A step backward

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

D Deve Gowda, the present Prime Minister ( pm ) of India, was the chief minister of Karnataka when my colleague, Supriya Akerkar, interviewed him. We were then trying to document the records of different political parties in environmental management. And Deve Gowda, deeply involved with the controversial Cogentrix power project, was extremely piqued with environmentalists. He offered a gratuitous advice to Supriya: "Often, people are being misled by environmentalists who tend to be anti-development. Take my advice... you are young and have a bright future ahead, don't be led by such people" ( Down To Earth , Vol 5, No 3).

I found this statement by a person who has since become chief executive of the country quite bewildering. It is extremely important to note that environmental management is an issue which by its very nature constantly demands Prime Ministerial intervention. Every environmental dispute becomes an inter-ministerial or Centre-state conflict and if the environment minister does not have pm 's the support, environmental issues will steadily recede into the background and environmentally destructive development will come to the fore.

Deve Gowda's attitude, therefore, constitutes a very serious threat to the environmental movement. Is it just coincidental that it is under his leadership that the ministry of environment and forests is being asked for the first time, to hand over powers to evaluate and clear power projects to state governments, who are the promoters of these projects in the first instance? It is unlikely that any state government will carefully evaluate these projects and insist on the extra expenditure and efforts needed to make them environmentally compatible.

To me, Deve Gowda's stance shows that the country is going back on its environmental commitments. And the environmental movement has failed to acquire enough power to force the political system to accept the value of its arguments.

Exactly 10 years ago, the then pm , Rajiv Gandhi had seen our report on the state of India's environment and immediately asked me to address his council of ministers on this. As the meeting was about to end, the parliamentary affairs minister said that the same presentation be made to all mp s. Rajiv, however, said that to ensure any serious discussion I should address all the parliamentary consultative dommittees. Since every mp was a member of one committee or the other, every mp would be reached in this manner. Moreover, he recommended that each minister should ensure that the discussion focus on the environmental role his or her ministry can play.

Two days later I came to know through T N Seshan, the redoubtable chief election commissioner (then the secretary, environment), that I had to address as many as 27 committees. I told Seshan that I would address about 15 committees whose ministries were more central to environmental management and suggested that the rest be addressed by his staff.

Seshan must have conveyed this to Rajiv. My first presentation was to the ministry of planning chaired by Rajiv himself as minister of planning. The moment he sat down he leaned over to ask me whether I would deliver all the lectures. Amazed by the pm' s extraordinary interest, I somehow tried to explain my position. He was clearly unhappy, and asked, "So which ones are you leaving out?"

"Commerce, defence, finance, etc", I answered. He politely said, "Mr Agarwal, I would strongly urge you to reconsider. I want you to reach every mp . Even I as a pm cannot do much for the environment unless the Parliament backs me. When droughts strike, more mp s want to dig tubewells rather than undertake water conservation measures. I would like you to address all of the committees." I, obviously, had no answer. "Of course, sir, how can I say 'no' to a pm ," was all I could mumble.

This was not all Rajiv did. He started the first major river cleaning programme -- the Ganga Action Programme. He initiated a major afforestation effort by setting up the National Wastelands Development Board. He asked the education ministry to include environmental education in the New Education Policy. He supported Seshan in taking strong steps to develop environmental appraisal procedures, amend the Forest Conservation Act and enact the Environment Protection Act. On the Narmada dam, he gave in to the pressures of the Gujarat government and allowed work to commence but supported Seshan's stipulation that construction will proceed pari passu with resettlement work and environmental management.

In later years, he could not pay adequate attention to green issues. By the end of his term, Rajiv knew that success on the environmental front had been limited. And he told me a couple of times that he was disappointed that not enough cases were being filed by citizens' groups against environmental offenders.

So what has gone wrong over the last decade that the present pm should take such a negative position? It is possible to dismiss this as a personality trait and say that he is insensitive to the green cause, which is probably true. But clearly, it cannot be the entire story. Have we in the environment movement pushed our cause in a way that has led to such a backlash? Clear answers to such questions can play an important role in devising more effective green strategies in the future.

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