Does the Environment Matter to Indian Voters?

While parties have included environmental issues in their manifestoes this time, most political leaders continue to avoid public discussions on the topic.

In a way, the 2019 general elections in India are all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance is busy projecting him as a quintessential leader and a larger-than-life figure, while the opposition is trying hard to counter such a narrative.

In such a situation, a number of important social, political and economic issues have been elbowed-out and remain neglected. One such issue is the increasing pollution and environmental degradation in India.

According to a 2019 report by Greenpeace International, 15 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. In December 2018, Lancet Planetary Health published a study highlighting the seriousness of air pollution in India, which pointed out that in 2017 around 12.4 lakh (1.24 million) Indians died due to air pollution.

Of the total number who died, the study said that more than 51% were younger than 70-years of age. It also highlighted that of the total, 670,000 died from air pollution in the wider environment and 480,000 from household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels.

However, these mortality figures are attributed to only air pollution. If one adds the number of deaths related to other environmental hazards, the count will rise.

Also read: UN Environmental Report Formalises Link Between Health and Climate Change

One of the major causes for pollution and endemic illness in India is the generation and inefficient disposal of waste, especially in urban areas. Samar Lahiry in his article in Down to Earth, finds that around 377 million people live in 7,935 towns and cities around India and generate about 62 million tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste every year. Of the total waste, only 43 MT is collected, 11.9 MT is treated and 31 MT is dumped in landfills.

In many cities across India, apathetic civic attitudes and administrative laxity have resulted in the accumulation of large quantities of waste, which adversely effects the health of people living in nearby areas. A recent example of this is the accumulation of around 60,000 tonnes of waste in Prayagraj after 49 days of the Kumbh Mela, from January 15 to March 4, 2019. The National Green Tribunal found that of the 60,000 tonnes, about 18,000 tonnes of solid waste had been generated during the Kumbh itself. The nearby waste treatment plant has not been operational since September 2018. In few areas, liquid waste also percolated down to mix with the ground water.

Environmental degradation and population growth are some of the reasons for the growing water crisis in large parts of India.

In 2018, the government finally recognised the problem after the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog came out with its report titled Composite Water Management Index: A Tool for Water Management. According to the report, it is estimated that about 600 million Indians face high to extreme levels of water stress, and that about two lakh people die each year due to inadequate access to safe water. The situation is likely to deteriorate by 2030 as the water demand further increases.

Besides the rising supply-demand gap, there is also the issue of already available water sources being polluted.

In an attempt to clean the river Ganga, the Modi-led government launched its Clean Ganga Mission in 2015. Despite having a budget of Rs 27,000 crore, nothing substantive has been achieved through the mission. In fact, at most of the monitoring positions, pollution-levels are worse than they were in 2013. At present, as Ajit Ranade pointed out in his article in the Mumbai Mirror, it is estimated that only 48% of the total 2.9 billion cubic metres (approx.) of discharge received by the Ganga is partially or fully treated.

Against this backdrop, it becomes imperative to discuss and debate these issues in order to meet such foreseeable environmental challenges. Though almost all political parties and independent candidates have included environment-related issues in their manifestoes, the question remains: How many Indian voters actually read those manifestoes?

Also read: Four Stories That Captured India’s Environmental Zeitgeist in 2018

Most people attend political rallies where almost none of the national leaders – across parties – raise these pertinent issues. In their manifesto, the BJP has a sub-theme – ‘Forest and Environment’ – which comes under ‘Good Governance.’  In other parts, too, the party talks about air pollution and water-related issues. The Congress manifesto has also has sub-themes like ‘Environment and Climate Change’ and ‘Climate Resilience and Disaster Management’.

The media appears least interested in such issues.

The callousness and apathy of the Indian media reached its zenith when, during the second phase of elections in Marthwada in Maharashtra people were facing an almost drought-like situation, most national channels were busy delivering lectures on ‘nationalism’ or the need for ‘strong leadership in India’. The other region which remains under drought is Bundelkhand, where elections are scheduled for May 6. Until now, the only report linking the drought and elections has been carried by Tabassum Barnagarwala in The Indian Express.

Earlier, in his April 22 primetime programme on NDTV, Ravish Kumar talked about the impact of increasing pollution-levels and solid waste on people living in Delhi and its surrounding areas. Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment, too, shared her thoughts on that programme.

As the situation worsens with each passing day, there is an urgent need to take measures to reduce the impacts of environmental degradation. Unfortunately, however, the media and the section of the middle class who is powerful enough to shape political debates in the country don’t seem to be interested in such issues, while the marginalised sections – the real victims of pollution and other environmental hazards – lack a voice.

Amit Ranjan is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Views are personal.