When will local governmental bodies face the scorching truth of Climate Change

Coimbatore/Nilgiris: The winding roads through the lush forests of the Nilgiris often open into towns carved into the mountain faces. These towns, the spiraling roads, coffee plantations, and tea gardens, over the past week, stand drenched by unseasonal, unexpected heavy showers that have caught most people by surprise. The rains, preceded by record-breaking heat, largely […]

Coimbatore/Nilgiris: The winding roads through the lush forests of the Nilgiris often open into towns carved into the mountain faces. These towns, the spiraling roads, coffee plantations, and tea gardens, over the past week, stand drenched by unseasonal, unexpected heavy showers that have caught most people by surprise. The rains, preceded by record-breaking heat, largely attributed to climate change, have had a devastating impact not only on the mountains but the underlying plains as well, harming the ecosystem in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

“Kotagiri reaching 30 degrees Celsius is unheard of,” says a local development professional, deeply concerned about the potential devastation this summer’s heat and unseasonal rains could inflict on the delicate local ecosystem, biodiversity, and livelihoods. The extreme heat, torrential downpours, ongoing deforestation, and soil erosion and water patterns threaten everything in the region, from honey production and diverse plant and animal life to the iconic jamun trees and even the economic bedrock of the hilly district—its tea and coffee plantations.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu is vulnerable to the escalating impacts of climate change in India. The complexity is compounded by the fact the state features a varied topography –  mountainous highlands, fertile lowlands, a coastal zone, forested interiors, and an arid desert basin. Each is confronted with its unique climate problem. An alarming 41.5% surge in extreme weather days has been observed across all 39 districts over the past two decades, according to a study by Anna University and the Disaster Management Authority, with predictions indicating a worsening situation.

The state government recognizes the danger that is knocking at their door. And they’re proceeding on a war footing. They have brought in both policy and planning initiatives. Under the leadership of the Chief Minister and the Department of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, they are adopting a multi stakeholder approach to strengthen their response to vagaries of the climate.

They have roped in civil society organizations, public policy experts, and built a network of climate fellows in each district looking at the problem as a horizontal issue. Multiple programs addressing climate measurement, literacy, and assessment are being implemented across the state.

However, there persists an inability amongst the local administration, elected representatives, and community to find ways to mitigate or adapt to these changing conditions. Local perceptions of climate change, its causes, and consequences are often shaped by immediate, visible experiences, potentially overshadowing a broader understanding of the issue. In the Nilgiris, for instance, the community of Kotagiri has become intensely focused on combating single-use plastic pollution, an issue deeply affecting their daily lives. However, this hyper-focus may be obscuring other significant climate change impacts that require attention.

Kotagiri – Photo Credit: SMART

Even when local leaders understand the broader consequences of unchecked infrastructure development, electoral pressures often take precedence. A local councilor blames concrete for rising temperatures but feels constrained by the demands of tourism and infrastructure.

“It’s the cement that’s causing the heat,” he remarked as we left his office, closed due to the election’s Moral Code of Conduct.  “What can we do?” he added. “We cater to the public, and they demand big projects.”

The Town Panchayat, the urban local body serving a population of thirty-five thousand spread across twenty-one wards, faces an acute water shortage in four wards. Their solution? A costly, fifteen-kilometer canal from the local dam. “We’re spending 58 crores for it,” the councillor reveals. However, when questioned about alternative solutions or feasibility studies, he cites a lack of funds for such activities.

In defense he says, “We are committed to revitalizing the local wetlands,” while acknowledging that this project, too, is stalled due to financial constraints.

Town Panchayats, Block Panchayats, and Gram Panchayats, across the countries must provide the basic services to their citizens. They also implement both state and central schemes and are given immense freedom to innovate, implement, and imagine a variety of solutions to local problems. They are mandated to build consultative and participatory plans for their communities. However, these solutions are conceived behind locked doors in isolation often unmindful of the impact they would have. Here Manoj and the Panchayat President’s local canal is not for the community, the environment but for their re-election.

The obsession with infrastructure has become a self-inflicted wound; each new gash in the land and layer of cement only intensifies the scorching heat that threatens to consume us.

Elsewhere, in the district, climate change denial was palpable. “Climate change is a myth,” one local official scoffed. “We have rain, sun, everything we need. The real problem is our lack of hospitals.” This dismissive attitude, echoing among those in charge, exposed a dangerous disconnect: those with the power to address the mounting crisis were blinded by their own perceived solutions.

Kotagiri – Photo Credit: SMART

What emerged from our field visit is pretty clear.  Local governments and elected representatives desperately lack the tools and vocabulary to grasp, confront, and prepare for the escalating climate crisis. The solution is clear: we must invest in hyperlocal messaging, training, and capacity building. We must empower not only communities but also their elected leaders – those who can champion change, allocate resources, and spearhead innovative climate solutions.

The Tamil Nadu state government is tackling these issues on a war footing. They have placed climate fellows in each district working to build synergies between themes, issues, and departments. This fellowship plugs an important gap area building in a horizontal framework to climate change. However, the systemic problems are too entrenched.

In the neighboring district of Coimbatore, ensconced by the Nilgiri mountains, the articulation of climate change is slightly different. Home to eleven taluks and the state’s second-largest city, the district experiences a unique set of climate-related challenges.

Coimbatore is reaching a breaking point. Water shortages, soaring temperatures, and crumbling infrastructure threaten the city’s livability, while the lack of public transport forces residents into unsustainable choices. These issues are no longer confined to the city; the surrounding taluks are also suffering.

In the Madukkarai block, the human-animal conflict overshadows all other changes that are coming their way. “Elephant population is growing rapidly in plains and getting into our fields, their population is growing,” said a farm leader. “The panchayats are useless, they do not meet, do not call for our support, or have our representation.”

In the Madukkarai Municipal Office, recently elevated to municipality status, the president proudly displays a ‘swacchta campaign’ certificate. Surrounded by files and folders, he seems well-prepared for any topic—except climate change. “It’s natural, nothing can be done,” he declares while producing a report on rainfall patterns. This dismissive, unscientific attitude permeates all tiers of local governance, hindering meaningful action on this critical issue.

The local administration also suffers from a lack of gender diversity, which limits the range of perspectives on development. A conversation with a local councilwoman frequently interrupted and dominated by her husband, highlighted this issue. During the conversation, the same ‘infrastructure ’-focused nature of planning rears its head. An overemphasis on infrastructure-focused solutions, such as building roads and wells, as quick fixes for complex problems. The community’s voice appears to be missing from the decision-making process, replaced by an over-reliance on the local engineer for solutions that may not require engineering expertise. How do you make the decisions? We asked him, ‘There is a meeting where they tell us about their problems every other month,’ he told us. But there isn’t any information on these meetings.

There is an urgent need to build a comprehensive learning system for climate-change and local adaptive planning for grassroots government; so that they can lead the charge against climate change and build a sustainable future.

This must begin at the village administration and work its way up. Elected representatives must be taught to listen, and identify the needs of their region and community to the vulnerabilities that the climate crisis exposes. Without a comprehensive media and communication strategy that bundles the community and local government together, and creates a process of identification, visioning, and planning, fighting climate change will continue to be a Sisyphean task.

Throughout our travels, a recurring question arose: what would it take for us to truly prioritize climate action?

We are convinced a multi-stakeholder-led communication strategy, with interactive methodologies with multiple touch points as well as learning and certification can help center the climate conversation.