Time To Vote For Green Elections

By Naina Gautam May 07, 2024

Going fully digital can lead to lesser carbon footprint by 98 per cent, but it has its own challenges

Time To Vote For Green Elections
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

As we reach half way in the General Election 2024, political temperatures are rising exponentially in the country as political parties lead charge against each other. With it is also rising the temperature in most of the country, as the Indian summer gets severe. The seven phases of the election and associated campaigns spanning over a period of two months has put enormous pressure on the resources needed for conducting such a huge exercise, and with it emerge environmental concerns.

Unlike in India, democracies the world over, especially in the Western world, are concerned about the carbon footprint of conducting an election and want to explore processes that can mitigate the harm caused by this necessary exercise. Their concerns include the size of the physical infrastructure needed to conduct an election, the movement of people, including both voters and election officials, and slow pace of innovation in finding alternatives to traditional methods of conducting elections.

What mars the discourse around conducting green elections in India is that the stakeholders have not yet woken up to the idea of the carbon footprint of an electoral exercise. While political parties have started giving space to environmental issues in their manifestos, the greenness of the electoral exercise has not caught their or the Election Commission of India’s imagination.

Shailly Kedia, senior fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute, says, “For green elections, the Election Commission can put into place stringent green requirements, especially when it comes campaigning. The information should also be available in the public domain so as to enable transparency, questioning and accountability on the issue.”

Kedia’s comment is significant as, currently, the Election Commission’s website has just a sentence on eco-friendly election: “[The C]ommission has been asking all the political parties and instructed to take adequate steps and measures to not use single-use plastic as campaign materials (posters, banners etc.,) during the elections in the interest of human health and environment.”

Chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar made a reference to “eco-friendly elections” when he announced the election schedule in New Delhi. He said, “A set of instructions has been issued to the poll machinery and political parties for waste management, minimisation of paper and reducing carbon footprint.”

However, experts believe that the idea of green elections goes beyond simple using sustainable material for campaigning and using renewable energy for transport of officials. The debate in Western democracies involves exploring electronic and/or internet-based voting as an alternative to a paper-ballot process that not only leave a higher carbon footprint but also increases the time to conclude the process.

In India, of course, electronic voting is already a reality in the form of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and every now and then discussions are held over the feasibility of remote voting. The Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing has announced in the past that it was working on developing a prototype for an advanced EVM that will allow remote voting. It is not clear, however, whether such a machine will be networked through the internet.

While the security aspect and allegations of tampering have made people see electronic and internet-based voting with suspicion, experts argue that these types of voting have much lesser impact on the environment. POLYAS, a German online voting system, compares postal elections and online election citing a climate partner which calculated the emission of postal vs online election and concluded that online voting could reduce carbon footprint by up to 98 per cent. It calculated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for an election for a board of directors for a bank with 36,798 voters. It found that for the postal election, the per voter CO2 emission was 81.61 grams, whereas for online election, it came to a total of 0.36 grams per voter.

Stakeholders in Indian elections expect a country-specific methodology to calculate the carbon footprint of an Indian election, as, unlike in other countries, it is often prolonged and involves heavy movement of civil and security personnel through the vast territory of the country, which is likely to cause a higher per capita emission than in the West.

Kedia says, “Emissions from elections should consider the entire lifecycle of elections, including campaigning, polling and counting. Electricity consumption at venues and transport fuel-based emissions are the major source of CO2 emissions. Emissions from ground transport during campaigning might well be around 0.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.”

A paper published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organisation that supports democracy worldwide, states that EVMs “need to be securely moved around the country during election periods”. It adds that transportation of such a large number of EVMs and polling personnel to polling stations, especially in hilly and remote areas, cause carbon emissions. It adds that India's infrastructure and overall economy are eventually linked to the carbon footprint of elections and reducing its environmental impact is possible by using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

Security issues aside, even when they are likely to be the deciding factors, if India wants to go beyond its existing EVM-based electoral process and consider options to negate the harmful environmental impact of conducting an election, it needs to weigh its options carefully.

As Kedia says, “India is a large country, and there are genuine constraints about cybersecurity, safety, infrastructure and finance when it comes to exploring voting over phones and computers. India needs pilots on a smaller scale first before it can move forward.”