OB Special

Of Climate Voters & Party Manifestos

Charudutta Panigrahi

Climate impact is yet to be internalised even by the people who are haplessly at the receiving end. Climate change remains a buzzword and a distant theory. Not difficult to imagine, it is still not an election issue.

Let’s take the case of farmers in Odisha. The small, marginal and landless farmers of Odisha, about 6 million in number, would hardly realise the actual impact of climate change on their produce and livelihoods, even though they have to live through the climate-induced challenges impacting their yields, over time.

Soil conditions, humidity levels, elevation & land topography, fast-changing vegetation, erratic rainfall don’t go unnoticed by the seasoned farmers. Few NGO interventions here and there in pilots do not enable smallholder farmers — who form the majority of farming community — with the knowhow to adapt to the impact of climate change. An FIDR indicative study has found that they are not able to select the right farming and livelihood options to improve their food security and incomes. This directly affects about approximately 1/4th of the state’s GDP.

Farmers know that they need healthy land and reliable weather patterns to sustain their livelihoods. And that temperatures are rising and the growing seasons are shifting. Natural disasters are becoming a regular calendar phenomenon, and more frequent and unmanageably severe. With average landholding of 1.25 ha per farmer, one cyclone breaks the backbone of the individual farmer and the entire community.

Odisha region has experienced the landfall of at least four major cyclones in the last two decades. Super Cyclone in 1999, Phailin in 2013, Hud Hud in 2014, Titli in 2018, Fani, the blizzard of disasters, have spelt unimaginable disaster for the livelihoods of agrarian population. A study says that the number of extremely hot days in the state will increase by 30 times from 1.62 in 2010 to 48.05 by 2100. The desertification and water shortage will severely cripple our agrarian economy, which translated to numbers mean 30% of the Net State Domestic product (NSDP) and about 75% of employment (the workforce engaged in this sector).

The GDP per capita of Rs 1,50,000-plus will slide down due to climate pressure, which will leave a trail of destruction, ravaged lives, destroyed families and livelihoods. Do the households in villages attribute their VUCA future to climate change? Is this what they understand of the most repeated, voguish term Climate Change? Is climate change just a jargon, which they believe, occurs somewhere else and not in their lives and houses? Although about 12% of farmers from the sample studied by FIDR believe that climate change is occurring, they attribute it to human activity.

The forthcoming elections offer all of us a chance of a lifetime to demystify Climate Change and bring the threat out of the closet. Our attempts to “collaborate and strengthen adaptation to climate variability and management of food systems by building capacity from the community to the officials, reducing inequalities in the process” are platitudes which mean zilch to the common citizen or the farmer. This gobbledygook serves no one’s purpose expect for the ones who get funds or grants to apparently work for the “capacity building” of farmers.

In my opinion, election campaigns in a country like ours are the best occasions and channels of communication to reach every nook and corner and every citizen of the state. The messages or themes of the campaigns will be governed by the manifestos of the political parties or the independent candidates. If the manifestos carry climate-related “actionable” promises, the voters will get climate alert. The resulting wokery will bring about a big change in the perception of voters on climate change.

Subsequently, the hope is that climate agenda will move inwards from the periphery and centred in electoral politics for ‘green’ policies. Easier said than done, but we need to start the movement and no state is more appropriate than Odisha, the unfortunate climate-repressed geography in this part of the world.

The party manifestos can promise to bring in investments, plan mega projects, provide comprehensive social securities, build professional institutions and provide employment but one stroke of disaster would swamp us to nought. Nothing else matters but a safe living and sustainable livelihood. The election campaign will make terrific sense if the climate vulnerability could be explained to the daily lives and livelihoods of people in simple terms.

I, as a voter, should be alarmed by the climate emergency everyone is talking about. I should be given a solution by which my livelihoods and food would be secured and the investments which come to the state are protected. No investment and no growth. But how do we safeguard growth, facing climate volatility. So far the climate and ecology imbalance rhetoric is confined to elitist, academia discussions.

The party campaigns can talk of their plans of investments in ecological infrastructure, renewable energy-based electricity, improved watershed conservation and forest management and green jobs which warrant strong environmental interventions. They should explain how interventions can help in stable incomes and support safe livelihoods. The parties can give their ideas and disseminate their charters of commitments in direct, decipherable communication for the public.

Two massive national campaigns come to my mind which had initially looked facile and shallow but with consistent messaging brought about revolutions of sorts – Family Planning & Swachh Bharat. The motive of Swachh Bharat, to improve sanitation facilities which would lead to a reduction in healthcare costs and increased productivity, seemed esoteric in the beginning. We assume many a times that the public don’t care for medium to long-term goals. This is a fallacy. Macro vision brings about micro interventions. Putting climate on the lection plate will bring back some high level foresight to electioneering, which is woefully depreciating these days. Aren’t there any bigger goals left for our policy makers to work on?

An inference from a Stanford University study raises the possibility of Odisha GDP going down by about 10% as a result of the warming climate and the recurrence of disaster, which is predicted. Odisha’s average summer temperature, a study establishes, will be far higher than the national average increase from about 24 degree Celsius to about 28 degree Celsius, which means that we need to brace up for much harsher climatic conditions and more deaths and morbidities. This would directly eat into the GDP and economic growth.

Manifestos are drawn up as an imbecile ritual – it has no meaning, no one reads it, no one remembers any promise or “vision” and everyone remembers it only once in a while, when there are elections. But the time has come for a change and that too with an ‘emergency theme’.

Agreed manifestos have become tragic charades.

The more educated youth come to politics, the more media-sensitive we have all become, the more reach of media and debates, the more vocal we have all become, the more “manifestos” have been neglected. They are treated like the extra mule on your expedition, carrying your load. It is not required, but if it there the cavalcade looks good.

In the hurly burly of realpolitik, the manifesto is left far behind. Some say it could be because our politics is bereft of any concerted, strategic developmental agenda. It is more like the Bollywood movies of the nineties – chase the formula which clicks, do not experiment, be safe. I have hope with Climate manifesto and Climate voters and Climate voting.

We, the civil society, should try to influence and resuscitate manifestos to become the “key propositions on Climate action” to secure votes. Let climate be an issue which could soon be ‘moving the needle’ and the clinching factor. Change isn’t happening overnight, but it’s not a pipedream when climate jolt can be girded with decisive mandate and vice versa. We want Climate Voters in Odisha.

(Charudutta Panigrahi is an author and social advocate. He can be contacted at charu.panigrahi@gmail.com)

Charudutta Panigrahi

Public policy expert and columnist based in Gurgaon

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