Promises to keep

With the 1996 general elections just around the corner, the nation's premier political parties are back to making elaborate 'green' promises. But behind the tall claims and pledges of their manifestoes, are they really serious about the problems that plague our environment? When the country goes to polls on April 27, will it be voting for an environmentally secure future? Researchers from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) trudged to different corners of India to find first hand answers to these and other related questions

 
By Supriya Akerkar
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Promises to keep

-- (Credit: Illustrations: Rustam Vania<sc)THE concept of environment concerns itself with issues likewaterforests and podutionall of which exercise inutti-dimensional impacts on common people's lives. With the rising con-sciousnes;s in the fieldpolitical parties of all hues hageover the yearsadded 'green sections' to their manifestoes.

Our analysis shows that the parties' responses to environ-mental issues are essentially governed by political exigencies;green votes have finally begun to count. But how do the environmental credentials of various mainstream parties comparewith each other?

Environment became a significant concern for these partiesonly in the '80s. While the Congress(i) and Bbaratiya JanataParty (Bfp) added independent sections on it in their 1984 election manifestoesthe Janata Dal OD) - formed in 1988 - hadipctuded an elaborate chapter on environment in its 1989 manifestoThe concern for ecology made a marginal entry into theCommunist Party of India-Marxist (cpt-m) manifesto as late asin 1989Barring the tono party seems to have put environmentat concerns at the centre of its espoused development strategies.

The CSE'S Citizens' Reports on the state of India's environment (1982 and 1985) had pointed to the fact that developmentstrategies followed so far by the country had degraded the country's landswatersforests and air and eroded the survival base ofthe rural poortribals and the fisherfolk who depended on theseresources for their livelihoods. From the realisation of thistruth arose The popular demand for redefining the developmentmodel around principles of 'equity' (redistribution of naturalresources)'people's participation' (consultations of local people in development programmes) and 'sustainability of naturalresources' (sustainable use of the environment).

Their words...
Environmental perspectives articulated by most partieshoweverhave remained far removed from these pointers. The main -festoes of the Congress(i) - 1984 to 1991 - for instancehavefocussed on the vocabulary of'sustainable development'but theparty's governance has implemented bureaucratic programmesfor afforestation and pollution control instead. Apart from avague reference in 1991 to "people's participation in the protection of environment"the party's manifestoes say nothing aboutthe effects of environmental degradation on poor people's lives.

The i3lp's election manifestoes (1984-91) promised a naturalresource management policy and outlined a set okcchnotagicaloptions like anti-pollution devices to combat environmentalproblems. But the issue of decentralised governance systemthekey to tackling the degraded state of environmenthas not yetfigured in the party's electoral agenda. This anomaly stands outstarkly against the party's much vaunted policy of respectingpeople's cultural traditionswhich in the Indian contextoughtto translate into respecting the traditional rights ofcommunities to use and govern natural resources.

But if the Congress(i) and BIP manifestoes articulate significantly watered down environmental visionsthe cpi-m's electionmanifesto pays nothing more than a lip service to the cause. itremains the only party which has not given an independentspace and emphasis to environmental issues. in factthe document dismisses ecological concerns with its remarkably succinctone-point agenda on environment: an environment policy inline with sustainable development. The manifestofor reasonsbest known to the partyneglects to elaborate on the basictenets of such a policy or outline a programme for the same.

The ID manifestoeson the other handwith their communitycentred green policieshave provided the welcome change. The1989party manifesto had promised a natural resource generation policy that put people's survival needs at the centreandemphasised the 'equity' component. The 1991 documentaffirmed the demands put forward by many environmentalmovements with its promise that tribal people will be displacedfrom their habitats only with their prior consent.

... and their deeds
Keeping aside the promiseshow have the parties actually performed in their respective romping grounds? Did they live up totheir claims and pledges when in power? In the case of the it)the commitment of the V P Singh government towards environment issues was hamstrungwhat with intra-party wranglingsbetween Maneka Gandhithe minister of state for environmentand Nilamony Routrayher senior colleague in the ministry.Thusthe ju's I I -month stint with power had little impact onthe major environment problems faced by the country.

In the case of forestrythe mundoubtedlycan take thecredit for meeting the first central notification on joint forest management (TFM)which sought to introduce the crucial issueof people's participation in forest management. But the partyalso has to contend with the obnoxious reputation of allowinglargescate clear felling of forests; more forests were cleared inthree months of the JD'S rule than were clear felled in a wholeearlier decade.

In the current JD-ruled states of Karnataka and Biharafforestation efforts have been by and large neglected. Once inpowerthe state leaderships of the it) seem to suffer from thesame malaise affecting other parties: they forget their electoralpromises. For examplenotwithstanding the promises of theparty not to displace tribals without their consentthe LalooYadav government in Bihar and Deve Gowda's government inKarnataka are going full steam ahead with the building of controversial projects like Koel-Karo in Bihar and Cogentrix inKarnatakaamidst massive opposition from local peoplo andtribal groups.

But if the JD rules stand out as sagas of betrayed 'promises'has the Congress(l)'s performance been any better? Under RajivGandhithe party did undertake some programmes to revive thedegraded environmentbut most of these programmes gotembroiled in endless bureaucratic delays (a typical feature of theparty's regime)without actually achieving much.

Rajiv's Congress(i) chose Bhajan Lal as the government'sminister for environmentwhose principal claim to fame todaylies in the furore he created when he told the Parliament thatdamages to the lives of people in the case of an earthquake following the building of the Telin dam (a possibility predicted byexperts and one of the reasons for opposition to the dam byenvironmentalists) had no significance for him!

Rajiv Gandhi's promised 'peoples' movement' in afforesation never took offthe bureaucracy remained at the helm ofmanaging forest affairs and calling the shotsas the vision ofIpeople's participation' was lost in a maze of unnecessary verbiage and rhetoric. The anti-people character of various billsfloated by the environment ministry in the Narasimha Rao-ledCongress(i) governmentafter it assurned power in 1991clearlyindicts the party on this issue. The draft forest billfloated in1992by environment minister Kamat Nathis a case in point.The billreferred to as "draconian" by several people's groupshad magnified the bureaucracy's powers by several degrees.Another such malafide attempt was the move to give degradedforest lands to the paper and pulp industry for raising captiveplantations. The proposal was roundly criticised by NGos andenvironmentalists for subsidising the industry at the cost of thepoor rural people who depended upon the degraded forest landsfor their fuel and fodder needs. Another recent move by RajeshPilotwho recently replaced Kamal Nath as the environmentministertowards appointing Van Mukhncts for looking afterafforestation and JFM programmes has the potential to deal afinal death blow to the limited community participation inforest managment programmes. Moreoverdespite its Promisesto implement the Bhuria committee recommendations fortribal autonomythe Congress leadership has not done so. Ineffectwith every mooted notificationthe Congressft) government has seemed to take forests further away from the local people's governance.

The Bu's slate of ecological concerns is not clean either. Theparty's dominant preoccupation seems to be the Centre-stateequations of power in the context of environmental policiesthan conservation issues per se. For instancethe only reactionthat Rajasthan's Bhairon Singh Shekhawat seems to be giving toany forest conservation bill floated or passed by the Congress(i)government at the Centre has been that "the Centre is usurpingthe state's powers" in forest areas. Yetthe BJP chief ministershave not recognisedby the same logicthe rights of the localcommunities to decide whether they want development projectsat the cost of their forests and environment or not.

The environmental performance of the cm-st is as apatheticbarring perhaps its initiatives in the area of jFm in West Bengalto some extent. Here toohoweverthere are problems like theparty cadre-dominated forest protection committees extendingbenefits such as employment generation through afforestationand other worksto the families supporting the party.

While sustainable development finds a clouded mention inthe party's manifestoactions of the ctt-si betray otherwise in Keralathe cpt-m leadership is supporting projects such asPooyanikuttiwhich has been opposed by environmentalists forthe largescale destruction of virgin forests that it threatens toengender.

In West Bengal the party seems to be actually provokingenvironmentally destructive activitieswith its cadre's links withlocal mafia. For examplethe cpi-m cadre in the state wenton anecological rampage in the two 24 Parganaswhen they broughthuge tracts of the paddy fields in the arm under shrimp cultivationby forcethereby endangering the fragile SunderbansSimilarlythe state government has taken the issue of industrial pollutionlightly-no action has been taken to shift Calcutta's pollutingranaeries to another area as ordered by the Supreme Court.

While most parties and their representatives talk about sustamable developmentnone of them have even marginallythought of whether their economic policies look into the sustainable limits in the use of any natural resource. The cpi-mclaims environmental issues are a part of the larger ecoAomicissuesbut its developmental perspective has much in commonwith those of the Congress(i) and the BJPwho advocate rapidindustrialisation without suggesting any concomitant checksand balances to counter the unbridled harnessing of naturalresources. The BJP'S call for liberalisation of the licencing procedures in industrybut without reciprocal measures that wouldensure that the industry will not abuse the environmentstandsout as an example. The complicity of the BJP governments - inthe limestone rich Himachal Pradesh or in Rajasthan - inallowing unchecked mining leading to ecological devastation inthose regionsraises serious questions about the judiciousness oftheir industrial policies. The industrial policies followed in WestBengal tell a similar tale.

While the In flaunts its village-friendly image in its manifestoesLaloo Yadav in Bihar and Deve Gowda in Karnataka arebusy wooing industries into their foldunmindful of the ecological consequences of their actions. In Karnatakarampant illegalgranite mining has flowered with the blessings'of both ID andCongressf) politicians.

With an eye on the polls
The scenario appears to be exceedingly gloomywith no partyactually caring for the environment or even performing according to its stated promises. Ecological issues have remained votegrabbing baits. The Bip had rode to power in Maharashtra byopposing the multi-crore Enron power plant (Dabhol). The Intoo had come to power in Orissa and won seats from Bahapal byprotesting against the missile testing range programme whichwas proposed to be based there.

it has also been observed that in order to seek green voteslocal party representatives or members of legislative assemblies(mLAs) have taken up the cause of the environmentat timeseven in opposition to their central or state leadcrships. Forinstancein Karnatakathe local In and Congress mLAs areopposing the Cogentrix power projectinspire of the party leaderships' avowed support for the same. In Keralathe local cpi-mcadre has opposed the official party position on projects such asPooyamkutti and Goshree. in another instancethe local RIPcadre in Dabhol are protesting against the Enron power projectunder the banner of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manchwhosevolunteers are affiliated with the partyeven while the party hasnow formally approved of Enron after riding to power inMaharashtra.

Sometimesparties have acted under @ressurc from people'smovements. All the anti-pollution laws enacted by theCongress(i) werg done under duressas popular agitations onissues such as pollution of waterbodies and air rocked the country and forced the government intodecisive action. Strong environmenttal protests which followed theBhopal tragedy had propelled theRajiv Gandhi government to bringforth the Environment ProtectionAct in 1986. The '80s also saw atremendous rise in public interestlitigations filed by local groupsagainst polluting industries. The rising environmental consciousnessamongst the people had led to thesetting up of environmental tribunals by the Congress governmentin 1995 to speedily settle cases ofenvironmental disaster. Other similar causes led to the introduction ofthe environmental impact assessment notification by Kamal Nathwhich calls for appraisal of development projects from the environmental point of view.

The people's agitations haveoften received support from someoutstanding individuals andvisionaries within these politicalpartieswho have displayed an acutesensitivity (o and commendableappreciation of environmentalissues. At presentall such leaderscontinue to offer a critical debatewithin their partiesKarnataka'sR K Chandrashekhar (JD) and AnantKumar (Bip) have been voicing opinions even in opposition to their parties' stated positions.Chandrashekhar's protests stopped Deve Gowda from allowingthe setting up of dye-making factories ncarTipagondanhalli.The veteran JD leader Surendra Mohan's efforts have made theparty manifesto more sensitive to environmental issues. cpt-mleaders like Govind Pillai from Kerala have been instrumental inbringing environmental concerns to the centrestage of their party's politics within the state. In the Congress(i)tribal leaderslike Dileep Singh Bhuria from Madhya Pradesh have been pushingthe agenda of community management of natural resourceswithin tribal dominated areasa step which would surely checkunbridled abuse of natural resources. Individuals like them givethe country some cause for hope; upon them rests some of theresponsibility of bringing in (he necessary policy changes in theirparties' perspectives on environment.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.