Sunday, 30 March 2014

Life beyond 7% growth

In mid 1990s, I attended an impromptu press conference addressed by Manmohan Singh at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Chennai. As the finance minister spoke, we huddled closer to hear him. The economic liberalisation was still in its early stages, and Singh said that once the economy starts to grow at 7% there would be enough resources to invest in the social, environment and health sectors.

A few days ago the Indian National Congress published the report card for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the party’s promissory note for the future five years. The manifesto states that it is a document drawn up after a series of consultations with different stakeholders “to get their inputs on India’s future growth, development and inclusion agenda.” Election manifestoes need lofty statements, and this one says, “We believe in a simple truth: equity and opportunity for all.”

The results of the coming elections will show what communities think of the UPA’s environmental policies
The economic growth in the past 10 years had a certain kind of inclusiveness about it. The growth of the service sector and its incessant need for manpower opened employment opportunities for young graduates in the country. However, it is not the UPA that initiated the thrust for the information, communication and entertainment sectors. At best the UPA did not negate the policies implemented by its predecessor National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

The UPA was effective with its Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the National Food Security Act. The Congress manifesto does not miss highlighting these achievements: “At the turn of the millennium, we brought about a ‘Regime of Rights’ marking a paradigm shift in India’s politics and development.”

Whenever it comes to environmental discussions, there is a fact that every senior leader of the Congress party repeats ad nauseam. They recall that Indira Gandhi was the only visiting prime minister who participated in the 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden. This statement is repeated, once more, in the Congress manifesto.

There is certainly historicity in the statement about Indira Gandhi. But then, she was also the person who decided that conserving the rain forest in Silent Valley was more important than submerging it for hyrdro-electric power. The Project Tiger was launched during her premiership, and she had also sown the seeds of the Coastal Regulation Zone notification.

Hidden behind this near-platitudinous reference to Indira Gandhi is the state of the Congress-led UPA’s environmental record in the past 10 years. The report card part in the manifesto talks about the establishment of the National Green Tribunal and the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

The action plan for 2014-2019 states that it will put water conservation in its actions on agriculture, rural and urban development; provide clean cooking fuel across the country; launch Green National Accounts by 2016-17; conserve biodiversity; and engage tribals and forest dwelling communities in the management of forests and share with them benefits from forest produce.

Whatever be the promises, voters assess them against past performance. And this is more so for the party that has led the national government for a decade. Thus two sentences – one a promise, other an achievement – in different parts of the manifesto, sum up much of the environmental controversies that the UPA faced during its two consecutive terms.

The promise states, “We envision an India where power would have been devolved to the grassroots and the marginalised so that they can shape their own destiny.” And, the achievement states, “Today, coal production is 554 million tonnes per year. Ten years ago it was 361 million tonnes per year.”

Though not limited only to coal, the most contentious environmental disputes during the UPA period were related to mining, where the interests of the industry were strongly perceived to hurt the interests of the local and forest communities. It came to a head when 12 gram sabhas turned down the proposal by Vedanta Resources for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha.[i]

On matters related to environment the UPA has been like one of the cars they use in driver training schools that have two sets of controls – one for the student and the other for the trainer. While the political lightweight prime minister attempted to take the car in one direction, there was a reverse pull from the other set of controls handled by Sonia Gandhi.

At least two environment ministers – Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan – operated in the space created by these two pulls. Environment clearance for projects were delayed, and at times denied. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed to a group of editors in June 2011 that he has been pressurising Ramesh. Singh quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “As Gandhiji said, poverty is the biggest polluter. We need to have a balance.”[ii] Singh attempted to change this with the proposal for the establishment of a National Investment Board (NIB).[iii] The proposal did not materialise.

The idea of the NIB is not dead, though. It has resurfaced as the proposal for a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority “to conduct rigorous and time-bound environmental appraisals and recommend environmental clearances where appropriate in a time-bound and transparent manner.” It is not known if the repeated emphasis on “time-bound” is intentional or not.

Delays in getting clearances hurt investment and in turn the investment climate. True. The need for a transparent and time-bound process can also not be disputed. But the two preceding questions are: how seriously are environmental impacts of projects assessed, and how carefully does the government listen to the voice of the community during public hearings? The UPA’s record has not been very reassuring on this front. Or else there would not have been so many environmental controversies during the past 10 years.

Since the press meeting I attended at CLRI two decades ago, Manmohan Singh completed one term as finance minister and later had two full terms as prime minister. The economy too grew at above the promised 7% (the manifesto claims that the average for the last 10 years was 7.5% economic growth). So history did not deny him the opportunity to turn his words into action. The results of the coming elections, especially from the constituencies that have had environment- and livelihood-related disputes, will show what people think of his government’s action or inaction. 

[i] Saikia, S.P. Government rejects Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mining project. The Hindu Business Line, 12 January 2014
[ii] Jebaraj, P. Jairam continues no go U-turn as PM admits to pressuring him. The Hindu, 30 June 2011
[iii] Singh, S. PM’s enforcer board to clear big projects. The Hindu, 2 October 2012

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A bid to link climate change to human rights

In March 2012, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, an archipelago nation in the Pacific, informed international journalists that his Cabinet has endorsed a plan to buy 6,000 acres on Fiji's main island. This was not for real estate speculation, but for more humanitarian reasons. The land in Fiji would help Tong's government to repatriate its citizens if sea level rise due to climate change was to submerge the Kiribati islands. ...MORE ...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

The National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to fight the Indian general elections 2014. The NAPM leader and environmental activist Medha Patkar’s name was announced in the first list of the AAP candidates. She would contest from Mumbai North-East.

This is the first time that the NAPM or any well-known environmental activist group is joining electoral politics. The environmental and social activists took the decision to join the AAP at NAPM’s national meeting in January this year. While some of the NAPM leaders have agreed to be immersed in the AAP’s national election process completely, others will play a more supportive role.

Satellite image of the Sardar Sarovar dam and reservoir on the Narmada river. The NAPM grew out of the environmental movement against the construction of the dam. 

This means that a coalition of 222 environmental and grass-roots groups have aligned themselves to the youngest political party in the country that formed and dismembered the government in Delhi state and has ambitions in national elections.

The marriage also means that if AAP were to become a part of any coalition that forms the government after the national elections then the NAPM would be part of the “State establishment”. This becomes a point for comment since the environmental movements had been fighting the State and the establishment for decades.

There is a certain degree of synergy between the AAP and the NAPM – after all both came into being as a network of protestors. Both have also reached a stage in their growth where they have realised that there is a limitation to the politics of protest, and to be effective there is need to transition into the parliamentary democracy process (though in Delhi, the AAP entered and exited this process).

However, the critical difference is in the constituencies they represent.  While the AAP represents the urban middle class, the NAPM represents communities in the hinterlands such as tribals, artisanal fishermen, labourers, mineworkers, etc. The AAP’s constituents are predominantly in the consuming end of the economic spectrum, whereas those of the NAPM are in the producing end.

Though contesting within a city, Patkar’s constituency has slums and she was active earlier fighting for the rights of the urban poor from these tenements.

The AAP is a political party that, theoretically, was in the making since the launch of the economic liberalisation in 1991. When the markets were liberalised, there was an intense focus on the middle class, especially those in the urban centres, as consumers for goods and services. Higher disposable incomes, a sense of ownership in the corporate world through shares, access to foreign brands in local stores, shopping malls and food courts; for the first time since Independence, the urban middle class felt a sense of self-importance. 

They had decades of accumulated complaints against the politicians and the bureaucracy. They protested against corruption and poor governance, but did not have a political vehicle to give strength to their voice. The AAP gave the urban middle class a political voice.  

This is the political voice that the AAP used to do well in the elections in Delhi, a predominantly urban state. Aware of its limitation, AAP did not try to contest in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. Now that the AAP has ambitions for the national elections, an alliance with the NAPM can broaden their base.

The NAPM, on the other hand, is an alliance of grass-roots organisations that had come into being to protect the natural resources from the villages from being hijacked for urban and commercial use. The prime mover for the NAPM was the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that fought against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the 1990s. The National Alliance was established before the 1996 general elections, when NBA wanted to give a pan-India presence to its anti-dam movement by networking with other environmental organisations.

The idea of the NAPM joining the AAP is fraught with contradictions. For instance, while contesting for the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP’s initial promise was to give water supply to all in the state, including free supply of 700 litres per day per household. Obviously, the water comes from outside the city. Also, some communities outside the city that have lost out their natural resources for the establishment of power plants are contributing to the reduction of power costs by half for consumers in Delhi.

One of the strong statements that came from the residents in the Garhwal districts who lost their lands and water resources to the Tehri dam was “why should we suffer and allow our water be taken to New Delhi to be flushed in toilets?” Tehri dam’s height was fixed at 260 metres because of its potential to generate power. This in turn submerged more land.

And this is where the catch would come. Can Delhi’s need for water be met without compromising the needs of village communities outside the state? If Delhi’s interests are protected at the cost of the hinterlands then the NAPM would be seen as moving away from its core beliefs. If the interests of the rural communities are met at the cost of Delhi, the AAP may become unpopular with its primary constituency.

It is interesting that the NAPM that steadfastly stayed away from electoral process is joining it in 2014. Moving into the political process will help the Indian environmental movement. There are two reasons for this. One, they can more effectively follow up on their demands. Two, it will also give them an understanding of the multiple pressures that the executive feels from different sections of the society. Being outside and objecting is different from being inside and ensuring that people’s concerns are built into policy and action.

The marriage with the AAP is also an opportunity for the NAPM to come back into national consciousness. While the economic, political and social processes in the past two decades led to the formation of the AAP, it also led to the marginalisation of movements such as the NAPM. The urban middle class was too busy focusing on its consumption needs to worry about environmental impacts of its actions.

This, however, is only part of the reason that the NAPM got marginalised in the national consciousness. The environmentalists also did themselves in by their shrill and unrelenting positions on many development projects and their refusal to engage in any kind of negotiations.

The NAPM had slipped out of the media radar in the recent years. The Alliance leader Medha Patkar, who was frequently interviewed by the media in the early 1990s, hardly makes a token presence in the present-day TV talk shows, grabbing a few minutes of attention sporadically. Her last appearance of significance was during the protest against the establishment of the Tata Motors plant in Singur, West Bengal, in 2007-08.

As with all good marriages, the coming together of the AAP and the NAPM has benefits for both. The question is will it last?

There can be two prognoses. It could lead to a positive engagement hitherto not seen in the Indian environmental discussions, and thereby reinvigorate the process. Or, in a matter of time the NAPM will come out of its alliance with the AAP and become its critic from outside.

The second is an easy option. The first requires work where issues of convergence have to be strengthened and personal egos kept aside. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

A change in colour

This is the season of elections in India. We are permitted a change in heart, and in our colours.

Blue blends into green in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Kerala
When I started this blog in 2006, I was working with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at its global headquarters in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India. I handled media relations for the Institute, and thus was very sensitive to any conflict of interest that may arise when I started the blog. I named my blog midlifeblues. There could not have been any conflict with this. Going through mid-life is a certainty for all of us. And being blue is even more certain. In fact, there is no lower age limit for that mood.

Considering that my blog entries are more green than blue, I am giving it a new name – A touch of green. However, that does not mean that I would not write about anything other than green. 

India starts voting on 7 April. It is an exercise unparalleled in scale globally. In the coming weeks I hope to try and understand how environmental issues affect people’s choice. So do look out for my blog as we go along.