Climate Change and Conflict By Robert Mizo  |  14 June, 2024

Climate Change: The Missing Agenda in India’s Recent Elections

Image: Sudarshan Jha/shutterstock


The recently concluded general election in India was shrouded in irony. The six-week long voting period coincided with one of the worst heat waves yet recorded, but there was hardly any discussion of climate change or environment-related issues in the public political discourse. The idea that the climate is political is clearly still to drive home to the average Indian voters, politicians, and the media alike.

The worst of the heatwave this year in northern India was recorded in late May, coinciding with the 7th phase of the election when many parts of the region went to the polls. In Delhi’s Mungeshpur and neighbouring areas, temperatures reportedly soared to 52.9 degrees centigrade. However, the Indian Metrological Department issued a clarification days later that there was an error in the weather sensor which resulted in an additional 3 degrees reading over the actual temperature. Regardless, the heat took its toll.

As of early June, the total number of heat-related deaths in India for 2024 was pegged at 219. Among these, at least 33 were officials and personnel on election duty who succumbed to heat wave-related stresses in the 7th phase of the election alone. Public sector workers in India are compulsorily bound to perform election duties as and when required.

While sweltering heat engulfed northern India, the north-eastern states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura were battling the wrath of Cyclone Remal which flooded multiple cities, destroyed homes, drowned railway tracks and washed away bridges, cutting off the region from the rest of the country. Incessant rains induced by the cyclone caused massive landslides in Mizoram which killed at least 39 people while dozens were reported missing.

The heatwave that gripped India during its mammoth election was seen as a concern in that it was deemed to cause low voter turnout. Many media outlets speculated how this would affect the election results and particularly the prospects of the ruling party. Some argued that the Election Commission should have taken care to ensure that voting days did not coincide with heat-wave conditions. But there was hardly any discussion on what was causing these extreme temperatures, (or the cyclone), nor any debate on the responsibilities of government to address environmental and climate change issues. In fact, the issue of climate change and environmental degradation were conspicuously absent from the mass discourse as seen through social media engagements, and the mass media’s focus.

The election manifestoes of both major parties, the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress did include measures to tackle climate change and environmental issues. The BJP’s manifesto had a section titled “Modi ki Guarantee for Sustainable Bharat”, outlining a broad range of plans to address environmental issues including climate change while also underlining what it has achieved so far. The Congress’ manifesto had a section titled “Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Management” which aimed to, among other things, institute an “independent Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority to establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and to enforce the National and State Climate Change plans”. Climate change and environmental issues were not totally absent from the electoral focus of the political parties, however tokenistic they were.

However, the point remains that no political party leader or politician brought up climate change or environmental issues in their electioneering, not even when a prominent leader fainted due to heat stress during campaigning in Maharashtra. While the Congress and its INDIA alliance partners campaigned for votes on issues of rising prices, unemployment, crony capitalism and corruption, and the dangers to constitutional democracy, the incumbent party based its campaign on rebutting the allegations of the opposition while trying to drum up religious and communal sentiments against minorities.

Clearly, the political leaders do not see climate change as a worthy agenda to bring to the masses in their campaigns for votes because the people do not seem to demand such an agenda. According to a pre-poll survey conducted by a New Delhi based Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2024, employment, inflation, and taxation were the primary concerns for the average Indian voter. Further, a survey of young Indians by Deloitte in 2023 found that Indian Gen Z place climate change as their fourth key concern after education, unemployment and mental health. The Indian millennials do find climate change to be a major concern but on the same plane as economic growth and unemployment. Perhaps this explains why climate change and ecological issues are still absent from the political thinking of the masses. Perhaps the green agenda is yet to find resonance with the average Indian voter who places more emphasis on what is rather controversially called the ‘brown agenda’ concerning the fulfilment of basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

However, in the larger scheme of things, this is rather dangerous. Climate change is an existential crisis for a country like India where the majority of the population are poor and thus particularly vulnerable to climate change induced disasters. It is a country that still depends largely on agriculture for employment and food security – a sector inextricably reliant on favourable climatic conditions to flourish. In the face of a changing climate, the future of the present and forthcoming generation is at best uncertain. The public has the responsibility to demand that their representatives and governments address issues of environmental degradation including emissions, air pollution, clean and safe drinking water, demand afforestation programmes and resist unnecessary clearing of forests for “development projects” without proper relocation or alternatives being planned. The media should do its job by holding governments accountable and informing the masses about the state of the environment rather than being beholden to the powers that be. It is of crucial importance that the Indian public political discourse no longer remains limited to a rhetorical and polarising agenda of religion and caste, but attends to issues of the existential threats of climate change and environmental security. India’s future might depend on it.


Related articles by this author:

The Quad, maritime security and climate change (3-minute read)

Civil society, climate action and the state in China (3-minute read)

Riding the heatwave: India's sweltering exposure to climate change (3-minute read)

Leaky roof: Melting Himalayas in the 'Asian Century' (3-minute read)


Robert Mizo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delhi, India. He holds a PhD in Climate Policy studies. His research interests include Climate Change and Security, Climate Politics, Environmental Security, and International Environmental Politics. He has published and presented on the above topics at both national and international platforms. Robert has recently been a Japan Foundation Indo-Pacific Partnership (JFIPP) Research Fellow based at the Toda Peace Institute, Tokyo