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Is climate change an election issue in India?

In 2024, the field is set for some of the most crucial election contests in recent times. More than four billion people will head to polls across 64 nations. Almost a fourth of them will vote in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in India. Elections in the time of a climate crisis, however, complicate issues.

This year’s political action unfolds against an unprecedented backdrop of environmental turbulence. 2023 was the hottest year on record in at least 173 years, and global average temperatures, for the first time, crossed the 1.5° Celsius warming threshold. India houses the largest population exposed to extreme weather events, a proportion of people that has increased since 2010. Climate change is moving from the periphery to capture electoral interest as the earth shows visible signs of impact, says Aarti Khosla, founder of Climate Trends. Parties have in turn weaved green policies, renewable energy targets and pollution-free mandates into their election manifestos.

Others, however, note the churn is slow and separate, affecting people but not always influencing outcomes. The Hindu looks at how Indian voters perceive climate change, where it ranks in their list of electoral concerns, and the tide of ‘green’ agendas in India’s 2024 political wars. 

Why is climate change a concern this year?

2024 is the midway point to the 2030 Agenda, a year by when scientists say Earth should have halved its greenhouse gas emissions. India saw extreme weather events almost every day from January to September 2023 — the new ‘abnormal’ in a warming world, according to the Centre for Science and Environment. Another report showed nine Indian States are most at-risk globally due to environmental decay. As Cyclone Michaung submerged Chennai and neighbouring districts last month, a DMK MP in the Parliament drew attention to the repeated damage to life and livelihood as Chennai goes under water. “Roads have become rivers,” and rivers like sea, as the city could not withstand nature’s fury, he said.

“India hosts the largest population that is threatened daily by rising cyclones, floods, rising sea levels, heatwaves, and droughts,” explains Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Millions have already become climate refugees.

Researchers have argued that all issues on the ballot in India in 2024 — unemployment, education, healthcare, economic growth, caste inequality — are linked to climate change. Studies link rising child marriages in West Bengal to natural disasters in Sunderbans, and domestic violence to heat waves. People living in slums and informal housing in Ahmedabad were more likely to be exposed to extreme temperatures, inequalities “robustly linked to a higher number of heat-related deaths among low-income groups,” a paper noted. The International Labour Organisation finds erratic rains and temperature shocks worsen unemployment and create conditions for precarious and informal work. Dr. Koll notes that securing food, water, jobs and energy for India’s billion-plus population is a mandate for any government, and “without tackling the impact of climate change, there is no way to address the issues in these sectors.”

Extreme weather events may also have a bearing on political outcomes. A working paper found temperature shocks before an election year increased voter turnout, influenced the composition of the candidate pool, and favoured those candidates with an agricultural background. The extreme weather “increased the value voters place on agricultural issues and on policies which mitigate the effects of extreme temperatures, such as irrigation,” the researchers argued. In the 2019 Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Elections, the BJP and Shiv Sena lost seats in flood-ravaged western districts such as Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara. In one district, former Agriculture Minister Anil Sukhdeorao Bonde lost to a farmer leader. Dr. Koll, who wasn’t part of the research, concurs with these findings, adding that agriculture outcomes along with government response such as disaster relief to extreme weather become a deciding factor for rural voters. “A bad monsoon alone may not affect electoral fortunes, but its management definitely will,” he adds.

The Indian government in the last decade has passed contentious environmental laws; policies which critics say dilute people’s rights and weaken environmental protection, thus accelerating climate change and its nexus of crises. The recently passed Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Biodiversity (Amendment) Bill, 2023 were described in The Hindu as a “disaster for the country’s forests and the forest-dependent people.” India’s use of national security as a reason to weaken environmental laws is “setting back the legal protection of nature,” according to a paper published last year. This impacts conservation, but can also “undermine the foundations of democratic principles and protocols, public input and transparency.”

How do voters perceive the climate crisis?

“The attitudes of Indians are evolving into an informed electorate on the complexities of climate change,” Ms. Khosla says. It is a “blend” of the localised impact — such as poor air quality — along with a growing awareness of the scientific dimensions shaping the crisis. The 2023 Ipsos survey showed six out of 10 individuals acknowledge the severe impact of climate change in their immediate surroundings. Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll in 2019 and 2021 found that roughly three in five Indians perceive climate change as a threat in the next 20 years.

People agree that the climate is changing, but opinions on why and how vary across regions. The 2021 Lloyd poll showed that those who lived in coastal states (such as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh), or in areas already experiencing floods or landslips expressed a greater degree of concern about climate change. Across all States, people from marginalised communities identified climate shocks as a threat to their survival.

Different surveys find an urban voter base’s growing sensitivity to climate change mitigation efforts and sustainable development promises — their daily concerns range from extreme rain, heat and pollution to waste management and traffic. Ahead of the Karnataka State Elections, nonprofit Reap Benefit received questions about a party’s stance on waste management, increased flooding and electric vehicles policies.

A 2021 survey by Climate Trends among Uttar Pradesh voters showed 83% of voters agreed that air pollution is a climate change issue, and 95% agreed that it impacted the economy. What is striking, Ms. Khosla says, is that more than three-fourth of people linked climate change impact with poor governance, “emphasising the perceived importance of this issue in the political landscape.” For example, at least 38% attribute poor quality of air to thermal power plants in the locality. The segment associated visible environmental degradation with factors linked to “government policies or the position the government has taken on climate action,” she adds.

Moreover, this section of the population is also vocal in demanding a transition to green policies. A Yale Programme of Climate Change Communication survey found that 84% of urban Indians believe climate change is real, most link its impact to anthropogenic activities, and 55% of respondents believed that India should proactively reduce emissions without waiting for other countries. There is a growing consensus that “climate action… is good economics, and a growing sense of urgency and a willingness to take immediate action at the national level regarding climate policies,” Ms. Khosla says.

Smaller surveys among rural voters show people associate climate change with changes in agricultural productivity, and the loss of land, resources and livelihoods. From rural areas such as Navalgund and Bhatkal, voters asked Reap NGO about different parties’ policies on water rejuvenation. The poor implementation of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act was a contention point during the Chhattisgarh State Elections last year; mining challenges and diversion of forest land made “jal, jangal, zameen” (water, forest, land) a concern among local communities.

There’s a dichotomy still: Indians show support for climate action and expect the government to act, but climate change does not rank highly against other top concerns like inflation and unemployment. According to Climate Trends polls, only 8% of Indians as of November last year, and 14% in December, saw climate change as a major issue in the country. In another 2018 survey, which studied 2.73 lakh people, “water and air pollution” were the top priority for 11.95% of voters. Urban voters ranked water pollution 6th; for rural voters it was 13th, figuring after income, education and health concerns.

“Climate change is still not a critical factor determining the electoral outcome in India, particularly Lok Sabha elections.”Dr. Roxy Koll, climate scientist

What about politicians?

Climate change appeared in the election manifestoes of major national parties including the BJP and Congress, for the first time in 2019. The green agendas for several parties focused on tackling air pollution, protecting forests and water bodies, ensuring piped water supply, ensuring tribal welfare and rights, and transitioning to renewable energy. A Mongabay India analysis from the time noted that the number and range of environment-related promises increased substantially since 2014.

“The direct impact of these events on citizens has compelled political leaders to include climate resilience and adaptation measures in at least some ways,” says Ms. Khosla. For instance, from around 2016, when Delhi recorded one of the worst levels of air quality in three decades, “a promise for clean air has always been featured in manifestos across all parties.” The INC promised to form a National Climate Commission and National Clean Air Programme but didn’t specify targets. The BJP and Samajwadi Party pledged investment in clean air. Investment in renewable energy was a refrain among all manifestoes — All India Trinamool Congress promised a new energy policy, while the State-level Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) focused on solar power investment. Other issues that feature in parties’ promises include sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism and clean rivers and quality water supply. The BJP in 2014 launched its flagship ‘Clean Rivers Programme’ in response to rising pollution in Ganga (it has come under criticism for high investment, lack of progress and the simultaneous approval of three infrastructure projects that will further pollute the river).

Also Read | Seven years on, mission to clean the Ganga remains a work in progress

Ms. Khosla notes that between 2014 and 2024, India’s leadership at G20 and growing prominence in international forums such as the Conference of Parties (COP) have also influenced the domestic political narrative, and pushed to integrate climate goals into national policies.

While this trend is encouraging, Dr. Koll notes the discussion is largely contained within a few pockets, and doesn’t echo on a larger scale. For instance, climate change and environmental concerns were scarcely mentioned in last year’s State elections. Reap Benefit NGO found that during Karnataka State Elections, climate change-linked issues and adaptation efforts were not mentioned in pamphlets or referred to during speeches. The environment was invoked to outbid political rivals — leading parties spoke of MSP for farmers or to highlight mitigation efforts, such as disaster relief. The State Elections and 2019 General Elections also revealed that politicians prioritise high-level issues such as renewable energy (especially solar power), net-zero emissions, and forest cover. The conversation, however, overlooks pressing hyperlocal concerns such as water and waste management, and neglects how local communities are adapting to the climate crisis.

“The political leadership in the country needs to find means not only to strengthen mitigation measures in their manifestos and action, but also build on adaptation and resilience to climate change to minimise the disruption of livelihoods,” wrote Neha Simlai and Anusha Arif of SPRF in Down to Earth. A study showed the lacuna in political discourse: between 1999 and 2019, only 0.3% of the questions asked in the Parliament were related to climate change, a study showed. While more ministers were drawing attention to climate change, the questions were concerned with the impact and mitigation (disaster relief) of climate change; focused on energy, agriculture and aviation sector; did not come from States vulnerable to climate change; and did not represent socially vulnerable groups. “We still find there is substantial room for growth, especially in critical areas of climate justice and adaptation relevant to the Indian context,” the authors wrote.

“The voices of the marginalised continue to be feeble in terms of affecting government policy… unless a large section of the affluent and the middle-class feels the heat of the climate emergency, cities are unlikely to want governments to change based on environmental issues.”Research fellow Amit Ranjan explained in The Wire

The mainstreaming of climate agenda

Climate agenda was mainstreamed in industrialised economies such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia, while European Union voters cited climate change and energy among the three issues most important to them. In 2022, Brazil’s President Lula de Silva won with his electoral pitch vowing to fight Amazon deforestation. “Brazil is ready to retake its leadership in the fight against the climate crisis,” Mr. Lula said, adding that “Brazil and the planet need a living Amazon.”

There are green parties on the bloc in India, like the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party and the Indian People’s Green Party (IGPP), the latter being the only pan-national party with an environment-focused agenda. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, which works for farmers’ rights, said it focuses on the environment because “we understand the irrelevance of politics if Mother Nature is dying,” its convenor Anupam Mishra told a media house. The newly formed tribal front Hamar Raj also contested the Chhattisgarh Assembly Elections last year, campaigning on tribal rights concerns including water, forest and land rights.

Ms. Khosla notes while the promise of positive climate action could work in a party’s favour in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha election, it will have to be complemented with mainstream commitments such as economic development and health. “Opting for a party or candidate solely on their endorsement of climate action might still be in far sight,” she adds. The IGPP is present across 20 States and Union Territories but is yet to make a mark: it contested for and lost two seats in last year’s Rajasthan Assembly Elections.

“India needs climate change-aware administrators and policymakers at the panchayat, district, state, and national levels. Political and administrative will is a must if India is working towards climate action and adaptation.”Roxy Koll

Dr. Koll suggests a pivot: instead of cultivating new green parties, “leading parties should integrate climate action and environment protection as key modules of their mandate.” A mandate that balances mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development — one “sensitive to the population that looks to a future where food, water and energy are secured, and where development is not stunted.”

Put differently, the Indian green tide has to carry the voices of people sidelined from both the climate and electoral mainstream; a demand for better healthcare, jobs, housing and electricity are also demands for climate action. Dr. Koll adds, “It is high time that climate change is a top priority on electoral charts.”

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