Environment and politics: Missing the woods for votes?

All parties are silent on a crucial matter on which depends our future: environment

prerna-singh-bindra

Prerna Singh Bindra | March 31, 2014




The world’s largest and most vibrant democracy has one of its most exciting elections coming up. But sorely missing in the electoral fervour, speeches and promises, debates and issues is the environment. Strange, for it is one issue that impacts and even unites all of us in its import. As usually perceived, environment and conservation are not a rich man’s cause, particularly not in India where a vast majority is engaged in agriculture and natural resource-dependent activities. It is the bedrock on which rest our health, livelihood, food and water security, and a robust economy.

Think tiger and forests, snow leopards and mountains, birds and wetlands – symbols of healthy ecosystems. And the fact that these ecosystems – forests, mountains, wetlands, grasslands -- are the sources and watersheds of rivers, replenish groundwater, bind soil, influence rains and support livelihoods. Think climate change: it is real, it is here to stay and it is creating a havoc. The most recent example of erratic weather is the freakish hailstorm across 28 districts in Maharashtra, which, besides the tragic loss of lives, ruined over 12 lakh hectares of crop with damages estimated at over Rs. 6,000 crore. Think pollution: air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India with 6,20,000 premature deaths annually.

There is more to be said, but I gather the crux of the argument has been conveyed and, hopefully, imbibed. So let’s take the focus back on the glaring absence of the ‘E-word’ from the election vocabulary, and also briefly see how the environment fares globally in the political fray.

The first political party that campaigned majorly on an environmental platform was the United Tasmania Group in the April 1972 state election in Australia. In the same year, the Values Party contested in the New Zealand general election. In Europe, green parties have evolved over time to gain some position of power. Germany’s Green Party came to power within a coalition government. In fact, Germany’s Alliance ’90/The Greens has become one of Europe’s most important green parties, and has played a significant role in the formation of national-level green parties in other countries. The challenge, of course, is how much of its environment manifesto is actually translated in policy and action, particularly when tough decisions are called for, as in the case of Germany where green concerns have taken a backseat as it seeks emissions allowances for industry in a sagging economy.

That said, the absence of environment as an electoral issue appears to be a global phenomenon. In the run-up to the 2012 US presidential elections, UK newspaper The Guardian commented that “Romney and Obama avoid the climate change elephant”, pointing out “how toxic climate change has become in the US”; while in the 2013 electoral race in Australia, Paul Sinclair of the Australian Conservation Foundation wrote, “It’s like the economy and the environment are being kept in separate cages of a zoo in this year’s election. Our politicians can’t seem to see that they are, and will remain, interconnected.”

Closer home, I have trolled through speeches of our PM aspirants, including currently unofficial aspirants, for some coherent intent on environment issues. But to no avail. Of course, all parties have some green issues listed in their agenda (few of which are discussed below) but it is unclear how they will be addressed, especially when the growth agenda is central. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi (whose “all-round development” has failed, according to reliable surveys, in social indicators like rural planning, nutrition, health, environment, and there can be no two opinions that the Gujarat development story has had catastrophic environment costs) did mention in passing about “looking toward water conservation”, but then, his party has river-linking among its flagship schemes. Indeed, the Narmada-Kshipra river link was recently inaugurated in Madhya Pradesh with much hype – and without conducting an environment impact assessment. The efficacy of river-linking to solve the water crisis demands a separate piece. Suffice to say that the '5.60 lakh crore (2002 estimate) project is not grounded in sound science or even any environmental studies and assessments. The same PM wannabe also admirably called “water, land, forests and air,” our heritage, however, how these are to be conserved is summed up “through modern technology”. A word of (unsolicited) advice: good old protection and not clearing of forests will serve the purpose.

Water is pretty much at the centre of electoral politics, (river-linking has now also been claimed by the earlier naysayers, the Congress), but the manner of its mention isn’t reassuring. In its manifesto (not yet out officially at the time of writing), the Congress has included the right to drinking water and hygiene, though it has reportedly failed to articulate how this is to be achieved.

Similarly, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) had made water central to its Delhi manifesto, and even took the exemplary decision to shift a bus depot, India’s largest, from the Yamuna riverbed. Yet, it failed to find sustainable remedies to the city’s water and for that matter power needs. Its pilot scheme of 700 lphd free water raised concerns of encouraging wastage, and the fear that this could translate into clamour for more water for Delhi.

The huge environmental and social cost this carries is rarely understood. For instance, Delhi’s increasing thirst for water is expected to be met from dams in far-flung areas such as Renuka in Himachal, which will submerge a chunk of the Renuka wildlife sanctuary and displace people from 32 villages. AAP’s vision document makes a cursory reference to forest, water, land and all natural resources, which it says are our national wealth, and should be under local custody, to be used for the development of the population, with nigh a word on their protection.

The BJP in its last election manifesto mentioned taking appropriate steps to save the tiger and safeguard critical habitants of all wildlife – though how such a worthy promise will be married to its aggressive development agenda is a worry. The CPI(M) has taken a decisive step to review the industry-friendly environment impact assessment, but wildlife and biodiversity are absent from its manifesto.

The run-up to the elections holds another cost factor to the environment, as various parties woo corporates. An example  was the ouster of former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who was perceived as being a ‘roadblock’ to growth, though going by statistics during her tenure most  of the green clearances sought were obtained – even  at times overruling the decisions of regulatory bodies for forests and wildlife. To illustrate, between January and April 2013, the rate of clearances granted by the ministry of environment and forests increased by 42 percent compared to the previous year, with lower than a 4 percent rejection rate. The day before Natarajan’s ouster, at a Ficci meet Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi conceded to India Inc that green clearances were a problem. “Many of you expressed your frustrations with environmental clearances, that they are delaying projects unduly,” he said, adding that “industry cannot suffer. The loopholes are so big (in the process) you can drive a truck through some of them.”

He was right, except that the loopholes have largely been used to benefit industry, not the environment – as mines, hydel projects etc have driven through them, violating mandatory green norms. A case in point is some of Sikkim’s hydel projects which are well into construction, bypassing the wildlife clearance.

That we have failed to prirotise safeguarding the environment is reflected in the manifesto released by a leading national daily, which makes a superfluous mention of green concerns, while making a case for a ‘single-window environment clearance for power projects’, perhaps unaware that the central ministry has given clearances for coal and power in excess of what has been proposed till 2017.

But why blame the politicians alone? The fault lies with the electorate. The politicians – or even the media – merely reflect the mood and priorities of the public. Elections are the one time that  leaders stoop to conquer and echo the concerns of the people, who have failed to realise the costs we and our future generations pay when we callously disregard the environment for immediate ‘gains’.

We get the environment we deserve.

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