Environmental issues sidelined at Indian elections

There has been almost no talk of the environment by candidates as Indians cast their votes, and the manifestos are woefully short on specifics

The world’s largest elections have started. Opinion polls give a distinct edge to the current main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of corruption in the outgoing government. Most of the corruption scandals in recent years have been over allocation of natural resources – land, water for hydropower and minerals.

Still, neither the BJP nor today’s ruling Congress party has much to say in their campaign or manifesto on how the next government will ensure these resources are used in a manner that is efficient, equitable and sustainable.

A few commentators have pointed out how this election campaign has been almost exclusively about politicians, with almost nothing about policies. The manifestos do mention policies, but very little on how they are to be implemented. At best, they remain wish lists. Whoever comes to power once the votes are counted on May 16 will find it relatively easy to duck accountability on the basis of his party’s manifesto.

And even in the policy lists, those related to the environment and natural resources find little space, especially when it comes to the Congress or the BJP.

In the analysis of a senior bureaucrat, who was supportive of the Congress manifesto, the reason for this is that “many in India still consider environmental protection an elitist concern, and believe that the ‘bread and butter’ issues – economic and social – are what the electorate really cares about.” However, he said the picture was changing. “The growing impact of climate change, in the form of changing monsoon patterns, unseasonal rains, increasing incidence of droughts and floods etc., are changing the nature of the debate. All this is happening in a rapidly growing economy where the trade-offs with environmental protection are becoming starker.”

The big promise of the Congress manifesto in the field of environment is to set up an independent green regulator for mining and development projects – what it calls the National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA). What it does not mention is that such an authority will have to be set up anyway by whoever comes to power, since it has been ordered by the Supreme Court.

The Congress manifesto does have some other statements of good intentions, such as the need to have tribal and forest dwelling communities engaged more centrally in forest management. But there is nothing about how this will be done.

As for the BJP, it does take overt note of climate change in its manifesto, saying “We will take climate change mitigation initiatives with all seriousness and work with the global community and institutions in this regard.”

But it has reiterated its commitment to the potentially disastrous plan to interlink the rivers of the country. It has also promised to launch a rural irrigation scheme with the motto of providing water to every farm, though there is no mention of where that water will come from.

The plan to interlink rivers envisages a series of canals, pumps and reservoirs to shift water from the Brahmaputra and lower Ganga basins in eastern India to water scarce regions of western and central India. Scientists and environmentalists criticised it from day one, since it plans to alter the natural flow of water, for the waterlogging and salinity such massive water transfers would cause and for ignoring the requirements of downstream Bangladesh in transboundary river basins.

The plan found mention in the party’s 2009 manifesto though it was more or less buried once the BJP lost power in 2004. If the opinion polls are correct and the BJP heads the next government, this may become a major flashpoint.

In contrast to the big two, the new player on India’s national political scene – the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) – has a different way of looking at ecology, placing it in the same section as economy in its manifesto, though it too is short on specifics.

The new party has emphasised its desire to hand over control to village councils on many issues, and stressed that exploitation of minerals, water and forests will not be done without the consent of local communities.

Commercial exploitation of natural resources should be done on the basis of a royalty and revenue sharing agreement with local communities, the AAP says. If mining or any other activity requires displacement of people, local consent would have to be sought and those moved provided with alternative means of livelihood.

Even if the AAP does offer voters a different development path, however, the party is still far too weak for this to matter. Since the next government will almost certainly be led by the BJP or the Congress, the depressing news is that it will be business as usual, when it comes to safeguarding India’s environment and natural resources