Independent Newspaper On Global Warming and Indian Farmer Suicides – An Examination of the Facts

The Independent newspaper blames global warming for Indian farmer suicides, but Indian Environmental Agency blames “government involvement” that discouraged traditional methods of water collection.

Here’s an interesting look at how Western newspapers pin any natural disaster or weather pattern on global warming, even when the government and environmental agencies of the area affected says something entirely different.

The Independent newspaper (UK) has an article entitled “India’s Hidden Climate Change Catastrophe” that details how global warming has caused a drought that is leading to poor farmers committing suicide. The article notes that there is no proof that global warming is to blame:

It is widely agreed that there have been radical shifts in the weather patterns in India in the past two decades; what is less certain are the causes. Is the change in the weather “climate change”?

It quotes a Dr Surjit Singh at the Rajasthan Institute of Development Studies:

But at Rajasthan’s Institute of Development Studies, Surjit Singh believes the calamitous weather shifts are as much to do with changing patterns of farming, growing population and failed government policies as any greater human-induced change to the climate. “The state has failed the rural poor, and so has the private sector. Economic liberalisation has clearly failed. How long can the boom go on? The economy may be growing at 9 per cent but food-price inflation is running at 16 to 18 per cent.”

Dr Singh is in no doubt, though, that the changes in weather have increased poverty in rural India – and that there lies a huge injustice. “Climate change puts the onus on the poor to adapt – but that’s wrong. Who is using the planes, the cars and the plastic bottles? Not the poor man with no drinking water.”

This struck me as a quite big leap to make – from commenting on the effect economic policies have, to condemning people who drive a car or occasionally use a plane for causing global warming and therefore the suicides. So I looked up Dr Surjit Singh at the Rajasthan Institute of Development Studies. Here’s his entry at the Academic Foundation wesbite:

Surjit Singh is a Professor of Economics at the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. He has a Ph.D in Economics from Gujarat University through Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, Ahmedabad. His areas of interest are economic policies, labour markets and rural financial sector.

Dr Singh is clearly qualified to speak on the economics of India, though whether or not we agree with his findings is another matter.

But clearly he is not qualified to talk about the effects or otherwise of man-made global warming. The article does not offer any other evidence or cite any papers or experts linking the drought to global warming, so how does it justify its headline that suicide by Indian farmers is “India’s Hidden Climate Change Catastrophe”? It can’t, obviously.

Reading the article, it is clear that Dr Singh’s comments are the sole justification for the headline “India’s Hidden Climate Change Catastrophe”. Other than that, there is nothing to justify such an outrageous claim, as the article itself acknowledges that the causes of poverty and despair amongst India’s farmers are complex.

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There is, however, one place The Independent could have gone to quite easily for information on this issue – The India Environmental Portal [IEP]:

The India Environment Portal is initiated and managed by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) promoted by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), Government of India.

However, quoting the IEP would have put quite a different gloss on the subject. Here’s their position on why the situation is so dire: the IEP notes that low rainfall is part of the problem, but then goes on to identify why the situation is particularly bad right now. It blames the recent reliance on state-funded wells which have been drilled in numerous places, and subsequently letting rainwater collection infrastructure decay and fall into disuse:

All this is very ironical because Bundelkhand has a rich history of tanks and other traditional water harvesting structures. In fact, even now many people in the region depend on tanks for irrigation. But experts say that government involvement in maintenance of tanks and other rainwater harvesting structure has eroded the sense of community ownership.

Experts and NGO’s have documented the shift in water collection that has occurred as a result of government intervention, and point to a far more complex scenario regarding the plight of India’s farmers:

Studies conducted by NGO’s and other agencies indicate that in the last 20 years, canals and tube wells have become the predominant sources of irrigation in Bundelkhand. “Most of the traditional structures have fallen into disrepair or have completely been destroyed,’ according to a study by the New Delhi-based NGO, Development Alternatives, ‘Developing water sustaining livelihoods’.

A study on traditional and modern water resources systems conducted across 60 villages in the up[per] part of Bundelkhand reveals that more than 54 per cent of wells are in unserviceable condition and more than 50 per cent of ponds have dried up (see table: Dry repositories). The study was conducted by Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (casa) and Jan Kendrit Vikas Manch—a network of NGO’s in Bundelkhand. “Indiscriminate felling of trees, over exploitation of groundwater, excessive chemical fertiliser use, soil erosion, low groundwater table and scanty rainfall contribute to the drought situation in Bundelkhand,’ the study says.

In fact, as the IEP points out, if this traditional method had been allowed to continue, rather than the government stepping in to help by sinking wells everywhere, the outcome might have been very different. Traditional ponds, tanks and other water collection facilities, which were in use before the Government stepped in, could have prevented this whole situation:

But there is some hope. The Bhasonda gram panchayat in Chitrakoot district has been waiting eagerly for the monsoon to set in. Digging and widening of two ponds—Debi talab and Thwela—have been finished under nrega. If the monsoon sets in on time, it would serve close to 5,000 people.

Ponds like this can solve Bundelkhand’s problems. Parmarth’s study on traditional water resources noted that Jalaun’s water problems can be solved if only 3 per cent of the district’s rainwater harvesting potential is tapped. Given nrega’s focus on water conservation, this is highly attainable and drought completely avoidable.

So rather than the suicides being simply “India’s hidden climate change Catastrophe” they are the result of a complex series of natural events compounded by mismanagement and neglect.

So why didn’t The Independent newspaper even refer to this? Could it be because the opportunity to pin the tragedy on Western lifestyles was too good to miss? Remember the quote from the article: “Who is using the planes, the cars and the plastic bottles? Not the poor man with no drinking water”.

As Rahm Emmanuel once said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste”. Seems The Independent learnt that lesson a long time ago.

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