Conspicuously missing

Published: Wednesday 15 December 1993

ANYBODY reading the national media would have thought that environmental issues had precious little to do with the current round of elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. But the stories that our reporters have brought back show that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Numerous local issues, intimately related to the environment, were raised by the people -- from traditional drinking water and sanitation demands to newer issues like pollution control, loss of green spaces and control over natural resources. In the Uttar Pradesh hills, the demand for a separate state has emerged only because the local people feel they have no control over their resource base and their destiny. Many tribal villages in Madhya Pradesh feel the same way, one of them even put up a candidate to fight against the loss of access to forests. Centralised environmental laws were strongly criticised.

Why then did these issues get pushed to a subterranean stage, neglected in both media and political party perceptions? This is because local issues need local fora for their expression and it is the lack of the latter, a fundamental shortcoming of our democratic system, that suppresses their expression. Even in a city like Delhi, there was no dearth of people worried about dust pollution, disappearing green spaces, hazardous industries, lack of defecation facilities and other such daily life issues. But an issue like the city's air quality, which affects the entire city, failed to find place on anyone's agenda, whether candidate or voter.

Environment can become a mega-political issue, too. But for that, the country's electoral system must change in a way that it respects the small vote. Based on the discredited Westminster model, India's electoral system is such that, even if a national green party were to get 10 per cent of the national vote evenly spread across the country, it would not get a seat in Parliament.

In Europe, too, green parties emerged strong only in countries that have proportional representation. In the 1989 European elections, British voters gave the green party a massive 16 per cent vote, but no seats in the parliament. On the other hand, though the French, German and Italian greens got fewer votes, they got an equivalent proportion of seats. Today, the British green party is in utter shambles. The public there pays little attention to it because the party cannot hold any power -- just as the people of Dalli Rajhara in Madhya Pradesh want the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha to fight with them on local pollution issues, but vote for mainstream parties in the elections. After all, who will vote for a party that can make no difference?

Green issues will, therefore, emerge only when India's democracy is deepened with the establishment of local democratic institutions and change in the election methodology itself. that is indeed the biggest green challenge before India today.

Possibly that is when an alternative development process will also begin to take root. Today's voters make demands and politicians provide promises. That is the sum and substance of the electoral process. An alternative development process would demand voters stop dreaming that the government can even give them much more than the right to manage their own resources and their own destiny. If local democratic institutions were to emerge, the people may just begin to realise the importance of the political demand for self-management.

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