“Chennai, an Indian city of 5 million, is running out of water,” read a headline in the New York Times on Friday. In Bihar, a heatwave has killed more than 150 people, according to estimates. The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is dealing with 4,000 kg of garbage after a mega-wedding event was organised by the South African billionaires, the Gupta family, this month.
These are just some of the developments that have made the news over the past few weeks. Clearly, the country is in the middle of an environmental crisis. Yet, curiously, its leaders seem quite unconcerned by it.
The environment barely features in Indian politics. The recent general elections saw everything from Pakistan to taxes being discussed but very little about the quality of the air Indians breathe or how shrinking green cover is pushing up temperatures to unsustainable levels.
Some of this has to do with the imperfect nature of India’s democracy, where passion often overtakes the more mundane matters of everyday life. As a result, the number one issue raised by the victorious Bharatiya Janata Party were air strikes on Pakistan – an issue that does little to raise living standards but one that clearly resonated emotionally with a significant number of Indians.
Given that voters are unable to push governments to solve even immediate problems, it is unsurprising that more complex, long-term challenges of environmental protection never enter the sphere of electoral politics.
But the statistics on the ground are alarming. More Indians die due to pollution than cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS and diabetes put together. A report by the Union government’s think tank NITI Ayog says that 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020. By 2030, 40% of Indians will have no access to drinking water. Rising sea levels due to climate change could mean the inundation of highly-populated coastal area and deadly heatwaves.
Such climate events would be disastrous for any country. In India, given the high levels poverty and enormous population density, they will lead to mass dislocation and conflict. India’s leaders must help the country make drastic policy changes in the present in order to preserve the future.