Search for the lesser evil

Search for the lesser evil that electoral politics and the environment do not mix well in India is a foregone conclusion. Lost in the maze of religion, casteism and regionalism, our politicians have no incentive to draw up plans to improve the natural environment, make promises based on these plans, fulfil those promises, and make political capital of it in the elections.

Unlike in Europe, where green parties have made their presence felt and, as in the case of Germany's ruling coalition, are partners in the government, no political party in India is really up to the task when it comes to the environment. There is scant recognition of environmental concerns such as pollution of water, land and air. Lack of urban planning and poor civic amenities is making life increasingly impossible.A study by the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ), New Delhi, shows that in 1995, more than 52,000 people died prematurely in 36 Indian cities due to high levels of suspended particulate matter in the air. The figure had risen from around 40,000 in 1991-92.

In rural India, where people have been managing their environment for centuries, plunder of natural resources has brought about conditions of abject poverty. Soils are becoming unproductive due to chemical overuse. Industrial effluents and sewage are polluting our rivers and underground aquifers.

Yet, the only way things can improve is through the democratic process. If the country is to move towards a more secure future, environmental concerns have to figure at the core of our political system (see interview: " Political parties are ignoring environmental issues "). Political parties have to realise that the well-being of a people depends directly on the management of their natural resources, their natural wealth. This is especially important as the country's environmental problems are growing with the increasing population and industrialisation putting added pressure on the environment. Measures to check such destruction have to be taken now. And the country needs a political leadership that is willing to tackle these issues.

So, which party should we vote for this time? To find out which is the greenest political party of India - or, perhaps, the party that is least destructive - Down To Earth ( dte ) sought the views of 100 representatives of the civil society of the country - environmentalists, scientists, researchers, opinion makers, activists and journalists. We also compared the manifestos of political parties released for going into elections in 1991, 1996 and 1998 with their performance. The conclusion is that while the Indian National Congress ( inc , or the Congress) has a chequered record of concern for the environment, the Bharatiya Janata Party ( bjp ) is worse off.
Results of the survey Of the people who responded to the dte survey, 42 per cent say the Congress will take the greatest care of the environment, while about 15 per cent say the bjp will. Only 5 per cent are for the Third Front. The rest of the respondents think that there is no party that will attend to matters of the environment (see charts: The civil society's verdict ).

About 63 per cent of the respondents say that the Congress party understands the solutions to what they think are three of the greatest environmental problems facing the country. Only half that number - 31 per cent - think the bjp understands the solutions. The Communist Party of India-Marxist ( cpi-m ) and the Janata Dal ( jd ) fetched 21 per cent vote each on the same issue.

On the issue of rating Vajpayee's concern for the environment as pm , 42 per cent of the respondents think it is 'nothing worth talking about'; 31 per cent rate his concern as 'very good'; 16 per cent say it is average; and 5 per cent say he is very adverse to environmental concerns. One of the questions in the survey was regarding the effect of a fractured mandate on the environment. Over 68 per cent of the respondents believe that such a mandate will be harmful to the environment, while 21 per cent think that it will not make any difference. About 5 per cent say a fractured mandate will be better for the environment as there will be checks and balances against each coalition partner.

While the opinion of the civil society definitely indicates the standing of a political party, a political party's manifesto is a good means of measuring its concern or understanding for the environment, especially when seen in relation to the party's performance.

The BJP and allies
The manifesto released by the bjp before the 1998 general elections had a full page on the environment. But in the national agenda for governance, released by the bjp -led National Democratic Alliance ( nda ) after it came to power in March 1998, this was reduced to a single line. In its agenda for the 1999 general elections, released a few days ago, nda has added four more lines of a very general nature.

So, what do you expect on the environmental front from a coalition that cannot spare a few centimetres of printed space to the environment in its agenda, let alone draw up effective plans and spending money and making the effort to implement them? It is quite clear that the nda is not even keeping the pretence of making the right, politically correct noises for the environment.

On March 28, 1998, a few days after the bjp -led National Democratic Alliance came to power at the Centre, Prime Minister ( pm ) Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a speech in Parliament to counter the allegation that the coalition had a 'hidden agenda'. The speech was telecast live on television, and the pm declared some key tenets of the coalition's national agenda for governance. After referring to the Cauvery riverwater sharing dispute, he mentioned the problem of water (see p4: Promising water ).

Vajpayee said that water is so complex an issue that the entire world is grappling with it. But, as one may note, as there are problems there are solutions, too. And when the pm makes an announcement in Parliament, it is obvious that the people watch with anticipation. "There are no visible signs of the nda government having done anything to fulfil this promise. Take the example of Delhi, where 70 per cent of the water supplied is from the river Yamuna, which is highly polluted. In a case going on in the Delhi high court at present, the Central Pollution Control Board acknowledged that there are traces of pesticides in the Yamuna's water. The government has done nothing to mitigate this problem," says Rajat Banerji, a researcher on water- and pollution-related issues at cse .

"And if this is the state of affairs in the capital, you can imagine the conditions in other parts of the country. The government claims to be supplying potable water to 90 per cent of India's population. The reality is that water is supplied to barely 60 per cent of the population. Even so, the quality of the water supplied is questionable," he adds.

On June 13, 1998, there was a report that minister of state for environment and forests, Babulal Marandi, said in the Rajya Sabha that the government had formu-lated a comprehensive policy statement for the abatement of pollution. But there were no visible signs of implementation. dte has reported how numerous indus-trial units across the country are pumping untreated effluents directly into the ground, thereby poisoning groundwater (see article ' What goes down must come up '; August 31, 1999).

Congress: the lesser evil
A cse study shows between 1975 and 1995, while India's gross domestic pro-duct ( gdp ) went up by 2.5 times, industrial pollution increased four times and vehicular pollution shot up a whopping eight times. In these two decades, the Congress was in power all through, except for two years of Janata Party rule. It was before this duration that the industrialised West became aware of the magnitude of environmental pollution and started taking steps to prevent it. But in India, the ministry for environment and forests was formed as late as 1986. The Ganga Action Plan to clean up the river Ganga, formulated under a Congress government, turned out to be a complete failure.

The Congress has to share a lot of blame for the sorry state of India's environment. Yet mef was formed when the Congress was in power (see interview: "It was the Congress that put environment on the national agenda" ). And it was a Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, with Digvijay Singh as the chief minister, that implemented the Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Deve-lop--ment. The mission has turned around the environmental, economic and social conditions of a sizeable portion of the state's rural areas. The people of the state responded by re-electing the Congress government in the state in 1998, belying the Exit Polls that had predicted a bjp victory.

In its 1999 manifesto, the party has included quite a few plans for the environment - at least more than what the nda offers. The Congress is showing a greater intention of dealing with environmental challenges. Whether it does so remains to be seen.

A matter of priorities
That political parties lack the will to tackle environmental problems is a popu-lar refrain of the Indian intelligentsia. But the Indian voter is also to blame for this. "The voters are also not challenging the political parties by saying that we would not vote for you if you do not look into the environmental problems. Environment has not been on the voters' agenda either,' says Anupam Mishra of the environment cell of Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi. "Yet, if you look at the hidden aspects of all the political activities, environment is very much there. The only thing is nobody realises them or picks them up. If one talks about a better life for the people, or say a good public transport system, it is indeed related to the environment. Political parties simply do not realise this hidden aspect and that is why they fail to take environmental issues seriously,' he adds.

So, the message from the survey of the civil society and the analysis of party manifestos is quite clear: it is not merely up to the political parties to come up with an environment-friendly electoral agenda. It is up to the people and the civil society to demand a better state of the environment from the candidates who seek their vote.