‘Environmental concerns are finally getting mainstreamed in India’s political discourse and the Congress party’s manifesto lists action-oriented goals to tackle them’

(Photo by Prashanth NS)

The Congress party’s manifesto calls for engaging tribal and forest dwelling communities more in forest management. (Photo by Prashanth NS)

Environment as an issue has never really been in the mainstream of the political discourse in India. When did we last hear a political leader mention environmental issues in an election stump speech? This is unfortunate. Many in India still consider environmental protection an elitist concern, and believe that the ‘bread and butter’ issues – economic and social – are what the electorate really cares about.

But this is changing. ‘Lifestyle environmentalism’ is giving way to ‘livelihood environmentalism’. Issues such as air pollution in our cities, increasing pollution of our rivers, poor sewage and sanitation, water logging and declining water tables etc. are direct livelihood and survival issues that the electorate cares deeply about, not some distant concerns championed by elite NGOs.

In addition, the growing impact of climate change – in the form of changing monsoon patterns, unseasonal rains, increasing incidence of droughts and floods etc. – are changing the nature of the debate. All this is happening in a rapidly growing economy where the trade-offs with environmental protection are becoming starker. In fact, the last five years have seen a much higher profile of the so-called “environment vs. development” debate in India, which is welcome.

In this context, it is good to see a much enhanced focus on environmental issues in the recently released manifesto of the Indian National Congress party for the 2014 general elections.

READ ALSO: India’s Congress party releases manifesto, green promises remain unfulfilled.

The big ticket item that has caught the media attention is the proposal to set up a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority (NEAMA) – “a professional agency to conduct rigorous and time-bound environmental appraisals and recommend environmental clearances, where appropriate, in a time-bound and transparent manner.”

This is a welcome step, given the challenges that the environmental clearance processes for new projects have faced over the last decade. The Supreme Court has also directed the establishment of such a body.

The argument for NEAMA is straightforward: The current institutional mandate to do environmental appraisals lies within the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which simply does not have the expertise or capacity to do this in a rigorous and timely way. Because of this, we often get delays in approval, inadequate justification for clearance decisions, and little or no post-clearance monitoring of conditions accompanying clearances.

An independent regulator with the right expertise can bring much needed professionalism to this task. Of course, the final decision on granting clearance would rest with the executive, i.e., the minister or cabinet, to ensure executive accountability, but NEAMA can give much needed transparency and professionalism to the process and recommendation. The proposal would also separate the appraisal and regulation function (which NEAMA would do) from the legislation and policy-making function (which the ministry would continue to do), removing conflict of interest.

Of course, the success of this idea will depend on the ability to resource and empower NEAMA adequately – staffing it with the right set of professionals with appropriate skills, giving it adequate budgets and professional autonomy.

We must learn from the experience of other regulatory agencies we have set up in the last two decades, in designing NEAMA. We must, for example, not let NEAMA become yet another parking lot for retired bureaucrats. We must also not allow it to become an additional layer of bureaucracy or a subordinate office of the ministry.

There are other recommendations in the Congress manifesto on environmental issues that are noteworthy:

  • It calls for engaging tribal and forest dwelling communities more centrally in forest management. This is good political rhetoric, but now needs to be done with sincerity and purpose. Evidence clearly shows that making tribals and forest dwellers the custodians of our forests is the best hope we have to protect them. Giving tribals an economic interest in protecting forests, e.g., by giving them access to non-timber forest produce, especially bamboo, will go a long way as the experience of Mendha Lekha village in the Maoist-affected Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra has shown.
  • It calls for setting up empowered, well-funded special purpose agencies to clean up major rivers, learning from the Ganga experience. This is useful, as the experience of the National Ganga River Basin Authority has taught us a lot on what does and does not work.
  • It calls for ‘Green National Accounting’ by 2016-17, so that the costs of environmental degradation are adequately reflected in our national accounts. Such transparency is critical so that the country makes the appropriate trade-offs. India already has a roadmap for Green Accounts prepared last year by an impressive expert group chaired by Professor Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, one of world’s foremost environmental economists. It now has to shake up its statistical bureaucracy to implement this roadmap.
  • There are other generic suggestions – promoting water conservation and waste management, protecting biodiversity, accelerating the national solar mission and setting up a national wind mission, providing clean cooking fuel etc. These are long-standing noble aspirations, which need to be pursued vigorously.

The Congress manifesto on the environment presents a useful and very specific, action-oriented agenda to bring critical environmental priorities into the mainstream of our political and policy discourse. The devil, as always, will be in the implementation.

Varad Pande works at India’s Ministry for Rural Development and was previously at the Ministry for Environment and Forests. He has also been Advisor on two recent UN Panels on Sustainability and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The views expressed are personal.

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