Slow Burn: Why India Should Be Very Afraid of Australia’s Bushfires


Slow Burn: Why India Should Be Very Afraid of Australia’s Bushfires

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Australia’s fires caused even a world partially desensitised to extreme climate events to sit up and take note. A rich country burning under blood-red skies, over a billion animals (some that are not found anywhere else) dying while a climate change-denying Prime Minister looks on, making more assurances to the coal industry than he does to people fleeing their homes — it made for a terrifying scenario.What makes it worse is that the country is not normally associated with such catastrophes. A first-world nation seeking help through donations and volunteer firefighters shows how no one is exempt from nature’s fury. Indeed, climate change bringing the world’s 13th largest economy to its collective knees must have shocked the elites who thought they would be able to buy their way out of this mess.

Before falling into the trap of thinking Australia is too far away to affect our lives in India, we’d do well to realise that what happened in Australia could very well happen here. Apart from their common love for cricket, there are some pretty disturbing parallels between the two countries.

Australia Bushfires

Fire and Rescue personnel run to move their truck as a bushfire burns next to a major road and homes on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin on December 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.

David Gray/Getty Images

There’s political denial of climate change: Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is a vociferous defender of the coal industry, once famously bringing a lump of coal to Parliament, saying “Don’t be afraid!” India — while not as openly hostile to the environment as Morrison — is still languishing. Minister of State for Environment Babul Supriyo once denied a connection between extreme weather events and climate change.

Both countries have an insatiable appetite for coal. It is Australia’s largest export, while India plans to increase its coal capacity by close to 50 percent. They are also both deeply corrupt. While the Indian story is a well-read one, Australia’s kowtowing to the coal industry has made it out of op-eds and into academic papers and even a Rolling Stone article which features our own PM’s good chum, Gautam Adani.

The Ministry of Environment is more keen to approve as many projects as possible, with scant regard for its impact.

These policy-and-people failures aside, India is precariously placed thanks to its varied topography and geography. Even in a “normal” year, we see both floods and droughts; extreme heat and biting cold; massive humidity and sapping dry heat — and we can expect all of these to be exacerbated, as it is projected there will be 1.5 million climate-related Indian deaths by the end of the century. The last few years have given us some major flash points: Floods in Mumbai, Kerala (2018), Uttarakhand (2013), Kashmir (2014) and pretty much every year in the North East. Droughts are getting worse — an IIT professor says over 50 per cent of the country faces them — and more farmers take their own lives (a 2017 study showed there were 60,000 climate-change-related suicides in India). There have been cyclones and heatwaves. If you want something closer to the Australian example, take 2019’s Bandipur forest fires, burning down over 10,000 acres (over 4,000 football fields’ worth).

To illustrate an example of an impending climate disaster, plants are growing in the Himalayas. While normally a good thing, in this case it indicates warming enough for vegetation to grow. If the Himalayas were to melt even just a little bit, the consequences could be disastrous. There would be stronger floods and landslides — as if travelling by Jeep in Uttarakhand needed to be made scarier by the addition of falling rocks! There are other ramifications too, such as fewer sediment deposits on downstream agricultural plains. Ultimately, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Nepal could see mass population displacement, and in a country where regional identities are already fraught with tension, this might not end too well.

It does not help that public and political mindspace is taken up by other issues.

Unfortunately, instead of working towards preventing this bleak scenario, our government looks like it’s doing everything it can to accelerate it.

Mumbai’s needless Coastal Road Project and continuous encroachment of green areas such as Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Forest, and Delhi’s Okhla Bird Sanctuary are examples of the “raze now worry later” attitude. The Ministry of Environment is more keen to approve as many projects as possible, with scant regard for its impact. As recently as January 18, the Ministry said clearances are not needed for gas exploration, and the SC re-allowed construction of Goa’s second airport, which was earlier stayed over environmental concerns.

It doesn’t help that we are betraying age-old customs which have dealt with nature’s problems. Around the world, there’s a correlation between abandoning indigenous practices and the actual role of fire in our ecosystems. Shreya Dasgupta, science and climate writer, elaborates. “Like in Australia,” she told me, “indigenous groups in India have historically used low-intensity, carefully lit controlled fires to manage forests and grasslands during dry seasons. But with colonial rule, fires were seen as a problem and that mindset of forest fire suppression continues. This has led to bigger, wilder fires.”

It does not help that public and political mindspace is taken up by other issues. In fact, with the budget coming up and FDI going down, it’s likely that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will try to give the impression that India is infra-friendly by proposing more projects, and the Ministry of Environment will only be too happy to comply. This is not surprising, as many in India don’t really care about climate change. Only 29 per cent of the country perceives global warming as a serious threat, the 18th worst ranking in the world. No political party manifesto for 2019 included climate change. Given how this is an issue that’s unlikely to translate to votes, it’s easy to see why parties focus on other galvanising issues like *sigh* temples and statues.

All in all, it looks ripe for an environmental disaster. Even if we don’t have a flashpoint like the bushfires, a slow burn would prove just as catastrophic.

It was often joked during India-Australia cricket matches that the team in a rut would often need something VVS (“Very Very Special”). Well, India definitely needs something VVS right now if it is to avert a climate catastrophe on the scale of what we’ve just seen Down Under.