Column| Climate change and 2024 Lok Sabha elections

Representational Image: Reuters

Once again, the Great Indian Democracy is experiencing the 'election heat,' a clichéd phrase commonly used to denote the intense campaigning of different political parties. However, this time, it holds an etymologically justified connotation as the world's largest democracy heads to the polls amidst scorching heat in many states.

The number of regions in India experiencing temperatures above 40 degrees has risen sharply compared to the last Lok Sabha polls in 2019. For instance, during the first week of April 2024, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a high-temperature warning for as many as 11 districts in Kerala, making it challenging for candidates to reach out to voters.

While travelling through some of the Lok Sabha constituencies in southern, central and northern Kerala, it was evident that climate change poses a serious threat to vibrant electoral campaigns. Roadshows featuring candidates in open vehicles, accompanied by motorcycle rallies, have been cancelled, rerouted or conducted on a limited basis due to the relatively empty streets during the daytime.

What is more perturbing is that, apart from the general cynicism towards political parties and seasoned politicians, climate change has triggered a sense of popular antipathy towards democratic institutions and the electoral process. "It’s too hot in summer, and when it rains, there are floods. These climatic changes have negatively affected the lives of commoners like me, but the governments are not bothered at all. In a democratic country, elections at regular intervals are not sufficient" said an auto-rickshaw driver from Thiruvananthapuram.

For a healthier democratic system, India’s electoral politics must engage proactively with people’s lived experiences of climate change. It is therefore important to have a look at how the major political parties envision addressing the catastrophic casualties associated with climate change in India.

Party manifestos
The 2024 manifesto of most political parties typically mentioned climatic change as an issue of least priority in the environment section, often placed at the end of the document. Let’s examine the promises made by the major political parties in India to mitigate climate change in the context of Lok Sabha elections.

The phrase ‘climate change’ appears only once in BJP’s ‘Modi Ki Guarantee 2024 Sankalp Patra’, specifically regarding safeguarding coastal communities and ecosystems by building resilience. However, the manifesto discusses various relevant topics related to Narendra Modi’s ‘Lifestyle for Environment (LIFE)’ concept, such as increasing non-fossil fuel capacity, promoting afforestation and agroforestry, and expanding the green credit program.

In its Nyay Patra released in connection with the Lok Sabha elections 2024, the Indian National Congress has proposed the constitution of ‘an independent Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority’ to establish, monitor, and enforce environmental standards, as well as to implement the National and State Climate Change plans. The Congress manifesto proposes the creation of a National Climate Resilience Development Mission to establish specific action protocols and clear targets in all sectors of development.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) proposes a people-centred model to assess the impact of climate change before formulating an adaptation framework. The CPI(M) envisages “evolving a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) through a participatory process involving all stakeholders especially states to tackle climate impacts such as on agriculture, extreme rainfall and related landslides and urban flooding, heat waves and urban heat islands, coastal erosion and sea-level rise.” The manifesto of the Communist Party of India (CPI) made a slight mention of the strict implementation of agreements on climate change and global warming to safeguard people and their livelihoods.

Dravidian surprise 
It was really surprising to see that the 2024 General Elections Manifesto of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has given high priority to climate change and contains eighteen proposals under the heading ‘Environmental and Climate Change’. 

DMK manifesto includes concrete proposals such as providing disaster protection tools and training to the coastal villages, installation of advanced radar facilities to give timely flood warnings to farmers and the public, launching of a separate satellite for weather research in South India, the installation of Real-Time Flood Forecasting Systems in flood-prone rivers and other water bodies, transforming the existing urban centres into Flood Resilience Cities, and the conversion of all major Union and state government offices in Tamil Nadu into working solely on solar power by 2030. What is most striking among the DMK proposals is the inclusion of climate education in the state curriculum and the establishment of chairs in Tamil Nadu colleges to promote research on climate change.

While there may not be a political party in Kerala as extensive and meticulous as the DMK, new-age parties have begun addressing the mitigation of climate change's impact on the lives of common people. For instance, in its election manifesto, Twenty20 proposes to build sea walls along 250 kilometres of the sea-erosion-prone coastline in Kerala. It should be noted that the Twenty20 party is competing in only two Lok Sabha constituencies.

Need concrete proposals
Climate change is still not a major election issue in India, even in Kerala, one of the states worst affected by recurrent floods, landslides, and rising temperatures. What is disturbing about the 2024 general election manifestos is that India’s political parties, keeping aside exemptions like DMK, are largely insensitive towards climate change and its profound impacts on people’s lives. Although the major national parties have addressed the issue in their manifestos, they have done so at an abstract, macro-level with a top-down approach. 

There are enough indications that India will face a serious crisis due to the combination of unplanned, reckless human interventions on the environment and climate change, primarily stemming from global warming. The ongoing acute water shortage in Bengaluru, the same metropolitan city that was severely affected by floods last year, is perhaps the classic example in this regard.

A significant body of sociological research indicates that the effects of a crisis on individuals are determined by socio-structural factors, including class, caste, and gender. It simply means that women, the poor, and Dalits are the worst affected by the climate change-triggered crisis in India. 

In the advanced democracies of Europe, there are already well-established Green parties that obtain a not insignificant vote share in elections by primarily addressing issues related to climate change. If India’s electoral democracy remains largely unresponsive and major political parties fail to address people’s lived experiences of climate change, then it has to be seen as a sign of eroding the integrity of its esteemed democratic establishments.

(Social anthropologist and novelist Thomas Sajan and US-trained neurologist Titto Idicula, based in Norway, write on politics, culture, economy, and medicine.)

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