Loktak Lake_sh patgiri_low rezThe world’s largest and most vibrant democracy has one of its most ex­citing elections coming up. But sorely missing in the electoral fervour, speeches and promises, debates and issues is the environment. Strange, for it is one issue that impacts and even unites all of us in its import. As usually perceived, environment and conser­vation are not a rich man’s cause, particularly not in India where a vast majority is engaged in agricul­ture and natural resource-depen­dent activities. It is the bedrock on which rest our health, livelihood, food and water security, and a ro­bust economy.

Think tiger and forests, snow leopards and mountains, birds and wetlands—symbols of healthy eco­systems. And the fact that these eco­systems—forests, mountains, wet­lands, grasslands—are the sources and watersheds of rivers, replenish groundwater, bind soil, influence rains and support livelihoods. Think climate change: it is real, it is here to stay and it is creating havoc. The most recent example of erratic weather is the freakish hailstorm across 28 districts in Maharashtra, which, besides the tragic loss of lives, ruined over 12 lakh hectares of crop with damages estimated at over `6,000 crore. Think pollution: air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India with 6,20,000 prema­ture deaths annually.

There is more to be said, but I gath­er the crux of the argument has been conveyed and, hopefully, imbibed. So let’s take the focus back on the glaring absence of the ‘E-word’ from the election vocabulary, and also briefly see how the environment fares globally in the political fray.

The first political party that campaigned majorly on an environmental platform was the United Tasmania Group in the April 1972 state election in Australia. In the same year, the Values Party contested in the New Zealand general election. In Europe, green parties have evolved over time to gain some position of power. Germany’s Green Party came to power within a coalition govern­ment. In fact, Germany’s Alliance ’90/The Greens has become one of Europe’s most important green par­ties, and has played a significant role in the formation of national-level green parties in other countries. The challenge, of course, is how much of its environment manifesto is actu­ally translated in policy and action, particularly when tough decisions are called for, as in the case of Ger­many where green concerns have taken a backseat as it seeks emis­sions allowances for industry in a sagging economy.

That said, the absence of environ­ment as an electoral issue appears to be a global phenomenon. In the run-up to the 2012 US presidential elections, UK newspaper The Guard­ian commented that “Romney and Obama avoid the climate change elephant”, pointing out “how toxic climate change has become in the US”; while in the 2013 electoral race in Australia, Paul Sinclair of the Aus­tralian Conservation Foundation wrote, “It’s like the economy and the environment are being kept in separate cages of a zoo in this year’s election. Our politicians can’t seem to see that they are, and will remain, interconnected.” (True that: the World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing India around 5.7% of its GDP annually)

Closer home, I have trolled through speeches of our PM aspirants, includ­ing currently unofficial aspirants, for some coherent intent on envi­ronment issues. But to no avail. Of course, all parties have some green issues listed in their agenda (few of which are discussed below) but it is unclear how they will be addressed, especially when the growth agenda is central. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi (whose “all-round development” has failed, according to reliable surveys, in so­cial indicators like rural planning, nutrition, health, environment, and there can be no two opinions that the Gujarat development story has had catastrophic environment costs.) did mention in passing about “look­ing toward water conservation”, but then, his party has river-linking among its flagship schemes. Indeed, the Narmada-Kshipra river link was recently inaugurated in Mad­hya Pradesh with much hype – and without conducting an environment impact assessment. The efficacy of river-linking to solve the water cri­sis demands a separate piece. Suffice to say that the `5.60 lakh crore (2002 estimate) project is not grounded in sound science or even any environ­mental studies and assessments. The same PM wannabe also admirably called “water, land, forests and air,” our heritage, however, how these are to be conserved is summed up “through modern technology”. A word of (unsolicited) advice: good old protection and not clearing, diverting, destroying natural forests will serve the purpose.

Water is pretty much at the centre of electoral politics, (river-linking has now also been claimed by the earlier naysayers, the Congress), but the manner of its mention isn’t reas­suring. In its manifesto (not yet out officially at the time of writing), the Congress has included the right to drinking water and hygiene, though it has reportedly failed to articulate how this is to be achieved.

Similarly, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) had made water central to its Delhi manifesto, and even took the exemplary decision to shift a bus de­pot, India’s largest, from the Yamuna riverbed. Yet, it failed to find sustain­able remedies to the city’s water and for that matter power needs. Its pilot scheme of 700 lphd free water raised concerns of encouraging wastage, and the fear that this could translate into clamour for more water for Delhi. The huge environmental and social cost this carries is rarely understood. For instance, Delhi’s increasing thirst for water is expected to be met from dams in far-flung areas such as Renu­ka in Himachal, which will submerge a chunk of the Renuka wildlife sanc­tuary and displace people from 32 vil­lages. AAP’s vision document makes a cursory reference to forest, water, land and all natural resources, which it says are our national wealth, and should be under local custody, to be used for the development of the population, with nigh a word on their protection.

The BJP in its last election manifesto mentioned taking appropriate steps to save the tiger and safeguard critical habitants of all wildlife – though how such a worthy promise will be married to its aggressive development agen­da is a worry.  Especially, given the Gujarat  brand of ‘developmentalism’ which includes sidestepping norms and environment concerns to ensure a smooth run for corporate houses—or other hyped projects-one such example being the world’s tallest Sardar Patel statue in a waterbody which has sidestepped green norms, and will mean acquiring land of about 70 villages.

The CPI(M) has announced a decisive intent to review the industry-friendly environment impact assess­ment, but wildlife and biodiversity are absent from its manifesto.

The run-up to the elections holds an­other cost factor to the environment, as various parties woo corporates. An example was the sudden ouster of former environment minister Jayanthi Nata­rajan, who was perceived as being a ‘roadblock’ to growth, though going by statistics during her tenure most of the green clearances sought were ob­tained – even at times overruling the decisions of regulatory bodies for for­ests and wildlife. To illustrate, between January and April 2013, the rate of clearances granted by the ministry of environment and forests increased by 42 percent compared to the previous year, with lower than a four percent rejec­tion rate. The UPA appears to have shed its legacy of an examplery environment and conservation vision—during its current tenure it gave away six lakh hectares of forests– over 2.5 lakh hectares for mining. The day before Natarajan’s ouster, at a Ficci meet Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi conceded to India Inc that green clearances were a problem. “Many of you expressed your frustrations with environmental clear­ances, that they are delaying projects unduly,” he said, adding that “industry cannot suffer. The loopholes are so big (in the process) you can drive a truck through some of them.”

He was right, except that the loop­holes have largely been used to bene­fit industry, not the environment – as mines, hydel projects etc have driven through them, violating mandatory green norms. A case in point is some of Sikkim’s hydel projects which are well into construction, bypassing the wild­life clearance.

That we have failed to prirotise safe­guarding the environment is reflected in the manifesto released by a leading national daily, which makes a superflu­ous mention of green concerns, while making a case for a ‘single-window en­vironment clearance for power proj­ects’, perhaps unaware that the central ministry has given clearances for coal and power in excess of what has been proposed till 2017.

But why blame the politicians alone? The fault lies with the electorate. The politicians – or even the media – mere­ly reflect the mood and priorities of the public. Elections are the one time that leaders stoop to conquer and echo the concerns of the people, who have failed to realise the costs we and our future generations pay when we cal­lously disregard the environment for immediate ‘gains’.

We get the environment we deserve.

Bindra is trustee, ‘Bagh’, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.

This article  has been published in the current issue of Governance Now (March 31st issue, 2014)

Photo credit: Samsul Huda Patgiri (Loktak lake)