Low groundwater levels, cutting of trees and poor waste management not being addressed; political parties pass blame in response
West Bengal is scheduled to have Panchayat elections on July 8, 2023. However, all political parties involved have ignored environmental agendas in their campaigns, alleged environmentalists in the state, adding that rural areas are affected by a range of green issues.
On June 28, a state-level environment platform, Sabuj Mancha, published a green manifesto leading up to the election. It highlighted several key environmental issues impacting rural Bengal.
“The air pollution is reducing the average lifespan of people in rural areas by almost six years, almost 99 per cent villages do not have a scientific waste management system and forest cover has been reduced by 70 square kilometres within five years,” observed an environmentalist.
West Bengal has been ranked 60th most climate vulnerable among 2,600 regions in the world, with villages in Sunderbans being the most affected. But these issues were hardly discussed in this highly politicised panchayat election process, the green activist said.
“If we can ensure proper sanitation and adequate safe drinking water, about 60 per cent health problems get reduced. Unfortunately, such issues do not come to the fore during elections,” said Arunabha Majumdar, former direction-head of All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health (AIIH &PH).
Several environmentalists have written to political parties, the state election commission and the state pollution control board, demanding that environmental norms and ethics be maintained during the period of election campaigning.
The green manifesto was prepared to highlight the issues faced by rural Bengal to both the electorate as well as the political parties. “We expected the manifesto to contribute to a qualitative change in the governance of newly elected panchayats,” said Naba Dutta, secretary of Sabuj Mancha.
About 50 green organisations across the state are part of the platform, which plans to soon reach out to the political parties asking them to prioritise the issues mentioned in the green manifesto in their campaign and actions wherever they would come to office.
Paribesh Academy, an environmental nonprofit in Chandannagar, has also issued an appeal to candidates across party lines to focus on environmental issues.
“We have released an appeal to the candidates in Panchayat elections, urging them to implement the environmental laws, particularly those critically linked to welfare of rural areas,” said Biswajit Mukherjee, a former chief law officer of state pollution control board and president of Paribesh Academy.
The nonprofit has also requested that they adhere to the norms about microphone and plastic use during campaigning.
Some major issues highlighted in the green manifestos include waste management; cutting down of greenery; waterbody and groundwater conservation; industrial and indoor air pollution; climate change and disaster management and biodiversity, among others.
“The series of blasts in illegal firework units was spread mostly in panchayat areas; such issues need to be looked at closely. Moreover, hundreds of illegal hotels have mushroomed in areas like Mandarmani in East Midnapore and Mousuni in Sunderbans, both coastal Panchayat areas. These hotels are critically impacting the local environment,” alleged Mukherjee.
Groundwater level has been nosediving steeply in Basanti block in Sunderbans and there’s a lack of drinking water, said Biswajit Mahakur, representing a nonprofit working in the area. “These issues don’t come up in the ongoing election campaigning,” he rued.
Animesh Bose, an environmentalist from Siliguri, told this reporter that several north Bengal forest areas like Lataguri have been severely impacted by tourism and urbanisation. “The Panchayats of the affected areas hardly play any role in stopping the menace,” Bose said.
The party in office, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both accused each other when this reporter raised the issue of ignoring critical environmental agendas in the election campaign.
“In our manifesto, we have given importance to groundwater conservation in rural areas. This state has ignored the Prime Minister’s call to construct 75 Amrit Sarovars in every district in the 75th year of Independence,” said Sukanta Majumdar, BJP party chief in West Bengal.
Continuous ground water extraction is leading to arsenic and fluoride pollution, which is also affecting the paddy. Those who consume the rice are also affected, as the groundwater is widely being used in cultivation, especially in Boro (winter) season crops.
Majumdar also claimed the state government’s much vaunted jol dhoro, jol bhoro (conserve water, recharge water) scheme, a brainchild of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has largely been a failure. The scheme has only been a means to get money through 100 days’ work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, he claimed.
“Often the waterbodies created through the programme are not being maintained after excavation, or even excavated without considering the underground water level. Hence, they dry up after a while,” alleged Majumdar.
Pradip Majumdar, state panchayat minister and TMC leader, countered the allegation. “BJP has no idea about the hundreds of thousands of waterbodies that have been created under the jol dhoro, jol bhoro programme,” he said.
Green activists’ demand for political parties to toe the environmental norms have also been followed during campaigning, Majumdar said.
“I am campaigning in several rural areas and have not noticed much violation of norms. A shortage of time coupled with incessant rain has turned Panchayat campaigns into a low-key affair,” the minister said.
There has not been much microphone or plastic use in campaigning materials, he further said. “People, even in rural areas, are now sensitive to environmental issues and even protest when nails are used to fix banners in trees,” Majumdar added.
Pradip Bhattacharya, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, admitted that rural environmental issues hardly get importance. “Filling of waterbodies, cutting of trees and poor waste management are plaguing the villages. The government is not doing anything to handle the corruption prevailing everywhere,” said Bhattacharya.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was in office in the state for 34 years primarily on the basis of rural support, mentioned issues like forest rights for tribal people, social forestry and drainage in its manifesto. However, it has remained largely silent on other key environmental agendas.
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