In the cacophony of emotive religious, caste and regional issues, concerns about the future generations of a vibrant democracy often get lost. The polling has started and the campaigns by various political parties are picking up speed across the nation.

However, the issues of survival of communities living away from the crowded metros, who account for maximum Lok Sabha seats on the sheer basis of high population density, continue to get overlooked.

The poll narratives are focused on the Ram Temple, corruption, and the need to save the Constitution etc. However, no one is talking about the right to clean air, and water security in the coming years, as India faces extreme impacts of global warming, climate change, water crisis, scanty and unpredictable rainfall, melting glaciers and increasing pollution.

It is in this context that more than 70 civil society organisations from across India have issued a fervent appeal asking the citizens to evaluate India’s performance with respect to the environment and ecology, along with other important factors, before casting their votes. These include quality of life, freedom of speech, democratic fabric of the nation, job creation, and citizens’ rights.

“Let us ensure that our vote results in safeguarding nature, upholding constitutional and democratic rights for all citizens and a secure future for the youth of India,’ these organisations stated.

Those who have issued the appeal include National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), People for Aravallis, Youth for Himalaya, Climate Front India, Fridays For Future, Alliance for Rivers in India, Indian Social Action Forum, United Conservation Movement (Karnataka), Aarey Conservation Group, Yugma Collective and Save Pune Hills from Maharashtra, Goa Foundation, Amche Mollem Citizen's Group and Federation of Rainbow Warriors from Goa, Indigenous People's Climate Justice Forum (Assam), Affected Citizens of Teesta (Sikkim), Centre for Research and Advocacy (Manipur), Endangered Himalaya (Himachal Pradesh), Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan (Uttarakhand), Dibang Resistance, Lower Dibang Valley (Arunachal Pradesh), Borok Peoples' Human Rights Organisation (Tripura), Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Chhattisgarh), Jharkhand Kisan Parishad (Jharkhand), Bargi Bandh Visthapit Evam Prabhavit Sangh (Madhya Pradesh), Jan Vikas Shakti Sangathan (Bihar) and UP Land Right Forum (Uttar Pradesh).

These groups have stated that based on the latest scientific insights and environmental data, India ranks at the bottom of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) of 2022 with extremely low scores across a range of critical issues.

“On one hand, there are high-scoring countries such as Denmark, United Kingdom, Finland who have shown longstanding and continuing investments in policies that protect environmental health, preserve biodiversity and habitat, conserve natural resources and decouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth showing notable leadership and policies.

“At the other extreme is India at the bottom of the list with deteriorating air quality, rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater depletion, drying up and polluted rivers and water bodies, mountains of waste everywhere.

“When India is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of global warming and climate change, many crucial laws protecting India’s environment and natural ecosystems have been weakened in the last few years such as the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and others despite widespread public opposition.

“Our forests, rivers, mountains and deserts in the Himalayas and Aravallis in the North, Hasdeo forest and others in central and eastern India, pristine rainforests in Nicobar Islands and the western ghats are being exploited for mega-infrastructure and dam projects, coal, stone and sand mining and real estate,” they underlined.

India is facing a huge water crisis with 70% of our groundwater aquifers having dried up and the rate of recharge being less than 10%. “India has been declared as the third-most polluted country in 2023 according to a report released by Swiss air quality monitoring body IQAir. Out of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, 42 cities are now in India,” the group stated.

A charter has been formulated seeking the changing of the definition of ‘development’ in India. “Development at the cost of our natural resources is not ‘vikas’ as it leads to destruction of our pollution sinks and water security threatening the future of our youth and wildlife,” it has been asserted.

The second demand put forward pertains to ensuring protection of the ecosystems and community livelihoods in the Himalayas, Aravallis, western and eastern ghats, coastal regions, wetlands, river valleys, central Indian and north-eastern forest regions while not allowing the corporate exploitation of these natural habitats.

At the same time emphasis has been laid on inclusion of community and civil society as central in all local and national development decision making. No diversion of forest and agricultural land must take place without gram sabha consent.

Underlining the need for protecting environment and nature, it has been sought that all dilutions in environment and forest acts such as FCA, EIA and others since 2014 must be reversed.

Full and effective implementation of the Environment Protection Act (EPA), Biodiversity Act, Forest Rights Act (FRA), Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, and similar legislations that uphold the rights of nature and indigenous communities have been demanded.

It has also been pointed out that all the wetlands must be notified under the Wetland Rules 2010. The organisations have collectively called for revival of all the rivers, johads, lakes, ponds and other water bodies that have dried up across India. The group asserted that all these bodies must be revived and recharged using traditional knowledge at war footing to protect the nation’s water security.

It is a well-known fact that the hills have borne the brunt of various projects that have involved the damming and interlinking of the rivers. Tunnelling and cutting of hills have been reported from the Himalayas, Aravallis and western ghats.

A moratorium on the same has been sought while also calling for immediate implementation of a policy of using sustainable and alternative building materials in construction activities to stop mining of the hills.

The group asked that all mining activities close to forest and habitation areas be stopped so that the wildlife and rural communities are able to live peacefully without the adverse health and safety impacts of blasting and mining and the natural ecosystems are kept safe for the future generations.

A call has also been given out to address the all-important issue of solid waste management that includes segregation, recycling, reuse and reduction.

The organisations stated that rules pertaining to the same must be strictly implemented and sewage treatment plants (STPs) and effluent treatment plants (ETPs) must be set up to safely treat, recycle and discharge sewage and effluent water across all urban and rural areas.

This concern was aired by a large number of people with whom this reporter interacted in the hills of Uttarakhand. They pointed out that the communities suffer on account of there being no proper treatment of solid waste.

“The authorities start dumping the waste at one spot making it unbearable for the villages close to it. When there are protests they simply shift the dumping to some places else, where again there are protests after some time.

“The problem has become cyclical with no permanent solution being found. We keep on hearing that incinerators will be installed but that remains a distant reality. The only good thing happening is the door to door collection of waste,” a group of women in Champawat district said.

The civil society organisations have urged “all Indians to keep in mind that real good governance enables public participation in policymaking, reduces corruption and skirting of regulations, supports public debate reinforced by a free press and encourages citizens to push their lawmakers for greater environmental protections. Each of these drivers in turn propels countries down a more sustainable, just path.”