Environmental electioneering

Local ecological issues figured prominently in the November assembly elections

By Rahul Shrivastava
Published: Saturday 31 December 1994

-- OBLIVIOUS of the Mandal-mandir bogeys, villages in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Goa witnessed linking of environmental and community development issues to electoral fortunes during campaigning for the assembly elections in November. The think tanks and candidates of most political parties at the hustings found that the electorate chose to ignore the hype of 'national issues' and zeroed in on local ecological threats.

The new-found environmental interest took the political parties by surprise. Says Ravinder Surne of the Congress in Ponda district of Goa, "Not only have the agitations -- sharply focused in various pockets in the 3 states -- confused the party high commands but (they have also) sent the local leaders scurrying back to the drawingboards."

Balakedarara Vedika of Basrur, a consumer forum in Karnataka's Dakshin Kannada, for instance, caught the constituency's 106 candidates napping by releasing a manifesto-type questionnaire based on environmental issues raised by a cross-section of the public from the 15 constituencies in the district.

Said Ravindranath Shanbhog, a trustee with the forum, "The move reflects the concern of the people over the serious ecological threats posed by various industrial projects going on in the area such as a copper smelter, a refinery and a steel plant. The elections have become linked to the economic and cultural dislocations because of environmental tampering. For instance, 15,000 fisherfolk families in the area are worried that the industries would adversely affect pisciculture."

The voicing of environmental concerns is not limited to the southern districts of Karnataka. "In Karwar constituency (Uttar Kannada), about 5,000 families of fisherfolk and farmers facing displacement owing to the acquiring of land for Seabird, the country's largest naval base, have pressured the candidates and parties to seek a better rehabilitation deal for them," said Prabhakar S Rane, the area's Congress candidate.

Goa also emerged as a state where politicians are finding sidestepping the growing environmental and community concerns tricky. Besides the controversial Thapar DuPont nylon plant, unplanned development and alienation of people from their land figure prominently in the agenda of NGOs and other social organisations, especially the church.

Independent candidates like Mohan Verenkar, who owe allegiance to the Gomant Lok Poksh (Goa People's Party) contesting elections from Priol, are seeking closure of the nylon plant and public hearing of all the developmental projects.

Political observers are surprised at the backing that candidates like Verenkar are getting from some political parties, even though the manifestos released by the parties do not take a specific stand on environmental issues. Becaue of the public support for Verenkar over the nylon plant, other parties like the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party also joined the movement against the unit. In a volte face, the ruling Congress party, which had welcomed the multicrore project, also opposed the plant during its campaigning.

A well-orchestrated campaign against the so-called lopsided developmental policies, including the building of golf courses, a beach resort, casinos, the Konkan railway and the entry of foreign vessels, has gripped several coastal areas of the state, forcing political parties to accept them as their election planks.

Andhra Pradesh, which witnessed violent clashes between political rivals on the eve of the elections, achieved almost total unanimity among the parties over the issue of total prohibition. The women's campaign threatens the Rs 1,200-crore excise liquor trade in a state which consumes 4.5 lakh litres daily of rectified spirit in the form of arrack and "India made foreign liquor".

Speaking to Down To Earth in Delhi before the start of his election campaign, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N T Rama Rao, leader of the Telugu Desam Party, commented, "It is a major triumph for community movements involving women. It is a major issue during the elections and is an encouraging sign where all parties are giving in to local environmental concerns, irrespective of the diktat from the top."

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