Little space for conservation in the election manifestos

Up stream minihydle project in Western Ghats of Karnataka. Photo- Niren JainThe year 2014 saw, what is being tipped as, India’s most exciting Parliamentary elections in India. But sorely missing in the electoral fervour, speeches and promises, debates and issues is the environment.

Going through the speeches of the PM aspirants, including currently unofficial aspirants, for some coherent intent on environment, let alone wildlife, issues yielded little,— though of course Narendra Modi did proclaim that people “sitting in the (Assam) government were conspiring to kill rhinos so that they could settle Bangladeshis in the space thus emptied”. But we know that this wasn’t out of concern for the rhinos, but a pointed barb at the ruling Congress.

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. A priority river linking project is Ken-Betwa is expected to submerge over 100 sq km of Panna Tiger Reserve.

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/destroying forests will serve the purpose. The insensitivity to wildlife is perhaps best symbolised in a headgear that the PM aspirant donned while on a campaign trail in the NE. The cap comprised derivatives of three wild animals-two endangered, including the wreathed hornbill, and  black bear hair, besides the tusks of a wild boar.

Electoral debate apart,  environment isn’t central to the manifestos either.  Main political parties in the fray have listed some green issues (and issues like renewable energy, , water conservation, ecology-green audits safeguarding the rights of tribals dwelling in forests etc are largely common amongst all political parties) but  It  is also  not envisaged how the environment objectives will be met—at best they remain wish lists–especially when they stand in stark contrast to other agendas- centred around economic growth, infrastructure , investments—without factoring in social and ecological costs.

Manifestos, of course, are largely ritualistic exercises, but are still important as  statements of the intent of the political parties, to facilitate rational decision making of the electorate. It is another matter, that one particular party released its manifesto on the day of the poll.  .

We will first look at the BJP manifesto. While, this will look at environment as a whole, I have largely focused more on issues concerning wildlife conservation.

The most worrying point in the BJP manifesto is the promise to “Frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay.”  It also promises moving toward a single-window system of clearances both at the centre and state level. A strong legal and policy framework is crucial to protect our fast depleting wildlife, and environment—it can be safely said that it is the most important factor in conserving forests and wildlife. Other priorities in the agenda like “ensuring  an environment to make ‘doing business’ in India easy., and investment and industrial regions as Global Hubs of Manufacturing, take on ominous tones, if delivered in a diluted legal framework. Similarly there is much emphasis on expediting  fright and industrial corridors—all of which will have devastating impact on rich tiger and wildlife forests, especially within a weaker a regulatory regime.

It’s symbolic that the BJP manifesto  only lists only coal, minerals and spectrum among natural resources—those which are directly marketable (have an equity market).  The most critical of natural resources of land, forests, rivers, water sources, biodiversity apparently do not count. It does mention–in passing—that it will protecting the existing forests and wildlife reserves—but follows it up with a catastrophic “ wastelands of the country will be used for social forestry.” Though to be fair, this has pretty much been the philosophy of successive governments, largely the Congress which has laid much emphasis on ‘greening’ deserts, and social forestry, while what is crucial is to protect existing, old growth, biodiversity-rich forests. Another point: ‘Wastelands’ also include wetlands and grassland, and are highly productive eco-systems  which host endangered wildlife, besides playing a key role in ground water regime.

Another worry is the activity planned on the border areas viz: special emphasis on massive infrastructure development, especially along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; fencing along the India-Bangladesh and India-Myanmar border, connecting remote states like those in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir through world class highways and rail lines. Border areas are by their very remoteness, are very wildlife-rich, biodiversity hotpots. No less than seven tiger reserves are on the border, all running into contiguous habitats across the frontiers. Tigers treat manmade lines with disdain, transcending borders regularly.  The import of such massive infrastructure or manmade barriers will destroy wilderness, devastate and fragment habitats and eventually lead to extinction of wide-ranging animals like tigers, snow leopards, elephants.

This is not to undermine our security (or for that matter growth) concerns which are crucial.  Equally, ecological concerns should not be dismissed—given that these Trans Himalayas feed the Himalayan rivers that feed the plains below; and any such activity must not disregard forest and wildlife laws.

The Indian National Congress manifesto is a disappointment—given its legacy of an exemplary environment and conservation vision—though it shouldn’t have been given their current track record. Wildlife and, forests find little mention—save for a vow to give priority to protect biodiversity.  By the same token, it also calls for a single window clearance both at the state and the central levels,  It does state an intent to set up National Environment Appraisal and Monitoring Authority—though this is actually an order of the Supreme Court.  What drives the lack of faith is their recent—and abysmal-environment track record.  In its nine year stint, In the last nine years, six lakh hectares of forests were diverted, over 2.5 lakh hectares for mining, industrial and infrastructural projects. The run up to the elections saw the 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 MoEF increased by 42 percent compared to the previous year, with lower than a four percent rejec­tion rate. 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.

The most welcoming thing I find in the AAP manifesto, is that they have clubbed Economy an Ecology together calling for “a dynamic, equitable and ecologically sustainable economy”—even though it is weak on how this is to be achieved.  Atleast it acknowledges that environment and economic growth are not two separate creatures. There can be no ‘economy’ without the ecology. Even the World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing India around 5.7% of its GDP annually—thereby  negating  India’s ‘growth’. The AAP also has amongst its candidates environmentalists—besides Medha Patkar, their candidates in Goa have an exemplary record of taking up environment,  displacement, health and women’s right issues.  What I also appreciate is that it is the only party to have included animal welfare in its manifesto,  that too under the heading of social justice. The enforcement the Wildlife Protection Act, deter potential defaulters, and prevent the encroachment of protected forestland  finds mention here.

One would only like to reiterate here, that none of the parties, including the AAP,  show a road map how the objectives will be achieved.

I am as wary—and critical- of environmental governance, or the lack thereof,  and the worrying perception of MoEF’s role as facilitating clearances rather than  protection of environment, coasts, forests, riverine eco-systems, I would be cautious of handing over management and control of natural resources to the gram sabhas, particularly given that demands on natural resources has increased  tremendously, and become hugely commercial and market driven. The AAP manifesto talks about reforming the MoEF & its agencies  so that they can empower and facilitate Gram Sabhas to be effective custodians and managers of their local natural resources.”   Yes, we certainly need a more democratic model of governance,  work with local communities and ensure that they are the first beneficiaries of conservation.  Gram sabhas and local communities must play  a decisive role when their lands and natural resources are being acquired, or in projects that impacts their livelihoods, culture etc. Equally, important wildlife habitats and Protected Areas must be inviolate, and here, protection and conservation of wildlife must take priority.

I worry too about the Congress plank of including bamboo as a minor forest produce. This move was strongly opposed by senior officials in the MoEF and conservationists,   who reasoned that, “transfer of ownership of standing bamboo from the State to the Gram Sabha would be like handing over ownership of trees or timber in the forest. Bamboo looks like exaggerated grass, but is a timber and construction material that can compete with metal in terms of tensile strength and durability. It therefore has a sustained market demand and is very susceptible to non-sustainable harvest due to the lure of market forces, particularly for its use in building and construction, and of course paper. The effects of wildlife on such removal of bamboo will be disastrous: Bamboo clumps provide good cover for a variety of wildlife ground birds, small mammals, reptiles) including tigers. It is also a principal source of fodder for elephants and some ungulates  In many parts across India where primary forests have been destroyed, secondary growth of bamboo provides the majority, sometimes the only, green cover. Unregulated and large scale extraction of bamboo will have devastating effects on human-elephant conflict,


I would like to credit (particularly Juhi Choudhary) and, -whose analysis I have used, and borrowed from for this piece. I have, at the same time, tried to exclude some of the issues–like water, hydel projects, climate change etc which they –and others have dealt

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