The challenge of the balance

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

India's general electionsconstitute the world'slargest demonstration of anation's commitment todemocracy. From the hillsof Arunachal Pradesh tothe seashores of Keralaevery five years peopleparticipate in a massiveexercise to assert theirnational priorities andpolitical choices. But inthiswhere does the concern for environment -the very resource base onwhich both our daily survival and our future economic growth depends - stand?

That the environment is badlythreatened in India cannot be a matterof doubt. During the '80sthecountry's environmental communityemphasised the threat to the rural environment and demanded ameliorativeaction. Urban environmental problemswere then relatively neglected but witheconomic growth over the yearswhichaccelerated under Prime Minister P VNarasimha Rao's new policy of economic liberalisationthey too haverapidly become stark. YetIndia'smetropoliseswhich attract largefinancial investments compared to therest of the urban sectorare reelingunder an extraordinary crisis ofpollution and resource mismanagement. And even environmentalistsrarely take up the issue of pollution inthe smaller towns.

Indiaa country with enormouspoverty and unemploymentcannot dowithout economic development. But inthis tension between environmentand developmentwill India forsakelong-term benefits and opt for development without maintaining the ecological balance? In some waysafter 50 yearsof post-independence economic developmentstark future is already here.Resource degradation and pollution inmany parts of India have alreadyreached crisis proportions andin comparative termsexhibit levels that areamongst the worst in the world.ThereforeI would say Indiatoday faces a major challenge of the balance.

To assess how the country's political parties arc trying to face this challengealteam of researchers from theCentre for Science -and-Environment travelledacross the country to document how the four majorpolitical parties of India -Congress (I)BharatiyaJanata Party (115P)Janata Dal(n)) and the CommunistParty of India-Marxist(cpi-m) - were respondingto environmental concerns.In this massive exercisewhich tookmonthsnumerous senior politiciansincluding Union ministers and statechief ministerswdeinterviewed alongwith lower levels of the political cadresof different political parties and localenvironmental activists and analysts.

The study shows that environmentalissues started to find a place in the manifestoes of almost all the importantpolitical parties during the '80swithdifferent parties taking slightly differentpositions. The TD has generallyembraced a more radical position whichemphasises the importance of maintaining a healthy natural resource base forthe survival and growth of the poor.Congress (i)on the other handhas hada somewhat more conservationistemphasis in its manifestoes. The cpisathe party of the poorhas shown theleast interest in the environment. BIP hasindulged in green rhetoric on severaloccasions.

But beyond the rhetoricand its different shades and huesthere is notmuch to be happy about. The politicalaction of almost all parties has been generally counter to the requirements of theenvironmental balancewhich is whythe environment continues to degrade.There is a big gulf between a party'srhetoric and real actionthe rhetoricoften running counter to theideology espoused in the manifesto.

in's environment minister of 1990Maneka Gandhifor examplepresenteda curious set of contradictions. She wasgung-ho about environmental causes-the only such minister uptil now - butshe also promoted several anti-peoplemeasures at the national levelincludingthe amendment to the earlier WildlifeProtection Act which made no attemptto protect the interest of the peopleliving in and around protected areas.Thisdespite the socialist rhetoric of herparty. At the international levelshe wasprepared to buy any thesis sold by theWestern worldfrom global strategies todeal with ozone layer depletion toglobal warmingeven if they weretotally unjust and unfair to the ThirdWorld. And when she stretched herselfto measures that could have made a bigdifference within the country - like theidea of setting up environmental courts- she faced displeasure within her ownparty. In Orissam chief minister BijuPatnaik consistently fought with localenvironmentalists on developmentprojects. And neither Bihar's LalooYadav nor Karnataka's H D DeveGowda did anything to endear themselves to the environmental community.

On the other handthe Congress(I)environment ministerKamal Nathwho took charge in 1991was quite prepared to take radical positions in international environmental negotiations -in the Rio conferencefor instance -but remained soft on national action. Towards the latter part of his tenurehewas even prepared to allow privateindustry access large tracts of state-owned forest landseven though thiswould harm the interests of poor peopledependent on forests and destroy anychances of developing a domestic woodgrowers' marketdespite his party'savowed thrust towards the marketisation of the Indian economy.Congress(i)thusdisplayed its ownbundle of contradictions.

EquallyBJP politicians have notcared much for green causes.Rajasthan's BJP chief ministerBhaironSingh Shekhawat repeatedly argued thatenvironment was being used by theCongress(i)-run Central government toreduce the powers of the state governments - "I cannot even put up a lamp post in my state without interferencefrom the Central environment ministry"he once said in a well publicisedstatement. Yethe himself did little toreverse environmental degradation inhis own state. Environment for him wasnot a life and death issue but a shamCentre-state issue. In Delhi in 1993when the country's Capital faced anacute water crisisBIP chief ministerMadan Lai Khurana immediatelydemanded more water from Delhi'sCongress(i)-run neighbourHaryana.When there were delayshe argued thatCongress(i) was deliberately trying todestabilise an opposition government.Never once did he sit down to makelong-term plans to reduce the enormous wastage of water in Delhi whichgoing by official statisticsgets morewater per capita than many Europeancities.

It is quite evident thatoveralltheCongress (I) has contributed most to thegrowth of the environmental legislationinstitutional development and regenerationas compared to the other parties.But this can be attributed to Iwo incidental factors that do not arise our of it's dedication to environmental causes.Onethe Congress (I) has mostly beenthe party power at the Centre during the'80s and '90s and has thus had torespond more than other parties to thegrowing environmental concern.SecondlyCongress (I) Prime MinistersIndira and Rajiv Gandhipersonallyexpressed an interest in environmentalissues. There is no assessment to showhow much of this concern was and isshared by the rest of the party's leaders.Critics of the Congress (I) mav evenargue that having been the party longestin powerit also remains responsible formost of the environmental degradationthat has steadily taken place since independence.

in sumit would be largely correct tosay that though the country's politicians' words have become greentheiractions remain largely anti-environment. They are totally failing to moderate and balance economic developmentwith environmental care. The statesmanship that the balance demands isstill missing. To my mindthe key questions environmentally conscious citizens have to ask themselvesthereforeare: what do these contradictionsbetween the politicians' words anddeeds teach and tell us; and secondlywhat actions must civil society take toaddress this problem?

This gulf between words and actionstells us that as yetenvironmental issuesare not electoral issues on which peoplevote and thus determine the electoralfortunes of political parties. The ruralpoor are much affected by the degradation of the resource base but they areunfortunatelypolitically disorgamsed.Even the Communist and socialist parties tend to underplay the interests ofthis group. As air and water pollutionbecome more and more severe and toxic.waste production multipliesthey w1IIimpinge on the health of the urban mid -dle classwhich is indeed a group that isvery organisel and vocal. But this grouptoo will assert its priorities only if thereis sufficient awareness of the healthimpacts of pollution. This will call forfirsta lot of medical research andthenfor that information to be made widelyavailable. At the moment this awarenessdoes not exist and somost politicians do not believe that either rural or urbanconstituencies care about the environment. Thereforethey are rarely prepared to go beyond the confines of shallow rhetoric.

Oras the campaign against theNarmada dam revealswhere a smallconstituency does show that it caresfor its habitatpoliticians force throughdevelopment projects by putting a larger constituency against the environ-mental interests of a minority. At leastat the national levelthe dam-affectedtribals of Goiarat could have generatedconsiderable political pressure on theCentral and state governments if thecountry's entire tribal political leadership would have protested against thedam. But these leaders have also beentorn between environment and development and have not been able to clarify in their own mirids and assert to therest of the society where the balance is quite unlikely that any of theabove will change with the forthcomingelections. But under the combined impact of population growthurbanisationand enhanced economic activitytheenvironment will continue to deteriorate at an accelerated pace. This poses aserious challenge to those citizens andgroups in civil society who care for theenvironment. In factit poses their biggest and most critical challenge. Eitherthey get together and find a strategy togreen the electoral process or they develop a strategy that can effectively forceany government that comes to power -at Centre in the states - to undertake good environmental governance.

Within the environmental community in Indiathe credibility of almost allpolitical parties to implement greenmeasures is rock bottom. But neithercynicism nor piecemeal efforts will helpto green the political system. The country will only lurch from one environmental crisis to another. If a coherentstrategy can be developed in greeningthe electoral processor in enforcinggood environmental governance andcombined action undertakenthenatleastthe next elections may turn out tobe more fruitfuland the Indian politicalsystem would enter the next millenniumwith a better mandate.

May be the starting point is to develop a shared green manifestowhich theenvironmental Community across thecountry can jointly put forward to thepeoples its own vision of green-tingedprosperity and developmentand thenuse its public support to influence thepolitical parties to accept the philosophyand important elements of its manifestointo their own. Andeven more importantlythey can then develop mechanisms to hold the political partiesoncethey come to poweraccountable totheir rhetoric.

There could behowevermanyother innovative ways to achieve thiscritical objectivityif we put our headsand hearts together. Both the Centre forScience and Environment and Down 'ToEarth would like to encourage a debateon this issueand I invite our readers tosend us their views and suggestion onhow this challenge can be met.

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