India and Elections: Will the environment and climate ever be a priority?

Climate and environmental protection are invisible in Indian electoral politics. Some chief state ministers are shaking up politics in India by catalyzing dynamics that dilute the power of traditional political parties. This bottom-up effect could open opportunities for climate and environmental politics. Turning climate and environmental concerns into stand-alone issues in Indian politics will not work. Instead the challenge is to integrate the “green” and the “people” agendas into a new politics of development that tackles the poverty and governance dilemmas that lie at the core of India.

What do 800 million people want?

India, the world’s largest democracy, is gearing up for elections in 2014 and political parties are chiseling away at their grand election pledges. The process of voting in India becomes a spectacle itself when about 800 million eligible voters exercise their right to participate in the world’s largest elections. What issues rank at the top of the agenda?

This general election occurs amid slow growth and high inflation, particularly food price inflation, coupled with escalating evidence of widespread corruption at varying levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. As corruption is uncovered, it is even more evident that poor governance underpins many of the national and state problems.

Natural disasters continue to hurt India’s citizens, economy and infrastructure. Nearly 6,000 people were killed in the recent flood resulting from unprecedented rainfall in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand in June 2013. For the first time, even the Indian media made the connection between natural disasters and climate change.

Against this backdrop, the question is whether the debates building up to the election will connect the environment and development or whether traditional topics will continue to dominate the election. Thus far the dominant issues in Indian elections range from corruption, development, food prices, cast and community to India’s changing demographics, unemployment, poor access to education, healthcare and infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. While national issues and leaders do affect local voting behavior, it is the dynamics at state-level that cast their sway over voters’ choice of members of parliament. This explains why so many parties do very well in national elections despite their concentrated presence, in a region or single state (or even a sub-region within a state).

India’s changing political landscape

New political players

Five major states held elections recently, setting the scene for the national elections and confirming that reconfiguration of the political landscape is underway. The ruling national party lost its foothold in nearly all states and, most remarkably, a political party formed just months before the elections not only made a successful debut, but also defeated the leading party in Delhi and formed a state government.

This new entrant is the result of a coalition between the anti-corruption and right-to-information movements, and is led by civil servant turned activist Arvind Kejriwal. The “Common Man” Party won the elections on the back of an agenda touting slogans emphasizing good and corrupt-free governance, bottom-up governance process, low inflation and “infrastructure access for all”. The tenet of this party was based on “swaraj” stressing self-governance, community building and decentralisation. The government will be directly accountable to the people instead of higher officials. Additional coalitions have been announced this year.

The rise of the middle class, long considered a non-player in Indian elections, is a strong political force. The main support for the “Commons Man” Party came mostly from Delhi’s middle class demanding to be heard. This class came into social action during the anti-corruption campaign by Anna Hazare, and tragic rape of a young woman in New Delhi.

Bottom-up dynamics

The state elections also proved that chief state ministers (similar to United States’ governors) who brought economic and social benefits to their constituents were re-elected. These elections proved, once again, that local politics and accountability matter. The heavy role that capital-based political parties play in India is weaker today. Now, some strong chief state ministers are changing the evolution of politics by enabling bottom-up dynamics that dilute otherwise centralized political power. The bottom-up effect has also shifted the political lens toward the local needs of key constituencies such as economic development, equity and good governance.

No bottom up “green effect” yet

The environment and climate change are not political priorities in India. Unsurprisingly, politicians still focus on what they see as the unsolved development challenges.

In the past, some strong electoral candidates who promoted environmental issues failed politically. The People’s Political Front is a case in point. The party was formed by renowned environment and development activist Ms. Medha Patkar, who also founded one of the biggest movements in India, which opposed large dams, called the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The NBA made a reputation for its movement toward people-centered development, yet the same voters who had been displaced and impacted from the construction of the dam seem to have voted for pro-dam traditional political parties. Large dams are a symbol of development and progress, and this outlook may be the cause of such voting ambivalence. Another reason for the lack of support for NBA could be the lack of economic alternatives to business-as-usual development via environmentally sound, technically and economically feasible proposals that are catered to people’s development needs in the region.

Green posturing during elections

Many political parties project their candidate as being “pro-environment” and this practice has become louder since the last general election, leading many parties to promote a “green” vision. Statements made in the election manifestos for the 2009 general elections illustrate this point:

  • “We will protect India’s natural environment and take steps to rejuvenate it” (Election manifesto of the Congress Party)
  • “One earth, green earth: Creating the right environment” (The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party). They went further: “it would pursue national growth objectives through an ecological sustainable pathway that leads to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, recognizing that containing global warming is essential to protecting life and security of people and environment”.
  • "It would take steps to control emission of greenhouse gases through energy efficient technologies and effective regulation" and by "promoting solar and other non-conventional energy sources." (The Communist party)

Unfortunately for India’s people and natural resources, these were mostly empty slogans, unsubstantiated with action or political vision. None of these political parties were ever held publicly accountable for making empty electoral promises on environmental protection and climate change.

No political party has faced public accountability for making empty electoral promises on environmental protection and climate change.

Beneath these political parties’ positions to environmental protection lies the notion of environmental action as a burden to development through the undesirable increase in the costs of economic activity. Environmental and climate actions are thus presented as unaffordable for India and the developing world.

Some still portray environmental worry as a concern (or “conspiracy”) of “rich countries” that will damage developing countries by keeping the poor in poverty. To others, environmental agendas are illegitimate as, in their view, they accrue from northern agendas and funding.

The Way Forward

The question is whether the environment and climate change will ever become an electoral issue in India. Will the 2014 general election be any different?

Presenting the environment and climate as standalone issues in the election will not work.Instead, the weaving of climate change and environment into two macro objectives for India could work: development that tackles poverty and governance models that put people first. Poverty and poor governance harm the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians and need to remain central issues.Environmental actions and climate solutions cannot and should not be treated as “agenda issues” in and of themselves; they need to be embedded in the broader vision for India.

Environmental actions and climate solutions cannot and should not be treated as additional “agendas”; they need to be embedded in the broader vision for India.

Gone are the days of a single political party system. The Indian political landscape is under reconfiguration with coalition of political parties becoming the new the norm. Large regional parties still lead political parties and today they nurture a strong local base. Since these regional parties are typically led by strong political personas, these individuals are further reshaping the national agenda, by departing from traditional politics in India.

The bottom up approaches by chief state ministers and strong regional politicos could open a window of opportunity for climate resilient and inclusive development if state politics integrates this vision into the national agenda. There needs to be a debate over the choices to invest in infrastructure for the sake of economic growth only versus investments in infrastructure that tackle poverty as well. There are signs of politicos recognizing that quality of growth matters.

An opportunity looms large for reframing environment and climate change issues around this vision for India. This debate on how to achieve better growth will no doubt heat up as we near the election in the months to come.

It is important to bring greater focus to the impacts of natural disasters on the economy and citizens, and particularly to link development and growth. Even in the United States, where the adaptive capacity of its people are far higher than a majority of Indians, many continued to struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy even months after the natural disaster.

In India, people are still reeling from the damages caused by the floods in Uttarakhand and the general insurance claim alone from the damages has been estimated to be a Rs. 30 billion (1 rupee is about 0.016 US dollar), which does not even account for the huge financial burden on the Ministry of Finance and the thousands of Indians who do not own “insurance policies”.

Given the various peculiarities of India, including an under-developed yet fast developing economy, climate change and environmental protection must be established as pillars of a new, pro-poor development agenda. This alone will allow these issues to become significant within the election.

Mahatma Gandhi said:

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems.

Gandhi reflects the reality that we now have enough know-how in most key sectors to leap-frog conventional development. We can close the gap between technology, politics, economics, and political will, and have the capacity to choose a new pathway to resilient development that is sustainable, equitable and works for the people.

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