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Green promises for India’s polls, but no fresh idea

As India heads to elections, both the governing party and the main opposition look at issues ranging from solar energy to pollution to climate adaptation
<p>A rhino stranded by  flooding in the Kaziranga National Park [image by: Biju Boro]</p>

A rhino stranded by flooding in the Kaziranga National Park [image by: Biju Boro]

This the second of a two-part series examining the manifestos of India’s main political parties on the issues of pollution, climate change, water and the environment. Read the first part, on water issues, here.

As the heat and dust of an Indian summer grows in tandem with the ongoing elections to Parliament, air pollution and climate change have found space in the manifestos of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the principal opposition Indian National Congress (INC), though both are characterised by a lack of fresh ideas.

The BJP manifesto is also conspicuous by the piecemeal way in which it deals with environmental issues, without any overarching vision. Nor has disaster management found any space in the party’s manifesto, though the country is facing disasters such as droughts, floods and storms more often due to climate change.

Air pollution poll issue in cities

Of the 20 cities in the world with the worst air quality, 15 are in India. Though this does not resonate in conversations in these cities very often, extensive media coverage appears to have had some impact on the manifestos.

a view of smog in Delhi
Delhi may be the most polluted cities in the world [image by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier]
The BJP says, “We have evolved technologically better strategies and devices to map the level of pollution in cities and rivers and have taken effective steps to reduce the level of pollution in major cities, including the national capital. We will convert the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country. Through concerted action, we will reduce the level of pollution in each of the mission cities by at least 35% over the next five years.” The party also promises to “work towards completely eliminating crop residue burning to reduce air pollution.”

The INC says it “recognises that air pollution is a national public health emergency. We will significantly strengthen the National Clean Air Programme in order to urgently tackle the problem of pollution. All major sources of emission will be targeted, mitigated and reduced to acceptable levels. Sectoral emission standards will be set.”

Money for green Himalayas

Both parties recognise that the Himalayas need special treatment. The BJP says, “We will ensure the Himalayan States are provided special financial assistance in the form of a ‘Green Bonus’ to facilitate the protection and promotion of forests in those states.” The INC promises, “We will work closely with the State Governments concerned to preserve the rich biodiversity of the Himalayan range and the Western Ghats. However, the livelihood opportunities of the people living in these mountains will be protected.” Clearly, the opposition party is trying to forestall any criticism that it wants to displace anybody to create a protected area. This is especially important given the recent Supreme Court decision which may end up displacing more than a million indigenous inhabitants from forest areas which is discussed below.

Climate change – focus on renewable energy

When it comes to climate change, the outgoing government’s focus is on renewable energy. The BJP manifesto claims, “India has become a global champion in addressing the issues of climate change through effective and feasible interventions. We have achieved cumulative installed renewable energy capacity of 76.87 GW as on February 2019 and are on track to achieve our goal of 175 GW by 2022. We will continue our efforts in this regard and make it a popular movement. We will further make all efforts to invite other countries of the world to become members of the International Solar Alliance”. The Alliance has been vigorously promoted by Prime Minister Modi. The goal of creating 175 GW of renewable energy capacity is one of the big promises of the party during this campaign.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President François Hollande at the inauguration of the International Solar Alliance secretariat [image by: Government of India]
The INC has a more wide-ranging response, and “promises an action agenda that will place India at the forefront of the battle against global warming and for the protection of the environment. At the same time, Congress will defend and advance India’s interests in international negotiations on Climate Change and the Environment.” The party has promised “to develop a modern Climate Information System, incorporating advanced tools of meteorology that will accurately monitor, forecast and disseminate information to key stakeholders including farmers, fisherfolk and vulnerable households.”

Recognising that climate change impacts are here already, the INC manifesto says, “We will increase the allocation to the National Adaptation Fund and re-visit the guidelines for the use of the funds to ensure that only schemes that actually benefit farmers, fisherfolk, forest dwellers, artisans and similar persons are implemented.” The outgoing BJP-led government has been criticised by environmentalists for not paying enough attention to adaptation, and for not including the issues that affect local residents when they planned big ticket infrastructure projects, including green projects like inland waterways.

On the issue of renewable energy, the INC says, “We will formulate a policy on Clean Energy in existing power plants that use fossil fuels and promote Green Energy to enhance the share of solar and wind energy in the total supply of energy. Congress promises to enhance availability of, and access to, electricity in rural areas by encouraging investment in off-grid renewable power generation with ownership and revenues vesting in local bodies. Every village and every home will be electrified in the true sense. In the long term, we aim to substitute LPG used in homes by electricity and solar energy.”

While the current BJP-led government has claimed that full electrification has been achieved, this has not, as yet, meant that all homes have an electricity connection.

See: India’s poorest homes still await electricity

The DMK and the Trinamool Congress have also promised big boosts to renewable energy in their manifestos.

The outgoing government has concentrated hard on providing cooking gas cylinders to poor households as an alternative to burning firewood and dung. So it is strange that the BJP manifesto does not really mention this scheme, except in the area of empowering women.

See: Energy transition makes headway in rural India

The INC “promises to provide clean cooking fuels at affordable prices to all the households of the country. We will monitor the price of LPG cylinders and mitigate through subsidies the burden of price increases on the homemaker.”

Different take on forests

On the question of protecting India’s forests, the BJP concentrates on the speed with which the outgoing government has allowed industrial projects to encroach into forests. Its manifesto says, “We have ensured speed and effectiveness in issuing forest and environmental clearances for eligible projects due to which we have added around 9000 sq. kms to the forest cover of the country,” presumably through compensatory tree planting.” According to the ruling party, “We are committed to maintaining this pace through adoption of cleaner practises to make our nation a greener country.”

The issue of over a million traditional forest dwellers facing eviction has exercised India in recent months, and the ruling BJP has faced criticism for not supporting the residents, with the INC also coming in for some criticism for not raising the issue. Without referring to this directly, the BJP’s manifesto says, “We have continuously protected and promoted the interest of forest dwellers particularly the tribal communities. We have endeavoured to provide basic amenities, such as roads, telephone connectivity and cooking gas connection in addition to houses and toilets, at the doorstep of people living in remotest forest areas. We are committed to continuing our work in this direction.”

In contrast, the INC promises to “amend laws governing forests, re-define the role of the forest departments and make local communities the custodians of forests and shareholders of forest resources.”

The INC says, “We will work with State Governments to increase the forest cover from the current level of 21-25% by the year 2025 and, towards that goal, take the following steps: a. Re-define the words and phrase ‘forest’ and ‘forest cover’ in accordance with modern scientific standards; b. Assess the exact forest cover at the district level; c. Involve local communities in afforestation projects and the selection of species of plants; and d. Prohibit and penalise the diversion of funds for forest conservation and afforestation.”

The INC also “promises to preserve wildlife habitats and manage and minimise human-wildlife conflict and award compensation for the loss of human lives. We will promote the welfare of animals and severely penalise cruelty to animals.” The Communist Party of India has also promised steps to tackle human-wildlife conflicts and to control damage to crops by wild animals.

The Communist Party of India – Marxist and the Trinamool Congress – have promised to “reverse policies of the Modi government that have disempowered forest dwellers and tribal peoples.”

Organic farming the new flavour

Both BJP and INC are in favour of organic farming. The BJP says, “We will promote chemical-free organic farming in an additional 20 lakh [2 million] hectares of hilly, tribal and rainfed areas in the next five years. We will launch a dedicated e-commerce portal to enhance the availability of organic produce to the doorsteps of consumers.” In consonance with its cow protection mantra, the BJP says, “Goshalas (cow shelters) in the country will be linked to the promotion of organic farming.”

The INC’s manifesto states that it “will promote organic farming, encourage farmers to use mixed fertilizers and pesticides, support verification of organic products, and help them secure better prices for organic products. We will leverage the rich biodiversity and natural resources of the north-eastern states to generate livelihood opportunities in sustainable agriculture, horticulture and organic farming.”

India’s environment – an area of serious contention

Though it deals with green issues in various parts of its manifesto, the BJP is silent on environmental issues overall. In contrast, the INC says, “It is a bitter truth that India’s environment has deteriorated. The 2018 Global Environmental Performance Index placed India at rank 177 out of 180 countries. The BJP Government has done virtually nothing in the last five years to arrest this decline. Congress promises an action agenda that will place India at the forefront of the battle against global warming and for the protection of the environment. At the same time, Congress will defend and advance India’s interests in international negotiations on Climate Change and the Environment.”

Detailing its plan, the opposition party says, “We will constitute, by law, an independent, empowered and transparent Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and regulations. The EPA will replace all other bodies that currently exercise jurisdiction and powers. We will formulate a comprehensive land and water use policy and plan that will include measures for the conservation of ecosystems and the biodiversity and wildlife contained therein, without affecting the legitimate rights of local communities.”

One of the most contentious issues in India is the protection of its 7,500-km coastline, with the BJP promising huge port and road infrastructure projects. The INC, on the other hand, “promises to protect the coastal zones of the country. Recent steps that diluted the coastal zone regulations will be reversed. The coast will be preserved without affecting the livelihood opportunities of fishing communities.”

Promising far-reaching changes, the INC says it “will confer legal and financial powers upon Panchayats and Municipalities to enable them to partner with State Governments in environment protection and management and to convert the total effort into a grassroots movement involving youth, women, communities and NGOs. We will present the national accounts in a form that will account for the costs of environmental degradation and damage. The Annual Budget will adopt the core principles of Green Budgeting. Congress will endeavour to make India a green manufacturing hub. We will reduce tariffs and lift trade barriers for clean technology and provide incentives for the adoption of such technologies.”

The BJP is also silent in the area of disaster management. The INC says, “It is not possible to eradicate poverty without tackling the dual threats of climate change and natural disasters. It is the poor who suffer most on account of natural disasters and climate change. Congress promises to revisit the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 and incorporate changes, based upon the experience gained in the working of the Act and in managing natural disasters that have occurred over the last 14 years. We will review the working of the National Disaster Management Authority and emphasise the equally important function of preventing disasters. We will not limit disaster management to humans and will include it to cover the impact of disasters on wild animals, domestic animals, pets, livestock, agricultural crops and plantations. We will use the MGNREGA programme to execute public works that will mitigate the impact of disasters such as floods and droughts.”