Stop the dithering and encourage green elections in India

The journey can begin by enacting appropriate legislation, with the Election Commission of India incorporating these methods in the Model Code of Conduct.

Updated - March 02, 2024 10:38 am IST

Published - February 28, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘Embracing eco-conscious electoral practices can help India set an example for other democracies around the world’

‘Embracing eco-conscious electoral practices can help India set an example for other democracies around the world’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Amidst the climate crisis, shifting to sustainable practices across every sphere of human activity has become inevitable and urgent. In August 2023, ahead of the Assembly elections in five States, the Election Commission of India (ECI) voiced its concern over the environmental risks associated with the use of non-biodegradable materials in elections (it has been urging ‘parties and candidates to avoid the use of plastic/polythene for preparation of election material during an election campaign, since 1999’). Given that the conduct of every election results in an avoidable carbon footprint, there is a need for eco-friendly elections, which would be a boost to environmental stewardship alongside civic participation. Sri Lanka and Estonia, for instance, have conducted environmentally-conscious elections. As India, the world’s most populous democracy, gears up for the next general election, environmental considerations must be prioritised, paving the way for ‘green elections’.

Why is there a need for a paradigm shift?

The environmental footprint of elections is often overlooked. In the 2016 US presidential elections, the emissions by campaign flights by just one of the candidates alone were equivalent to the carbon footprint of 500 Americans for a year. Traditional methods of conducting elections, with their reliance on paper-based materials, energy-intensive rallies, loudspeakers, PVC flex banners, hoardings and disposable items, cause a significant environmental footprint and impact citizens’ health. The magnitude of India’s elections, with crores of voters, and mass political rallies, amplify this impact. The concept of green elections entails adopting eco-friendly practices at every stage, from campaign materials to election rallies and polling booths.

Research conducted by Willemson and Krips from Estonia (2023) determined that the primary source of carbon emissions during elections is from transportation of voters and logistics to and from the polling booths. The secondary source is from the running of the polling booths. Transitioning to digital voting systems could reduce the carbon footprint by up to 40%.

Implementing environmentally-friendly elections will entail technological, financial and behavioural challenges. Electronic and digital voting require robust infrastructure (especially in rural areas) and checks for hacking and fraud. Ensuring that all voters have fair access to new technologies and the training of officials are another hurdle. Financial challenges include substantial upfront costs for eco-friendly materials and technology, which would deter governments that are financially constrained. Cultural inertia in valuing a voter’s physical presence at polling booths as sacrosanct is a behavioural challenge. Public scepticism towards new approaches and fear of compromises to vote security are another. Therefore, ensuring transparency and effective auditing of new adaptations are crucial.

Examples in Kerala, Sri Lanka, Estonia

Successful examples of eco-friendly electoral initiatives provide lessons. During the 2019 general election, the Kerala State Election Commission urged political parties to avoid single-use plastic materials while campaigning. Subsequently, the Kerala High Court imposed a ban on flex and non-biodegradable materials in electioneering. Wall graffiti and paper posters emerged as alternatives. Government bodies collaborated with the district administration in Thiruvananthapuram to ensure a green election. Training sessions were conducted in villages for election workers. In 2022, the Goa State Biodiversity Board had eco-friendly election booths for the Assembly elections, using biodegradable materials crafted by local traditional artisans.

In 2019, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party launched the world’s first carbon-sensitive environmentally friendly election campaign. It measured carbon emissions from vehicles and electricity used during political campaigns and compensated for the emissions by planting trees in each district through public participation. This offset the immediate carbon footprint of the campaign and drew awareness about the importance of forest cover.

Similarly, Estonia laid the foundations for digital voting as an online voting alternative. This method also encouraged voter participation. The success of Estonia’s approach suggests that digital voting accompanied by robust security measures is both eco- and electorate-friendly.

A blueprint

This green transition must involve all stakeholders such as political parties, Election Commissions, governments, voters, the media and civil society. The success of integrating top-level directives with grassroots initiatives to foster a green transition is imperative.

Political parties must take the lead. The journey can begin by enacting legislation mandating eco-friendly electoral practices, with the ECI incorporating them in the Model Code of Conduct. This involves campaigning through digital platforms or door-to-door campaigning (reducing energy-intensive public rallies) and encouraging the use of public transportation for election work. Incentivising the replacement of plastic and paper-based materials with sustainable local alternatives for polling booths, such as natural fabrics, recycled paper and compostable plastics, will aid waste management and support local artisans.

The ECI can push for digital voting even though this necessitates the training and capacity building of officials. To ensure equal participation of all voters in the digital electoral process, the government must educate and support voters and ensure equitable access to digital technology. This is essential to enhance the faith of the electorate in the election system and their trust in the government. Civil society should act as a catalyst. Finally, the media’s crucial role can in emphasising the environmental impact of conventional election methods, turn the spotlight on innovative eco-friendly alternatives.

Embracing eco-conscious electoral practices can help India set an example for other democracies around the world.

Amar Patnaik is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, from Odisha and an advocate. He was a former Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) bureaucrat. The views expressed are personal

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