OPINION: Will India’s Elections Sway Climate Policy?

Manmohan SinghAs India's political parties jockey for position ahead of national elections that begin April 16, the country's energy and environmental policies are getting more attention than ever before. 

The election platforms of the leading party contenders promise renewed commitments to combating climate change, promoting low-carbon energy, and safeguarding India's ecological resources. But it remains to be seen whether this fresh and exciting rhetoric will be translated into real change, regardless of who leads the next government.

Change is a theme that formed the lifeblood of U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign last year, and that finds increasing mention on the lips of climate change negotiators around the world. It is also a notion that is lapping at India's shores and bubbling up in the rising heat as elections approach.

The 15th national election since India's independence in 1947 begins later this month, and with it, a new five-year term for the successful party awaits. Due to the sheer size of the country's population, the election will occur in five phases, starting on April 16 and finishing on May 13.

The major contenders in the race are the United Progressive Alliance, the current ruling coalition led by the Congress party; the opposition National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP; and the Third Front, led by the BSP. "Besides the three major national parties, each of these major factions is cobbled together from a fractious coalition of smaller regional/state parties and other leftist parties for the Third Front," says Felix Su, a research graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who is working with Poverty Action Lab South Asia.

Change at Home

LK AdvaniPerhaps for the first time in India's election history, both Congress and the BJP-the two leading contenders-give fairly significant mention to climate change and the environment in their manifestos.

The Congress party states that "climate change has now emerged as a serious challenge for the world community" and has committed to implementing its National Action Plan on Climate Change, released last June, "in letter and spirit." Shyam Saran, India's Special Envoy on Climate Change, noted in a recent statement in Washington, D.C., that "climate change has now been fully integrated into the development process" and that detailed national strategies will be released soon. The party has also indicated plans to better conserve the Ganges River Basin and to safeguard India's biodiversity.

With regard to India's energy security needs, Congress has announced plans to add at least 12,000-15,000 megawatts of capacity each year through a mix of sources, including coal, hydroelectricity, nuclear power, and renewable energy-although the pace of oil and gas exploration will also be intensified.

The BJP has outlined a fairly robust set of measures as well, stating that it will "pursue national growth objectives through an ecologically sustainable pathway that leads to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, recognising that containing global warming is essential to protecting [the] life and security of people and [the] environment." The party also notes that "mitigating this threat by building a low carbon economy is the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century."

In terms of energy infrastructure, the BJP proposes investing heavily in non-fossil fuel clean energy sources, with a goal of adding at least 120,000 megawatts of power over the next five years, 20 percent of this from renewable sources. This amounts to a near-doubling of India's currently installed energy capacity. The BJP manifesto also includes measures to create incentives for environmental education, energy efficiency, afforestation, wildlife conservation, and low-water, low-chemical, and high-diversity agriculture.

India's third contender-the Third Front coalition-appears to lack many clearly defined manifestos. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), one of the leading parties within the coalition, includes a brief mention of climate change in its platform, stating that the party will undertake "steps to control emission of greenhouse gases through energy efficient technologies and effective regulation" and by "promoting solar and other non-conventional energy sources."

International Dimensions

Also at issue is whether a potential change in Indian governance will affect this year's international climate negotiations, scheduled to culminate in December with the adoption of a successor climate change treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark. Because India is such a key player globally, a change in the ruling party could certainly imply a change in dynamics-positive, negative, or neutral-as far as the intensifying negotiations are concerned.

Many of the civil servants who currently draft India's climate policy will remain in place; however, a change in ruling party could well mean an overhaul in politically appointed negotiators, many of whom are now familiar faces at the international meetings.

But what of India's positioning?

Here, the Congress party and the BJP again appear to see along superficially similar lines, with the BJP stating that it "endorse[s] the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities." This is the idea that all countries have a common responsibility to reduce emissions to safe levels, but that the means by which each does so is dependent on both past responsibilities for emissions together with a nation's development rights. With the BJP's strong nationalist leanings, however, the statement that the party's "foreign policy will be based on the principle of enlightened self-interest" could be interpreted in multiple ways. As for any Third Front coalition, information again seems limited.


Surya Sethi, Principal Energy Advisor for India's Planning Commission and a core government negotiator on climate change, shared the following; "The Indian position is based entirely on the existing framework convention and its principles. Hence India's stand is not likely to change much. However, political direction might change, and may reflect the stance of the Political Party in power towards global concerns and towards actions within the developed Annex I countries in tackling Climate Change." What this would entail remains to be seen.

Words to Action

Environmental and climate policies in India have developed rapidly in recent years, and many positive steps have been taken. In terms of rhetoric, the two leading political parties are at least superficially headed in a similar direction, with both stepping up their attention to these issues and speaking along similar lines nationally and internationally. But the bottom line is: will the rhetoric translate into real change?

Many critics fear that the parties' words are not supported by a significant shift in priorities. At a minimum, however, there is greater acknowledgement of the issues. This shift almost certainly reflects the increase in voter pressure for more action around ecological sustainability and climate change.

"The manifestos of the political parties merely reflect what the party perceives as key concerns of its voters," Mr. Sethi said. He noted that in India, awareness of both local and global environmental issues is increasing with rising income levels. "The growing middle class, with its greater reach to media and other sources of information, simply demands more and better attention to such concerns'."

Perhaps a more worrisome concern, both domestically and internationally, remains the  general scarcity of clear mechanisms for implementation, or targets around environmental goals, within many Indian policy documents. Many still question the degree to which sustainability is truly integrated into core party values.

In a recent article for the Financial Chronicle, Leena Srivastava, Executive Director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), observed that: "the value of the sustainability commitments in the election manifestos put forward by various parties is very low. The energy and environmental challenges facing the country are so critical that merely playing around with words is unlikely to win elections-the Indian electorate is smart. A radically different non-partisan commitment to these issues is required, and irrespective of the government in power."

One thing is for certain: despite the many unknowns, as both national and international policy discussions intensify in the coming months, the climate-focused eyes of the world will be not only on Copenhagen, but on India too.

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute research fellow based in New Delhi.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.