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Elections and emissions: The festival of democracy takes a heavy toll on environment


From the massive cyclone Fani that lashed the shores of Odisha to the heatwaves in Rajasthan that killed many, climate change is no more a fire-breathing dragon from the story books but a harsh reality that stares right at our face.

Elections and emissions: The festival of democracy takes a heavy toll on environment
Were Phineas Taylor Barnum or PT Barnum alive today and somehow able to witness the grand spectacle known as general elections in India, he'd undoubtedly concede the sobriquet of the Greatest Show on Earth in favour of the electoral fest and possibly retire to the Himalayas. Though, I am not too sure if a Himalayan retreat would be a really good idea, considering that two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers are predicted to melt away by the end of this century.
From the massive cyclone Fani that lashed the shores of Odisha to the heatwaves in Rajasthan that killed many, climate change is no more a fire-breathing dragon from the story books but a harsh reality that stares right at our face. Since this change has been wrought by the machinations of men -- namely you, me and all else -- we can't blame the gods, destiny or mother nature for all calamities that befall us. What is sown, is what would be reaped.
Reports after reports and studies after studies have highlighted how anthropogenic actions are negatively impacting the environment. The clearing of forests, the sheer ubiquity of plastic, the thermal power plants, the traffic-jammed roads in our metros -- almost everything has an adverse impact on the environment. The degrees or the scale might vary, but the impact is undeniable. Thus, when the farmers in Punjab and Haryana set fire to their fields in preparation for the Rabbi crop, the denizens of Delhi choke on the increased particulate matter levels in their air. There is no doubt that we are now in a Newtonian world, where every action has a consequence, if not exactly a reaction.
Living in such a world, should we not then assess any major event or occurrence on the impact it has or might have on the environment? Say, the burning of tonnes of fire-crackers during Diwali celebrations, the pollution of water bodies by immersion of idols during Ganeshutsav or Durga Puja, or how about the culling of millions of goats during the Eid celebration. The CO2 footprint of such events must be assessed, discussed, debated and progressively reduced. And there can't be a better way to start this exercise with one of the biggest festivals in India, the general elections that take place every 5 years, just like the 2019 elections that saw the return of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a thumping majority.
Before we dive deep, let's delve a bit on how elections like the one that just concluded are akin to the nuclear mushroom clouds. First, there's this massive movement of man and material across the length and breadth of the country, all this is done through road, rail, and air. The CO2 emissions from this is staggering. Then, we have a huge expenditure on publicity by the contenders, running the show by the Election Commission, the functioning of the various government bodies, all that comes at a cost. In fact, according to estimates by Bloomberg, the total spend on the 2019 election could rise 40 percent to $7 billion, or nearly Rs 50,000 crore. Now all this spend will surely result in tonnes and tonnes of CO2 emissions.
And we have yet to talk about the biggest contributors to the cloud of CO2 emissions. It is our honorable leaders, who on a campaign trail leave a massive footprint of CO2 emissions thanks to all those chartered flights and helicopters. The star campaigners criss-cross the nation, like the commute we do between boarding gates at the airport. Addressing a rally in Uttar Pradesh in the morning, a gathering in Maharashtra in the afternoon, a party meeting in Kerala in the evening, before a return to base in Delhi in the night -- this is not an imaginary itinerary. In fact, BJP President Amit Shah revealed the numbers stating that Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted 144 rallies across the country, flying over 1.5 lakh kilometres. The only one to beat that record was Shah himself, as he visited 312 Lok Sabha constituencies and addressed 161 public rallies in this election. He claimed to have travelled 1.58 lakh kilometres and held 18 roadshows. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, addressed some 124 rallies in the same time, flying all over in chartered flights no doubt.
Now in the CO2 foodchain, nothing comes higher than private jets. These favorites of the rich and mighty are also a terrible blot on the environment. According to an estimate by the Guardian, "an hour's flight on a private jet will emit more carbon dioxide than most Africans do in a whole year." Considering that an average African's per capita emissions are not much different from that of an Indian, we can safely say that all the millions of air miles clocked by our star politicians and leaders come at a cost, a huge climate bill paid in CO2 emissions. The worst part is that these rallies are attended by lakhs of people, imagine the CO2 cost in moving this milieu back and forth in trains and trucks. The number keeps ballooning like those population clocks we have.
The only little solace we can draw is that at the one million polling booths across the country, the 900 million eligible voters who chose from the 8,000 candidates contested for 543 Lok Sabha seats did so electronically. By pressing a button, and not stamping a swastika equivalent on paper.
Imagine what an adverse impact the printing of 900 million ballots would have on the environment, the trees cut, the chemical prints, and so on. That by far is the only positive ecological aspect of the general elections. Ironically the eco-positive EVMs are enmeshed in controversy, with scores of parties demanding a return to the paper days.
If ever there was a Geiger counter equivalent to measure the CO2 emissions, it would be crackling endlessly over the ones that were made in the run-up to the elections.
In conclusion, it really does not need much mentioning that an event of such magnitude as the general elections will definitely have a huge carbon footprint. What is truly sad is that there has not been much discussion on the adverse ecological and environmental impact of such elections. While there has been some shift towards cleaning up the financial aspects and bringing transparency in funding, there has been no attempt made at all to ‘green’ the election process. There are no studies commissioned to assess the real environmental impact, neither is there any committee that has been formulated that could draw up a road-map.
As we hurtle towards a world fraught with adverse climatic events, it is imperative to ask the probing questions, to seek the right answers. We can do that because unlike the US, climate change denial and skepticism is still pretty rare here. People would indeed relate and believe how climate change has impacted the monsoons or made the summers hotter, even still.
Thus, a PM should be elected not only based on the number of seats his/her party wins at the hustings, but also on the basis of his/her vision for a cleaner-greener future. In addition to providing details on education and assets, the candidate must also reveal their carbon footprint.
In the end, being the biggest showman on earth might be tough, but being the greenest one is indeed even tougher. And not to mention much more important too. Will our newly elected PM Narendra Modi pick up the gauntlet on that? For the sake of the world, let’s cross our fingers that he does.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone.
Read Shashwat's columns here.

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