Climate change impacts millions in India

India, May 21: Almost 970 million Indians are voting in general elections amid sweltering heat and unpredictable weather extremes exacerbated by human-caused climate change, leading to loss of livelihood, forced migration and increasingly difficult living conditions for millions across the country.

Voters are looking for politicians who promise relief, stability and resilience to the wide-ranging and damaging effects of a warming climate. In their election manifestos, India’s top political parties, including the governing Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition, the Congress party, have made multiple promises to act on climate damage and reduce emissions of planet-heating gases.

But there has been little talk about climate change on the campaign trail.

“Climate change is still not among the headlines during these elections despite its obvious impact on millions of Indian lives,” said Anjal Prakash, author of multiple United Nations climate reports.

The Indian subcontinent — surrounded by ocean on three sides and the Himalayan ranges to its north — is vulnerable to sea level rise, severe storms, heavy floods and melting glaciers. It’s also experienced extreme heat spells and severe drought as global average temperatures climb. A report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment said India experienced extreme weather on nearly 90% of the days last year.

Here’s a look at how the effects of climate change are influencing voters.

Vaibhav Maske’s millet farm was dry to the bone in early May, even though he dug three borewells 600 feet deep looking for water.

The 25-year-old lives in Marathwada, one of the most acutely affected heat and drought-prone regions in western Maharashtra state, and farmers there say the current summer is the worst major drought in almost a decade. But politicians haven’t been paying attention.

“Politicians are only talking about religion and caste. No one is talking about the environment or farmers issues,” said Maske. “They are saying Prime Minister Modi is giving money to farmers, that’s good. But at the same time, the taxes are so high on everything including our farm equipment, so how can we make ends meet this way?”

Since February 2019, a federal government scheme transfers $70 to around 100 million farmers a year to supplement their income. But Maske said it’s of little use as farm expenses like water, fertilizers and farm gear now cost him up to $180 a month.

Instead, Maske said local and federal governments need to prioritize providing a water source for farming. “They need to dig canals or divert some water from rivers in nearby areas, so we have some steady supply of water. No one has done anything about this,” he said.

India’s eastern coasts have long been prone to cyclones, but the number of intense storms is increasing along the country’s coast. Last year was India’s deadliest cyclone season in recent times, killing 523 people and costing an estimated $2.5 billion in damage.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said their studies found that “floods have increased threefold since the 1950s and cyclones have increased by 50% since the 1980s.”

It’s making disasters a political focal point for the regions worst affected by them.

Around 25,000 people in the Ennore neighbourhood in Chennai planned to boycott the Indian general elections in part due to lack of government support post Cyclone Michaung, which devastated the eastern coasts of southern India in December 2023. (AP)

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