Amidst complex social-ecological dynamics of localities and future uncertainties posed by global environmental challenges like climate change, there is a need of practicing the principles of learning and flexibility in public policy process. In this study we illustrate the importance of adaptive governance paradigm as an approach for bringing coherence between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in India. We comment on the type and extent of integration between climate policy and disaster management in the evolving policy landscape of India and cite certain paradoxes in actual practice. We look towards Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) as a diagnostic tool for informing policy in place of the dominant donor–recipient models of knowledge generation and dissemination. In our diagnosis of urban and rural flooding in India, we found lack of transparency, coordination, local sensitivity and inclusivity in governance leading to a trust deficit among citizens and government institutions, compliance issues, struggle for change in power structures and access to more information while there is willingness for meaningful learning among different stakeholders given the opportunities for social learning. We suggest that pedagogy for ongoing capacity building programmes in India for climate policy and disaster management should incorporate such tools to enable an environment of social learning in consultations and facilitate cognitive abilities to comprehend knowledge from diverse sources. It is only through governance mechanisms for shared understanding which can usher the much desired fit between science, policy and practice.