At a time when climate change is becoming one of the most heated topics globally, it has been missing from the electoral discourse in India. This is despite the fact that as per the medical journal The Lancet, India has a disproportionately high mortality and disease burden due to air pollution, especially in the northern states.
As campaigning picks up pace before the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections scheduled on April 11, the focus is clearly on the oft-repeated issues of employment, agriculture and national security. None of the parties has spoken much about their plans for safeguarding the environment, improving the air quality, cleaning the water or boosting new tech to harness clean sources of energy.
Environment: An unappealing campaign topic
Neither the ruling dispensation nor the opposition has shown any inclination towards talking about the imminent hazards of climate change. Environmentalist and anti-GMO activist Kavita Kuruganti, told indianexpress.com that environment has been a localised issue and at the national level it’s not been influencing electoral politics. “Parties continue to behave as though we don’t have a crisis upon us,” Kuruganti added.
Maintaining that environment has not become the part of discourse as it should have been, Sudesh Verma of the BJP said that while climate change might be missing in the sense of terminology, it is present in the sense of spirit. “When we talk of about Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, solar energy, improving technology and reducing carbon emission it all comes under the ambit of environmental conscience of the government,” Verma said, adding they are committed towards the issues of climate change.
Congress secretary Kuljit Singh Nagra said the party has been raising the issue of climate change and the understands its seriousness going forward. “There have been discussions about it and it is an important issue globally. But yes, it’s true that it is not being aggressively pursued despite being part of the campaign agenda,” Nagra added. Incidentally, on Saturday, Rahul Gandhi tweeted about the need to “repair & restore our water bodies”, “regenerate & afforest wasteland & degraded land” and promised to “employ lakhs of rural youth in our gram sabhas to improve the environment”.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) office-bearers meanwhile maintained that the issues of environment and pollution will be raised in the localised campaigns and might not have a wider resonance nationally.
Not much done in past five years: Activists
Both the Congress and the BJP had strongly advocated improving the environment in their 2014 election manifestos. Despite the BJP’s brute majority, environmentalists don’t think the party has done much with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Officials at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said that in the last couple of years numerous plans were initiated by the government with minimum results. “The power plant standards were revised in 2015 and the deadline for compliance was set for December 2017. In October 2017, just two months before its implementation the government withdrew the notification. Since then several litigations have been made and the matter is now pending in the Supreme Court. The government now claims they are low on funds to upgrade the power plants to meet those standards which aren’t true and it shows that priority is a problem,” said Senior Research Associate, CSE, Polash Mukherjee. States across India are facing the brunt of poor industrial regulations.
The government recently introduced the National Clean Air Programme with a focus on all sources of pollution. However, the CSE claimed this too, is “inadequately funded”. “The structuring of the programme is weak and has no legal backing limiting it to just being a policy document,” said Mukherjee. The handling of the proposed amendment in the Indian Forest Act (1927) by the Modi government has also been criticised. The amendment aims to give more powers to the forest authorities and enhances penalties.
Blaming the centre for poor execution of plans, AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj said that the Delhi government has executed a number of sewage treatment plant projects to save the Yamuna. “We Planted a record number of saplings, executed most advanced Electric Vehicle Policy. However, the Modi government planned to cut 17,000 full grown trees in the heart of Delhi.”
Expectations going forward
With the BJP and the Congress set to release their manifestos soon, environmental organisations have forwarded suggestions to be included in the document. Greenpeace India, in a document submitted to the political parties, has recommended strict enforcement of new emission standards for coal power plants, setting up net-metered solar pump sets in farming communities, decentralisation of rainwater conservation and harvesting infrastructures, among others. “We are hoping that the political parties will consider these suggestions seriously. This is high time to realise that climate change is real and we have talked enough about it, it’s now time to act,” said Avinash Chanchal, Program specialist Greenpeace India.
“Cities will be the most affected due to climate change as it triggers mass urbanisation and there is a need for political parties to understand the issues and transform them into their election manifestos,” Mukherjee of the CSE told indianexpress.com. But environmentalists are sceptical about parties including the suggestion except in some pockets where a certain section is dependent on natural resources like in coastal and tribal areas. “These elections, unfortunately, are not going to be fought on environmental issues,” lamented Kavita Kurughanti.
BJP’s Verma is, however, confident that the manifesto committee headed by Rajnath Singh “will focus on the environment with utmost priority”. “Our government has worked extensively in the field of solar energy and is committed towards the environment. The Solar Alliance is an example of our commitment to clean energy,” he said. Meanwhile, Congress sources said the party has raised the issue of environment in Delhi and will keep it in the poll manifesto as well.