Major Glaciers Receding: Shyam Saran
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Shyam Saran

Interviewed by Rajeev Sharma, Senior Fellow, VIF March 18, 2010

Shyam Saran, former Special Envoy of the Prime Minister on India-US Nuclear Issues and Climate Change and former Foreign Secretary, says that there is “anecdotal evidence” that major glaciers have been receding. There is no precise data as to whether the Himalayan glaciers are melting and, if so, at what rate. He says satellite imaging over the last several decades show noticeable shrinking of glaciers in some areas, but little change in others. To improve the country’s data base and knowledge of the glaciology of the Himalayas and the changes taking place over time, the Government of India has launched a multi-disciplinary study of the Himalayan glaciers, involving ISRO, the Institute of Glaciology and a very distinguished group of experts. Saran gave an on-record interview to the VIF. Excerpts from the interview:

On Climate Change

Question: Among the SAARC countries, Maldives and Sri Lanka are set to be the worst sufferers as the whole of Maldives and parts of Sri Lanka are projected to face submergence due to climate change-induced rise in sea levels. What is Government of India's prognosis of the future of these two countries and how does New Delhi propose to meet the challenges posed by climate change?

Answer: It is not only Maldives and Sri Lanka that may face submergence due to rise in sea levels. We should also be mindful of the fact that India, too, has extensive island territories and low lying, heavily populated, coastal plains. So does neighbouring Bangladesh. The first order of business is to get more accurate, scientific information about likely scenarios of sea-level rise corresponding to different global warming levels and put in place preventive and remedial measures in the most vulnerable areas. These will include moving exposed populations further island on to higher ground. There may be need to construct protective walls or barriers to prevent the ingress of sea water as well as coping with increased salinity of our coastal plains. As part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, we are working on developing precisely such scenarios. Needless to say, engaging with our neighbours in SAARC, would enable a much more collaborative and coherent response. It is our hope that the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Thimpu, Bhutan, which will have Climate Change as its theme, will reflect on the consequences our region could face from global warming and the begin the exercise of fashioning a truly collaborative response on this and other shared challenges.

Q: Have the Maldives and Sri Lanka governments asked Government of India for helping to settle the large chunks of populations that are going to be affected by climate change? Has the Indian government prepared any blueprint to this effect? Please give details.

A: No we have not been approached by either country in this regard. There is as yet no inevitability to the consequence you are projecting.

Q: According to published scientific data, the Himalayan glaciers are melting at the rate of 110 meters per annum. Is anything being done to reverse this? Can you share Government of India’s long term plans in this regard?

A: There is no precise data as to whether the Himalayan glaciers are melting and, if so, at what rate. Satellite imaging over the last several decades show noticeable shrinking of glaciers in some areas, but little change in others. In a few places, glaciers appear to have advanced somewhat. We also need to study whether some of the changes are part of a normal cyclical pattern or whether they are anthropomorphic in character. As someone who frequently treks in the mountains I can say, however, that anecdotal evidence suggests that major glaciers have been receding, whatever the cause. The National Mission on Sustaining the Himalayan Ecology addresses this challenge in a comprehensive manner. Firstly, we have launched a multi-disciplinary study of the Himalayan glaciers, involving ISRO, the Institute of Glaciology and a very distinguished group of experts. This will improve our data base and knowledge of the glaciology of the Himalayas and the changes taking place over time. Secondly, we are taking a number of steps to halt and reverse the growing degradation of the fragile ecology of the Himalayas, including through strict regulatory measures on construction, road building, tourism, pilgrimage and deforestation.

Q: A new climate change-related threat is being talked about: climate change wars? What is your take on this, particularly because this threat means that climate change may trigger drastic changes in international boundaries?

A: We do not believe that climate change consequences would necessarily lead to inter-state tensions and conflict. Climate Change is a global challenge which recognizes no regional or national boundaries. We need to approach it as a shared challenge which demands a collaborative, not a competitive, response.

On Foreign Policy and Border Infrastructure

Q: You were probably the first Foreign Secretary of India who during his tenure had devoted a substantial time and energy on India's immediate neighbourhood as well as development of the border infrastructure. Hence this set of questions to you. Can you please tell what are the problems and the remedies with regard to the development of border infrastructure vis a vis (a) Nepal, (b) Bhutan, (c) Myanmar, (d) China, (e) Pakistan, (f) Bangladesh and (g) Sri Lanka?

A: We need to look at border infrastructure with all our neighbours as a means of establishing physical connectivity with them. Without smooth and efficient cross-border connectivity, one cannot even begin to talk about regional economic cooperation, let alone regional economic integration of the kind which the European Union enjoys today. The sad reality is that even today, the transport and communications links between, say, India and Pakistan or India and Bangladesh, have not regained the level which existed during pre-partition days. With Tibet Autonomous Region of China, there were several traditional trade routes in period before 1959, which remained interrupted until the opening of the Nathu La pass recently for border trade. We must look at border infrastructure in a comprehensive manner, establishing road and rail links, telecommunication links, efficient customs and immigration infrastructure as well as strong defense facilities all along our borders. Borders should be seen as “connectors” bringing peoples and countries together, and not as walls dividing neighbours. With better border infrastructure will come better border security as well.

On Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Q: Do you think the Indo-US nuke deal cannot be fully operationalised till India signs a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Japan too, particularly because two of major American nuclear companies Westinghouse and GE are owned by Japanese companies? Is something being done in this regard?

A: It is our understanding that the U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese owned companies should not have any difficulty in concluding business contracts with Indian entities. This is really a matter for the U.S. companies to resolve.


Q: What are the pending bottlenecks, if any, in the full operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal? Please share your perceptions on this important aspect in detail.

A: As far as I am aware, there are no bottlenecks. The arrangements for implementing India’s upfront entitlement to reprocess U.S. origin spent fuel are currently under negotiation. They should be concluded soon. The Nuclear Liability Insurance Bill has been introduced into Parliament and ought to be passed soon. With these two remaining procedures taken care of, the way is open for U.S. companies to do business in India in the civil nuclear energy field.

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