As India gears up for its 2014 general elections, the longest elections ever to take place in the country, its largest and oldest political party, Indian National Congress, unveiled an election manifesto on Wednesday with a major promise. If elected, it promises to set up an independent green regulator for mining and development projects – what it calls the National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA).
The Congress party is the first of the big players to unveil its manifesto, though it is still late, since the polls are scheduled to start on April 7. The party’s 50-page manifesto throws several promises. These include increasing India’s annual growth rate to beyond 8% from the current average of 6% within the next three years; investing US$ 1 trillion over the next decade to improve India’s power and other development infrastructure and bringing two-thirds of the country’s population into the middle class.
In the last five years, many Congress party ministers have described protection of the environment as an impediment to industrial development. Still, the manifesto does provide a more detailed list of green goals than the previous version in 2009.
Five years ago, the Congress had focused on saving the river Ganga by strengthening the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). In contrast, the current manifesto lists a wide range of green goals in sectors like renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation, safeguarding the rights of tribals dwelling in forests and green accounting.
But the big promise is to set up NEAMA, a regulatory body to facilitate environment clearances for mining and development projects in a time-bound and transparent manner. The Congress party is promising to bring a bill to constitute NEAMA, in line with a recent order of India’s Supreme Court.
Going beyond the promises in the manifesto, the track record of the Congress party in safeguarding India’s environment is worrying. The 2009 manifesto talked about strengthening NGRBA while the current one talks about replicating the model to protect other rivers as well. Environmental activist Himanshu Thakkar from the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) says the promise is a farce.
“How can they talk about replicating the model if it’s been a failure? The NGRBA has completely failed to clean up the Ganga. It has been the most inactive body. It has met just thrice in the past five years. It should be abolished,” says Thakkar. The 2500 kilometres long Ganga, which is the lifeline of the people in northern India, is the world’s fifth most polluted river.
“The Congress is completely not interested in saving the Ganga,” Thakkar adds. “The Supreme Court in August 2013 had put a halt on new hydroelectric projects on the river in Uttarakhand following the flood disaster in June last year. But the Congress government has illegally cleared Lakhwar and Byasi hydel projects even when the Supreme Court had ordered them not to do so.”
In 2013, the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand suffered severe damage and over 5,000 people were killed in floods following a cloudburst. Environmentalists alleged at that time that the scale of the tragedy was exacerbated by the 70-odd dams and poor road planning in the region.
There are other signs that the green agenda may be overtaken by realpolitik. A day before the manifesto was released, the Congress party announced that former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan will be one of the candidates to fight the upcoming elections. Chavan had been forced to step down after being indicted in a Mumbai housing scam in which coastal protection regulations were flouted.
Thakkar told thethirdpole.net that even the choice of environment minister appointed by the Congress clearly shows it doesn’t want to save the environment. “The current environment minister Veerappa Moily is also the petroleum minister. There is a clear conflict of interest. He has been clearing all the files of various development projects which are detrimental to environment and forests.”
The release of the Congress party manifesto and the press conference that followed were televised across all Indian news channels. None of the party leaders including the Prime Minister spoke about the green agenda, nor were they asked any question on it. Placing the green agenda centre-stage during elections remains a distant dream.