India is the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the United States, and is the fifth most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change , according to the Global Climate Risk Index of 2020.

There is a renewed focus on India’s national climate action plan and its state climate action plans in light of the November 2021 Glasgow Climate Summit where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his “panchamrita” commitments, or five-point agenda.

Among the commitments is India achieving net-zero by 2070 and increasing the share of renewable energy to 50% of the energy mix by 2030.

Given the country’s size and demographic heft, with many states having populations comparable to the entire population of some European countries, the incentives and disincentives in state climate action plans have enormous consequences for Indian and global climate resilience.

In a federal system, such as India’s, one would ideally expect climate action plans to be customised to mitigate and adapt to the unique challenges faced by each Indian state. One would also expect the plans to incorporate inputs from a wide range of stakeholders, including regional and local climate experts with an intimate knowledge of challenges particular to their areas.

However, a review of India’s state climate action plans provides a sobering reminder of the limits of genuine decentralisation, evident in the outsized influence of a few consultancies, resulting in formulaic, standardised plans that marginalise inputs from various regional-local stakeholders and are narrow in focus.

India’s back-sliding on progressive climate policymaking at the state level is in stark contrast to its 2008 National Action Plan for Climate Change, released well before major global collective action got underway with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The National Action Plan for Climate Change encouraged all states to build their own plans and adopted a mission-based approach consisting of eight focus areas: the National Solar Mission, National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency, National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, National Water Mission, National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, National Mission for a Green India, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, and the National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change.

The National Action Plan for Climate Change also incentivised states to formulate policies on climate change mitigation and adaptation by enjoining that “at the level of state governments, several agencies would need to enlarge and redefine their goals and areas of operation” and that “state governments may also employ fiscal instruments to promote appropriate options and measures.”

At a time when most countries lacked a coherent, national-level climate change mitigation framework, India’s galvanising of state planning for climate governance was a proactive approach on the central government’s part, resulting in 29 state climate action plans with the seven Union Territories also coming up with such plans.

So how did India backslide from being a climate visionary to being a climate laggard in the ensuing 14 years? An analysis of the state climate action plans reveals two main shortcomings. The first problem is the outsized role of a select-few consultancies in advising state governments with their climate action plans.

For instance, out of the 29 state action plans, nine states have been assisted by the United Nations Development Program, eight by the German Corporation for International Cooperation, and three by The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI.

Figure 1: Institutions involed

The outsized role of the aforementioned organisations probably explains why the state plans are organised along a standardised structure, with either a mission-based focus – along the lines of the National Plan – or a sectoral focus.

In a country like India with diverse geographies, topographies, demographics and vulnerabilities, a question arises as to whether the mission-based approach and the sectoral approach are the only two possible ways to construct a climate plan to address highly diverse and context-specific climate risks?

The domination of Indian state-level climate planning by a few consultancies not only results in standardised and sub-optimal plans but also goes against the core tenet of federalism and decentralised policymaking that encourages context-appreciation and creative governance approaches at the regional and local levels. Decentralisation should ideally encourage contribution by many stakeholders to state plans such as research institutes, civil society organisations, academics, and local media.

It should also involve the honest collation and consolidation of diverse stakeholder inputs into tangible policy solutions. Further, decentralisation should incentivise states to transcend the mission-based versus sectoral binary and to customise their own plans to tackle the unique threat profile posed by local-level climate challenges. For instance, Manipur’s goals, strategies and institutional mechanisms for climate action should be different from a geographically, demographically and culturally distinct state such as Maharashtra.

Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh should have similar yet context-specific local-level policies that help mitigate melting glaciers and frequent landslides that cause flooding. The arid areas of Rajasthan, the cyclone-prone Andaman and Nicobar islands and West Bengal, and regions with heavy rainfall such as Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, all need their own formulae for local climate mitigation strategies that helps to arrest area-specific problems such as erratic rainfall and storm surges.

Kerala’s state climate action plan is a good example of context-specific planning, with a section on local self-governance and clear identification of different stakeholder groups such as farmers, fishers, and tribal communities. Mizoram and West Bengal have followed a sectoral approach that highlights key concerns and adaptation strategies for different local regions.

On the other hand, the climate action plans of states like Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Chandigarh are entirely focused on aligning the state agendas with the eight national missions as described in the National Action Plan for Climate Change.

Figure 2: Sectoral Mission

Overall, the standardised state climate action plans indicate that the state governments have voluntarily abdicated the policy autonomy conferred on them by federalism in favour of a ready-made, convenient template plan structure provided by the consultancies. The National Action Plan for Climate Change was a good framework which provided significant latitude to localise climate action but the states have not taken advantage of this opportunity.

Progressive state climate action plans should include bold targets, have the right incentive structures, include inputs from a wide range of stakeholders, and achieve the right mix of standardised alignment with the national plan and customised planning for unique state and local level-climate challenges.

The current climate policy architecture in India skews excessively towards standardisation at the state level. State Action Plans for Climate Change were formulated for five years. While some plans are going to be outdated soon, other states are in the process of renewing/ creating new action plans for climate change governance.

It is important that state governments formulate more effective, localised climate action plans to further the cause of effective, decentralised governance with regards to climate change. States should avoid going in for a consultancy-inspired, copy-pasted model, yet again.

Smriti Jalihal is a Research Associate at the Centre for Knowledge Alternatives, FLAME University. Chaitanya Ravi is Assistant Professor and Chair, Public Policy, at FLAME University