Election 2014: How green are our political parties?

A look at the future of green clearances through the manifestos of political parties in the electoral fray

By Srestha Banerjee
Published: Friday 11 April 2014

Election 2014: How green are our political parties?

After the high-decibel campaigns mounted by the national parties polling is finally under way in phases across India. With the country’s GDP hovering at a relatively low 4.7 to 4.9 per cent, a burning issue for the parties as well as the electorate is the road map for economic growth. But such a road map would, in all likelihood, extract a big environmental cost. And bringing about the economic prosperity that political parties promise throws up the debate of green clearances, mandated for big projects needed for this projected growth. Though green matters are not the central political plank for any of the political parties in the fray, environmental issues and matters of governance do find some mention in the party manifestos.

A comparison of the manifestos of the three most prominent parties battling at the national level—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—throws light on where they stand in this regard.

Sustainable development: a common theme

None of the three parties allude to sustainable development—the buzzword dominating any environmental discourse today. With a growth mandate of 8-10 per cent of GDP, the BJP and the Congress manifestos offer a slew of environmental measures under the umbrella of sustainable development.
In the AAP manifesto, the concept of sustainable development finds a more balanced mention, at least theoretically, placing the three “E”s side by side—an “equitable” and “ecologically” sustainable “economy”.

High growth agenda

The BJPs guide for environmental management, interestingly, finds mention under the subject “industry” instead of “Flora, Fauna and Environment”.  The emphasis on framing of environmental laws in a manner that encourages speedy clearances, removal of red tape and bottlenecks, is a sure indicator of diluted scrutiny of development projects at the time of clearance.

The manifesto speaks of developing a “hub-spoke model” at both the Centre and the state levels to simplify the clearance processes through a single-window mechanism. Though streamlining the process is certainly desirable for ensuring a timely and transparent decision making, a single window process without proper checks and balances—which the manifesto does not clarify—can also create a more general and biased understanding of the impacts of a proposed project and influence subsequent decision making.

The BJP manifesto further focuses on the management of natural resources with respect to more marketable commodities which can earn high returns, such as coal and minerals. Natural resources such as forests and water barely find mention.

Like the BJP, emphasis on a business-friendly governance structure is also apparent in the Congress manifesto, which clearly mentions that the party intends to streamline the regulatory structures and create a business-friendly environment. The idea of developing a single window clearance mechanism for all investors also is much in line with what BJP promises. A decentralized management system for forests and water resources finds a fleeting mention in the Congress manifesto.

Congress' proposal for an independent regulatory body for environmental clearance processes, however, is a departure from the established structure of the authority embedded in the government. The manifesto outlines the setting up of a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA)—a professional agency to conduct environmental appraisal of projects in a transparent and time-bound manner.  However, such plan has little to do with the party’s intention. It actually stems from the directive of the Supreme Court of July 2011, when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was asked to appoint a national regulator to appraise projects, regulate their clearances and monitor compliance with the environment clearance conditions. The ministry actually showed much reluctance in abiding by the apex court directives, following which the matter was again taken up by the Supreme Court in September 2013. In an order delivered in January this year the government was given a deadline of setting up the national regulator with its offices in all the states by March 31, 2014.

Congress has also proposed an independent overview of natural resource allocation—which the party finds to be inequitable. The party manifesto proposes the setting up of a “special purpose vehicle” for judicious allocation of natural resources to avoid arbitrariness and prevent misuse.

However, the party’s desperation for inviting and making way for big businesses as has been witnessed lately in clearances of POSCOs steel plant in Odisha  or the Tawang II hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, and also as finds mention in the manifesto, creates ambiguity about how much room will be left for truly independent decision making for resource allocation and clearance of projects after properly appraising environmental concerns.

The AAP manifesto does not give any specific prescription for environmental governance. AAP broadly speaks about a mechanism for decentralised/ bottom-up governance structure and decision making on all resource allocations—from mining to exploitation of forest resources, to harnessing the renewable energy potential.  The manifesto underlines the role of Gram Sabhas (and/or Mohalla Sabhas) in decision making at their respective levels and their integration in the overall governance process. For example, the AAP manifesto talks about reforming “MoEF and its agencies so that they can empower and help Gram Sabhas to be effective custodians and managers of their local natural resources.” However, it does not throw much light on how such a reform will be achieved.

Bias in managing water resources

The proposal for management of water resources, a vital component of the environment-development debate, remains vague in all the three party manifestos. The proposals for managing water resources refer to the usual phrases such as “conservation”, “efficient use of water resources” and “rain water harvesting”. But when the focus is clearly manufacturing-centric economic growth for both BJP and Congress, the phrase “water conservation” does not seem to fit into the overall scheme of things. It is difficult to ascertain from the manifestos, how the pledges of water conservation will be balanced with push for growth in the manufacturing sector, which is notoriously known for being water intensive. 

The issue of water management cuts an additional notch when it comes to the Ganga river. While the Congress proposes to take forward its earlier plan through the National Ganga River Basin Management Authority, and replicate the model for other major rivers in the country, the BJP offers a saffron take on the matter. The BJP manifesto pledges to clean the Ganga and calls the river “a symbol of faith in India, and has a special place in the Indian psyche”. What's more the river is discussed under the subject “cultural heritage”, instead of environment and pollution. Such spiritual take of an environmental problem creates concern about selective choice of natural resource protection, as it suggests that natural resources which have a spiritual connect will get a conservation priority, while those failing to meet this yardstick may not get noticed.

Development for whom?

A central issue to any environmental debate is the matter of equity. People who bear the brunt of the environmental and social impacts of development—pollution, displacement and loss of livelihoods—are often left to fend for themselves and not made stakeholders in projects. This gives rise to the constant dilemma—development for whom?

The manifestos of the parties do not hold out much hope to the deprived and the marginalised, with the exception of the AAP manifesto to some extent. The AAP manifesto says that “commercial exploitation of natural resources would be done based on a royalty and revenue sharing agreement with local communities.” 

But when it comes to Congress and BJP manifestos, it's not just benefit sharing, even the idea of participatory decision in development projects has been sidelined. While the BJP manifesto is largely silent on participatory decision-making, the Congress manifesto talks of decentralised forest management involving tribal and forest-dwelling communities. The proposal of decentralised forest governance is nothing new, but experience shows that except for few states such as Uttarakhand, such experimentation has not been very successful. The tribal states, in particular, remain far from such integration, given the concern of insurgency which the Congress government has been particularly wary of. Therefore, such proposal sounds more like a feel good prescription, with little hope of implementation.

The AAP manifesto heavily relies on the role of the gram sabha as a representation of community decision making.

Though gram sabhas are certainly needed for ensuring people’s rights, experiences relating to big ticket projects such as POSCO have shown us that gram sabhas are not without controversies regarding a fair representation of people’s rights. Therefore, mere mention of involving forest communities or putting a lot of faith in the gram sabha is not sufficient to plug the loopholes and address the biases in the existing system, which have been perpetuating environmental and social injustice.  

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