(Part I of a two-part series)
On 30th May 2019, India’s 17th Parliament was constituted. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections were held in seven phases; about 900 million people were eligible to vote and the total voter turnout was over 67 per cent – the highest ever. The Bhartiya Janata Party won 303 seats, with further increase in its already substantial majority of 2014, and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 353 seats. The Indian National Congress again failed to secure the requisite 10% of the seats (54 seats) in the Parliament and hence, India remains without an official opposition party.
Clearly, a substantial population of India put their faith in the BJP-led NDA and brought them back to power. Before elections, when all major political parties released their election manifestos, as a commentator on Natural History, I tried to analyse and narrate the promise and strategies of our political parties towards conserving the Environment of the Nation. It is the fundamental duty of the state, after all – Article 48 (A) of the Constitution says that “the state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”.
While analysing manifestos from the perspective of environment, forests, wildlife and forest dwellers, I found that among all political parties, the Indian National Congress emphasised the most on these issues.
The Congress manifesto mentioned the establishment of an independent, empowered, and transparent Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to implement, enforce, and monitor compliance with environmental norms and regulations of the country. This Authority is to supersede all existing environmental regulatory bodies. Now, does independent mean autonomous? If yes, then the EPA could be more effective than the current, so-called independent authorities. But if not, then the proposed EPA might command the same faith as that by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL). Industrial lobbyists will take advantage of the ‘Single Window’ system and their influence over clearances related to water, forest and land will be stronger.
The manifesto promised that Clean Air India Initiative will be made more effective by declaring air pollution as a National Public Health Emergency. However, it would not be an easy task to identify and control all primary sources of emission. Again, industrial lobbies as well as agriculturists in states such as Punjab and Haryana may oppose such initiative. Cooperation of all states is very crucial over here, and if implemented properly, it could definitely turn out to be a good initiative.
The manifesto also mentioned formulating a strategy on usage of land and water, after considering conservation of biodiversity, ecosystem and wildlife, without adversely affecting the rights of forest dwellers on such resources. If this can be made possible, then it would resolve the conflict between the current Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. Yet again, to enable this, more clarity is needed on the independent or autonomous status of the proposed EPA.
Congress also promised conservation of biodiversity of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, without affecting livelihoods of local communities. It was also promised to revert the recent relaxation in proposed coastal zone regulation. However, the political willingness in these areas will always be questionable. It also made an ambitious promise of joining hands with all state governments to stop discharge of effluents into rivers and water bodies, banning waste imports completely, and initiating sand import to eradicate illegal sand mining. Again, political willingness is sorely needed to tackle lobbyists in these fields.
The most interesting part of the Congress manifesto was promises related to forest cover and wildlife habitat conservation. The promise over redefining forest cover was, to put it plainly, infuriating. The recent tendency of the incumbent Government to exaggerate area under forest cover also needs to be evaluated adequately.
Overall, there were a lot of elaborate promises which looked good for the time being, however, as it is repeatedly stated, the actual and effective implementation of all these promises depend on political willingness. We should not forget that the Bhopal disaster happened under Congress rule, and the Wildlife Protection Act was introduced, and Project Tiger was launched under their rule as well.
Ultimately, the people of this country have chosen the BJP-led NDA over Congress-led UPA, and hence, the analysis and narration of BJP’s election manifesto are now more relevant than speculating what Congress would have done with their grandiose electoral promises.
However, before getting into the election manifesto of BJP, about it is worthwhile to note how the incumbent Government set environmental expectations of the citizens of this country.
Who can forget that India has its own “Environmental Champion”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi? The United Nations honoured him with this title during his first tenure, even though, as per the Environmental Performance Index of 2018, our nation ranked an unimpressive 177! In 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had said, living in equilibrium with the environment is our “tradition”.
We were happy to hear that, although there were not many reasons for happiness once we saw the “traditional activities” across the country during NDA-I. Yet, the honourable Government realized its duty towards the environment, which was definitely appreciable. We all had hope that the Government would walk its talk, however, this was also a not-so-common phenomenon in the past five years.
Nevertheless, we lived (or died) in hope, just as the famous Bengali proverb goes, “Farmers die in false hope”. Farmers were dying – literally, maybe due to heavy loans or “false hopes” – but dying anyway. However, we did not have much time to worry about them, as we were busy in “development”. It was time for the nation to prosper, to take “tough decisions”, and to identify environmental policies of previous governments as either “pro environmentalists” or “anti-development”! It was time to ignore all the distractions and move ahead with a “development-based” agenda.‘Simplifying’ Environmental Regulations and Policies was the first step towards “development”. Critics who slammed this action as an attempt to give unethical advantage to select commercial groups and business houses, were all gagged. They were, allegedly, being “Anti Nationalists”!
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.