Green has many shades

Green party in the pipeline must put people first

Published: Monday 30 November 2009

-- Subhas Datta, an environmental activist in Kolkata, is taking the initiative to launch Indias first organized green party. He has already been in touch with green party leaders in Europe and has been assured support and offered advice. Since the party is still at the concept stage, it is difficult to tell what will happen once it gets off the drawing boardin terms of manifesto, programme, constitution, organizational structure and areas of special focus. Datta has told the media that the party will take into account a range of social and economic concerns from the vantage of the environment. He has told one newspaper The manifesto should cover shelter, health, literacy, unemployment, industrialization, agriculture, population, minorities, corruption and sustainable development, with emphasis on environmental aspects."

Assuming the green party will have a fairly conventional organizational structure and conventional modes of mobilization, the question is how it will address the crucial issues of class and gender and, other sectional issues, especially in contexts which will witness conflicts over the use of resources. Let us take an example. It is extremely likely that the green party will be predominantly middle class, at least in terms of membership and mobilization focus, to begin with. This does not necessarily mean that interests of the middle class will dominate the agenda, but it probably means that areas of focus will be urban-centric.

Thats to begin with. The bigger issue is that the list Datta provides with emphasis on environmental aspects does not tell us anything about where the party will position itself. Take shelter. Housing for the poor is seen by many environmentalists in given contexts as inimical to the maintenance of environmental health shanties by riversides or in endangered habitats like wetlands or forests. Where should the green party position itself? On the side of, say, diehard conservationists? Or should it develop a framework in which the question of social justice is paramount, prompting the search for solutions that will protect the right to shelter because that is an inalienable part of environmental justice? Similar questions will arise out of every single item Datta has listed.

Down to Earth The prospective party will also have to deal with the issue of gender justice. To take an example briefly. Whether in urban or rural contexts, a shortage of water has the bigger impact on the lives of women because they are invariably expected to make sure that a household has enough of it. In an urban context, say, what policies will the party prescribe to enable equitable distribution of the resource across classes of people? High water rates for the middle classes to encourage judicious use along with cheap and easy access for slum dwellers, so that women in slum households can easily collect water? Or a policy that impacts every household equally so that water is conserved across the board?

Those minimally acquainted with the fortunes of green party as a political phenomenon know it has succeeded in the sphere of the state only in the west and north Europe, excluding the UK. This is because north Europe and the continent follow systems of proportional representation which allow even small parties with relatively small share of the vote to enter legislatures and directly influence state policy. In Indias first-past-the-post system it will be virtually impossible for a green party to make an electoral impact.

There are other problems as well in the Indian context. Unlike western and northern Europe, India has historically not had an environmental movement to write home about, though there have been scattered initiatives. Environmental movements in Europe laid the basis for green politics in the formal state sphere. Then again, Indias diversityand sheer size poses obstacles to formulating a coherent nationwide political agenda on environment.

India also has one of the most unequal societies. It would be a great challenge to fashion an environmental agenda that accounts for the fact of great wealth, and the consumption-oriented lifestyles it produces, coexisting with abject deprivation, which denies access to the most basic of resources, environmental and otherwise, to the vast majority of the people.

Suhit Sen is an academic, a journalist and a freelance writer in Kolkata

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