Interview with Arundhati Deka, State Climate Fellow, Assam
Tell us about your work as a State Climate Fellow in Assam. What are the most exciting aspects of work you are involved with?
I’ve been placed with the Assam Climate Change Management Society (ACCMS), a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created in 2018, under the chairmanship of Hon’ble Chief Minister, Government of Assam. It’s designed to help coordinate and assist various departments with climate related activities. I’ve helped to develop RFPs (advocacy) proposals, papers and capacity building programmes, and conceptualise prospective projects and stakeholder consultations. I’ve also delivered two capacity building workshops focused on awareness raising and knowledge sharing, with a women’s group engaged in cultivation and a group of graduate level students from a small town in Assam. Both these experiences have been rewarding – particularly in exploring the nuanced understanding of these groups towards climate change and adaptation.
This role has also been rewarding in terms of learning. Previously my work has concentrated on water and climate change, but this role has helped to expand this. Climate action is still fairly new in our country, and particularly in the state. It’s been exciting to learn about the initiatives that have already been undertaken, and that are ongoing. As a State Climate Fellow, I’ve been able to gain diverse experience – working across a variety of activities to deliver state level climate engagement.
My primary role has been to ensure that any decisions made by the state are climate conscious, and to climate-proof ideas, projects and policies.
What unique opportunities does Assam present in terms of climate action work? What are your biggest challenges?
I think identifying climate sensitive flood adaptation measures is both a challenge and an opportunity for the state. The intensity of extreme events is accelerating. We’ve had devastating floods this year, and drought in 2021. The state is in dire need of an updated plan for climate resilient adaptation strategies. Assam is one of the 12 states in the Indian Himalayan Region, and according to a Department of Science and Technology vulnerability assessment, is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.
Assam is an agrarian state, but it also has very few areas under irrigation. This presents an opportunity to devise a state level plan for irrigation development. The construction sector has also been crucial in the state. Increased urbanisation has been a major contributor of GHG emissions in the last decade. It’s changed the climate of the state, and now urban area are witnessing pressure for rapid infrastructural growth. High poverty rates, population growth, limiting landholding size, limited livelihood opportunity, government policies and environmental factors have increased forced migration in the Global South, including Assam. And it’s putting pressure on urban infrastructure and services, including economic growth. Therefore, it’s important to enhance employment opportunities for rural communities – they are most likely to face the heat of climate change.
One of the biggest challenges for me has been to work on diverse topics under the umbrella of climate change. While it can be time intensive, it’s also been rewarding in terms of learning experience. In addition, identifying priorities and presenting information, through means / mediums that are most convincing for government stakeholders, has also been a challenge as well as a learning experience.
As a young professional, how has your experience been working on climate action at the subnational level with the government?
In large countries, subnational jurisdictions often play vital roles in shaping and implementing policies to reduce climate change impacts, such as limiting GHG emissions. As someone who has been engaged in the public policy sector for a couple of years now, this opportunity has served to be a significant learning curve. For me, there’s been a transition from “idealistic” to “realistic” in terms of identifying solutions. For example, considering crucial points like political inclination and budgetary constraints, and learning about the framing of public policies through direct engagement with bureaucrats / decision makers. Turning ideas into action, whilst considering capital constraints, has been a learning process. This opportunity has provided me with a closer look into the conceptualisation and implementation of policies, while considering national level demands and community level needs. It’s provided me with an opportunity to understand government priorities.
Coordinating across departments is essential for tackling a cross-cutting sector like environment and climate change. The importance of this has been realised by the state, and especially at ACCMS. They’re now actively identifying and encouraging line departments to be involved in state action on climate change.
Understanding climate change and its related issues is still evolving at the state policy level. It’s a subject that is still considered to be comparatively new for decision makers. However, efforts are being made to build the capacity of nodal departments. We need to accelerate the scale of effort, given the pace at which extreme weather events are happening.
How do you think your fellowship is contributing towards Assam’s subnational climate action goals?
Climate change is a global commons problem, and cooperation among national governments is necessary to address it. At the same time, subnational jurisdictions, such as states, provinces and cities, can, and do contribute significantly to the formulation and implementation of climate change policies. Working at the state level has allowed me to directly contribute to essential interventions, such as climate resilient development initiatives.
I’ve supported in the development of RFPs, and this has allowed me to directly influence potential state sponsored studies and the development of new policies. I’m also ensuring that policies and projects are climate conscious and that solutions align with our climate resilient adaptation strategy.
Being part of capacity building initiatives has also allowed me to engage with stakeholders on the ground. While engaging with the women’s group involved in agriculture, I realised that stakeholders on the ground often understand changes that are happening at the microclimate level. As a part of their training, they identified strategies that they can use to cope with climate change. This was also experienced by the graduate level students. They might struggle to articulate the challenges facing their localities and towns, but they can see the changes happening in practice that are causing problems such as water and food insecurity. These capacity building programmes can play a crucial role in developing understanding at the ground level to identify community level adaptation strategies.
How has your journey of learning been so far and what do you look forward to as a State Climate Fellow working on subnational action on climate in India?
The state remains the most dominant actor in controlling and mitigating the effect of climate change on both the environment and on people. This is because policies and regulatory norms, to a large extent, create the space and framework within which climate change is tackled. From my previous engagements, I’ve been aware that policies are often disconnected from what happens on the ground. However, working as a State Climate Fellow, I’ve realised that, especially with the introduction of SPVs like ACCMS, attempts are being made to close this gap. For example, SAPCC 2.0 has been developed through multi-stakeholder engagement. Although it’s a long journey, I believe bringing youth engagement to the government level, through opportunities like this, can help in advocating for policies that are accountable to people on the ground. I believe that I will carry my learning from this experience in my future engagements in public policy, for example while developing policy briefs for government stakeholders.
As part of my fellowship, I’m also looking forward to using primary assessments to develop a ground level understanding of issues. I believe this will allow me to engage directly with the government to deliberate on the assessment findings. I’m also looking forward to developing a strong grasp of the intricacies of climate change and development studies; stakeholder engagement; and public policy through secondary assessments and capacity building workshops, both facilitated by Climate Group and ACCMS.
Through this fellowship I’m learning about the issues that are prioritised in the state, how solutions are perceived, and the nuances across the financial and technical steps that precede the development of a government policy or project.