The rising intensity of heatwaves has triggered a debate about whether India's general elections can be held in better weather conditions. Photo: Election Commission of India/Wikimedia Commons

Voter burnout: Is India’s general election process seeing its last summer?

While the Election Commission of India has constituted a ‘task force’ to help voters deal with the massive heatwave during the ongoing general elections, whispers are slowly turning into demands for the democratic process to be held in less harsh climatic conditions

The world’s largest election is currently underway. India is giving nearly a billion (950 million) citizens the chance to exercise their right to vote a government of their choice into power. But candidates have been met with an unexpected adversary—extreme weather. The two-and-a-half-month electoral process—voting takes place in seven phases between April 19 and June 1—coincides with a season of extreme heat waves this year, far worse than 2023, which was the warmest year on record till date. 

The impact–some states have recorded temperatures hovering around 42°C-45°C—has been a great leveller. It has spared neither the voter nor the candidates. Last week, Union minister Nitin Gadkari fainted during an election rally in Maharashtra. Voters facing the brunt of the heat made headlines in the national and international media. 

As a result, the democratic process has taken a major hit. Kerala, which is currently in the midst of an intense heatwave, reported nearly 10 deaths following heat strokes, some of whom were reportedly standing in long queues to vote. Nineteen of the 20 constituencies in Kerala reported a big drop in turnout—71% against 77.8% in 2019. 

With such unprecedented heat, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has quickly constituted a ‘task force’ to deal with the situation for the first time in India’s electoral history. It will provide a “specialised forecast” before each polling day. But such band-aid measures have limited impact. The rising intensity of heatwaves has triggered a debate about whether India’s general elections can be held in better weather conditions. Experts said adjusting the schedule for a smooth organisation of the election process isn’t unusual and it can be done by political consensus or through a law in Parliament. So will this be the last summer election that India can afford to have?  

Wave of the future

The nodal weather agency of the country, India Meteorological Department (IMD), has predicted more than double the normal heatwave days from April till June. In fact, the first spell of heatwave has already made an appearance as early as the beginning of April. Notedly, heatwaves have claimed more lives in India than other natural hazards, with the exception of tropical cyclones. Fresh studies show that India has seen more than 24,000 deaths due to heatwaves since 1992. This, coupled with endless predictions of future temperature spikes globally, may prove to be devastating for India. 

One can argue that a dip recorded in voter turnout can’t be blamed on heatwaves entirely, but the ECI has still taken serious note. It held a meeting with all stakeholders, including IMD officials, to “mitigate the risks” because of heatwaves so that people are not deterred from coming out to vote. Before the next phase of elections, which is on May 7, when 94 seats of the Lok Sabha go to polls, the IMD has issued  a heatwave warning.  

Last year, on April 16, a heatwave had claimed 13 lives at a public event in Navi Mumbai and over 600 hospitalisations were reported. The country is likely to experience 10 to 20 days of heatwaves in different parts against a normal of 4 to 8 days.  The areas most prone to increased heatwaves will be Gujarat, Madhya Maharashtra, north Karnataka followed by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, North Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, according to the IMD. 

Image Credit: IMD

Since 2004, the general elections have been held in the summer season in India, but this time may be the hardest for the election staff, security personnel, candidates and electors. Two phases of the elections are over and five more rounds will be held on May 7, 13, 20, 25 and June 1. 

The ECI’s heat task force consists of the officials from ECI, IMD, NDMA and Union health ministry. The task force will review the impact of the heatwave and humidity before each polling day and provide a “specialised forecast”. 

Professor Dileep Mavalankar, director of Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar,  said a close look on the everyday mortality during this heatwave season is very important. 

“They [ECI] should also include the registrar of birth and death of each place [going to polls in different phases] in this task force. Because unless you know how many people have died in a district, and get the information of abnormal mortalities in a specific area, you cannot assess the ground situation. Therefore, the Registrar General of India [RGI] should also be included (in the task force),” Mavalankar told Carboncopy. 

Heatwave deaths are not easy to classify and there is no analysis or record of death due to heatstroke in India. The only way to understand the impact of a heatwave is to look at the mortality data every day. 

Mavalankar said, “Like the IMD gives you everyday temperature, the RGI must give data of everyday deaths and this will help understand the situation [of heatwave]. A daily bulletin about the number of patients admitted in the hospitals,  based on the symptoms of patients, can also help to know how many people suffered from the heatwave.”

So can election dates be shifted? 

Research said the “heatwave-hazard risk would significantly worsen in all districts under enhanced global warming” in the future. Therefore, we may face even tougher conditions in the summers to come. Even if political parties and general electors exercise caution during campaigning and voting, the impact of the heatwave on the democratic process cannot be wished away completely.  

India being a federal democracy has a general election—held every five years—along with several smaller state-level elections interspersed between those years. Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India OP Rawat suggests that a meeting of all political parties should be convened and a consensus should be arrived at on the timing of state and central elections. 

“There is a six-month window [as per the Constitution] to hold parliamentary elections,” he said, while highlighting that a few state elections always take place just months before the general elections. 

“To avoid such a situation in future, the election commission must call for an all-party meet where it could collectively agree on delaying the state elections by two months and holding the parliamentary elections at a preferred time during the six-month window. For example, for the next general elections, which would be in 2029, the window falls between January 1 and June 30. Spring [around February-March] is the best time to hold the elections. Or else, there should be an amendment in the law that empowers the EC to conduct the state assembly elections a little early,” he said.

Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of Association of Democratic Reform, also advocates for a change of time and a shorter election schedule as well. “The Constitution provides a provision for this and elections can be convened six months before the term of the ongoing Parliament is over. For a healthy democracy, the ECI has to look at the convenience, comfort and preference of people at large, not only of the various political parties and governments. In the wake of this adverse climate situation, these elections could have been held three months earlier,” Chhokar said.

Unusual heat now a norm

Scientists across the world have been warning against the unprecedented rise in global warming. The planet has warmed far faster in the past 50 years than at any point in at least the past 2,000 years. The Earth’s temperature has risen by an average of 0.11°F (0.06°C) per decade since 1850, or about 2°F in total. The rate of warming since 1982 is more than three times as fast: 0.36° F (0.20° C) per decade.

Unusual heat has now become a common phenomenon. The 10 warmest years in history have all occurred in the past decade (2014-2023). The year 2023 has been the warmest, superseding the year of 2016. 

According to the combined data from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), 2023 saw the highest global surface temperature in the 144-year record at 1.4°C (2.52°F), which was above the early industrial (1881-1910) baseline average.  

Impacting people, elections and the economy

Apart from health, heat waves also have socio-economic impact as it leads to increased energy consumption, reduce crop yields, increase water loss and intensify droughts or forest fires. Soaring mercury can cause disruptions in critical infrastructure networks and lower labour productivity

According to a study, India currently loses around 259 billion hours annually due to the impacts of humid heat on labour, up from a previous estimate of 110 billion hours. In terms of changes, in the first 20 years of this century, India lost 25 billion more hours annually compared to the previous 20 years. Also, agricultural labour capacity in India would decrease by 17% if warming continues to 3°C and to 11% if emission cuts are accelerated across the country.

Heat action plans still a work in progress

With the probability of heatwaves increasing dramatically in coming years, Heatwave Action Plans (HAP) have become a need of the hour. They are defined as the comprehensive extreme heat early warning systems and preparedness plans. These plans can also be considered as the country’s primary policy response to economically damaging and life threatening heatwaves.

The first Heat Action Plan was launched in 2013 by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which went on to become a template for not only India, but also the world. India’s national government is working with 23 heat wave-prone states and over 130 cities and districts to develop and implement HAPs across the country.

However, according to findings of a recent report on their effectiveness, almost all HAPs are inadequate in identifying and targeting vulnerable groups. HAPS are underfunded, lack transparency and have a weak legal basis. It also stated that most HAPs are not tailored to the local context and have an oversimplified view of the hazard. 

Abhiyant Tiwari, Lead, Climate Resilience and Heath, NRDC India says, “We notice that there are gaps in financing and institutionalisation of the HAPs, but the good part is that those gaps are being identified and being addressed. Also, from the preparedness and response plan, only the country is moving towards the long-term majors.” 

Dealing with heatwaves is a different process from managing other disasters like earthquakes and floods. Experts advocate more microlevel planning where concern for vulnerable communities are addressed adequately. For this, the hotspots for heatwave impact should be identified. 

“The HAP has to be very localised and decentralised. If I talk about early warning then you see that the temperature at which the people living in Srinagar are affected is totally different from the temperature for the people of Chandrapur and Jalgaon. People in Vidarbha in Maharashtra may be comfortable at 40°C, but this won’t be the case in mountainous regions,” Tiwari Told the CarbonCopy. 

Mavalankar who spearheaded the first HAP of India in 2013, says without a focussed approach, adequate financing and public awareness, the action plans will prove to be just paper tigers. 

“There is more progress on paper than in reality. This is partly because there is no budget allocated. Half of the action is public awareness and you need massive advertising to make people aware. But have you seen any advertisements about protection from heatwaves? This is because there is no budget for that. Particularly when there is an election process of this scale underway, you need more awareness campaigns so that people know how to protect themselves from heat,” Mavalankar said. 

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