General Election 2019: India’s focus is inwards
Anti-pollution measures and national security remain forefront in campaign manifestoes.
National security has featured strongly in the Indian election campaign with the ruling BJP and the main opposition party, Congress, each claiming to have taken the toughest measures against Pakistan in response to cross-border terrorism. Beyond cross-border terrorism, India faces an on-going challenge from a Maoist insurgency as well as sporadic, and declining, incidents of terrorism in North East India. According to government figures, around 1,400 civilians died in terrorist incidents between 2014 and 2018.
The aspiration for politicians to demonstrate their toughness through military endeavours at election-time is certainly not confined to India but emphasis given to it is arguably misplaced. In contrast to the 1,400 deaths from terrorism, according to Indian government figures, around 150,000 people die annually in road traffic accidents. According to the World Health Organisation, the actual figure is almost double.
Either way, the chance of being killed on roads is much higher than of being killed in a terrorist attack. And yet none of the main political parties is standing on a platform of road safety. Rather, most wish to construct more roads. While it is unarguable that there is a case that more roads would benefit India, and rural India in particular, a parallel campaign to ensure basic road safety would be welcome.
In contrast to 1,400 terrorist related deaths and 150,000 road fatalities, according to a recent report published by various health institutions including the Ministry of Health, in 2017 alone 1.24 million Indians died as a result of pollution. Back in 2014, the World Health Organization called Delhi the most polluted city in the world. Since then various measures aimed at tackling pollution in Delhi and other major cities in northern India have failed to counter the effects of rising population, increased car numbers and industrialisation.
Some parties’ manifestos do contain pledges to tackle pollution, though there are few specifics. On recent evidence, it is difficult to suggest that there is a clear path forward, though taking note of China’s relative success in bringing down pollution levels may be a start. A recent pan-Indian survey suggested that pollution was one of the main concerns for urban Indians (though less so, understandably, in less-polluted rural areas). Rather than argue over which party has overseen the toughest military campaign against Pakistan, it would save more lives and have, according to the survey, greater electoral benefit were they to develop and start testing policies to improve the air quality of India’s cities.
While this may seem optimistic given the current polarisation of Indian politics, there is a precedent in India’s recent past for action to be taken against existential threats. The positive impact of India’s response to disasters was seen in Orissa in early April. More than a million people were evacuated to safer areas, including around 800 specially-built cyclone and flood shelters, to escape a severe cyclone. Those killed numbered in the low single digits. India’s shift in disaster preparedness and response began after an earlier cyclone that hit Orissa in 1999, killing around 10,000. The subsequent Gujarat earthquake expedited efforts to develop India’s approach towards disasters, and an act was passed soon after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. 15 years later the positive impact can be seen.
However, as the 2018 floods in Kerala proved, there are regional differences. Around 500 people are thought to have died in an event for which the authorities in that state seemed under-prepared. Unusually, in the field of disasters a few poorer states – notably Bihar and Orissa – are better prepared than some more developed states, such as Kerala. Ability to deal with disasters correlates better with the frequency of disasters than the state’s overall development. Nonetheless, India’s evolving approach to disasters and its ability to act as the first responder within South Asia is commendable. Continued improvement remains necessary, however, since climate change is likely to increase the frequency and impact of weather-related disasters that India faces.
In addition, disasters (like pollution) fail to take account of national borders. Establishing regional early-warning systems is one of the easiest confidence-building measures between countries. Some efforts are underway to do exactly that. In addition, local organisations provide cross-border flood warnings between Nepal and India, and from India to Bangladesh.
Tackling the threat from pollution in a similar, de-politicised and evidence-driven manner may seem idealistic. Indeed, pollution appears at times to be – if not celebrated – at least condoned as evidence of India’s economic growth. But those that live in urban India would seem to be recognising the cost of that growth, and politicians would be wise not to lag behind. In 2017 schools in Delhi had to close as the city became, in the words of its chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, “a gas chamber”. Taking real steps to improve air quality would win votes.
Further, pollution requires a pan-Indian response (regardless of the demarcation of responsibilities between state and central government in India’s constitution). Much of the pollution in Delhi, for instance, stems from farmers in neighbouring states burning crop stubble.
These issues which directly affect the lives of many Indians offer scope for international engagement. In March, India approved a memorandum of understanding with Germany to cooperate in the field of occupational safety and with Austria on road infrastructure, including road safety. There is often a tendency, or aspiration, to engage with India as a key global actor. But for now, India’s real priorities are often more parochial.
Dr Gareth Price is Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House.