Mumbai: While air pollution continues to occupy a prominent place in the manifestos of India’s two biggest political parties, one of the biggest causes of climate change- coal, and the need for a justful transition away from it-remains missing from the manifestos of these parties.

This, while India remains a key voice in global climate negotiations and has agreed to phase down, if not phase out, coal.

As India reels under another intense summer that could possibly break historic heat records, heat action plans also do not feature in party agendas, nor do measures to adapt to urban flash floods and to cyclones.

There were extended heatwave spells over many parts of the country in April, and the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast above normal heatwave days for May. Next month onwards, that is from when a new government gets sworn in, the country is looking at an ‘above normal’ monsoon.

The Supreme Court of India had recently ruled that people had a fundamental right to be free from adverse impacts of climate change, and that this right flowed naturally from the right to life and the right to equality.

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

“The concerned authorities are doing their best as compared to earlier times. However, we still do not have policies that consider heat as a major parameter [in policymaking for, say, school closure or labour policy]. We are no longer in a situation where we can ignore the impacts of climate change,” said Koll.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto does have a push for electric vehicles and for renewables and green hydrogen, the Indian National Congress’s manifesto lays emphasis on green investment and forest cover assessment.

A heated election

Daytime temperatures in April this year were the 11th warmest since 1901. The effect was the most pronounced in East and Northeast India which had its worst mean temperatures since 1901. Even the southern peninsula had its second-hottest April.

April also had the highest number of heatwave days in the last 15 years over West Bengal, and the highest in the last nine years over Odisha. Heat wave to severe heat wave conditions have been prevailing over Odisha since April 15, over Gangetic West Bengal since April 17, Jharkhand, Sub-Himalayan West Bengal and Rayalaseema since April 24, in Kerala and Bihar since April 26, in the Konkan since April 27 and in interior Karnataka since April 23, as per this IMD release dated May 1.

The Lok Sabha election started on April 19 and after polling in the fourth phase on May 13, three phases still remain. The Election Commission of India had issued advisories for voters with do’s and don’ts in light of the extreme weather.

Globally as well, the last 10 months since June 2023 have been the hottest on record, courtesy the El Nino phenomenon. [The El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a recurring natural phenomenon characterised by fluctuating ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, coupled with changes in the atmosphere, which have a major influence on climate patterns in various parts of the world.]

According to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human-caused climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of heatwaves since the 1950s, and additional warming will further increase their frequency and intensity.

What the manifestos do get right

The BJP manifesto for this general election reiterated the government’s pledge for India to be net zero (bring down to zero or sequester all the carbon emissions of a country) by 2070, and its short-term goals for increasing non-fossil fuel-based energy. India wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 50%, reduce emissions intensity of the economy and increase carbon sinks or forests by 2030.

Among non-fossil energy sources, BJP has included increasing India’s nuclear capacity for energy in its manifesto, as has been the government’s thrust in recent years. In terms of renewables, the ruling party is banking on its new rooftop solar scheme, which has increased the subsidy for households that want to install rooftop solar modules, and it is banking on mega solar and wind parks, both of which are not without their challenges, as we have reported here and here.

With Delhi’s and North India’s air pollution becoming a serious issue every winter, the BJP has vowed to achieve National Air Quality Standards in 60 Cities by 2029 as part of the National Clean Air Program (NCAP). The northern Indian states affected by this winter pollution have a sizable number of Lok Sabha seats.

“We have successfully facilitated the induction of over 30 lakh EVs [electric vehicles], currently operational on our roads,” the BJP says in its manifesto. “We will increase the fleets of EVs and will also establish EV charging stations.”

Ethanol blending in petrol and green hydrogen has found a growing emphasis in the government’s policies over the years and has made it to the manifesto as well. But ethanol blending can be a challenge for India’s food security, and green hydrogen is still many years from reality. Besides these, the BJP wants to launch a National Atmospheric Mission, to be called Mausam, to make Bharat “weather ready” and “climate smart”.

Flood management in the North East, measures to mitigate the devastating effects of floods in Himalayan rivers, improvement of health and cleanliness of all major rivers, water quality management, Green Aravali Project (a green corridor to protect and preserve biodiversity in the region and combat desertification) are some of the other promises made in the BJP manifesto.

The Congress party wants to launch a Green New Deal Investment Programme focused on renewable energy, create sustainable infrastructure and focus on the creation of green jobs. It also focuses on NCAP, plus it wants a Green Transition Fund to facilitate the funding required for India’s green transition and the goal of net zero by 2070. India will need trillions of dollars to fulfil its climate ambitions.

While forest rights and access to forest produce do find mention in both manifestos, Congress has acknowledged the loss of forests in India over the years.

“India experienced the biggest loss of forest cover after Brazil between 2015 and 2020. We will work with state governments to increase the forest cover, redefine ‘forest’ and ‘forest cover’ in accordance with modern scientific standards, and involve local communities in afforestation,” it states in its 2024 election manifesto.

The party here is referring to a report by Utility Bidder, a UK-based utility costs comparison firm which analysed deforestation trends in 98 countries over the past 30 years and stated that India lost 668,400 hectares of jungles on average between 2015 and 2020. But India’s State of Forest Report, released every two years, shows that India’s forest cover has in fact increased between 2017 and 2021, something environmentalists have contested, saying our definition of forest cover and tree cover is flawed. The loss of India’s forest cover is also reflected in international dashboards such as Global Forest Watch.

The BJP has dropped its claim to have added around 9000 sq kms to the forest cover of the country, which was mentioned in its 2019 manifesto.

In this election, there are 153 parliamentary constituencies that have forest rights at their core. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the majority of these seats were won by the BJP with the Congress being the runner-up in many.

As for other poll promises being dropped, even the Congress party has dropped its earlier promise of green budgeting. “We will launch Green National Accounts by 2016-17, to ensure that the costs of environmental degradation are clearly reflected in India’s national accounts,” it had said in 2014 and reiterated in 2019, but the latest manifesto does not mention it.

Studying the issue of landslides in the hill districts, evolving measures to prevent landslides, constituting an independent Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority to establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and to enforce the National and State Climate Change plans are some of the other promises of the Congress party in the 2023 manifesto.

Room for improvement

Experts are divided over whether politicians should do better when it comes to the environment and climate change.

Anjal Prakash, research director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and an IPCC author believes both political parties have done alright in their manifestos.

“I have done the analysis of manifestos of both Congress and BJP and I have found that both have done very well,” Prakash said. “Larger issues of climate change such as phasing down coal are policy level issues. I don’t think elections are fought on these lines. Yes, agriculture or heat stress could be issues but unfortunately, those are not the central agenda for political parties. I don’t think combating climate change can fetch votes as much as other issues of which people have a clearer understanding.”

Climate activist Harjeet Singh believes the parties can do better.

“Despite the undeniable impacts of climate change and environmental degradation that ravage our communities—from the harrowing floods and raging wildfires to the suffocating smog in our cities—these urgent issues remain conspicuously absent from the core agendas of most Indian political parties during elections,” said Singh. “It is both a disservice and a danger to the electorate that the very crises threatening their livelihoods, health, and future are sidelined.”

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