West Bengal platform demands green focus in poll agendas, releases charter of environmental issues

Politicians acknowledge environmental shortcomings but deflect responsibility to public; BJP MP advises against expecting significant action from political parties

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Thursday 18 April 2024
The manifesto being unveiled during meetings with politicians in Kolkata. Photo: Jayanta Basu

This story has been updated.

Ahead of the 2024 general elections, a state-level environmental platform in West Bengal has taken a proactive stance by releasing a comprehensive 32-page-long green manifesto and charter of demands.

The platform Sabuj Mancha, a conglomerate of around 50 environmental organisations, activists and experts, has expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of emphasis on environmental issues in the manifestoes put forth by political parties.

The manifesto, unveiled during meetings with politicians held simultaneously in Kolkata and Siliguri, addresses a wide array of environmental concerns at both the national and local levels. Sabuj Mancha asserted that environmental issues consistently fail to receive adequate attention, with little improvement observed over the years.

“In its inaugural meeting in 2009, Sabuj Mancha highlighted the disregard of environmental issues by political parties in their manifestoes. While there has been slight improvement over the past 15 years, the situation remains largely unchanged, with the environment often relegated to the end of manifestoes, almost as an afterthought,” said Naba Dutta, secretary of Sabuj Mancha.

Sameek Bhattacharya, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP) from West Bengal, said, “My plea to all of you is not to expect much from political parties regarding environmental issues. They will only pay attention if hundreds take to the streets to protest any environmental agenda.” 

15-point central agenda in manifesto

The green document outlined a 15-point demand charter addressed to all political parties, focusing on several nationwide issues.

These included the recognition and mitigation of rural pollution, the investigation into the link between electoral bonds and environmental clearances and the establishment of a uniform Himalaya policy to prevent detrimental development and degradation in mountainous regions. 

Additionally, the charter called for measures to prevent money laundering and the implementation of environmentally detrimental projects, such as bank beautification efforts contributing to Ganga pollution. It emphasised the need to maintain the effectiveness of the Environment Impact Assessment process and to ensure the independence of environmental governance systems. 

The document advocated for nationwide efforts to combat air pollution, aligning national air standards with international benchmarks and promoting coordinated action between Union and state governments to address climate-related impacts. Just as international loss and damage receive attention, regions in India like the Sundarbans and Uttarakhand also require climate focus.  

Furthermore, it urged the establishment of dedicated government institutions to tackle issues such as river degradation and encroachment, while also addressing transboundary environmental concerns. Measures to control noise pollution, manage waste effectively and protect coastal areas are also highlighted. 

Lastly, the charter called for the cancellation of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 and the proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act, along with ensuring sustainable livelihoods for coastal fishermen.

What do experts say?

The Environmental Impact Assessment process needs to engage with people more effectively than it currently does, which would enhance transparency, opined Arinabha Majumdar, retired director-head of All India Institute of Health & Hygiene.

Bose Institue Professor Abhijit Chatterjee cited studies to illustrate how air pollution is impacting impoverished individuals in rural areas and slums within cities.

Pulmonologist Arup Haldar emphasised the significance of documenting air pollution as a cause of death, where applicable, to exert pressure on the government to take immediate action on the issue.

“Scientific studies indicate that there have been 6.7 million air pollution-related deaths annually worldwide, yet it is yet to be acknowledged in death certificates. The system needs to change,” said Haldar.

In addition to central agendas, various local issues from across the state, including Kolkata, have been identified. These encompass illegal sand mining from rivers, destructive fishing in water bodies, illegal brickfields causing damage to topsoil, stubble burning in agricultural fields, wastage and misuse of drinking water and rampant tree felling, including unscientific trimming of branches.

Critical issues specifically affecting Kolkata have also been highlighted. These include the filling up of waterbodies, such as those at East Kolkata Wetlands, to accommodate illegal constructions, the conservation of Adi Ganga and addressing the city’s air pollution by targeting major sources. Efforts to mitigate climatic impacts have also been emphasised.

During the North Bengal meeting, attended by environmental experts from six districts spanning from Darjeeling to Malda, various concerns were raised. These included water pollution in the Mahananda river, air pollution in Siliguri and proposed housing developments adjacent to the Gorumara forest area.

Furthermore, issues related to several rivers were highlighted, such as chemical effluent pollution in Teesta river at Jalpaiguri and Behula river at Malda. Additionally, attention was drawn to the rubber dam obstructing water flow in the Atreyee river in South Dinajpur and the navigability challenges faced by the Karala river.

“Protecting the environment is key to preserving two major livelihoods in North Bengal: tea and tourism. The sooner politicians realise this, the better,” emphasised Animesh Bose of the nonprofit Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, who also serves as the vice president of Sabuj Mancha.

Politicians accept fault, ask people to lead

“Despite the possibility of being censured by my party, I must acknowledge that, although river linking is anticipated to alleviate water scarcity for many, there are scientific voices opposing the project, citing its long-term impacts,” admitted BJP MP Bhattacharya. 

He also pledged to address the issue of encroachment on Adi Ganga in parliament. Bhattacharya further alleged that numerous water bodies and wetlands have been filled during both the Left regime and the current All India Trinamool Congress era in Kolkata.

“We have to accept that we have not given due importance to environmental issues in our political activities,” said Kalyan Mukherjee of Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Chayan Bhattacharya of Communist Party of India (Marxist) also admitted the allegation that the political parties are yet to consider the environment seriously, but expressed hope that things would change soon.

“It’s perplexing that an MP from the party in power at the Centre for 10 years is deflecting responsibility to the people and suggesting that little should be expected from political parties,” rebutted a representative of a left-leaning party. Another representative pointed out how the Global North is exacerbating climate change but is not taking significant responsibility to mitigate it.

During the meeting in Siliguri, political representatives, including those from Trinamool and BJP, acknowledged that they had minimal knowledge about many key issues outlined in the green manifesto. They pledged to address some of these issues after consulting with higher authorities within their respective parties.

“The discussion highlighted that political parties are often unaware of most issues and even when they are aware, they tend to shift responsibility to the people. However, according to constitutional mandates, they should ensure the implementation of environmental laws,” observed Dulal Bose, physician and former sheriff of Kolkata and president of Sabuj Mancha.

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