Friday, 28 November 2014

New emissions target

Will the emission cuts announced by the EC and the US, and the 2030 peaking by China help hold the temperature increase to less than 2 degrees C by 2100? ... MORE ...

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Impact of migration on Himalayan communities

Migration for employment is an unequal process. Within this reality, migrating communities continue to find social space that allows them to have one foot in the destination country even while keeping the other in their homeland. ... MORE ...

Clearance mela

With development high on its agenda, the BJP Government is pushing through environmental clearances in order to remove all perceived bottlenecks that hinder growth. ... MORE ...

Organic farming and corporates

The entry of big business the organic farming movement's raison d'etre - to counter the corporatisation of agricultural practices. ... MORE ...

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

What makes SEZs controversial?

It is a good idea to publish books around the time of national elections. They catch readers’ attention. Especially so during the recent fiercely fought national elections when many topical titles appeared on the bookshelves in the past months. ...MORE ...

Monday, 16 June 2014

Air of uncertainty

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar will not have to worry about pressures from alliance
partners. But one does not know how much space he is willing to carve out for himself and how much space the government is likely to give him. ... MORE ...

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Are the national elections bipolar?

Turn on any television channel and you will think that India is going through bipolar national elections. It is like a boxing match, being fought in proxy. In one corner is one man, Narendra Modi, ably represented by whoever his spokesperson is in the studio that evening. In the other corner is the Gandhi family, again represented by an articulate spokesperson.

Somewhere the richness and colour of the regional parties that became the integral part of Indian polity since 1996 seems to be missing in the predominant media representation of these elections. Conspicuous by their near-absence in the media coverage in this year’s elections are dramatis personae such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Navin Patnaik, M. Karunanidhi, etc. Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and Omar Abdullah make occasional appearance.

Cut back to the period between 1995 and 1998, when the country was preparing for the 1996 general elections and also when the United Front Government faced many trust motions in Parliament. The television screens were full of leaders from regional political parties.
Plantations such as this cardamom estate in Idukki district have been
in the eye of a political storm in the recent months [Pic: Varun Warrier]

A trend towards bipolarity has its implications for environmental decisions in an ecosystem-diverse country like India. Take for instance the case of the mid-altitude plateaus of Kerala, represented by Idukki and Wayanad districts, which have been in the news during the run-up to these elections. At an average altitude between 800 and 1000 metres, these plateaus were malaria-prone regions. As with the Gudalur plateau in Tamil Nadu contiguous to Wayanad, these plateaus were only sparsely populated till the 1940s. The influx of settlers came when there was effective medical cure for malaria (1).

Those who initially went to settle in these plateaus were from communities that were landless and had the daring to go to dangerous terrains. While the landed gentry stayed back in the plains, and boasted about temple festivals and caparisoned elephants, the landless settlers braved the wild elephant herds and cultivated every inch of land they could lay their hands on. The women tended the farms, protected the children from wild animals while the men trekked for days to the nearest market town to sell what the family produced.

When this settler community gets slapped with orders emerging from the Kasturirangan Committee limiting their activities, it protests (2). While one can argue on the conservation versus livelihoods debate, the fact remains that if a representative has to take these issues effectively to the Parliament it has to be someone who is from the region and knows its history and ecology. He or she needs a political agenda that is tailor-made to represent the interests of the region, and not one that has been averaged out for the entire country. And this is where regional parties score over omnibus national parties.

The 1996 general elections and the years of the United Front Government was the period when regionalism and federalism bloomed in the country. By this time the results from two socio-economic processes initiated between 1989 and 1991 were maturing. As part of the economic liberalisation there was a focus on the middle class as a consumer base for the goods and services. This created a new kind of economic aspiration for a wider group of people. This bolstered the aspirations for development and growth from caste and region-based consolidations that were born after the implementation of the Mandal Committee report in 1989 (3).

Happening in parallel with this was a coming together of local environmental movements to demand greater accountability from the electoral candidates in select constituencies. A group of organisations, led by Narmada Bachao Andolan, established the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), with an aim of bringing people’s issues into the agenda of the 1996 elections (4). Similarly, another group of environmental organisations formed a network called the Jan Vikas Andolan to publicly question candidates on their environmental concerns (5).

However, it is not the case that regional parties are more environment friendly than the national ones. In fact, the trend in the mid 1990s was that each of the regional parties was pushing for development projects in their regions, oftentimes unmindful of incorporating environmental safeguards.

The difference is that the feedback loops between the people and the policymakers are shorter with regional parties. So when people ask for development or conservation that is location or ecosystem-specific they can communicate and get action for their needs quickly and effectively. The accountability for the policy maker becomes that much sharper. For instance, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam party, who focussed on the urban areas at the cost of the larger rural population, has had to sit out for a decade.

At a local level, the perceived dichotomy between development and conservation also disappears. For the demarcation of the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (Madhav Gadgil Committee) had recommended consultations through the local bodies under the Panchayats and Biodiversity Acts (6). The High Level Working Group on Western Ghats (Kasturirangan Committee), which was tasked to work out the modalities for implementing the earlier committee’s recommendations, overlooked this and went through marking the ESAs using satellite imagery (7). And this is causing the controversy in the hill districts.

So much so that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had to make amendments to its 13 October 2013 notification, accepting the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee that declared 37% area of the Western Ghats as an ESA where development activities are restricted.

Through an office memorandum dated 20 December 2013, MoEF stated that the boundary of the ESA and the regulatory regime would be finalised after obtaining the views of the stakeholders and state governments. MoEF assured that the recommendations will not cause restrictions to any normal activities related to plantations and agriculture; and that the restrictions listed in the notification will apply only to new and expansion projects, and not to the existing ones.  

The Kasturirangan Committee reportedly used higher resolution satellite imagery than the Gadgil Committee while demarcating the ESA. However, technical minutiae cannot replace a broad-based democratic process that would have been more acceptable to the people on the ground.

So when the media represents these elections as bipolar, what is being lost is the space that accommodates the various nuances of development and environment discussions in the country.

It could be possible that the media is reading the situation wrong or over-presenting bipolarity. In the theatre of talk shows and televised shouting matches, bipolarity adds drama.

There is reality and there is the media’s perception of the reality. The country today has access only to the media’s perception of reality. Will the real picture be as bipolar as what is being made out will be clear on May 16.


1.            Adams T. Gudalur: A community at the crossroads. In: Hockings P, editor. Blue Mountains: The ethnography and biogeography of a South Indian region: Oxford University Press; 1989.
2.            Rajagopal K. Ghats row and its aftermath. The Hindu.  20 March 2014.
3.            Ramakrishnan V, Singh SR. Vital pieces of a jigsaw. Frontline.  16 April 2014.
4.            Warrier SG. The centre will hold. The Hindu Business Line.  26 February 1996.
5.            Warrier SG. Eco issues may feature in select LS campaigns. The Hindu Business Line.  27 March 1996.
6.            Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India; 2011.
7.            Report of the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India; 2013.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Young voters and the green argument

In 1959, the Times of India had a special publication to celebrate Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 70th birth year. The Indo-China war had not happened and Nehru’s popularity had not taken the nosedive. He had been in power for 12 years, long enough to assess his governance.

The thick volume – A study of Nehru (1)was edited by Rafiq Zakaria, then a columnist with Times of India, and later a Member of Parliament and minister in the Maharastra Government. Zakaria had collected and edited essays on Nehru from leaders across political and civil life in India and across the world. Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Clement Atlee, Louis Mountbatten, S. Radhakrishnan, E.M.S Namboodiripad, S.A. Dange and R.K. Laxman were among those who contributed to the volume. Some essays praised Nehru, a few others ran him down and there were some that kept the balance.

Accumulating urban waste is high on the list of
environment problems for the young voter.

The essays in the volume gave Nehru depth and life. Whether supporting or pillorying him, they argued cogently, with clarity of thought and public purpose rarely seen in the present times.

These leaders were unencumbered by the present-day distractions – popping e-mails, SMS messages, Tweets and Facebook posts. No shouting television anchors, talk shows, opinion polls and exit polls.

We are a country of argumentative people and right now we are going through a period when our arguments have reached their crescendo. More than half the country’s voters have exercised their franchise, but those remaining to vote can make a serious impact. There is an aggression and desperation simultaneously as parties go for the kill.

Elections 2014 has a strong component to the arguments, discussions and debates from young voters. Of the total of 814.5 million about 100 million (2) are casting their votes for the first time. And among these first-timers, 23.6 million have just turned 18 years of age. The voters represent the demographic profile of the population, and according to the 2011 census 28.9% of the population is between 18 and 35 years of age (3), emphasising the strong involvement of young voters this year.

What is the environmental consciousness of these young voters and how is it likely to affect their voting? Even the oldest in the 18 to 35 age group would have just been born around the end of the 1970s when the landmark controversy of modern Indian environmental history – over the construction of a dam for a hydro-electric project flooding the Silent Valley rainforest in Kerala – was raging.

They would have been too young to register the impact of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, or the sit-in by the anti-Narmada Dam movement at Ferkuva in 1990-91. Essentially the environment consciousness of this group would have become active after the economic liberalisation was launched in the country in 1991.

Environmental understanding for this generation that has had its awakening in the post-liberalised India is different from that of the earlier generations. In the first half of the 1990s there was a transition in the manner in which people thought about the environment and how they acted to protect it.

Two decades ago, when the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar, marched to Ferkuva in the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border, or when they sat along the banks of the Narmada river braving the rising waters of the river repeating “doobenge par hatenge nahin” (we may drown but will not move), they were pitting the moral strength of individuals against the might of the State. 

The same was true when Sundarlal Bahuguna sat in protest on the banks of the Bhagirathi river in Tehri Garhwal in the present-day Uttarakhand.

The equation, as perceived then, was that industrial capital and the State were two different entities, but was coalescing to take away people’s access to their natural resources. The citizen had to protest this with the State.

After the impact of the economic liberalisation started in the mid-1990s, the boundaries between capital and the State blurred and it was difficult to pit the citizen’s moral strength against an amorphous entity. The young lived and drew sustenance from the liberalised economy, thus their lives were same (or they aspired for it to be same) as that of their class enemies. Thus, the broad-brush protests of the anti-Narmada and anti-Tehri dam movements became ineffective in dealing with environmental problems.

It was necessary to have specific, targeted action. Thus by the second half of 1990s, like their counterparts in the West, environment activists in India took to fighting legal cases, campaigning through the media, lobbying with Parliamentarians and carrying out e-mail campaigns. These were project-based environmental confrontations.

However, the romance of the protest remained. The romance was revived when Anna Hazare sat on protest at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi in August 2011. The urban middle class youngster enjoyed the novelty of protesting, but had to get back with his/her life after a few days. And there were messages on Facebook: “Anna-ji maan jayiye!” (please do agree, Anna). Fashionable protest is different from protest to protect livelihoods.

The Hazare movement evolved into the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the novelty of the concept attracted the youth. Here was an opportunity to fight the “corrupt politicians.” But when the dream party resigned from the Delhi Government, some of its sheen was lost. There are “murmurings” though, as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan points out (4), but these are from the livelihood protestors in regions such as the Kolar gold mines in Karnataka.

Some of the sheen that the AAP lost in the perception of the young voter has accrued to the BJP account. Development, nationalism, growth, change, “Vikas Purush”, etc., are the keywords that the BJP is using to tap into it.

In the glossary of environmental-civic problems of these young voters there would be mention of urban garbage, sewage problems, air pollution, pot-holed roads and inadequate public transport. Unsafe municipal water supply may not appear, since water reaches homes in plastic containers. Neither will there be a mention of the risk of climate change for farmers.

These keywords are the ones playing out on Twitter, Facebook and the television talk shows. The messages, however, are disjointed and sporadic.

Unlike in the time of Nehru, there are far too many messages in far too many media types communicated by far too many people. Teasing out a narrative from all this has so far been near impossible in this year’s elections.  

1.         A study of Nehru. 1960 ed: Times of India; 1959.
2.         Sharma R. Electorate 2014. Frontline.  18 April 2014.
3.         Mishra AR, Anuja, Tandon S, Verma G. Census profiles the young Indian voter, spender. Live Mint.  7 September 2013.

4.         Visvanathan S. The future and the AAP. The Hindu.  16 April 2014.

Related blogs:
  1. Finding a future from the past
  2. Life beyond 7% growth
  3. Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Finding a future from the past

There is a kind of e-mail that does its rounds of mailboxes frequently. It is a rather long one, extolling the virtues of ancient Indian science and technology, and talking about the glory of Aryabhata, Charaka and Sushruta.

From the tone and tenor of the e-mail it looks as if its author is a person who in the present is feeling slighted (for whatever reasons) and has to find strength by emphasizing the glorious past from which his/her people evolved. Perhaps he or she is a non-resident Indian in the US, for that is the community from which much cyber-nationalism emerges. 

The BJP claims that it will balance the needs of development and environment
if voted to power.

The author of the e-mail is unknown but the names of the authors for the 2014 election manifesto for the BJP(1) are known in the public domain. The preface of the manifesto starts thus: “India is the most ancient civilization of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom. India has been credited to have developed, apart from philosophy and mathematics, science and technology of a very high order, which had attracted scholars from all over the world. … India was respected for its flourishing economy, trade, commerce and culture. It had an international outreach from Korea to Arabia, from Bamiyan to Borobudur and beyond.”

There are a few subtexts in the BJP manifesto. Its title – Ek Bharat shreshta Bharat: Sabka saath, sabka vikas – defines the party’s vision of grandeur. It pledges to build a “modern India” on the “best foundation” of “our own culture” using “our own hands” and the “best material” of “our own aspirations.”

“Our own aspirations” is the key phrase here. It taps the feeling of frustration of the middle class and the wannabe middle class of not being able to realise their aspirations due to poor governance of the Congress-led government. And the BJP will rectify that through an “open, transparent and systems-based government” that will provide “pro-active, pro-people good governance.”

Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) the third political entity with national ambitions, took this very argument one step forward. For them the poor governance came from “corrupt politicians.” The dampener for the BJP is the AAP focusing on the corruption angle in its campaign.

The inability of successive national governments to deliver on people’s aspirations is well articulated in the manifesto: “Even after nearly seven decades of our independence, the country has not been able to discover its innate vitality, the sense of time and the will to act. … The present crisis is the result of this confusion and disconnect from the seekings and sensibilities of the people. This is worse confounded by the weak and spineless leadership of the UPA Government.”

The problem about painting the whole of post-Independence history with one brush is that it also covers one term plus 13 months and 13 days of BJP-led governance. So the manifesto builds in this caveat: “The beginning of the 21st century showed some light under the NDA rule. India started being reckoned as an economic superpower. The six-year rule of NDA had given the Nation many firsts, building an image in the international community. However, many of the hopes, potentials and projects have not been fully realized in the subsequent years. But after 2004, UPA came into power and the situation started worsening again. We missed a historic national opportunity once more.”

Prima facie this begs the question that if India was really shining between 1999 and 2004 then why did the voters interrupt the dream run? At a deeper level, the question is what does it mean for the environmental considerations of the country if the BJP were to come to power at the Centre? The manifesto takes a two-pronged approach towards environment – direct and indirect.

The promises are direct. It promises to take the idea of sustainability and climate change mitigation initiatives seriously and work with the global community. The government will encourage cleaner production; promote cleaner fuel; launch an integrated public transport project; promote pro-active carbon credit (sic); conduct ecological audit of projects and pollution indexing of urban centres; use wastelands for social forestry; produce guidelines for constructing green buildings; promote human capacity building in environmental technologies; establish fool proof mechanisms for the protection and preservation of wildlife; encourage and incentivise innovative garbage management practices; and clean rivers starting with the Ganga.

There is mention of a National Mission on the Himalayas and the creation of a Himalayan Sustainability Fund. The BJP government “will set in place national policies on critical natural resources like coal, minerals, spectrum, etc., spelling out in black and white how much should be utilised in what time and pace.” Cultural values and thorium reserves will be considered before deciding on the Sethu Samudram project in the Palk Strait. 

In terms of sheer number of environmental promises the BJP manifesto beats the document from the Congress (even if one were to debate whether spectrum is a natural resource). But this is because the BJP has one benefit over the Congress – its statements in the manifesto cannot be immediately verified against performance. Ten years is a long time to be out of power at the Centre, and extrapolating BJP governments’ performance in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh against a national context is not exactly a valid comparison.

However, in real terms it is the indirect references to environmental concerns that are more important. Especially so since the BJP is keen to take India to its historical greatness.

“We should no longer remain a market for the global industry,” emphasises the manifesto. “Rather, we should become a global manufacturing hub.” There would a conducive and enabling environment for doing business which will cut down the red tape, simplify procedures and remove the bottlenecks. The government will ensure logistic infrastructure, including stable power.

“Our attempt will be to move towards a single-window system of clearances both at the Centre and the states through a hub-spoke model.” The Centre and the states will work in coordination for giving clearances to mega projects. “Decision making on environment clearances will be made transparent as well as time-bound.” The government will “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay.”

The play of words is interesting. The single window of the BJP is similar to the National Enviornmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority articulated in the Congress manifesto. At least the Congress believes in creating a body specifically for looking at environmental issues, whereas the single window envisaged by the BJP is for giving clearance for the project and not necessarily to look at the environmental issues. Further, even the environment laws can be rewritten to avoid confusion and lead to speedy clearance.

Both the BJP and Congress are in a hurry. But only the BJP knows where to reach – the glorious India of the past “whose prosperity held the world in thrall.”

1.            Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat: Election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 2014.

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.