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India elections: Why is no one talking about climate change?

Midhat Fatimah in New Delhi
May 9, 2024

Climate change hasn't emerged as a hot-button election issue in India, despite a staggering 80% of people living in areas at risk of climate-induced disasters.

Residents carry belongings on rickshaws through a street flooded with the rising water level of river Yamuna in New Delhi, India, July 12, 2023
Experts say climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of flooding and landslides during India's treacherous monsoon seasonImage: Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

When India's Yamuna River, which runs through the country's capital region, overflowed its banks last year, New Delhi found itself plunged into a flood emergency.

At the height of the crisis, Bhagwati Devi, who runs a small vegetable farm in the low-lying Yamuna plains on the outskirts of New Delhi, had to be evacuated to higher ground.

"We spent the entire night stranded up on a tree before we were evacuated," she said.

The 37-year-old said she spent the following weeks in abysmal conditions on the capital's highway as her shanty was washed away — along with many of her belongings.

Devi's livelihood suffered for months as her crop was destroyed in the floodwaters.

Environmental experts blamed heavy rainfall in India's northern states along with poor urban planning for New Delhi's floods.

This year, Devi will cast her vote in the ongoing national elections. But, unaware that the consequences of climate changemight affect her life substantially, it will not influence her vote.

The case of Devi is not an outlier, as anecdotal evidence suggests that the issue of climate change is rarely seen trickling down in India's electoral politics.

Torrential rain sweeps across northern India

Why isn't environment a hot-button election issue?

Experts say that the discourse around climate change is not actually missing in India, it's just different.

"The politics of climate change in India is just not labeled neatly as 'climate change' but it does not mean that climate change is not shaping the Indian politics," said Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Sustainable Futures Collaborative, an independent climate change research organization.

Most of the politics around climate change translates into finding ways to solve the consequences of climate change — which can be seen if we look at the mobilization around irrigation, lack of access to water, demands for farm loan waivers etc., he explained.

"In party manifestos, many sectoral promises are climate-related but not placed within the climate chapters," he said.

Connecting the dots

Aarti Khosla, founder of Climate Trends, an Indian research-based consulting initiative, explained that to many people climate change in itself is never the issue — but it becomes an issue when it makes other problems more pronounced.

"We continue to think that climate politics only exists when there is a Green Party like that in the West or when the exact terminology of 'climate change' is used in manifestos," she said.

"I don't think climate change will be addressed like that in India anytime soon."

India elections: Young people left behind

How do Indian voters perceive climate change?

Observers believe that awareness about climate change in India is growing.

Only 9% of Indians said they know "a lot" about global warming. But when given a small definition of global warming, a resounding 84% said that it is happening, according to the findings of a 2022 survey.

The study also reported that 81% of Indians are "very worried" about global warming.

Another survey that was conducted across seven cities revealed that the climate crisis ranked as the third most important concern among first-time voters in India.

"I think people are much more aware than what we give them credit for," Khosla said.

But despite the growing concern, it has not yet become a major issue in electoral politics.

Many people consider climate change as a natural phenomenon that cannot be controlled, according to climate activist Sonam Wangchuk.

"They don't see that the situation could be different if their concerns around climate change were presented in their voting choices," Wangchuk said.

Pillai noted that the environmental change that is being driven by climate change is "creating social and political demands and in that sense, climate politics exists and is thriving."

How are politicians responding to climate change?

Until two decades ago, only a few lines were dedicated to environmental promises in election manifestos but that is changing.

Major parties' manifestos now have multiple pages dedicated to promises of formulating better climate policies, reflecting the growing concern and awareness around climate change in the minds of Indian people.

It was in the 2019 national elections that climate change featured in the manifestos of the two major parties — the BJP and the Congress — for the first time. The promises of green policies saw a major jump since the 2014 election.

This time again, both major parties in their manifestos have articulated their plans to mitigate climate risks and bolster India's climate resilience.

However, what has not changed is the fact that climate change remains largely omitted from the election campaigns of political parties. 

Even in the Indian Parliament, the discourse around climate change has been largely ignored.

A 2022 study found that between 1999 and 2019, only 0.3% of questions raised by politicians were about climate change.

"Speeches on climate change do not connect with the public unless there is a triggering issue," said Rajeev Gowda, a candidate from the Congress party contesting the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, which is experiencing a water crisis.

"We actually repel a lot of people by saying it's climate change," said Khosla.

If we present climate change in terms of more palpable events of day-to-day life, then we can get more people to understand it, she said.

India's heat wave could affect the election

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Edited by: Keith Walker