Manifestos mere lip service to the environment

How serious are political parties contesting the Maharashtra Assembly Election 2019 about the environment, as reflected in their manifestos

Nidhi JamwalNidhi Jamwal   16 Oct 2019 5:47 AM GMT

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Manifestos mere lip service to the environment

Four days from now, the state of Maharashtra goes to poll. Political parties in the fray have released their respective election manifestos. Predictably, some have promised the moon (doubling of farmers' income in the next two years, i.e. by 2022), or repeated old pledges (making Maharashtra drought-free in the next five years), whereas others plan to make the state's rivers pollution-free and promote urban forestry.

Interestingly, the term 'climate change' has also crept into a manifesto. But, before discussing that here is a quick gist of the concern political parties have expressed towards the environment, as perceived from their recent manifestos for the Maharashtra Assembly Elections 2019.

Yesterday morning, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national working president, J P Nadda along with the state chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, released their party's manifesto.

One of the first things the BJP manifesto promises is to make Maharashtra drought-free in the next five years. Incidentally, five years ago, when Fadnavis took oath as the state's chief minister, he launched his flagship programme — Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan — "in a bid to make Maharashtra a drought-free state by 2019".

Forget about being drought-free, in the last five years, the state has faced three years of acute drought. Earlier this year, too, the state was reeling under an unprecedented drought with Marathwada region being the worst-hit. The situation is still not 'normal'. This southwest monsoon season, as against the normal rainfall of 668.8 millimetre (mm), Marathwada has received only 590.7 mm rainfall. But, the state has received an overall rainfall of 32 per cent above the 'normal'.

Forget about being drought-free, in the last five years, Maharashtra has faced three years of acute drought. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

Apart from drought, the state also faced massive floods this year. Remember those horrifying visuals of Kolhapur and Sangli districts underwater in early August! Recurring wall collapses in Pune due to heavy rainfall and resultant deaths. And, the floods in Mumbai when the southwest monsoon arrived in the city after a delay of two weeks.

On July 2, Fadnavis made a statement in the Assembly blaming climate change for extremely heavy rainfall in Mumbai leading to the floods.

Clearly, drought and floods now co-exist in the state — one of the impacts of the changing climate and erratic rainfall. But, a quick search through BJP's 44-page-long manifesto does not even show up the term 'climate change'. The manifesto mentions the word 'environment' (possibly) once with reference to preparing a road-map for the promotion of the environment in the state. There is one reference to 'forest' with the promise of creating forest development centers and promoting the forest-based industry. Air pollution, a growing environmental and public health problem, doesn't figure at all.

Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan doesn't seem to be that important anymore. The focus of Fadnavis, as reflected in the manifesto, has now shifted to a Rs 16,000 crore water grid project of inter-linking 11 dams in the Marathwada region. However, water sector experts have already raised strong objections to this project.

Presenting some of its key infrastructure projects, the BJP manifesto refers to the Navi Mumbai international airport, which is coming up (armed will 'all the clearances') on the CRZ (coastal regulation zone) area covered with mangroves by diverting one river and training another and flattening a hillock. There is also a mention of the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, which is set to affect 54,000 mangroves on 13 hectares area.

The BJP manifesto talks of achievements in solar power sector, but, let us remember there are regions in Maharashtra where for months together solar-powered agriculture water pumps remain idle as groundwater has plummeted to deep depths. Solutions must not create graver problems.

BJP's alliance partner in the upcoming Assembly elections, Shiv Sena, has also released its manifesto. Unlike the former's manifesto, the latter has a separate brief section on 'Sanitation and environment'.

The Sena has promised an electric vehicle policy in the next five years, setting up of sewage treatment plants at zilla parishad level, making 21 rivers in the state pollution-free and beautifying them, and policy on mangrove protection. To control air pollution, the manifesto talks about promoting urban forests in Mumbai and Thane regions.

Incidentally, just 10 days back, more than 2,100 trees were cut (with the High Court of Bombay's permission) over a weekend in Aarey Colony of Mumbai, 'considered' an urban 'forest', to construct Metro car shed. Whereas Aditya Thackeray, president of Yuva Sena of Shiv Sena, opposed the move and continuously tweeted against it, the chopping of trees was cleared by the tree authority of Sena-controlled Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. Both BJP and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) members of the tree authority voted in favour of the Metro car shed at Aarey; Sena member opposed the move, while Congress members staged a walk-out from the tree authority meeting.

Coming to the Indian National Congress and NCP's joint manifesto (including Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Peasants and Workers Party of India), there is a separate section on environment and climate change that proposes a zero-tolerance policy to protect the environment. The manifesto takes note of the changing climate and extreme weather events in the state, such as hailstorms, floods, drought, heatwave, etc. It also talks about strengthening the disaster management system.

The environment section of the joint manifesto addresses air pollution, waste and forests; and promises to set up air quality monitoring centers and promoting urban forests and afforestation on degraded lands. The section on cities highlights the need for climate-resilient cities, promoting non-motorised transport and improving the public transport system.

On paper, all this sounds good. But, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

In parts of Maharashtra, solar powered agriculture water pumps remain idle for months due to non-availability of groundwater. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

Talking about the party manifestos, Mumbai-based environmentalist and executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust, Debi Goenka, claimed none of the political parties were serious about environmental issues at the national, state or local level. Terms like climate change and environment are used when politicians want a convenient excuse to get out of being blamed, like in the case of recent floods in Mumbai, he alleged.

Bhagwan Kesbhat, founder and director of Waatavaran, a non-profit working on environmental issues, too complained about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued to make all the right statements on environment protection at national and international platforms, but the same did not reflect in his party's vision for Maharashtra.

One thing is clear. No political party can deliver on its election promises unless it pays heed to the environment and climate change. And, it has to go beyond just paying lip service.

Climate change is real and a threat multiplier. Doubling farmers' income in two years, when they are facing successive droughts and have no irrigation facilities, and rainfall is getting erratic due to climate change and global warming, may just remain rhetoric. Interlinking dams and transporting water hundreds of kilometers from the so-called water 'surplus' regions to drought areas may not yield the desired results except blowing up crores of public money.

It must also be noted the Maharashtra state climate action plan, which took seven years to prepare, is weak on several counts. In times of a changing climate, open, green spaces, including wetlands, ponds and nullahs, are the sponges that can hold excess rainfall and run-off. In an effort to 'beautify' rivers, we must not encroach on 'river lands' and concretize their banks. In order to perform their natural task, rivers must remain connected with their flood-plains. Anthems alone won't save our rivers.

The promise of USD 1 trillion economy for the state with the creation of five crore jobs in the next five years and houses for all by 2022 is definitely music to ears. But, can such growth be achieved by neglecting the environment and clear signs of climate change? At what cost?

Let us not be penny wise, pound foolish.

Also Read: Mobile app, satellite phones, tracking of cyclone paths — how science and technology is coming to the rescue of fishers
Also Read: Assam most vulnerable to climate change in the Indian Himalayan Region


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