India

Are environmental issues finally an important part of India's election discourse?

Aug 8, 2018
By Mayank Aggarwal
 
Will environmental issues finally bask in the electoral limelight? If events across some of the major Indian cities in the past few years are to go by, it is definitely the time for green issues to shine. The environmental issues plaguing the internet-savvy electorate as well as the poor sections of these major cities may finally become an integral part of the election discourse.
 
Over the past year, the national capital has garnered the most attention for environmental issues, compared to other major cities in the country. Cleaning of the polluted river Yamuna, considered holy by Hindus, has been a campaign issue for political parties for over decades. But the limelight seems to have now shifted to the Central Government's plan to axe over 16,500 trees in Delhi for the redevelopment of government colonies.
 
In June 2018, there was a much-publicised citizen protest against the move, with Delhi's residents even going to court. It also resulted in a political slugfest between three major political parties of Delhi - the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress. The AAP-led Delhi government also had a tiff with BJP-led government of India about who allowed the felling of such trees.
 
Though the cutting of trees is on hold for now it is expected to become a point of consideration for at least a section of Delhi's voters.
 
Urban floods in Chennai and Mumbai, the water crisis in Shimla, forest fires in Dehradun, polluted lakes in Bengaluru, increasing human-wildlife conflict across India or campaign to save Mumbai's Aarey forest area are apt examples of some of the issues that have caught the attention of media as well as the public. Such issues even forced political parties to take note of them and clarify their stand.
 
Is it something new?
 
An environmental issue gaining centre stage in media and public discourse is not a new thing. Over the past several decades there have been numerous instances of environmental issues being in the limelight but they were not an integral part of the election conversation. In some cases, even if they became an election subject they lost significance once the environmental issues were settled.
 
Environment has been a part of the manifestos of other major national parties too in the last few years. For instance, the 2014 manifesto of the Congress also had several environment protection related promises including cleaning of River Ganga.
 
Will environmental issues gain centre stage in the 2019 election campaign?
 
So even as environmental issues keep cropping up in the media, public and sometimes political discourse, will they be a significant part of the 2019 election campaign?
 
"Yes, I believe they will be because I think pollution is an equal opportunity killer and doesn't discriminate between rich and poor," said Muhammad Khan, a Congress party spokesperson. 
 
Picking up the trend early, in March 2018, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia presented a "green budget".
 
"This is perhaps the first time that such a budgeting exercise has been attempted in the country where the impact of each department's proposals to control pollution were studied in a scientific manner before making budgetary commitments," Sisodia had said while presenting the 2018-19 budget of the government in the Delhi legislative assembly. 
 
Will young and internet savvy Indians drive the green issues?
 
A significant section of India's middle class, especially in urban and semi-urban areas, is active online - mainly on social media. There have been instances where the support or opposition of this social media generated pressure group, on issues concerning the environment, has had an impact on a policy.
 
For instance, the resistance to the central government's housing redevelopment project in Delhi, which was to result in the axing of over 16,500 trees, started on social media platforms. As a result, citizens who first coordinated online, got together on the ground, protested and successfully approached courts to stop the project temporarily. With the young voters forming an important part of the total voters, it has also become hard for political parties to ignore their views.
 
Is it India's Green Party moment?
 
Is the time ripe for the development of a Green Party in India like in some of the western European countries such as Germany, Sweden, Finland and the UK? A Green Party is a political party that looks at the development of society through the prism of environment protection.
 
But in India, basic facilities like water, electricity or even food are still a struggle for many and land up constituting a major part of election promises. So experts feel that it may be early for environmental issues to reflect in the form of a political party for elections.
 
"There are concerns among the middle class about the environment but they are only bothered or concerned about the environment when it is really serious and not a day-to-day basis," said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "On a day-to-day basis the Indian middle class living in urban areas or towns or metropolitan cities don't care too much about the environment. Their concern is only limited to when they read something in the newspaper. Everybody thinks that someone else should be doing something about it," he added, stressing it is not yet India's Green Party moment.
 
"It is still at least 20 years away. It will take time for the environment to become an election issue in India," he said.
 
(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com. Feedback: gopi@mongabay.com)

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