Amid heated election debates, there is no mention of heat waves or climate crisis

Despite increased evidence of the climate crisis that looms large over the country, why haven’t rising temperatures and other climate emergencies found enough mention in the political debates surrounding the election?
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On the morning of April 26, 27-year-old R Sabareesh collapsed and died in a case of reported heatstroke, while waiting at a polling booth in Kerala's Palakkad to cast his vote in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Media reports say that in Kerala alone, at least seven people collapsed and died while out voting. In fact, almost every election story written this polling season may have had some mention of the sweltering heat in which the campaigns were taken out and polling happened. Political parties issued advisories to their workers on the ground, telling them to campaign during the cooler morning and evening hours, wear caps, and carry water. Two of TNM’s own journalists reporting the campaigns experienced sunburn and heat exhaustion, one in Palakkad and another in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar.

The heatwave that hit India’s southern peninsular and southeastern coast areas by late March or April has already taken many lives and caused critical health concerns for many more. But experts warn that the worst is yet to come. “India experiences its most severe weather in May and June, and the worst of extreme heatwave conditions is yet to develop across the country,” says S Abhilash, assistant professor at the Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research in Kerala’s Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). 

But despite increased evidence of the climate crisis that looms large over the country, why hasn’t it found enough mention in the political debates surrounding the election?

How climate change manifests

According to Disha Ravi, climate change activist and founder of Fridays For Future India, our political parties are yet to acknowledge that the heat we are experiencing, or the different kinds of climate calamities we are facing such as the water crisis in Bengaluru, are all directly related to the global climate crisis. “The parties view them as one-off issues that they can resolve with ad hoc policies and do not recognise how close the climate problem as a whole is,” she told TNM, alleging that in the meantime, they come up with “bad infrastructural plans that don't take into account environmental limitations”.

The impacts of India’s extreme weather have manifested in starkly different ways across the country. As per a November 2023 report by Down to Earth, the country saw a natural disaster — whether it be heat and cold waves, cyclones and heavy rain, or floods and landslides — nearly every day in the first nine months of that year. Unpredictable rains have led to droughts in several regions of the country and floods in others, adversely impacting food security. The intense heatwave has destroyed lives and livelihoods, building financial pressure on even the comparatively well-off in the agricultural sector. 

Take the example of Shaji Abraham, a farmer from Marykulam in Kerala’s Idukki district. Shaji’s son Shabin told TNM that almost four acres of their cardamom farm dried up like hay as they were unable to irrigate it. “We have not had any rain since January. The temperature was also six to seven degrees higher than previous years. Cardamom plants require watering twice a day. But the heat was of such intensity that even if we watered the plants in the morning, the cardamom pods would have been shed before we got to them in the evening,” he explained. 

The heat also drives wild animals from forests to farms in search of water, with animals causing further damage to the crops. Shaji estimates a loss of Rs 30,00,000 in this season alone, as he has lost around 1,500 kg of produce worth over Rs 2,000 per kg. 

Shaji’s is not an isolated case, farmers across states face similar difficulties. The lives of numerous others engaged in work that exposes them to the sun, such as construction workers, too have been directly affected. At Autonagar in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada, welding workers told TNM that the extreme heat has made their workdays unbearable. The process of welding itself involves exposure to heat from the sparks, and rising temperatures make it worse for these labourers. On May 5, two construction workers in Chennai suffered from suspected heat stroke, and one of them tragically died as a result. 

Yet, as Shabin noted, neither the heat and water scarcity nor the resultant plight of the farmers and other manual workers come up in election discussions.

What manifestos (don't) say

A small yet notable development is that this time, all national party manifestos have at least mentioned the word ‘climate change’, said Disha, especially pointing out the unanimous commitment to promoting renewable energy. “Both the BJP and Congress manifestos have stressed on achieving net zero emissions by 2070,” she observed.

The incumbent BJP sets ambitious targets for energy independence by 2047, a 500 GW renewable energy target, and increased bioenergy and green hydrogen production, among others. Yet, experts note that the manifesto stays silent on coal phasedown and forest rights of indigenous communities. 

The Congress manifesto, on the other hand, speaks about working with local communities in mitigating landslides, coastal erosion, human-animal conflict, and increasing forest cover. It also speaks of creating green jobs, in addition to promising a National Climate Resilience Development Mission and a Green Transition Fund to attain net zero by 2070, among other things. 

The manifesto of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which has nationally allied with the Congress in the INDIA bloc in the fight against the BJP, also promises several measures for the protection of the land rights of indigenous communities, including the scrapping of the National Forest Policy.

Besides, studies have indicated that women are more at risk during heat waves, as they spend considerably more time indoors than men do while being engaged in domestic labour, which makes them prone to indoor overheating during extreme summers. But none of the manifestos acknowledge the aggravated impact of the climate crisis on women or children.

Disha elaborated that the BJP, in its manifesto, has applauded itself a lot for what the party claims to have already done for the environment. Many of the party’s promises, in fact, are extensions of its previous schemes such as the rooftop solar scheme, and the promise to Uttar Pradesh’s farmers to turn India’s sugarcane belt into a biofuel belt. The BJP has also reiterated that it will strengthen the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) to “effectively achieve and maintain” the designated annual average ambient air quality standards in 60 cities by 2029. It has additionally repeated its promise to improve the “health and cleanliness of all major rivers”.

The manifesto also mentions that “the world has noticed the concept of LIFE (Lifestyle for Environment),” an initiative aimed at encouraging the adoption of sustainable lifestyles in India. “But the issue with LIFE is that it centres individual action, when BJP should and has the power to put emphasis on systemic action,” Disha said.

The activist acknowledged that the BJP government has pushed for an increase in the country’s renewable capacity, but called it far from enough to help us regain the lost ecological balance. “To do that, we need strict measures in place to stop deforestation and rising mining activities. We should stop passing environmental laws that are detrimental to the environment,” she said, adding that BJP’s close links with fossil fuel companies like the Adani Group are also concerning.

Notably, the BJP-led Union government has faced widespread criticism in the past decade for allegedly sacrificing the interests of the people and the environment at the altar of corporations. The government has passed several controversial environmental and forest laws including the recent Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, and the Biodiversity (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which environmentalists allege were done with “very little scrutiny or discussions”. The government’s Green Credit Program (GCP) has also come under criticism, with conservationists alleging that the “compensatory afforestation” credits that the programme allows can easily become a loophole for industries involved in forest diversions for non-forestry purposes such as mining and industrial expansions. 

“BJP’s manifesto this time mentions how they will support India’s automobile industry to transition to electric vehicle manufacturing. But it has to be noted that not once have they mentioned coal. They have also made no efforts to outline how they plan to decarbonise heavy industries. You can’t expect to achieve the goals you’re setting without decarbonisation, or without mentioning coal even once,” Disha said. She pointed out that the party is also silent on the forest rights of indigenous communities, which is something the Congress has notably highlighted.

The Congress, in its Nyay Patra, has promised to stay committed to “rapid, inclusive and sustainable development,” and protecting its ecosystems, local communities, flora, and fauna. Disha noted that the Congress is also the only party that's promising increased allocation to the National Adaptation Funds, besides pitching an independent monitoring authority akin to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“But the party really began to address the climate change problem only after 2014 (when they went out of power), so I'm beginning to wonder if they are using the issue as just another tactic to win. We also have to note that they haven't implemented many significant pro-environment measures in the states that they currently have jurisdiction over,” Disha further said, adding that amid all this, none of the parties have cared to mention how the heatwave will be dealt with. “There is no clear-cut direction yet on what they want to do about these extreme weather conditions, and that's very concerning,” she explained.

Abhilash pointed out that so far, local and state governments have been implementing resilience strategies to tackle heatwaves. “This includes developing heat preparedness plans, identifying the most vulnerable populations, implementing cool, green roofs and pavements to mitigate heat island effects, and planting trees to provide shade and facilitate evapotranspiration, etc. This will all help cool the surrounding environment. But it is imperative that all stakeholders, including communities, local self-governing bodies, and individuals, are adequately equipped to manage the situation,” he said.

Climate change as a poll issue

While all national parties have made commitments that sound great on paper, in Disha’s opinion, the truth is there have so far been no steps taken to implement any of these. “And the steps the BJP has taken is instead weakening environmental laws that protect the environment. So the question is what are the immediate steps going to counteract these issues? What kind of accountability mechanisms are they going to be open to? These are also matters we need to discuss,” she emphasised.

According to environmentalist Nithyanand Jayaraman, it is not ‘climate change’ that should become a poll issue, but everyday issues that directly affect people, like heat waves, floods, or droughts. “What people see and experience in their daily lives are phenomena like the heatwave or floods. Framing it as ‘climate change’ in election conversations would make it inaccessible to people,” he told TNM. He added that rather than looking at it as an issue of climate, it would be useful to look at things that people can relate to. 

“This is not the first time that parts of the country are experiencing heat waves; there have been similar phenomena in previous years too, albeit in lesser intensity. Yet, no effort has been made towards developing a heatwave policy as it does not affect everybody in the same manner. The elites, who are always protected, are also the ones in control. The poor are often only seen as recipients of public largesse. The elite see the world from their own perspective, and the heatwave is not as big an issue in their perspective, as they are protected indoors by fans and air conditioners. The problem is for people who cannot afford to spend time inside the house or in shade, like for instance, construction workers. Our policies are not made for them,” he said. 

Nithyanand further pointed out that issues like heat waves, drought, or water scarcity are aggravated by inequality and maldevelopment. “The government’s policies should look at removing inequality and correct the course of development,” he explained, adding that having a dedicated climate policy with no efforts made to re-think development and develop differently will not alleviate the crisis.

Besides, Abhilash also added that it is time to contemplate rescheduling the election to a season with cooler temperatures.

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