Yesterday was World Environment Day. But thanks to the aftermath of election results, not many of us may have noticed. So, in today’s Finshots, we see if India’s elections are actually green.

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The Story

Over the last six weeks, over 64 crore people voted in the world’s largest elections. That’s 1 out of every 13 people living in the world.

But here’s something we may not have spoken of enough throughout this long-lived frenzy ― climate change.

Sure, political parties may have touched upon climate change in their election manifestos. But talking about climate change in India doesn’t grab votes. And that’s because voters normally tend to prioritise issues that have an immediate effect on them like development, social welfare and employment.

That’s exactly why you’ll see that the conversation about climate change often goes missing from the country’s electoral debates despite acute water shortages, erratic weather and rainfall patterns. In fact in some parts of India it was hard to step out to vote amidst extreme heat waves.

It also explains why just about 0.3% of the questions asked in the parliament relate to climate change or why India has just 1 out of over 700 political parties which focuses on the environment.

But elections mean large gatherings, canvassing, campaigns, advertisements and even people commuting to and back from their polling stations. This implies a lot of transportation, waste generation and of course pollution. So it’s not something you can overlook.

To put things in perspective, if every Lok Sabha constituency uses an average of 1,000 vehicles for election-related work for just a month, each consuming about 15 litres of fuel per day, the entire campaign across India could burn about 244 million litres of fossil fuel or 660 million kilograms of CO2. And removing that could take at least 2 crore trees.

Then you have the impact of campaign flights and helicopters which are the most preferred mode of political campaigning. This year the demand for helicopters rose by about a third from the last elections in 2019. And that’s not a great look, especially when most of this demand came from two leading Indian political parties.

If you look at the US presidential elections in 2016 for instance, emissions from just one candidate’s campaign flights were equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of 500 Americans. So you can imagine the environmental impact the increased demand for helicopters in India has left behind.

Add to that the impact of other election related events, and the carbon footprint can be massive.

So what are we doing to address this, you ask?

To begin with, in 2019 the Election Commission of India (ECI) came up with the concept of green elections. It directed political parties and their candidates to use eco-friendly materials while printing campaign banners.

Because you see, political parties traditionally rely on environmentally harmful PVC (polyvinyl chloride) flex banners to promote themselves. And 99% of these single-use plastic banners end up in landfills.

This year too, it asked political parties to reduce carbon footprint by using public transport and carpooling for their campaigns. District election officers were also instructed to set up polling stations by consolidating them in such a way that it cut the distance travelled by officials and voters didn't have to travel over 2 km to cast their vote.

Then you have electronic voting machines (EVMs) ― an innovation that has actually helped a little bit. Despite 2004 being the first Lok Sabha poll to use EVMs in all its 543 constituencies, the idea of electronic voting dates back to the late 1970s. Back then, the country voted using paper ballots which not just lengthened the counting process but also had quite a significant environmental impact.

For context, the last parliamentary election that used paper ballots required close to 10,000 tonnes of paper. That’s equal to cutting down over 1 lakh fully grown trees. EVMs came in and changed that. They didn’t just save paper but also were light machines, even lighter than ballot boxes, that ran on batteries. And that meant that they reduced a vehicle’s payload, translating into lower fuel consumption and emissions while being transported.

But here’s the thing. EVMs aren’t all that green. When connected to the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machine that keeps voting trails, they use paper too. And disposing of these papers could be environmentally harmful. Thanks to a metal coating which ensures that the print on them lasts long enough.

Besides, green elections aren’t a norm. They’re just directives or optional guidelines to promote environmentally friendly electioneering practices. And despite some states like Goa setting up eco-friendly election booths with biodegradable materials crafted by local artisans for their Assembly elections, you can’t really make up for the huge bulk of carbon emissions across the country without etching these practices in stone.

You could look at Kerala as an example. After the ECI advised against the usage of hazardous plastic material, its High Court actually imposed a ban on flex and non-biodegradable materials used for elections. Wall graffiti and recyclable paper posters emerged as alternatives.

To sum it up, elections are important. And we can be incredibly proud of the way the elections were conducted this year while applauding the efforts of hundreds and thousands of people who made it all happen. However, we hope that future elections don’t have to impose such a massive burden on the environment.

Until then…

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