The challenge of the balance

  • 14/05/1996

India's general electionsconstitute the world'slargest demonstration of anation's commitment todemocracy. From the hillsof Arunachal Pradesh tothe seashores of Keralaevery five years peopleparticipate in a massiveexercise to assert theirnational priorities andpolitical choices. But inthiswhere does the concern for environment -the very resource base onwhich both our daily survival and our future economic growth depends - stand?

That the environment is badlythreatened in India cannot be a matterof doubt. During the '80sthecountry's environmental communityemphasised the threat to the rural environment and demanded ameliorativeaction. Urban environmental problemswere then relatively neglected but witheconomic growth over the yearswhichaccelerated under Prime Minister P VNarasimha Rao's new policy of economic liberalisationthey too haverapidly become stark. YetIndia'smetropoliseswhich attract largefinancial investments compared to therest of the urban sectorare reelingunder an extraordinary crisis ofpollution and resource mismanagement. And even environmentalistsrarely take up the issue of pollution inthe smaller towns.

Indiaa country with enormouspoverty and unemploymentcannot dowithout economic development. But inthis tension between environmentand developmentwill India forsakelong-term benefits and opt for development without maintaining the ecological balance? In some waysafter 50 yearsof post-independence economic developmentstark future is already here.Resource degradation and pollution inmany parts of India have alreadyreached crisis proportions andin comparative termsexhibit levels that areamongst the worst in the world.ThereforeI would say Indiatoday faces a major challenge of the balance.

To assess how the country's political parties arc trying to face this challengealteam of researchers from theCentre for Science -and-Environment travelledacross the country to document how the four majorpolitical parties of India -Congress (I)BharatiyaJanata Party (115P)Janata Dal(n)) and the CommunistParty of India-Marxist(cpi-m) - were respondingto environmental concerns.In this massive exercisewhich tookmonthsnumerous senior politiciansincluding Union ministers and statechief ministerswdeinterviewed alongwith lower levels of the political cadresof different political parties and localenvironmental activists and analysts.

The study shows that environmentalissues started to find a place in the manifestoes of almost all the importantpolitical parties during the '80swithdifferent parties taking slightly differentpositions. The TD has generallyembraced a more radical position whichemphasises the importance of maintaining a healthy natural resource base forthe survival and growth of the poor.Congress (i)on the other handhas hada somewhat more conservationistemphasis in its manifestoes. The cpisathe party of the poorhas shown theleast interest in the environment. BIP hasindulged in green rhetoric on severaloccasions.

But beyond the rhetoricand its different shades and huesthere is notmuch to be happy about. The politicalaction of almost all parties has been generally counter to the requirements of theenvironmental balancewhich is whythe environment continues to degrade.There is a big gulf between a party'srhetoric and real actionthe rhetoricoften running counter to theideology espoused in the manifesto.

in's environment minister of 1990Maneka Gandhifor examplepresenteda curious set of contradictions. She wasgung-ho about environmental causes-the only such minister uptil now - butshe also promoted several anti-peoplemeasures at the national levelincludingthe amendment to the earlier WildlifeProtection Act which made no attemptto protect the interest of the peopleliving in and around protected areas.Thisdespite the socialist rhetoric of herparty. At the international levelshe wasprepared to buy any thesis sold by theWestern worldfrom global strategies todeal with ozone layer depletion toglobal warmingeven if they weretotally unjust and unfair to the ThirdWorld. And when she stretched herselfto measures that could have made a bigdifference within the country - like theidea of setting up environmental courts- she faced displeasure within her ownparty. In Orissam chief minister BijuPatnaik consistently fought with localenvironmentalists on developmentprojects. And neither Bihar's LalooYadav nor Karnataka's H D DeveGowda did anything to endear themselves to the environmental community.

On the other handthe Congress(I)environment ministerKamal Nathwho took charge in 1991was quite prepared to take radical positions in international environmental negotiations -in the Rio conferencefor instance -but remained soft on national action. Towards the latter part of his tenurehewas even prepared to allow privateindustry access large tracts of state-owned forest landseven though thiswould harm the interests of poor peopledependent on forests and destroy anychances of developing a domestic woodgrowers' marketdespite his party'savowed thrust towards the marketisation of the Indian economy.Congress(i)thusdisplayed its ownbundle of contradictions.

EquallyBJP politicians have notcared much for green causes.Rajasthan's BJP chief ministerBhaironSingh Shekhawat repeatedly argued thatenvironment was being used by theCongress(i)-run Central government toreduce the powers of the state governments - "I cannot even put up a lamp post in my state without interferencefrom the Central environment ministry"he once said in a well publicisedstatement. Yethe himself did little toreverse environmental degradation inhis own state. Environment for him wasnot a life and death issue but a shamCentre-state issue. In Delhi in 1993when the country's Capital faced anacute water crisisBIP chief ministerMadan Lai Khurana immediatelydemanded more water from Delhi'sCongress(i)-run neighbourHaryana.When there were delayshe argued thatCongress(i) was deliberately trying todestabili

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