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Monday, November 30, 2020

Why is environment safety still not important issue for Indian politicians? Here’s the truth

So the Bihar Assembly elections have begun. Leaders from the incumbent and opposition parties along with poll contenders and all stakeholders carried out all the preparation for the past couple of months. As we all have seen, the political parties have tried to make use of all genuine issues and even non-issues to promote their party interest and fetch votes. Right from flood, corruption, women’s safety, education and the recent episode of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death all have been utilized by the parties during the election campaign. But this is not a new development per se. The same or similar picture is seen ahead of any state or general election in India. But even after decades have passed and several things have changed across the country, the issue of environment protection is yet to make its mark in the manifestoes of political parties, and Bihar polls is no exception for this.

It is an unfortunate truth that the importance of environmental issues in the elections here is still not realized. No political parties give them due importance in their manifestos. The gap between the environmental challenges facing the country and promises being made by political parties is too great to warrant any serious comment. In this article, we shall look into how India has been ignoring this important issue of environment protection in the election agenda.

Why is environment safety still not important issue for Indian politicians? Here’s the truth

1. People not aware of environment safety

Anecdotal evidence also supports the view that most Indians don’t think about water and the environment – beyond the material effects on their lives – even as they contribute to environmental degradation. The air pollution in North and Northeast India comes to mind. Every winter, New Delhi’s air quality plunges to life-threatening levels, especially after the festival of Diwali. Many people react by pointing their fingers at farmers burning paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana but those fingers should really be pointed at themselves. Political parties do not try to make people aware on this issue and fetch votes on this basis.

Marginalised people suffer through the bulk of the effects of a changing climate, so it’s only rational that they vote for policies that will protect them from the consequent shifts in the availability of resources and, more generally, of livelihood. Urban residents, especially of the middle class, are more addicted to ‘development’ and will prioritise that. But on the flip side, the voices of the marginalised continue to be feeble in terms of affecting government policy, so unless a large section of the affluent and the middle-class really feels the heat of the climate emergency, cities are unlikely to want governments to change on the basis of environmental issues.

2. India must prioritize environment after pandemic

India like the rest of the world is today facing an unparalleled health crisis. While all types of resources are being utilised to control the pandemic, we know that India’s pollution aggravates the crisis and delay the recovery. The environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions. Never have our air and water been as foul as they are today. Air quality has worsened to such an extent that it now kills people on a large scale. Of all the countries, India has the highest child mortality rate due to toxic air. In 2017, at least one in eight deaths in the country were attributed to air pollution. Similarly, polluted water is still the largest killer of babies in the country. And our water pollution is increasing by the day.

High levels of air pollution in Delhi is a year-round problem, which can be attributed to unfavourable meteorological conditions, farm fires in neighbouring regions and local sources of pollution. As Delhi gears up for another polluted winter, several public health experts have flagged concerns and said this may increase the transmissibility of the coronavirus, making people more vulnerable to the disease and aggravating the Covid-19 situation in the national capital. Air pollution can lead to higher infection rate, Ronak Sutaria, founder of Mumbai-based startup Respirer Living Sciences, working on building devices that can help monitor the air quality in India, told NDTV. But still we don’t see curbing of festivities in northern India or any political movement to raise this issue as an election agenda.

3. Many disasters, still environment not part of poll planning

In 2018, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) identified a total of 351 polluted river stretches—an increase from 302 stretches identified just three years ago. Not just the Ganga is polluted—all the major and minor rivers are falling prey to pollution because of unsustainable withdrawal of water and untreated disposal of waste.The crisis is even more acute in case of groundwater. Groundwater accounts for over 80% of our drinking-water supply and we have a groundwater pollution crisis of unprecedented scale. Of 640 districts of the country, the groundwater in 276 districts is polluted due to fluoride, in 387 districts due to nitrate, in 113 districts due to various heavy metals, and in 61 districts due to uranium.

Our forests, wildlife and biodiversity have regressed. Over the last three decades, we have increasingly replaced natural forests with plantations. Man–animal conflict has increased and desertification is now affecting our productive agricultural land. Additionally, we now have climate change that is threatening the lives and livelihoods of people. Extreme weather events like extreme rainfall, cyclones, floods and drought now regularly devastate one part or another of the country—in 2013 it was the Uttarakhand floods; in 2014 the Jammu and Kashmir floods; in 2015 the Chennai floods and in 2018 the Kerala floods. These extreme events killed hundreds of people and the economic losses were in thousands of crores of rupees. The effects of climate change are going to get even worse as global warming pushes from the current 1.0oC towards 1.5oC in the near future. The most damning figure is this: more Indians die due to pollution than to cancer, TB, AIDS and diabetes put together.

4. What political parties have done so far about it?

In such a dire situation, one would have expected political parties to come forth with serious ideas to balance the imperatives of growth and development with environmental protection and climate change. But, alas, the two big political parties—the Congress and BJP—have repackaged old ideas and relegated the environment in their manifestos to a peripheral subject rather than a core issue that is impinging on the lives and livelihoods of people.Take the case of air pollution. Both parties have promised to reduce air pollution by strengthening the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). While the Congress has called air pollution a ‘national public health emergency’ and promised to target all major sources of emission, the BJP has promised to convert the NCAP into a Mission and reduce the level of pollution by at least 35% over the next five years. But both of them have failed to link air pollution to the growth paradigm that they have promised a few pages earlier in their respective manifestos. They want business-as-usual growth and, yet, hope to solve the air pollution problem.To address the water crisis, both the BJP and the Congress have promised to create a new Ministry of Water.

While the BJP has vowed to achieve the goal of a clean Ganga by 2022, the Congress has promised to double the budget allocation for cleaning rivers, including the Ganga. Both have completely failed to address the issue of groundwater contamination, apart from promising programmes for groundwater recharge. If new ministries and more money would have worked, then we would have solved all our problems long ago. On climate change, the Congress has used all the right words and promised an action agenda to combat global warming. The BJP, on the other hand, is largely silent on the issue of climate change apart from the promise of achieving the goal of 175 GW renewable energy by 2022. The one major difference between the Congress and the BJP is in the area of forest management. While the Congress has laid down a comprehensive framework to involve local communities in the forest management, the BJP is completely silent on issues of tribals and forests including the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The bottom line is that the Congress manifesto is all about the right words and the BJP’s is all about numbers and targets. And, both are utterly insufficient to tackle the environmental challenge facing the country.

5. Why Indian politics is not serious about environmental issues?

The fact is if there is a time to make environment a political issue, it is today. Yet, the discourse on environment or the lack of it in this election is truly shocking. Apart from a tweet here and there, the environment is not in the utterances of our political bigwigs. Why is this so? Why is the environment not as important an issue in the elections? We can’t only blame political parties for this. Political parties reflect the priorities of their constituents. And, the environment is not a priority of the majority of voters. It is not that people are not suffering because of environmental pollution and destruction. They are. But they have not been sufficiently informed and engaged to make this an important election issue. And this is the failure of civil society. We, in the civil society, have failed to take our message to the grassroots to make the environment a political issue. It is time we recognized this failure.

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