Environmentalists welcome trend, but point out slack from mainstream political parties
The campaigns for West Bengal Panchayat elections by mainstream political parties have ignored environmental concerns of rural areas, green activists had earlier alleged. However, a few candidates in the fray have taken up the mantle of these ignored agendas for the upcoming polls due on July 8, 2023.
West Bengal State Election Commission sources said 206,295 candidates are in the election fray, vying for 73,887 seats in the three-tier polls.
This reporter came across around 10 candidates in various parts of the state — both independents and candidates from political parties. They are going door to door talking about environmental issues that plague the state and are also promising more than lip service if they win.
Some environmentalists have hailed the trend but pointed out the number of such candidates is abysmally low. Few others said local green issues has been catching on with the electorate and several candidates are just trying to take advantage of it for office.
From preserving rivers, protesting coal mining to protecting wildlife — a range of issues have been raised by several candidates during campaigning.
Tarak Ghosh, a farmer turned mason, belongs to this rare coterie of candidates. He used to be a farmer in Nadia district before his livelihood went for a toss after the Jalangi river in the region dried up.
Ghosh is now fighting for a seat in Zilla Parishad, the highest tier in the Panchayati Raj system, with the call ‘Save the river Jalangi’.
“My house is in Mayakol village, adjoining the river Jalangi. My family farmed on about 10-12 kantas of land (around 750 square metres), but a lack of water in the river put an end to it. Now I work as a mason, often having to travel to other states in search of work,” he told this reporter on July 4, 2023.
Many in his neighbourhood face the same fate, Ghosh said. “I decided to stand in this election with the demand of saving the river. Whether I win or lose, I will continue with the protest,” he said.
Debanjan Bagchi is part of the Jalangi Nodi Samaj, a group of activists fighting for the river’s rejuvenation for the last few years. The river’s headwater, or its source, remains dry during the non-monsoon period of the year and it has become extremely polluted, he said.
“We complained to several government bodies without any response; and hence, we have decided to support Ghosh’s candidature,” added Bagchi.
Sandi Hansda, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, is fighting for the Mohammad Bazar Zila Parishad seat in Birbhum district as an Adivasi Mahasabha-supported independent candidate.
Hansda is opposing the proposed mega coal mining project in the Deocha Pachami region.
While the government could convince and take over the land of a sizable part of the local tribal population by wooing them with jobs and other largesse, a section is still protesting the project touted to have the second largest coal mine reserve in the world.
“We are trying to protect our land and stop evictions. That’s why I have decided to fight this election against all adversaries. I will continue to protest even if I lose the election,” said Hansda.
Along with these independent candidates, a few candidates from mainstream political parties are also focusing on green issues in their campaigns.
Jhindan Pradhan, a young woman in her twenties, was earlier working for a local environmental conservation group. She has been roped in by the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) to fight in the Gram Panchayat election from Bagnan in Howrah district.
Pradhan’s campaign heavily features environmental issues. “Environment, particularly wildlife conservation, be it fishing cat or snakes, is a major focus in my campaign as the local people already know me for those works,” Pradhan told this reporter.
Bikash Biswas isanother TMC candidate from Ketugram II Panchayat Samity in Purba Bardhaman district, the second tier in the three-tier Panchayati Raj system. He is rooting for issues like water conservation, tree planting and waste management in his campaign.
“We all can feel the impact of environmental pollution — the weather is drastically changing and the rivers are drying off. All who aspire to be people’s representatives should spread awareness about critical green issues,” said Biswas.
The candidate is also campaigning to protect the dolphins found in nearby Ganges.
Green issues, for the first time, have caught the imagination of the electorate in many areas, said environmentalist Naba Dutta, secretary of environmental platform Sabuj Mancha. The platform recently released a green manifesto leading up to the election.
“People are getting more aware of environmental issues, be it waste management, drainage, filling up of waterbodies, or cutting of trees. Many candidates have caught on and are talking about the green issues,” observed Biswajit Mukherjee, former chief law officer of West Bengal Pollution Control Board and president of nonprofit Paribesh Academy in Chandannagar in Hoogly district.
Any campaigning with green issues, irrespective of a candidate’s political identity, is welcome; but it is important to differentiate the candidates with political affiliation from those in the fray as independent candidates, he said.
“While independent candidates seem to be seriously rooting for green causes, it will be difficult for the candidates affiliated with political parties to work in favour of green issues as almost no political party embraces green agendas in their political discourse,” added Mukherjee.
“The TMC has not released any central manifesto but Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Bharatiya Janata Party did. Neither reflected on the key environmental issues confronting the rural populace,” complained Dutta.
In fact, Sabuj Mancha shared their green manifesto with several political parties, but most members seemed clueless, Dutta added.
“On Tuesday, from Paribesh Academy, we reached out to several political parties; though they talked nicely, green agendas do not seem to be their priority,” added Kunal Sen from Paribesh Academy.
Another environmental activist said the real cause of the indifference ran deeper.
“Acting against the environment, either overtly or covertly, gives immediate financial dividends. That is the real trigger for the majority of political leaders to not pitch green issues,” alleged a green activist.
One also has to keep in mind that it’s easier to violate environmental norms in villages with little monitoring and awareness, the activist added.
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