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