Does Chennai need a climate action plan?

What can Chennai do to mitigate the impact of climate change? How can Chennaiites be involved in formulating a plan for action?

With catastrophic rains and severe drought having become a recurrent feature in the recent history of the city, it is time to take climate change and its effects seriously. Chennai needs a comprehensive climate action plan for a holistic approach to preparedness and mitigation. Cities like Mumbai taking the lead show the need for climate action now.

While a state-level action plan has been prepared, what actions specific to Chennai could help combat the effects of climate change?

Citizen Matters hosted a tweet chat with experts to understand what a climate action plan for Chennai could look like and what must be considered during its formulation.

A wide range of responses on the way forward for the city was put forth by Nityanand Jayaraman of Vettiver Collective, Anjana Vencatesan of Care Earth Trust, Karthik Gunasekar of Chennai Climate Action Group and M Vetri Selvan of Poovulagin Nanbargal.

Citizen Matters climate action tweet chat poster
The tweet chat brought together various experts. Pic: Citizen Matters

Thrust areas for climate action in Chennai

In the discussion around the key focus areas that a city-level climate action plan should rest on, land use came up as a key factor to be considered. Both Nityanand and Karthik were of the view that land use must be planned in a manner that improves the quality of land, reduces inequality, mitigate emissions and aids in flood and water crisis management. Sustainable land use could help Chennai deal with its multiple stressors – heat, sea-level rise, drought, cyclonic storms and intense rains.

Karthik also added that the drivers of an action plan must take into account formulation of a suitable solid waste management plan and a plan for daily wage workers to protect from heat waves.

Anjana, however, was of the view that evolving vertical thrust areas for climate action might lead to some issues being neglected. She added that instead, climate action should be coded horizontally across existing sectors.

Vetri Selvan said that the starting point for any plan should be a vulnerability assessment of Chennai which includes themes of climate justice, decentralization, community-based production and conservation of eco-spaces.

Stakeholders of Chennai climate action

On who should own the climate action plan, Nityanand asked, “What would a city’s climate plan look like if fishers, slum-dwellers, hawkers, vendors, public transport users and other citizens were roped into the consultations? What if real estate lobby, financial institutions & investors are asked to listen for a change?”

Anjana echoed the sentiment adding that discussions around the environment in Chennai is restricted to closed circles. “No plan on mitigation and adaptation can go forward without engaging with communities. Chennai’s climate action should be centered on climate justice. A starting point for that has to be passing the mic. We then prioritize the most vulnerable for adaptation action.”

Vetri Selvan added that a sound plan will take into consideration the views of the experts and the communities. The act of listening is key to the formulation of plan in a democratic manner.

Karthik batted for the inclusion of locals at the planning stage, stating that expertise is not limited to formal education and scientist and called for taking into account the socio-cultural wisdom of local communities.


Read more: More rainy days, more rainfall: CSTEP report predicts climate change impact on Chennai


Structural changes that are necessary

An actionable plan on climate will necessitate changes to be made to governance structures as they stand.

Anjana called attention to the various agencies and departments that need to account for climate action. “As it stands we have multiple government department jurisdictions, various line departments, external institutional expertise like World Bank, Civil Society Organisations and initiatives such as Smart City, Resilient Cities and Singara Chennai”. Emphasis should be laid on accountability for each of these on what they achieve and the convergence of all to ensure there is no duplication of efforts. A climate action plan cannot be mutually exclusive.

Karthik, Vetri Selvan and Nityanand also spoke about the required focus on decentralisation. Karthik said, “Local governance structures must be strengthened and area sabhas should be organised. Committees and forums such as the Local Environment Appraisal Committee in industrial areas, Chennai Food Policy Council and Disaster Management Council must be instituted at the city-level.”

For climate action to succeed, Nityanand said, “The city must revisit its addiction to growth, market-based interventions as solutions and to its ever-increasing and lopsided consumption and focus, instead, on redistribution and reduction of inequality.”

Role of Chennaiites in climate action

A unanimous view was that there is no effective action without the involvement of residents. Vetri Selvan said, “Civil society and state instruments have equal play in democracy. Hence policy must be formulated in such a way where large number of people are able to participate. An adequate number of public consultations must be done for formulating climate policies.”

Critiquing current climate solutions on offer, Nityanand said “The city’s current river restoration plans are racist and environmentally fraught. There is more investment in damaging environment and worsening inequality than there is in saving it. Citizens who wish to be active need to develop an ability to think critically. It is not about doing Miyawaki forests and bicycle lanes, but about who all are included/excluded in the process.”

Karthik called for citizens to be aware of both their rights and their responsibilities and for their engagement on issues of climate beyond personal gain.

Anjana decried the popular discourse that lays greater emphasis on the responsibilities and choices of individuals over systemic change. She said, “Lifestyle changes push a individualistic approach to climate action while distracting from larger, more destructive issues. Participation should be political and at a community mobilisation level. This has the potential to achieve more.”


Read more: Why Chennai needs to put its ‘heat action plan’ to practice right away


Lessons for Chennai

Whether the actions of other cities on tackling climate change could provide learnings for Chennai depends on their context. Anjana said, “Chennai has had a history of citing mostly Western cities with no similarities as a model to be followed. The key would be to take learnings from the efforts but then to find inspiration here and adapt to local conditions.”

While Vetri Selvan cited the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP) as an example, Nityanand expressed scepticism on the thoroughness and inclusivity of the MCAP. He added, ” We need best practice for global economy that does not loot earth, enslave people or rob future generations. Many are working on city action plans. We need volunteers to work on the more difficult and real questions too.”

Karthik warned of settling for small gains by looking to other models. He said, “Incremental actions will have short-term benefits and not enough to protect us from climate change.”

[Follow the complete discussion here.]

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