Australia votes on environment. India is yet to wake up.
While Australia is set to decide its Prime Minister based on environmental policies, pollution seems to be a non-issue for the Indian electorate that breathes the most toxic air in the world.
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The elections across the world have been decided on the policies that affect the voters the most. Hence, issues like cost of living, taxes, healthcare being of paramount importance in deciding the narrative come as no big surprise.
However, this time, the environment has emerged among the major issues for Australian voters, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos Issues Monitor.
The monitor — which is Australia’s longest-running survey of community concerns — found that 23% of respondents cited the environment as one of their biggest concerns, making it the fourth top issue. Preceding environment, the biggest concerns for Australians were — predictably — access to affordable health services at 32%, followed by the cost of living at 31% and crime at 25%. Australia’s AUD 1.87 trillion (Rs 91 lakh crore) economy is slowing. However, the number of voters for whom it is a major worry has fallen since the last election to 23% from 30%. It ranked as the fifth major concern in the poll.
This stands out, especially because, in the last federal election in 2016, the environment was ranked ninth with only 14% of the voters considering it a real poll issue. According to Ipsos social researcher Daniel Evans, community concern about the environment had been on a gradual upward trajectory for several years but the pace of the increase has picked up markedly in recent months.
The Coral Gardens near Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, in Queensland, Australia. (File Photo: Reuters)
Speaking to the media, Evans reportedly said, “Now there is real momentum around it. According to government agencies and environmental organisations, Australians are increasingly paying more attention to climate change, renewable energy, drought, environmental regulation and protection of natural habitats, such as the Great Barrier Reef, under threat from global warming.”
The survey goes on to elaborate that anxiety about the environment was most pronounced among those aged under 25. However, there has also been a marked rise in the number of older voters ranking environment among their biggest worries. In fact, two-thirds of Australians believe their country is already being affected by climate change and 46% agree that the change is “entirely or mainly” caused by human action, according to the annual climate survey issued by Ipsos.
If one were to look at it in the paradigm closer home, India is on the brink of the seventh (and the last) phase polling to elect its new government. However, surprisingly (or not!) the issue of environment or pollution is nowhere close to the central narrative that shall decide the next government. To their credit, nearly all major political parties have included environment and allied issues in their manifestos. However, how many of them have actually addressed this in their campaigning? More importantly, are the voters even aware of what all constitutes the manifesto?
For instance, the ruling BJP’s manifesto has a theme under the ‘Good Governance’ section titled ‘Forest and Environment’ and mentions air and water pollution and related issues. To their credit, the incumbent government took notice of the pollution of the Ganga — one of the primary water sources of the Hindi heartland. In an attempt to clean the river, the Clean Ganga mission was launched in 2015, with a five-year deadline, and a budget of Rs 27,000 crore. The budget covers 289 projects, including 151 sewerage projects — which include new sewage treatment plants (STPs) as well as repairing old non-functioning STPs.
The polluted banks and waters of the Ganga at Varanasi — Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. (Photo: Reuters)
“With less than one year to go before the deadline, not even one-fourth of the funds have been spent so far. The water quality has not improved at all,” writes political analyst Ajit Ranade. He points out that only 48% of the total 2.9 billion cubic metres (approx.) of discharge received by the Ganga is partially or fully treated. Further, RTI reveals that in four years, the Modi government released only one-third of the pledged amount for cleaning up the river.
Not to be left behind, Congress manifesto also has sub-themes like ‘Environment and Climate Change’ and ‘Climate Resilience and Disaster Management’.
However, as mentioned earlier, we are still awaiting a narrative structured around these issues.
The narrative is imperative because of the sheer number of deaths owing to pollution in recent times.
Barely 30 kilometres away from the Parliament House in New Delhi — where the new government that India decides, will work from — is the satellite town of Gurugram — that has been accorded the status of the most polluted city in the world, according to the 2018 World Air Quality Report by Greenpeace and IQAir AirVisual. In fact, the report goes on to say that 15 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India — Gurugram and Ghaziabad having the distinction of being ranked and maintaining positions one and two. Faridabad and Noida were not too far behind at numbers four and six respectively. Delhi ranked at the 11th position — thereby covering the entire National Capital Territory of India.
The blanket of smog on Delhi in October 2018. (Photo: AP)
The dire seriousness of the issue is put forth by the State Of Global Air Report 2019 that summarises the findings of the study conducted by the US-based Health Effects Institute and was released last month.
According to the report, 12.4 lakh (1.2 million) people died in India due to air pollution in 2017 alone. India topped the chart of 10 countries “with the highest mortality burden attributable to air pollution” in 2017 — sharing the accolade with China. Of the total mortality, more than 51% were younger than 70 years of age. It also highlighted that of the total, 6.7 lakh people died from “air pollution in the wider environment” and 4.8 lakh died from household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels — so much for Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana.
And these are merely the mortalities attributed to air pollution. We have not even begun to analyse the hazards of water, soil, solid waste, light and noise pollutions and the serious and irreversible health hazards caused just by breathing or existing in this highly toxic environment.
Delhi ranked the second worst city in the world for noise pollution. (Representational photo: Reuters)
The government was quick to react to the reports. Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Dr Harsh Vardhan discredited the recent global reports claiming over one million deaths in India due to air pollution, saying such studies are only aimed at "causing panic".
In an interview to news agencies, Dr Vardhan — a qualified medical practitioner himself — reportedly said, “Regarding the high-profile data of millions of deaths, I do not agree with that because pollution can cause premature illness and other things. Pollution does affect health, but to create such a panicky situation and say millions of people are dying, I do not agree with that.”
While it would be optimistic to the point of foolishness to expect the political parties or candidates to take up the cause and address the issue of their own volition, does it not become our responsibility as a voter to demand and ensure the right to clean air, water and environment? The path has already been shown by the proactive Australian electorate.
Australians voted today (May 18, 2019). In an unexpected turn, Scott Morrison, Australia’s conservative prime minister, has been re-elected to power. Earlier, the surveys showed that the economy, cost of living, environment and health were central concerns for voters. The younger people, in particular, had voiced frustration about climate change and a lack of affordable housing, according to reports. Incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison had campaigned primarily on economic issues and his opponent, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, had promised to cut tax breaks for the wealthy and to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This unexpected victory of conservatives in Australia’s election is bad news for the future of global climate action, warn climate experts.
However, the Australian electorate did set the narrative of making environmental concerns more mainstream in the election discourse — a trait that was seen sorely lacking in the Indian voters.
India's decision of leader will be known on May 23, 2019.
Whatever the opinion polls say about who might win these elections, the way things stand, the environment is the clear loser.