Can green politics take centrestage in India?

A review of Constitutions across the globe reveals that countries whose constitutions enshrine an environmental commitment show a resilient approach towards fighting the climate crisis.

Published: 17th January 2023 09:37 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th January 2023 09:37 PM   |  A+A-

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Illustration used for representational purpose only.

India has been witnessing extreme weather events -- changes in rainfall patterns, erratic heat waves and other climate-induced crises causing large-scale destruction and losses -- in the past few years across the country. There were, in fact, extreme weather events on 314 out of the 365 days in 2022, according to the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Down to Earth (DTE) Data Centre. This, according to DTE, means that at least one extreme weather event was reported in some part of the country on each of these days. 

Has the increased frequencies and severity of weather events including floods, droughts, coupled with changed agricultural productivity, led to a sincere response from our political parties? Not really.

This despite a  recent scholarly work underlining that climate change can have an effect on political outcomes. Higher the rise in temperatures higher the turnout, the study found. So, can we argue that climate crisis affects the electoral behaviour of political parties and politicians?

Despite the study, there is no clear evidence of this claim holding true for developing countries.

Climate crisis in public discourse

Green politics is yet to see the light of day in India.  The politicisation of environmental problems is yet to take off.

A keen review of the manifestos of the political parties does show that they have had mentions of the climate crisis. Our two major political parties, the BJP and Congress, mentioned climate crisis for the first time in their manifesto ahead of the 2019 General Election. A review of the manifestos of the regional parties also reveals an awareness about the concerns of climate crisis. Political parties like the DMK, Trinamool Congress, and NCP have given space for environmental issues in their manifestos.

But the mere presence of climate concerns in the political manifestos does not translate into policy formulation and implementation. A report reveals that most of the MPs were not present during the discussion on air pollution in the house. This shows that most elected representatives are merely paying lip service to climate crisis. The vital issue remains at the margin for both the elected and electors at a time when polarisation and identity politics hold sway.

Lack of political accountability

One major reason for the ignorance of climate issues in elections is the citizens' inability to make it an electoral issue. It does not sway elections.

The work of Prof Katharina Ó Cathaoir at the University of Copenhagen is illuminating in this regard. She argued for the need for solidarity among citizens with respect to the right to health if the State had to recognise it. 

Public discourse sadly is not dominated by the loss of life due to climate change. In a response to a question on the loss of lives and property to climate change, the Minister of State, Environment, forest and climate change, Ashwini Choubey replied in Rajya Sabha that there is no quantifiable attribution of empirical evidence in this regard.

However, a study by the highly respected Lancet journal stated that nearly seven lakh deaths in India are linked to abnormal temperatures every year.  

Our failure to make climate crisis an electoral issue also stems possibly from our constitution being more vocal on the issue. A constitutional entrenchment of environmental rights will possibly play a part in protecting the environment and also create political accountability.

The presence of environmental constitutionalism also creates a space for democratic commitment towards addressing the climate crisis. A review of Constitutions across the globe reveals that countries whose constitutions enshrine an environmental commitment show a resilient approach towards fighting the climate crisis.

The constitution of South Africa guarantees that everyone has the right to an unharmed or protected environment. Similarly in Australia and Canada, a constitutionally recognised commitment to climate change measures has had an impact on electoral politics. As reported in CNN, climate change was the defining issue of the recently concluded Australian election.

The constitutionally mandated provisions of environmental protection are not only limited to these rich countries but also finds a place in the constitution of Bhutan and Kenya, both relatively poor countries. The constitution of Bhutan enacted in 2008 requires the government to ensure that 60% or more of the country remains forested in perpetuity. Similarly, the constitution of Kenya requires a minimum forest cover of 10%.

Such citizen-centric approaches give hope to communities seeking to tackle the looming climate crisis.

Role of communities

Back in India, in a village -- Surpura -- 16 km away from Jodhpur city, the Bishnoi community is invoking the indigenous method of saving trees and conserving water. Their methods are rooted in the century-old practices that their forbears have followed. The message of environmental protection is engrained in these communities from birth, says Dinesh Bishnoi, who works at the village panchayat. These communities use every forum from state institutions to non-state institutions to resist the degradation of the environment.

Historian Ramachandra Guha in his book Unquiet Woods has narrated the resistance peasants put up against both the colonial and post-colonial state, showing that the idea of environmental protection is rooted in Indian civilisation and that nothing has changed even after independence in the behaviour of the State.

Hope then stems from communities such as those in some villages who are using painting to propagate messages emphasising the need for conservation of water, the importance of nature and so forth. A social activist working in Pisangan in Ajmer, Rajasthan uses short films, ads on cleanliness, and climate change to educate communities about the climate crisis.

These community-centric approaches by citizens is a reminder of what the State can and needs to do to address the looming crisis of climate change. 

Rajesh Ranjan is a Samta fellow and also Co- Convenor at Legal Aid and awareness Committee NLU Jodhpur. Views are personal


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