The Green Manifesto. India’s Elections squeezing out space for Green Issues

Part 1: With the impact of climate change becoming an increasingly real and present danger, visible in many ways across India, will our political parties wake up to the need to make this an issue? Don't count on it, at least not in 2019.

Between 2014 and now, among environmental issues, according to Iamrenew, perhaps none have captured the popular imagination as air pollution, water distress (both on issues of quality and quantity) and finally, with the government’s own prodding, soil health. Of course, issues around deforestation and industrial pollution and more have been sought to be pushed away, thanks to the far more visible hand of the culprits, as well as the invisible hand of the agencies that are supposed to be preventing it.

So does that mean the environment will be a key issue during the coming general elections? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem so. In fact, if anything, as of now, environment issues seem to have fallen prey to two classic dilemmas in the Indian context. The need to balance our actions vis a vis the basic needs of a population that is still woefully short of the basic necessities like power, water and quality transportation.

A second, more unfortunate issue has been the widespread belief among the relatively well-off parts of the populace that individual action cannot make a difference. In fact, while researching for some more stories on individual action in the area of power, water and more, this was the major refrain we heard at IamRenew.

This is a view that has only been strengthened by a government that has announced some massive initiatives and funding, from Namami Gange Plan and Saving Yamuna.  Massive projects like the national river linking grid, which are ironically aimed at managing the impact of climate change have precious little data and information to show in terms of their own impact on the environment.  Back in 2014, every major party in the country whether it is the ruling or opposition had manifestos mentioning sustainable development,  and environmental governance as buzzwords. Specific plans were missing, and most parties then, and now, continue to insist that specific steps will be taken in ‘consultation’ with all stakeholders. The reality has been somewhat different, with corporate voices seemingly drowning out local voices more often than not.

Of course, the many issues, both local and national that have been raked up also mean that politics simple squeezes the environment out of the headlines here. Ensuring limited awareness of the issues that matter. Which would explain the recurring discussions on a promise to double farm incomes by 2022, but not the danger of  a precipitous decline in ground water by 2020, which, in conjunction with a poor monsoon could wreak far greater havoc. In fact, the holy cow, somehow always an issue here, has collected quite a few other untouchable issues along the way, one of them being any reasoned, logical discussion around proper utilisation of agricultural resources like water and power, both increasingly free and subject to the moral hazards of the arrangement.

This time, while the main opposition Congress Party has asked the public to help in designing its manifesto for the 2019 elections, the ruling party, BJP has yet to mention something specific. An obvious pitch for them, of course, is the strides made on renewable energy, both in terms of capacity added and jobs created.

Recent setbacks in 3 key state elections might yet see the BJP talk about its global diplomacy on the green front as a key achievement, rather than talk of local issues where consensus building is a challenge. Keep in mind that the BJP has sold the high fuel taxes in India globally as a positive carbon tax to wean the country off fossil fuels and enable the transition to greener options. A more precise plan on just what and how these taxes will be used in the coming 5 years might be a great step.

It is not that awareness is not building up. Thanks to its horrific air pollution crisis, the resistance to the massive government housing redevelopment project in Delhi, which was to result in the axing of over 16,500 trees, started on social media platforms by ordinary citizens.  The same citizens managed to organize themselves and take the issue to the high court and green court, to get temporary respite from the tree culling.

With voter age profiles trending down, one really hopes that political parties will pay heed to the views of the young on the environment. Assuming the young care about the key issues of course.

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Will they consider the environment?

According to ECI data, about 2.6 crore young people in the age bracket of 18 to 20 years have already been registered in the electoral rolls. The number is 1.38 crore for the 18-19 age bracket, according to ECI data, as on February 10, 2018.

If you extrapolate the 2011 Census data, about 2 crore youngsters turn 18 every year. When the 2019 elections come around, there could be, hypothetically, 10 crore first-time voters

The big question, though is, will green issues make it to the front of the list as far as poll promises go? Initiatives like the ZBNF scheme in Andhra, Chennai’s water harvesting success, the wind energy sector’s success with power generation and even manufacturing in India shows that the sector can be a winner politically too, provided parties wake up to the issues and commit to doing what is right here. Winning might be everything, but building a sustainable future for everyone is no less important.

Read more in Part 2 about the rise of the green movement globally

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