Another wait and watch

Published: Sunday 30 June 1996

THE picture is getting bleaker day by day. First, the President of India surprised everyone by asking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to take over the reigns of the country at a time when the party's strategists themselves knew they could not have pulled off the game. The President had probably been trying to stick to his statement before the elections, that he was committed to invite the single largest party. But in this instance, the single largest party did not the reflect the majority opinion.

That the BIP at all agreed to stage the II -day drama was even more ludicrous. Way back in 1988-89, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), fountainhead of the BJP and its allied formations, had decided that it would assume power in 1995-96. Probably to appease the Rss hawks within the leadership and the rank and file, the Bjp decided to 'fight it out'. But in retrospect, the party did not even stay back for the voting, and decided to give the opposition a walkover. The BIP's election plank had been su-raj, that is, good governance. But good governance is about accountability, among other things. In this instance, the party had decided to take over power without the mandate, and left the country in a limbo for II days. Where was their commitment to accountability?

But all this is less important than the fact that in the furious debate inside and outside Parliament, environment was not the issue. No one challenged the BJP on the grounds of its developmental agenda, or on its commitment to environmental issues. The party is in power in three states and in all three, environmental issues have assumed critical proportions in the last few years. Enron is perhaps the most notorious among them, but there are other issues too. These were, however, not debated, and neither was the BJP'S commitment to resolve other burning issues. The centre of squabbling was the numbers game.

But that game, too, is over. And today, a loose coalition of ideologically heterogenous parties is in power. There are two sides to the picture. On the one hand, this is a situation which lends itself to a political tug-o'-war, ensuring that the coalition will be short-lived. No major progress can be foreseen, and the future cannot be very bright. On the other hand, the fact that some regional parties are active members of the coalition has been heralded by some social scientists as the first expression, notwithstanding all its fragility, of a truly federal government and a broadened sharing of power at the Centre.

These experts argue that in this situation, the regional parties will push their agenda, and perhaps there will be a better apportioning of resources. Some of the neglected regional issues may see solutions, they aver. Such hopes, no doubt, provide the only silver lining in the otherwise clouded scenario. But first, the parties in the coalition will have to settle down, resolving their ego hassles and mad scramble for lucrative ministries. By the time the smoke is cleared, the development agenda will be relegated to the back-burner.

But whatever hopes one could still retain would seem to vanish in the face of the fact that the new Prime Minister, H D Deve Gowda, is himself too firmly hooked to an aggressive liberalisation agenda. In an interview to our research team, while he was still the chief minister (cm) of Karnataka, he came out as a person least concerned with environment. Indeed, he has categorically stated that there is no link between liberalisation and environment!

Gowda's track record as cm does nothing to assuage our fears. He has been obsessed with the development of his native state, and in that drive, he has washed aside all environmental considerations. Most of the developmental projects in Karnataka, which include the Cogentrix power plant, the massive aerodrome in Bangalore, the setting up of dye plants near the Bangalore water tank (Tippangowdanhalli), or the four super-highways, have all been severely criticised by environmentalists. Besides, despite repeated warnings against aquaculture, Gowda is so keen to ensure investment in this sector that he has given it a stature equal to agriculture, with the same benefits that the latter is entitled to.

Envi@onmentalists have been beseeching politicians time again to protect the sensitive, biodive?sity- rich Western Ghats. But sadly, it was under Deve Gowda's regime that one rare bureaucrat, committed to preserving the Ghats - former special secretary to the state's department of environment, A N Yellappa Reddy - was forced to give up his job. Reddy had told Down To Earth that he had to resign for warning against the threats to the Western Ghats from recent developmental projects.

One can only pray and hope that the person from Karnataka will try and see the world from a better perspective, once he becomes the fountainhead of power in New Delhi, although this is a tough proposition. As it is, concepts such as sustainable development seem to be just mouthfuls to our politicians. And then, in order to stay even for a while, Deve Gowda's best bet will be to push for foreign investment, to give the country a feeling of economic buoyancy. That is the lurking danger behind the present regime. It is surprising that a person whose hands still smell of the village soil, has so little to offer in terms of environmental thinking. But that being the case, the country might see any prospects of a balance between development and sustainability headed for a precipice.

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