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Indian Parties Give Climate Issues the Cold Shoulder in Election Campaigns

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Indian Parties Give Climate Issues the Cold Shoulder in Election Campaigns

Even as India reels under a series of heatwaves and forest fires, environment and climate change issues are barely mentioned in campaign speeches and manifestos.

Indian Parties Give Climate Issues the Cold Shoulder in Election Campaigns

A farmer points to his drought-hit land in Maharashtra, India.

Credit: Photo 93669954 © Dreamstime Agency |

In 2014, India saw a wave against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. In 2019, a pro-incumbency wave gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi a second term. In 2024, there is no talk of pro- or anti-incumbency waves. This year, the main talking point in public discussions has been the heatwaves, which the parties hardly mentioned during their electoral campaigns.

India suffered repeated heatwaves in April and May, with the highest maximum temperature rising as high as 47.2 degrees Celsius in eastern India’s West Bengal state. Many other areas recorded temperatures above 45 degrees C.

Multiple candidates fainted, polling personnel died, and voters and political campaigners fell ill. Parties had to cancel many campaign programs originally slotted in the afternoon, as being outside in large parts of the country was nearly unbearable.

The heatwaves may well impact electoral outcomes, as many have attributed the low voter turnout in the first four phases to the heat wave conditions.

The situation has prompted some people to suggest that India needs to start scheduling its elections before peak summer. Winter and monsoon are considered unsuitable for national elections as some parts of the country become difficult to access during these seasons.

According to Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, shifting Indian elections to February-March due to rising temperatures in April-May warrants consideration.

“Climatic trends indicate increasing heat during April-May, potentially affecting voter turnout and health risks for citizens during campaigning and voting. February-March generally experiences milder weather, offering a more conducive environment for electoral activities,” he told The Diplomat.

He, however, pointed out that logistical challenges such as school examination schedules and agricultural cycles need addressing. Careful planning is essential to ensure equitable participation, considering diverse regional climates, he said.

“Climate change underscores the importance of this debate but a comprehensive analysis of social, economic, and logistical implications is crucial before advocating for such a significant shift in India’s electoral schedule,” said Prakash, one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

Such an uncomfortable summer did not come out of the blue – this has been predicted for quite a few years now. In 2022, World Weather Attribution (WWA) reported that rising global temperatures had made South Asian heatwaves 30 times more likely. It warned that global warming will increase the frequency of record-breaking temperatures in India and Pakistan.

While the population reels under extreme heat, climate change has been the elephant in the room during the election campaign.

Heat is only one of the issues. Scientific reports say climate change has made different Indian regions more vulnerable to extreme weather events like erratic rainglacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), drying of streamscoastal erosion, and cyclones. These issues may increase health hazards, lower workforce productivity, increase the frequency of natural disasters, and impact food security.

However, despite a multi-layered calamity unfolding in various parts of India due to climatic changes, they have become electoral issues only where the crisis has knocked on the door.

In Sikkim, where elections to Parliament and the state assembly are being held simultaneously, former Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has promised to scrap the upcoming large hydropower projects if his party is voted to power.

His promise comes in the backdrop of the major natural calamity that struck Sikkim, a Himalayan state in eastern India, last year. A GLOF washed away the state’s biggest hydropower dam and thousands of houses and other infrastructure. Over a hundred people were killed.

After the disaster, environmentalists highlighted that the Sikkim government was repeatedly warned against going ahead with its plan of expanding the hydropower network in times of climate change.

Erosion and sea-level rise became an election issue in some parts of coastal Odisha but not in West Bengal’s coastal belt, even though vast stretches of both the eastern Indian states face two important impacts of global warming – losing land to erosion and sea level rise and increased risks from powerful cyclones.

In Ladakh, a Himalayan region in north India, the residents’ agitation demanding the restoration of the previous administrative structure has climate issues integral to their program. Many of them fear that the government is planning to take away their common grazing land to hand those lands over to big corporate companies to set up mega solar power projects.

Sometimes, even areas at the forefront of climate disasters saw no discussion on climate change.

In north India’s Uttarakhand, the forest fires currently ravaging the forests did not become an election issue. In Northeast India’s Assam, the rising risk of flooding due to changing rain patterns was conspicuous by its absence from the election campaign.

“There has been no mention of climate change in the election dialogue, despite India being heatwave-prone for the past several years,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.

According to Koll, data indicates that there has been an increase in density, frequency, duration, and area covered by heatwaves due to global warming. This means that there is no escape from the heat. While the authorities concerned were doing their best compared to earlier times, the country still has no policies that consider heat as a major parameter.

“We need to work on policies that have provisions to cut down on working hours. We are no longer in a situation where we can ignore the impacts of climate change,” Koll said.

The manifesto of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) only mentions climate in passing, speaking of promoting “nature-friendly, climate-resilient, remunerative agriculture,” encouraging farmers “to use high-yielding, climate resilient and bio-fortified varieties of seeds,” proposed launch of a “National Atmospheric Mission” to make the country “weather-ready” and “climate-smart” and building “coastal resilience against climate change.”

The main opposition party Congress’ manifesto has more detailed plans — a 13-point program under the heading of “Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Management.” However, these issues rarely featured in their leaders’ speeches at public rallies.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s manifesto mentions climate change briefly but is more comprehensive. They proposed to “evolve a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) through a participatory process involving all stakeholders, especially states” to tackle climate impacts on agriculture, extreme rainfall and related landslides, urban flooding, heatwaves, urban heat islands, coastal erosion, and sea-level rise.

They proposed to develop “sustainable and environment/climate-friendly development strategies for the fragile Himalayan region and eco-sensitive regions of the Western Ghats and the North-East,” something that many environmental and human rights activists have long been demanding.

But all these critical issues are missing from their leaders’ election rally speeches.

One may ask, is it the lack of the issue’s appeal in catching votes, or the politicians’ inability to explain the magnitude of the crisis to the masses, at work behind this glaring neglect of the world’s most burning issue in the world’s largest democratic exercise?