor and marginalised communities in both urban and rural areas, who are most vulnerable to climate-induced disasters or erratic weather events such as heat waves, cyclones, or cloudbursts.”

Kohli says that many government departments are beginning to recognise the need to integrate climate change into the framework of schemes that can channelise human and financial resources for climate adaptation. “This is true for tribal areas as well. This is particularly true for disaster management and forestry-related initiatives.”

Kohli points out that trends also indicate that the budget for government-aided programmes has always been limited and has become more challenged. “The financial support is coming either from multilateral aid agencies or through CSR-like initiatives. The Sustainable Development Goals require governments to integrate existing schemes to the international goals, several of which are directly relevant to addressing climate vulnerabilities. It will be useful to understand and analyse state and central level mapping of schemes with specific goals,” Kohli says.

While discussions around climate change mitigation abound in the form of plantation initiatives, a systematic look into climate change adaptation policies and schemes is overdue, she argues.

Fund crunch and non-functional schemes

An analysis done by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based independent research group that provides information on the working of the Indian Parliament, points out that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC)--nodal ministry to tackle and lead on climate change reparations--hasn’t utilised the funds allocated to it for reasons of administrative and procedural delays.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests (2016) noted that this shows lack of planning and foresightedness on the part of the Ministry, and pointed out that such underutilisation of funds may affect the progress of schemes and programmes.

Figure: Utilisation of Funds by India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Image courtesy of IndiaSpend.

According to the Ministry of Finance (2020), the overall budget required for India to adapt to climate change by 2030 is expected to be around Rs 86 lakh crore (at 2012 base prices).

However, evidence from the ground suggests that adapting to climate change locally has been possible in the past, and requires more planning and the involvement of local stakeholders, especially communities, directly.

To address the local adaptation needs of the people, many issues need to be addressed: states asking for immediate disaster relief and related funds for climate events such as droughts, extreme rainfall, floods, etc; the process of declaring droughts; the underutilisation of funds already provided to the ministry; the absence of inclusion of local representation in statutory bodies; and adaptation planning centered around the idea of rights over customary lands, so that people can plan their own immediate and long term responses. Such plans are also likely to be low budget, Herenj points out.

The Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests (2022), while noting a vast difference in the demand and budgetary allocation to the Green India Mission, also observed that the mission converged with India’s national employment guarantee scheme, as 60% of the allocated funds from the mission go for rural wage employment (MGNREGS).

It said that the effect of the reduction may directly impact the wages guaranteed under the scheme. On the other hand, the state of implementation of MGNREGS despite advocacy from groups, remains less than satisfactory.

IndiaSpend reached out to the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of Jharkhand seeking comment on the status of MGNREGS and concerns over under-utilisation of funds. We will update this story when we receive a response.

In 2015, the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change (NAFCC) was established to meet the costs of adaptation to climate change for those states and Union territories particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. However, this fund too has seen drastic cuts. In 2017-18, while there was a total allocation of Rs 115.36 crore, the funding came down to Rs 34 crore in 2022-23.

Drawing from the State Action Plans on Climate Change and the relevant missions under NAPCC, the fund was meant to prioritise needs in the areas vulnerable to climate change. The NABARD—National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development—was identified as the implementing agency for this fund.

Under this fund, several projects were to be executed in different states. In Jharkhand, a project entitled “Enhancing Climate Resilience of Forests and its Dependent Communities in Two Landscapes in Jharkhand” was to be carried out in the Ramgarh and Jamtara districts, with the Department of Forest being the implementing agency. But the relationship of the forest department with the people has remained a strained one, points out Father George Monipally.

In 2023-24, the NAFCC, along with funds for the Climate Change Action Plan and some others, was discontinued. IndiaSpend has also reached out to the joint secretary of the MoEFCC through phone and email for comment on the discontinuation of both the funds crucial for adaptation measures for states like Jharkhand. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Local climate change adaptation measures

Kumar argues that building people's capacities and tenurial security over the land is an important measure towards climate change adaptation. To this end, Herenj says that the example of how communities mobilised in the Bariyatu region is evidence of the local climate change adaptation measures that may succeed given adequate support from the government.

Around 2011, the people of Bariyatu village, Manika district, had a detailed discussion with District Collector Rahul Purwar about an irrigation utility that will also contribute to a tangible and long-term solution. The plan was that the people would use the water flowing through the Bhusariya naala to irrigate their fields and would dig naalas of 2 km length. They carried out the operation using their traditional knowledge.

The villagers had been advocating for financial help from various departments including the minor irrigation department, forest department and others. Purwar spoke to the technical consultants and asked them to prepare a detailed assessment of the area by doing a ground-truthing exercise.

Image courtesy of IndiaSpend.

“It is well known that such verbal assurances have not worked in government departments, and hence the proposal remained on hold in the minor irrigation department for about one and half years,” Herenj adds.

The NREGA Sahayata Kendra, of which Herenj is a part, kept following up on this issue in every meeting. As a result, the minor irrigation department prepared a detailed technical report and handed it over to the district administration for financial assistance. After discussions, an assistance of Rs 49 lakh was provided by the district administration, Herenj says.

Around 40-45 workers, many of whom belonged to the villages, worked on the dam project for months. The 40-feet check dam constructed in Hesatu village of the Donki Panchayat has become a source of irrigation for several nearby villages. “Check dam was created which still has water, and almost 200 acres of land is being irrigated without any motor or any other irrigation system; the river has been diverted to take it towards the fields,” Herenj said.

“There is a policy gap in the understanding of the government about what climate action would mean," Herenj points out. "Climate action does not just mean planting trees, but also involves supporting communities in local initiatives.”


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