Rising inequality in developing countries is making it increasingly difficult to deal with climate change. It also risks fuelling social instability.
India and South Africa, both emerging economic powers, share a ticking time bomb of a problem: not only are they more likely to experience climate change, but they’re also more likely to experience its worst effects, thanks to incredibly high income inequality levels.
South Africa and India are the first and second most unequal countries in the world respectively, and unless they take into account that various socioeconomic groups experience climate change differently, any policy designed to help victims is doomed to fail.
In India, climate change has been linked to the suicides of nearly 60,000 farmers and farm workers.
Illustrating the extreme sensitivity of the Indian agricultural industry to spikes in temperature, research shows that 67 more farmers commit suicide on any given day if the temperature rises by just one degree.
As farmer suicides became politicised, it eventually led to reports that farmer suicide rates had slowed down. The veracity of these reports, however, were controversial. Nevertheless, after years of protests from NGOs, activists and opposition politicians, the Indian government made a move recently when it launched a $1.3 billion insurance scheme to protect against crop failures. Additionally, Maharashtra, Punjab, and the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, have all passed farm-debt waivers.
But experts argue this isn’t enough, as it isn’t simply a matter of debt. Current interventions do not account for the impact of socioeconomic inequality on farmers’ perception of their own well-being, cited as another reason for farmer suicides corroborated by the fact that there are differences in farmer suicidality even when there is no difference in indebtedness levels.
Because of increasing globalisation and visible inequality leading to rising – and mostly unmet – life expectations, Indian farmers’ perception of their well-being is even more susceptible to the vagaries of nature compared to not just other socioeconomic groups, but also compared to their own personal histories. More importantly, there is an imbalance amongst them, as even though all Indian farmers are at risk of suicide, the poorest of them are undeniably more at risk.
Therein lies a key opportunity for the Indian government to improve upon the current policy and support structures available to farmers – by offering a basic unconditional income for all farmers and farm workers. The supplemental income would allow poor victims of climate change a better chance to cope with its damaging effects.
It could be a tailored version of an already proposed universal basic income for India for which there is growing support despite the fact that it is expected to cost around 5 percent of India’s GDP. This, instead of an insurance scheme or debt waivers, can help more because premium payments and bureaucratic hurdles are not exactly helping improve anyone’s mental health, much less impoverished and largely illiterate farmers.
Most importantly though, is the fact that universal basic income helps the poorest the most, unlike food and fuel subsidies – India’s current public distribution system - which benefits higher income groups more. With 52 percent of the total workforce involved in agriculture and more than 1 out of 3 farmers’ households living below the poverty line, this makes sense.
Sound policymaking takes into account socioeconomic context for better implementation as well as efficacy. The 2018 water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, illustrates how important this is. Like in India, climate change has been linked to the acute water shortage in the city, affecting more than 4 million people.
Again, as in the case of policies protecting Indian farmers from adverse effects of climate change, water use and management policies enacted by the Cape Town government did not take into account social inequality.
The policy, which restricts water usage for everyone and punishes those who go beyond certain limits by imposing fines on them, has been reported to be ineffective and may just be delaying the inevitable. Easily abused by the rich who conveniently, and predictably, pay for more water, the policy is hard to implement making it bad news for water conservation. Even worse news, however, is the inevitable social backlash and resulting fall-out as more people begin to realise that they are too poor for water.
‘While Day Zero’ for Cape Town has been postponed to 2019, the situation remains severe. It does however buy Cape Town authorities time to correct course and implement fairer policies. They must ensure that policies are not blind to socioeconomic disparities, and don’t allow for loopholes for the wealthy. They must ensure that there is an equal amount of water for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to allow everyone to cope better with the issue.
Equal access to water has long been a hot-button issue for South Africa, against the backdrop of some of pervasive and racially charged socioeconomic inequality, resulting in South Africa being the only country in the world that has had to guarantee access to water as a constitutional right. It almost appears as if this scenario was predicted.
These are harbingers for what’s to come, which perhaps may be even worse. Smart policymaking, considering socioeconomic context, may be able to help keep things under control.
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