Climate change barely got mentioned in the general election, but the environment still matters to voters in India

Earlier this month, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the Indian general election. This secured their third consecutive term in office, though they failed to win a majority in the lower house of the Indian parliament.

The election took place during a fatal heatwave – which are becoming more common in India due to global warming. Despite India being one of the most climate-vulnerable countries, climate issues were barely mentioned during the election. The focus was elsewhere on issues like employment, taxes, inflation and Hindu nationalism.

However, this is not because Indian voters do not care about climate change. Indians cannot ignore climate change. They are, after all, on the frontline of its impact. Environmental issues though are often mixed into other issues surrounding India’s development rather than talked about explicitly.

India and climate change

The heatwave had a clear impact on the campaign trail. Numerous candidates fainted, polling staff died, voters and campaigners fell ill, and afternoon events were cancelled due to the heat. There are even talks about moving future elections to February and March to avoid the worst of the heat. Despite this, climate change was hardly mentioned.

This is more surprising given India’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change. India is surrounded by oceans on three sides and the Himalayas to the north. It is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, severe storms and floods, melting glaciers and droughts. According to World Weather Attribution, global warming makes heatwaves in South Asia, 30 times more likely. Last year, extreme weather affected 90% of days in India.

Already, climate change is causing the loss of livelihoods, displacements and the deterioration of living conditions. Last year’s cyclone season on the east coast was the deadliest in recent times, killing 523 people and causing $2.5 billion of damage. Since the 1980s, there has been a 50% increase in cyclones. Flooding has increased threefold since the 1950s, disrupting fishermen’s livelihoods. In the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, heavy rain killed 428 people and caused $1.42 billion of damage.

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Why does climate change not get mentioned?

For many Indians, there are more pressing issues. The election debate was dominated by employment, taxes, inflation and Hindu nationalism. Whilst India has the third highest number of billionaires in the world (271), for most, the reality is very different. Many of the poorest Indians are facing rising unemployment and crises with farming and the cost of living. Meeting these basic needs is more of a priority for the poorest in India.

There is also a sense that climate change is a problem caused by the West and it should be developed countries that resolve the problem. For developing countries like India, a rise in demand for energy is inevitable if they are to develop. Therefore, they are determined to use whatever energy source is available. In India’s case this is coal, a resource in which they have plenty of domestic supply. 

Western countries wanting to potentially hinder India’s growth by restricting their use of coal appears hypocritical. Much of the West burned fossil fuels excessively to power their development. Even today, people in developed countries use far more fossil fuels than those in the developing world. This was a point Modi stressed at COP26 in 2021 in Scotland. Despite accounting for 17% of the global population, they only produce 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Many Indians also worry about the impact green policies will have on their lives. Having just recently experienced economic development, some are cautious about upending the pillars behind it. As recently as 2000, less than 60% of Indians had access to electricity.

In a poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change, 61% of respondents believe transitioning from coal to wind and solar energy will increase unemployment. 58% believed it would cause electricity outages and 57% thought it would increase electricity prices. 

Are environmental issues being ignored?

Whilst climate change is not top of the agenda, it does matter to voters. In the same Yale poll, 86% of respondents favoured the government’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2070, 85% agreed that transitioning from coal to wind and solar energy will reduce air pollution, 82% said this would reduce global warming and 84% favoured banning the construction of new coal power plants and closing existing ones to replace them with wind and solar energy. Furthermore, a survey of first-time voters ranked climate change as their third most important issue. This shows Indian voters are aware of the climate crisis, want to address it and know how to do so, especially younger voters. 

Additionally, all the national parties had detailed environmental plans in their manifestos. This is a major step forward for Indian politics. Climate change featured in both major parties’ manifestos, the BJP and Congress, for the first time in 2019. 

Climate issues are also mixed in with other social issues. Supporting farmers facing water shortages or providing communities with safe drinking water and sanitation are key issues for India. These are inherently environmental. Climate change is making droughts more common and increasing the need for effective water treatment and sanitation. Tackling these community problems involves addressing climate change and adapting to extreme weather.

This is recognised in India. The country is already investing in renewable energy. The International Energy Agency expects India to produce over half of the world’s new renewable energy over the next few years. Between 2015 and 2022, India issued over 50 climate policies encouraging the production of renewable energy to rooftop solar energy. Major projects by conglomerates, Adani Group and Tata Group, will produce enough renewable energy to power millions of homes. These are really positive and necessary steps that will boost India’s economy in a sustainable way.

Nonetheless, as India is expected to become the third largest economy in the next few years, it will require vast amounts of energy. Economic growth is clearly the priority for India and its government, but that is not to suggest climate issues are being neglected.