Bihar has been home to one of the earliest republic and democratic models in the history and this year the state is witnessing the same ritual of a living democracy with an assembly election in October and November. This election is unique as it is being conducted in the unprecedented crisis of Covid-19 pandemic and also in a time when the state faces catastrophic impacts of climate change. Although the state has seen a commendable growth rate in the past decade, this growth can evaporate considering numerous threats posed by climate change impacts. Additionally, the public health infrastructure of the state is under severe pressure due to the COVID-19. As a corollary effect, Bihar is currently facing huge economic losses and also witnessing slowdown in the state economic growth.
Bihar is one of the most climate sensitive states of India. As per ‘National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture’ among 38 districts of the state, 36 are ‘extremely or highly’ vulnerable in terms of agriculture practices. A Vulnerability Atlas, which ranks 161 districts in the Indo-Gangetic Plain region, suggests that 16 districts from Bihar are in the Top 20 list. Climate change induced natural disasters like floods, drought and heat waves have affected every sphere of economy and seriously impacting livelihood and food security of millions of poor people in the state. The deteriorating air quality, which has intertwined relation with the phenomenon of global warming, has made Patna one of the top polluting cities in the world. Other cities like Muzaffarpur and Gaya also top the national chart with alarming levels of air pollution and subsequent public health crisis.
The State Climate Action Plan of Bihar indicates that 17.2% of India’s flood-affected areas and 22.1% of India’s flood-affected population are from Bihar. The state bears a peculiar condition wherein state endures both floods and droughts simultaneously. Almost 33% of the State receives less than 750 mm rainfall, making it vulnerable to regular spells of drought. Over the past three decades, rainy days in the state have reduced to 37-40 from the long term average of 55 days. The shrinking of rainy days has threatened the crop season and food security. A high degree of uncertainty and vulnerability in the farm sector has led to distress migration among the state’s population and this can be gauged from this fact that India’s 15% outer migration comes from Bihar.
All of these concerns have debilitating impact on socio-culture milieu of Bihar, if they are not contained properly with a farsighted approach. Our continuing reliance on the fossil fuel based economy will continue to exacerbate climate change impacts, displacement, biodiversity loss, water stress, destruction of forests, and pollutants of air, land, water and sea. The commodification of our ‘commons’ will further compromise our energy security and undermine the universal right to energy, including electricity.
Essentially Bihar needs an urgent paradigm shift from the current dominant model of development to create frameworks of human and ecological well being. This transition should be defined by the principles of sustainability, equity, and justice. The search for climate solutions should be guided by principles of the ‘Ecological Democracy’ in which citizens, including the marginalised, women, Dalit and Adivasi, are involved in the decision making process.
Bihar, therefore, needs a vision development roadmap that must include robust policy measures on Decentralised Renewable Energy (DRE) Mission, Clean Air Framework, Solarisation of Agriculture, Sustainable Urban Transport Mission, and integrated legal framework for preserving Nature’s Common and rejuvenation of traditional water bodies to revive and transform the economy in Bihar. For offsetting the impact of COVID-19, the public healthcare infrastructure in the state also needs a complete overhaul. This should be designed in such a way that it can meet criteria and standards of Indian Public Health Standards where road, communication, water, electricity access along with trained and skill medical are available for all levels of public healthcare centres. Here comes the role of DRE, which can help in ensuring electricity access and support water and digital access and transform the accessibility of health services at the last mile.
The State government’s initiative on ‘Jal-Jeevan-Hariyali Mission’ to address the impact of climate change should be aided with a legal framework and special fund to support proper operation and maintenance of present and future physical infrastructure. Climate-resilient agriculture and water management measures along with climate proofing infrastructure is crucial for Bihar to augment its production of cereals, fruits, vegetables and other cash crops and transform it to become the largest producer in the country. Bihar has ample of resources, be it natural or manpower, which can make it a frontline state in the country provided they are capitalised with a sustainable and visionary plan of action.
Bihar is poised for a much-needed transition and it urgently needs a commitment from its political parties to come out of their ideological silos and turn this opportunity into a political consensus of a green recovery from the climate crisis and fulfil the promise for the people languishing at the bottom of the pyramid.
CEO, Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED), Delhi