Citizen’s manifesto for Indian elections

Neglecting core issues like environment and climate change


March 27, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

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Elections should no longer be considered as the opportunity to elect the candidate of choice but, the occasion of selecting the future that the citizen’s want.

A typical dictionary says that manifesto is a declaration of policy, belief, intentions and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or a candidate. It is made in public with the sole objective of getting more votes to get elected to lead and rule the society. In simple terms, it is a list of assurances and promises for the healthy future of the people.

What about the citizen’s manifesto?

Voters have beliefs, intentions and aims about their well-being and prosperity. Would such a manifesto help the authors of the political manifesto, understand the society better? Would that be an effective manifesto for the political parties?

Fortunately the ‘manifesto of citizens’ has the timely backdrop. One such example, is the Kumbhamela, the world’s largest gathering of religious devotees, nearly 150 million, huddled together on the banks of Ganges in India, from January 2019 for nearly two months. Taking a dip, in the holy waters of three rivers that flow from the Himalayas and meet near the northern city of Prayagraj, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is the key aim of these pilgrims.

And now comes, just a month from that congregation, world’s largest festival of electoral democracy in India. Around 900 million eligible voters of India’s total population of 1300 million, with singular faith in democracy, would decide the fate of the political parties. It is India’s general election that comes every five years to elect 543 law makers for the parliament called Lok Sabha (People’s Congress). The pilgrims of democracy, voters, would take a social dip in the political waters. This celebration by the people, of the people, for the people also lasts for nearly two months, after which the new government takes the reins in their own hands to start implementing and realising the promises made to the people.

The five elements of citizen’s manifesto

The voters have started recognising  that the political parties cannot just keep them at the centre while seeking the votes. The ecosystem, that is essential to the survival of the voters, has to be at the centre of the manifesto.

India’s unique character and its DNA lie in the participatory and interlinked societies for better living, by respecting nature. Nature is not only the lifeline for the supply of basic resources but also considered by boundless library of knowledge for India. Respecting and worshipping the five elements called ‘panchamahabuta’ (five great elements, which according to Hinduism is the other name for ‘Indian way of life’, is the basis of all cosmic creation). These five elements are- Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space.

Mountains in the north and oceans in the south hold together buzzing, bustling and bouncing India and its people. India, not only constitutes humans but also the flora and fauna. That in fact, is the starting code of the ‘Citizens Manifesto’. It’s modern algorithm uses the ancient language of ensuring the welfare and safety of nature and the ecosystems that sustain our life.

Key issues for elections 

Farmers’ distress due to dwindling yield and income, the youth’s disillusionment due to rising unemployment, poor people’s exclusion due to rising inequality are the three key priority burning issues for elections this year.

The mother of all issues, however, is the climate change and the state of the environment in India. The irreversible degradation of the nature and ecosystems, that have been providing us the fundamental resources for the development from time immemorial, is devastating. The dilemma is that the very choice made by India to select the development path is now responsible for the environmental degradation. Climate change is the catastrophic expression and display of that choice.  All other issues like terrorism, national security, inflation, fiscal deficit and even air pollution are the progeny of this mother issue.

The loan waivers, sending thousands of rupees into the saving bank accounts of the poor, providing free home appliances, free water for all, free electricity for all farmers and luring promises of very cheap cereals for staple foods have till now been part of the manifesto, and has proven to be a winning tactics for the candidate.

It is now time to celebrate the elections as the ‘festival of future’ of sustainable living. The election should no longer be considered as  the opportunity to elect the candidate of choice but the occasion of selecting the  future that citizen’s want. It should be the juncture to decide the future of the present generation without compromising that of the future generations.

Catastrophe of climate change 

India is facing the Himalayan dilemma. Water of the Ganges, in which millions take holy dip, originates from the Himalayan glaciers. They  are melting at an unprecedented speed due to global warming. Hindu-Kush-Himalaya  holds largest ice cover, after the Arctic and Antarctic regions, which  feeds the water into the rivers in India on which more than 250 million people depend. “With the best possible worlds if we get really ambitious (in tackling climate change), even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers- that for us was the shocking finding,” stated the authors of the report by the ICMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) released in February 2019.

As a consequence of the melting ice, the water in Ganges is expected to be heavily flooded between 2050 and 2060 and then progressively will vanish by 2100. Many may consider it in distant future but, the lakes formed by the ice melt are bursting and the hydroelectric dams are currently in danger, causing the floods, due to the burst of small dams signalling towards hydro-electricity crisis.

This is a direct threat to the lives of about 40 pc of India’s 1.3 billion population that depends on the food bowl of Gangetic Plain. The agricultural produce from food-bowl would have an India-wide impact.

The new report highlights how vulnerable many mountain people are. These people are from Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, with one-third living on less than USD 1.90 a day, and far away from help if climate disaster strikes.

Tensions between neighbouring nations such as India and Pakistan could exacerbate the sufferings. “There are rocky times ahead for the region. Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up,” as per ICIMOD. Migration due to sufferings in these area would cause the economic pressures on other states and competition for the jobs.

Global warming

Global warming, however, has wider impacts than just melting of glaciers and sufferings in Gangetic plains and mountains areas. Take for example 12 coastal states of India, where the fish stocks in the sea is decreasing rapidly due to warm water which absorbs more carbon dioxide and becomes acidic, which in turn disrupts the marine food-chain. The impacts on sea-fisheries is already visible and  signalling long term and irreversible damages.  Inland polluted waters in the rivers and lake have nearly wiped out the freshwater fisheries. The essential supply of nutrients is dwindling along with the lives of those employed directly and indirectly in this sector.

Use of fossil fuel is the main driver of climate change. Air pollution is the other side of the same coin. It is sarcastically stated that Delhi is the world’s capital of air-pollution. Reports keep pouring on how Indian cities are polluted with its poor air quality which is mostly thousand times worse than WHO standards. The latest report of March 2019 of Greenpeace states that 7 out of 10 most air-polluted cities are in India. Nearly 1.2 million deaths are estimated from India due to air-pollution as per WHO. Economic value of damages due to air pollution is estimated to be 3 to 8 pc of GDP of India.

The rich in India-10 pc of rich own 75 pc of national wealth and they are getting richer by 40 pc every year- have economic muscle to face rising prices, air pollution and survive the natural disasters. Inequality in India, feeds to the environmental sufferings.

It is clear that climate change is the mother-issue of farmers’ plight, youth’s disillusionment due to rising unemployment, poor people’s exclusion due to rising inequality.  Even distantly related issues like terrorism and inflation seem to be closely connected to climate change.

The manifestos replete with loan waivers, free water, free electricity to farmers, health services, reduced taxation and cheaper food grains in such grim situation appear to be archaic and out of context. What is needed is accelerated promotion of use of natural gas and clean sources of energy including solar, super energy efficiency, balanced, innovative and safe use of nuclear energy, spread of electrical charging infrastructure for  electrical vehicles and massive afforestation. The ambitious target should be to reduce the fossil fuel use by 50 pc by 2040 and 100 pc by 2100 as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Intense rain water harvesting, reducing the surface water pollution, water conservation and recycling have to be the subject of strict implementation and breaching should be dealt by punitive measures.

More importantly, all these ambitious goals appear to be within reach knowing the sky-rocketing potential of digital technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Block chain and cloud networking.

Indeed, the guiding principles for citizen’s manifesto should be the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the year 2015, one year after the last general election of India, United Nations set out an ambitious new agenda and benchmark, aiming to steer the course of the world towards sustainable development – by 2030.

Designed to comprehensively address an interconnected range of issues, these new goals on poverty and hunger removal, well being of the  people and planet, climate change, protecting the oceans and forests, health and sanitation, access to clean water and clean energy, peace and building partnerships and strong institutions are set to facilitate collective for a shared future.

Pointing to the “unprecedented prosperity, but also unspeakable deprivation around the world”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “We (India) represent a culture that calls our planet Mother Earth”, during his speech to United Nations during the adaptation of SDGs.

Indeed, one can never wish to waive the loan taken from Mother Earth for our current well being. We have to return it with interest so that future of next generation is not compromised. That should be the preamble of the citizen’s manifesto.

The author is chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former director- UNEP, IIT Alumnus

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