Cold re­cep­tion

In­dia's poli­cies on wa­ter, en­vi­ron­ment and se­cu­rity, all im­pacted by glaciers, have pass­ing ref­er­ences to them

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY - The writer has done the story as a part of the CMS-IHCAP fel­low­ship

Science, in gen­eral, finds its value in ap­pli­ca­tion. Glaciol­ogy is no dif­fer­ent. Yet more than a gen­er­a­tion af­ter In­dia’s Department of Science and Tech­nol­ogy first in­volved itself in glacier re­search in the early 1990s, ap­pli­ca­tions of glacier re­search are a strik­ing miss in In­dia’s de­vel­op­men­tal plans. In­dia’s poli­cies on wa­ter, en­vi­ron­ment and se­cu­rity, all im­pacted by glaciers, have barely moved be­yond pass­ing ref­er­ences to glaciers.

“For a long time, glaciers were ne­glected be­cause we did not see much as we were wor­ried only about the wa­ter in the rivers,” says Ra­manathan of jnu. Suba Chan­dran, di­rec­tor, Cen­tre for In­ter­nal and Re­gional Se­cu­rity, the In­sti­tute of Peace and Con­flict Stud­ies, says glaciers do not fea­ture in in­ter­na­tional treaties or ne­go­ti­a­tions even though they “will likely have an im­pact on dis­charge and wa­ter bud­gets. Agree­ments rather focus on wa­ter that is al­ready flow­ing”.

Dif­fi­cult find­ings

The Na­tional Cli­mate Change Ac­tion Plan, sub­mit­ted in 2008, was the first pol­icy doc­u­ment that recog­nised the need to in­cor­po­rate glaciers into wa­ter bud­get­ing and pol­icy. But nine years down the line, re­search in the sub­ject is still dis­parate and dis­jointed, say ex­perts. In­cred­i­bly, even the num­ber of glaciers, the to­tal area they cover, and the to­tal vol­ume of wa­ter stored in them re­mains clouded in un­cer­tainty. Take two of the most ex­ten­sive mon­i­tor­ing ex­er­cises of the In­dian Hi­malayas for in­stance. A 2014 re­port pub­lished by the In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (isro) says that be­tween 2001 and 2011, the Hi­malayas lost 0.2 per cent of its glaciers. An­other study, pub­lished in the same year, by the Di­wecha Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change es­ti­mates that in 40 years the Hi­malayas had lost about 13 per cent of its glaciers, equiv­a­lent to about 443 billion tonnes of ice. The re­port esti-

mates glacier re­treat to be be­tween a few me­tres to over 60 me­tres per year at dif­fer­ent parts of the range. On the same mat­ter, the then en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter late Anil Mad­hav Dave quoted a rate be­tween five and 20 me­tres. Cur­rently, at least a dozen In­dian in­sti­tu­tions are study­ing glacier be­hav­iour.

Low on funds

“Glaciol­ogy is a slow mov­ing science and re­quires long-term con­cen­trated ef­forts. What is re­quired is to move be­yond a univer­sity-led project ap­proach and to­wards a uni­fied ap­proach by set­ting up a cen­tralised body that can man­age and com­pile stan­dard­ised re­search per­tain­ing to Hi­malayan glaciers. Un­for­tu­nately, at­tempts to es­tab­lish such a na­tional cen­tre in the past have fallen flat,” says Anil Kulkarni, who car­ried out the re­search at the Di­wecha Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change.

He is re­fer­ring to the now-strug­gling Cen­tre for Glaciol­ogy (cfg), which was an­nounced in 2009 as a re­ac­tion to the 2007 In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (ipcc) as­sess­ment that the Hi­malayas would be de­void of glacier cover by 2035. In fact, the ipcc as­sess­ment, which was later found to be wrong, served in gal­vanis­ing both the sci­en­tific and po­lit­i­cal voices in In­dia. “The gov­ern­ment de­cided to set up the au­ton­o­mous in­sti­tute in Mus­sourie with a sep­a­rate build­ing and staff strength of 80 ex­perts in glaciol­ogy. De­spite sev­eral at­tempts, we hit a brick wall ev­ery time,” says Anil Gupta, the then di­rec­tor of the Wa­dia In­sti­tute for Hi­malayan Ge­ol­ogy (wihg), which cur­rently houses cfg. Even the 12th Five-Year Plan in­cluded a de­tailed plan to es­tab­lish the glaciol­ogy cen­tre in Ut­tarak­hand by 2013 with re­gional cen­tres in Hi­machal Pradesh, Sikkim and Jammu and Kash­mir. Eight years since the plan was first put on pa­per, the vi­sion to set up a na­tional cen­tre has all but dis­si­pated. cfg, far from oc­cu­py­ing its own build­ing, re­mains an an­nex­ure of wihg. In­stead of 80 staff mem­bers, it cur­rently em­ploys just 19 peo­ple, in­clud­ing PhD re­searchers. “The hope of set­ting up a na­tional hub for re­search seems to have now been put on the back burner. The ini­tial en­thu­si­asm wore off in a few years,” says D P Dob­hal, di­rec­tor of the cen­tre at wihg. The glaciol­ogy cen­tre has now com­pleted the ini­tial pe­riod for which it was sanc­tioned and a source work­ing closely with cfg says it is no more a pri­or­ity. “There seems to be no fu­ture,” says the source, adding that close to 50 per cent of the `23 crore sanc­tioned for the cen­tre re­mains un­used.

The lethargy is not lim­ited to Cen­tral gov­ern­ment agen­cies. While cli­mate change ac­tion plans sub­mit­ted by Hi­malayan states rest heav­ily on strength­en­ing the knowl­edge and con­ser­va­tion of Hi­malayan glaciers, not much has moved on the ground. While the Hi­machal Pradesh cli­mate cell web­site lists a few mon­i­tor­ing projects, none are listed on the Ut­tarak­hand site. Nei­ther state has listed any con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­ity, as de­tailed in their ac­tion plans. “We have been mon­i­tor­ing glaciers in state and are in the process of up­dat­ing our in­ven­to­ries,” says S S Rand­hawa, se­nior sci­en­tific of­fi­cer, Hi­machal Pradesh Cli­mate Change Cen­tre.

The slug­gish­ness in in­cor­po­rat­ing glaciers in pol­icy can partly be at­trib­uted to a dis­con­nect be­tween dif­fer­ent de­part­ments and min­istries in the gov­ern­ment. “Of­ten it is the case that there are sev­eral in­sti­tutes un­der dif­fer­ent de­part­ments that are work­ing in par­al­lel on in­ter-dis­ci­plinary sub­jects like glaciers. But in­sti­tu­tional link­ages within and be­tween min­istries and de­part­ments of the gov­ern­ment are still weak,” says Chan­dran. “We of­ten face frus­trat­ing de­lays be­cause we are not on the same page as wa­ter re­source of­fi­cials even though ul­ti­mately we are con­cerned with the same dis­charge of wa­ter,” says Renoj Thayyen, nih sci­en­tist.

While the science is still far from be­ing set­tled, glaciol­ogy in In­dia can only move in tan­dem with pol­icy. And at the mo­ment it ap­pears as if science and pol­icy on glaciol­ogy seem locked to­gether like the Ouroboros—the ser­pent from Egypt mythol­ogy that con­sumes its own tail.

For a long time, glaciers were ne­glected be­cause we were wor­ried only about the wa­ter in the rivers ‹ -A L Ra­manathan, pro­fes­sor, Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity We need a uni­fied cen­tralised body that can man­age and com­pile stan­dard­ised glacier re­search ‹ - Anil Kulkarni, sci­en­tist, Di­wecha Cen­ter for Cli­mate Change

Black car­bon, de­posited on the Khardung glacier, has been linked to in­creased glacier melt and ex­treme weather

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