What is to be done

Published: Monday 15 April 1996

AS THE general elections approach, a number of independent initiatives to influence the mainstream political process are coming up. The overriding concern of most of these initiatives by the non -governmental organisations (NGOS) - who are generally opposed to the prevailing model of development, and want to redefine development in. non -exploitative, equitable and ecologically sound terms - is to bring the environmental and developmental issues on to the real agendas of the political parties. In the process, they are also underscoring the fact that, except for possibly paying lip-service in the form of ritualistic mention in the manifestoes, no one, not even the left parties are genuinely concerned.

Today, when ideology has become a dirty word, most of the political parties seem to be bereft of ideas or vision as to what needs to be done in the short or long terms. In the absence of internal democracy, lacking in grassroots membership, no one seems to question them. And since all of them have variants of the same economic or environmental policies, or rather the lack of it, there is little to choose from for the common voter. In such a situation, the political environment will have to be set right by NGO initiatives for voters' education and action.

There have been some successes for the NGO movement in the recent past. The construction of the Narmada dam has been stalled; so has been the move to give forest lands for captive plantations through a successful campaign by the Centre for Science and Environment and other organisations. The agitation by the National Fishworkers Forum has halted the policy aimed at allowing the intrusion of big trawlers in coastal waters. But these remain stray cases. Overall, the NGOS have failed to induce basic policy formulations aimed at sustainable development.

When it comes to larger national issues, it is more difficult to find examples of successful and sustained, national efforts. The reasons for the failure are not far to seek. It is only sustained, multi-pronged, united, mass-based efforts, backed by sound research, on the part of the peoples initiatives that can succeed in changing government policies. Given the ideological moorings of the mainstream parties, the NGO movement cannot expect them to come up with pro-people agenda and policies for sustainable development. The NGos have to come up with their alternative policies, through serious research, and generate mass pressure to get the regimes to accept these.

A case in point is the Bhuria committee report. Without doubt, the Bharat Jan Andolan and other efforts have been successful in getting the high-level Bhuria committee formed. The committee has also recommended that the tribal communities be given sovereign powers in managing their natural resources. But almost two years after the report was tabled, one sees no united, effective effort on the part of all the peoples organisations to get the recommendations implemented.

Now, new initiatives are coming together from all over the country to forge alliances of peoples organisations to effectively intervene in the superstructure of the political process. The National Alliance of Peoples Movements is one such initiative. Coalitions of dalit, women and construction labour organisations are also trying in their own ways to influence government policies. Bharat Jan Andolan, Shosit Jan Andolan and Jan Vikas Andolan are some of the attempts. There are some others in a few states, too, especially one in Madhya Pradesh. Two such coalitions have formulated their own manifestoes and decided that they will question the candidates and political parties and get commitments from them on the issues in their respective manifestoes. Last month, another group of organisations called a meeting in Delhi to question the political parties on their water and forest policies.

But a successful and effective intervention will require all such coalitions to come together and formulate mutually agreeable agenda, action plan and strategy. This obviously cannot be limited to the intervention in the coming elections, although, that has to be first the stepping stone. But it will have to go much beyond this year's elections and become a sustained effort. It also cannot be a part-time affair, and policy change will have to be backed by sound policy research. There is also need to collaborate, in one way or other, with all the existing peoples organisations working on similar lines. That such efforts can force the mainstream parties to move towards a greener agenda has been amply demonstrated in many Northern countries.

Some of the issues on which alternative policies have to formulated are the right to information, forest and water rights, opposition to existing land acquisition legislation and effective opposition to undesirable economic aggressions by the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc.), the multinational and national corporations.

As far as the coming elections are concerned, particular care has to be taken to record the promises of the political parties and candidates, at both national and local levels, and specific commitments sought on how and by when the commitments would be realised. Let us, at least from now and henceforth, ask, act, and, thus, expose the lies of the political parties.

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