The last of the humble farmer

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

I am not at all unhappy to see H D Deve Gowda go. The manner in which his coalition partner, the Congress, turned against him is, maybe, debatable. But his performance as a leader who should have thought of economic development as a holistic issue, taking environment, poverty and equity into account - despite all his claims of being a humble farmer - was extremely poor and misguided.

In any democratic country, environmental concerns can get integrated with developmental programmes only if the leader is sensitive to them. Otherwise, all actions of the government turn into exercises on paper. This is because the ministry of environment, by itself, can do precious little to push for sustainable development;. this is the job of all ministries. What can the environment ministry do if the ministry of power insists on setting up polluting power stations and does not incorporate within itself an environmental sensibility to push towards ameliorative measures? The same idea applies to the case of vehicular air pollution which is affecting our cities today. The ministries of surface transport and industry must take greater cognisance of the 'slow murder' they are unleashing in the name of economic development. In institutional jargon this means that every environmental issue is an interministerial one and, therefore, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister (PM) must act in concert with the ministry of environment if the government as a whole is to change anything.

But Deve Gowda, unlike any of his predecessors, publicly joined the crooked litany against environmentalists. Calling them God's gift to earth, he described public interest litigation as political interest litigation. What power on earth do environmental activists have to stop public or private development projects? Who responds to dharnas and fasts in this country? The thing that has changed is that judges in the various High Courts and the Supreme Court have started listening to environmentalists, recognising the fact that the government does not care to implement its own environment protection laws. Why did Deve Gowda not get to the core of this problem and dare to criticise the honourable judges as roadblocks to development? Politicians prefer scapegoats and easy targets. Deve Gowda also took the easy route and sent an antienvironment message to his government and states, even as the air right under his nose in New Delhi must have told him that it was becoming a toxic experience.

It is sad that political management of environmental concerns in our country has steadily gone down over the last decade. The first PM to take an interest in environment was Indira Gandhi. My impression is that she understood neither the poor people's relationship to the environment nor sustainable development, but had a deep interest in India's natural heritage. Under her leadership, the wildlife and water pollution control acts were passed and forest management was brought into the Concurrent List of the Constitution, giving the Centre a role in it. She also initiated a project to protect the vanish- ing tiger.

Her successor, Morarji Desai, had no interest in environment. He shot to fame only for banning export of Indian monkeys for research abroad - which was more of a moral issue for him rather than an environmental one. Out of power, Mrs Gandhi opposed the Silent Valley hydroelectric power project. When she returned in 1980, she set up a department of environment and enacted the Forest Conservation and Air Pollution Control Acts. Though never vocal on dams, her regime coincided with successful campaigns against the Bedhthi hydroelectric project in Karnataka and the Bhopalpatnam and Inchampalli reservoirs in Andhra Pradesh. Even a few hectares of forest land being transferred for non-forest purposes needed her approval and state politicians, fully aware of her interest and views on the subject, were scared to approach her.

Rajiv Gandhi was India's first PM with a deep interest in sustainable development. The Environment Protection Act was enacted in his tenure. He also upgraded the department of environment to a ministry which he himself headed for some time, pushed for greater expenditure on environmental regeneration in rural employment programmes, made environmental education a component of the new education policy, started the Ganga Action Plan, and proposed a massive afforestation effort and agroecological planning for Indian agriculture. For the first time, the prime ministerial effort was multidimensional. But as his prime ministership ran into trouble, the lack 6f will in other parts of the political and bureaucratic systems meant that many programmes he had launched began to run into trouble. He himself succumbed to political pressures from Gujarat on the Narmada dam even as he expressed deep personal dissatisfaction with megaprojects. But he was clear that he could not do much in this area unless he got adequate support from the political system and the people. However, his choice of Bhajan Lal as a cabinet-level environment minister sent out a wrong signal.

V P Singh, the first PM to downgrade environmental management to the level of a minister of state, was the next to hold the office Singh brought in a person with an expressed interest in environment: Maneka Gandhi. But he soon got tired of her overzealousness for animals and brought in a cabinet minister with the sole intention of spiking her. Ms Gandhi also exacerbated events by her lack of vision of a pragmatic and feasible strategy for environmentally-sound development.

P V Narasimha Rao, Singh's successor, kept the environment portfolio at the level of a minister of state but gave Kamal Nath considerable freedom to organise activities, both nationally and internationally. Nath had a very limited understanding of environmental issues when he became minister, but he picked them up fast. He, however, concentrated more on global environmental issues which were then becoming hot and put up a lacklustre performance on national environmental problems. Narasimha Rao himself intervened only once to set up a department of wastelands development in a bid to kick-start the afforestation effort that had begun to wane in the latter years of Rajiv. Just prior to that, he had told the Indian delegation to the Rio conference that he was sorry that while India was vocal abroad, little was being done within the country itself.

Deve Gowda, who followed Rao, also placed a junior minister in charge of environment - a person who had no clue about the subject till he got into the position. The PM obviously did not display any interest in his choice of the individual he wanted for dealing with environmental problems. However, I P Nishad, the minister, was replaced just as he was getting a hold of the environmental issues, by another politician at the cabinet level - not because this person had greater knowledge of environment or that this position needed political elevation bemuse of its importance, but simply because of political compulsions to accommodate another constituent party in the coalition. Even the dream budget Gowda's government presented revealed no effort to balance the hazards that economic growth could bring for the people and their environment. Deve Gowda and his finance minister's message was clear. First let us start destroying at a faster rate in the delusion of growing wealthier, and then we will take care of the branch we are sitting on.

We are back to square one now, waiting for another political manager for India's environment to drop from heaven - even as the nation's rivers and urban air become full of poisons, land degradation and deforestation threaten food security and people's survival, wildlife and biodiversity disappear and industrialisation poses more and more hazards. Without a sensitive PM, there is little likelihood we will ever get a good one. That is why I am happy to say goodbye at least to Mr Gowda.

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