The election juggernaut rolled out — as it always does — with its legion of officials, booths, voting machines and other paraphernalia. But in the just-concluded polls across five states, the Election Commission of India (EC) — the body constitutionally mandated to conduct elections — did its bit for the environment, too. People using its electronic voting machines (EVM) ended up saving millions of trees.

The commission’s green initiative dates back to 1977, when the then chief election commissioner (CEC) SL Shakdhar, during a tour of Hyderabad, requested the Electronics Corporation of India to study the feasibility of using an electronic device for conducting elections. In 1979, a prototype was developed and the following year, the Commission demonstrated how it worked to representatives of political parties.

Two years later, the Commission issued directives for the use of EVMs and deployed them on an experimental basis at 50 polling stations in Kerala’s Parur Assembly constituency. Since then, after a few initial hiccups, EVMs have become the norm across the country. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, all voters will use EVMs.

Though questions have been raised about faulty EVMs, the machines do make the election process more efficient and easier to manage. And for the environment, the EVMs spell good news because they replace ballot papers, for which hundreds of tonnes of paper were used. According to some reports, during the last parliamentary election, 7,000-8,000 tonnes of paper were required to print ballots wherever needed. This meant the felling of 1.2 lakh fully grown trees. It is estimated that about 10,000 tonnes of paper will be saved through the use of EVMs in all polling booths.

“In the past few decades the Election Commission has progressively and successfully introduced many green initiatives, the most important of which is the use of EVMs, which has saved trees and paper to a large extent,” says former CEC N Zaidi.

But, of course, it’s not all green — not yet. The parliamentary elections will also use VVPATs — voter verifiable paper audit trail — to verify if the voter’s choice has been rightly registered by an EVM. The paper used in VVPATs is coated with metal to get long-lasting prints, but this makes it difficult to dispose it in an environment-friendly manner.

Zaidi points to yet another environment-friendly move of the EC — the curb on noise pollution by regulating the use of loudspeakers in political campaigns. The Commission has directed that loudspeakers can be used only between 6 am and 11 pm in rural areas, and between 6 am and 10 pm in other areas during elections.

Responding to suggestions from environmental groups, the EC has further discouraged harmful practices such as the defacing of property during poll campaigns and curbing the use of plastic and other environmentally hazardous materials.

The World Wide Fund for Nature-India, in a letter to the EC in 1999, had stated that it was “very perturbed over the excessive and non-sensible use of plastic by political parties”, which not only caused “choking of drainage systems in major towns and cities” but also contaminated agricultural fields.

The letter also pointed out that earlier posters and banners were made using cloth or paper, which was being increasingly replaced by thin plastic. Responding to the letter, the Commission wrote to all political parties, urging them not to use plastic for their posters and banners.

In 2012, the Commission received representations against the unlawful use of animals such as horses, donkeys, elephants, camels and bulls during poll campaigns. The animals were not adequately fed or cared for, and were forced to trudge across constituencies through the day.

The Commission took cognisance of the fact that the geographical conditions in some parts of the country necessitated the use of animals for the election process, but urged political parties and candidates not to lose sight of the legal provisions against cruelty to animals. It also advised against the use of animals for election campaigns.

EC officials point out that the central body can, at best, take cognisance of the issues brought to its notice and send out suitable directives to political parties. But it cannot act further, except under two circumstances — wherever there is a breach of the Model Code of Conduct; and initiating legal action under the relevant environment laws such as lowering the decibel levels of loudspeakers to curb noise pollution. Beyond this, however, it is up to a political party to ensure compliance with the directives of the Commission in its efforts to green the polling exercise. And that is a different ball game altogether.