On World Environment Day, expectations from our new government

Environment protection was the missing narrative in all election campaigns and discourse. The elected must now take it up on priority.

The general election to elect the 18th Lok Sabha has just been concluded in the country. In electoral politics, public speeches, meetings, rallies, road shows and manifestos form an integral part of any political party’s campaign to convince and lure voters to elect them. Over the past few months, too, hundreds and thousands of such activities were organised by all parties in these elections. Sadly, environment got the short shrift in all of this.

The elections were conducted in seven phases across the country and with the results declared on June 4th, we now have a fair idea of who will form our new government and who gets to play the very critical role of the opposition in Parliament. Now is the time to hold them accountable for the promises made through their manifestos.

The election promises and commitments made through party manifestos to citizens ranged from improving the economy to generating employment, guaranteeing social security to women empowerment, infrastructure development to strengthening law and order and protecting and safeguarding Constitutional values. 


Read more: Our cities are struggling; what do BJP and Congress manifestos promise them?


The one element which stood out in manifestos of the two major political parties contesting the election, the INC and BJP, was ‘measures for safe environment’. But sadly, these remained mere inclusions in the manifestos, and did not form part of any public events or addresses by any of their campaigners. 

If we take a closer look at the manifestos, some of the common issues in both the party manifestos included study of landslides and disaster mitigation in hills states, measure for reducing human-animal conflicts, reducing river pollution, increase forest cover, increasing consumption of clean cooking fuel, and reducing air pollution. 

A few agendas were separately addressed. In the INC manifesto, these included formation of an Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority, establishing Green Transition Fund to facilitate Net Zero by 2070 and banning discharge of any effluent in rivers by law. 

On the other hand, BJP’s manifesto talks about increasing non-fossil fuel for electricity generation, achieving national air quality standard in 60 cities by 2029, launching the Green Aravalli Project for preserving biodiversity, e-waste disposal plan, promoting recycling, increasing electronic vehicles and biofuel. But again, these agendas remained on paper (the manifesto), and were never the subject of speeches, rallies, public meetings etc.

Why we should care: The calamities we face

It is no secret any more that the world is facing a serious climate crisis which is being seen as the biggest threat humans have ever faced. The world is witnessing the effect of environmental degradation and climate change every day, somewhere or the other, in the form of increasing temperatures, floods, drought, cyclones, water crisis, forest fire, landslides and many more. 

The case with India is no different. We are witnessing a significant increase in heat stress, with record high temperatures along with humidity. An IMD study indicates that India is facing an alarming 30% rise in moist heat stress over 40 years. Every day the temperature reaches a new high, affecting life in myriad ways. In the last three months alone there have been reports of 16,000 heatstroke cases and 60 deaths.

Water crunch

Women queueing up to collect water from a tanker.
Private water tankers are the primary source of water for many urban residents. Representational image. Pic: Laasya Shekar

Water scarcity is another complex issue due to rapid and unplanned urbanisation, with industrialisation and unsustainable agriculture affecting thousands of lives. The data shows India’s main reservoirs hitting their lowest levels in five years affecting availability of drinking water and power this year. 

In Delhi, residents are fighting on the streets in scorching heat, because the water supply in the city has gone down to 969 million gallons per day against the daily requirement of 1,290 million gallons. Even then, there are reports of the supplied water not being drinkable. Bengaluru, touted as India’s Silicon Valley, shows a 50% decrease in the water supply from the required 528 million gallons. These are just a few examples of water crises which might only worsen in coming years. 


Read more: Water crisis 2024: Bengaluru parched, but cities across India struggling too


Pollution

thing smog on ECR road chennai
A two-wheeler rider on Chennai’s East Coast road, amid thick smog. File pic by Laasya Shekhar.

In terms of air quality, we have become the world’s third most polluted country. 42 of our cities are in the list of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. Single-use plastic waste from the country stands at 5.5 million tonnes, placing India at third position globally in terms of plastic waste contribution. It has a recycling rate of only 8%, which is projected to go up to 11% by 2035, according to some reports.


Read more: More blue days than blue skies in Indian cities


Mountain risks

Environmental issues are affecting every region of the country, but hill states are perhaps the most vulnerable. Unplanned construction, afforestation and overburdening hills are making the young Himalayas more fragile. News reports are filled with instances of landslides in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other mountain states. The risk multiplies as the monsoon season approaches.  Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town reportedly faces the problem of deep cracks in houses, roads and other construction. Families are living in fear and shifting to a place of safety which brings us to the issue of climate refugees. 


Read more: “There should be no aggressive development projects in the hills” – Dr Anil Joshi


Loss of forests

Another burning issue in the mountain state is forest fire. Uttarakhand has witnessed about 1000 incidents of forest fire this year alone, causing loss of 1,400 hectares of forest and killing five people. 

Unchecked cutting down of forest for mining is another hazard communities are facing. According to a state government affidavit before the National Green Tribunal, 98,000 trees have been cut down since 2012 in biodiversity reach forest of Hasdeo for the Parsa – Basan coal blocks in Chhattisgarh and there are new reports of cutting another 15,000 trees in December 2023. The local tribal communities are protesting and fighting for the forest and livelihood.


Read more: What can be done about forest fires in Aarey?


Migration

Increasing manifestations of the climate crisis – flood, cyclone, drought, rising sea levels and others – are compelling citizens to migrate from their native places. Substantial migration from Sundarbans continues to take place both on a seasonal and temporary basis. Decrease in forest cover has caused loss of livelihoods for many tribal communities in Jharkhand, forcing 73% of the population from Latehar to migrate. There has been no political plan to help the communities. 

These are just the most visible issues, incidents and instances that indicate how vulnerable we are, and how compromised environmental security is. If not addressed immediately, human survival itself will be at risk.

Needed: Decisive and strong action from leaders

Unfortunately, as mentioned, none of these issues were discussed at any level of thoroughness during the election campaign of political parties. Some, as mentioned above, do find a place in the manifestos but there is no legal mechanism with respect to enforceability if the parties do not fulfil their commitments under manifesto. 

It may be the case that parties do not think that these issues can attract masses in rallies, and can work as catalyst for vote conversion. Or they perhaps know that even citizens at large do not see environmental problems as election agenda or the basis on which to elect their representatives. The parties keep them involved in rhetoric and jingoism and the public seems to enjoy it too. 

Even our media houses do not cover these critical issues and limit themselves to discussing who is winning or losing the election. But remember – the climate crisis is real and is continuously impacting us all at an unimaginable pace. The historic March 2024 Supreme Court judgment, conferring the status of a constitutionally protected fundamental right on freedom from adverse effects of climate change, has opened up new avenues for climate justice.

The onus is now on citizens and the government to take adequate measures towards that. We hope that our newly elected representatives and the government as an entity will move beyond lip service, and initiate concrete policies and measures to deliver on the commitments made in their manifesto.

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