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Environment

Assembly Polls: How Environmental Issues Figured in the Electoral Discourse of Political Parties

The Wire has put together some of the main environmental issues being faced by Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Mizoram.

Bengaluru: Five states went to polls over the last month: Rajasthan, Telangana, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh. All five states have several environmental concerns that affect both people and ecosystems in these areas. 

The Wire analysed some of the main environmental issues in the five states that have gone to polls, the results of which – across 679 seats in all – are to be announced on December 3. (Except for Mizoram, where, as per a recent order, vote counting will be conducted only on December 4.) The Wire also analysed some of the parties’ election manifestos: are leaders, politicians and citizens across these states talking about these concerns as an election issue? 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Chattisgarh

Tribal communities form a significant part of the population in Chhattisgarh. The predominantly tribal Bastar region in southwestern will be crucial in this year’s election too, reports say. Tribal communities depend heavily on the extraction of non-timber forest produce (or NTFP).

According to DC, the Congress campaign in Bastar this year has focused on the development  of ‘devgudis’ (tribal village temples) and ‘ghotuls’ ( socio-culture centers of tribals). The Congress-led Bhupesh Baghel government over the last five years, has developed around 2,400 devgudis and ghotuls, DC reported. IndiaSpend reported that the state’s public relations department on September 3 shared a news report stating that Chhattisgarh showcases the best enactment of the Forest Rights Act across the country: it had recognised rights for 5,00,000 families under the Individual Forest Rights (IFR) provision of the Act, and the rights of 46,000 villages under the Community Forest Rights (CFR), “which is the highest in the country”, the report said. But on the ground, according to IndiaSpend, there are numerous stumbling blocks in the FRA’s implementation. Clearly, there’s more work that needs to be done.

Apart from tribal welfare, several other environmental challenges are at play in this area. Mining is a crucial income generator for the state – but it has also meant the diversion of huge tracts of forestland. According to one estimate by the Forest Department, 25,000 hectares of forest have been diverted for developmental projects between 2001 and 2022. Of this, 13,925 hectares have been diverted for mining. Tribal communities have been consistently agitating against the opening of new coal mines in the region. Of pertinence here is the agitation in the Hasdeo Aranya forests in the state, which have been in the limelight recently. The state government put three mining projects here on hold indefinitely in June 2022. 

Chattisgarh went to polls on November 7 and 17, in two phases. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress and its allies are the main parties contesting in the elections this year. Currently, the Congress holds all 12 seats in the Bastar area. Surguja, another tribal belt in the state too, is dominated by the Congress. The Sarva Adiwasi Samaj, a young political party floated by tribal communities is also in the fray this year, under the new name of “Hamar Raj”.  

Rajasthan

The BJP and the INC+ (along with its ally the Rashtriya Lok Dal) are contesting in all 199 seats that went to polls on November 25. The Bahujan Samaj Party is contesting in 184 seats and the RLP+ (consisting of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party and the Azad Samaj Party) in 126. The AAP is contesting in 85 seats.

The INC’s manifesto listed out seven “guarantees”, one of which is enacting a law that ensures minimum support prices (MSP) to farmers following the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. As climate change alters weather patterns, farming is fast becoming an unviable option for many. Minimum support prices are crucial for farmers in such scenarios.

Incidentally, the opposing BJP’s manifesto – released on November 16 – promises to provide ₹2,700 per quintal as wheat bonus to farmers, over and above the MSP announced by the central government. It also includes a scheme to protect Aravallis mountain range. The scrub and dry forests of the Aravallis in Rajasthan – which comprises around 90% of the state’s forest cover – are an ecosystem that is increasingly under threat due to degradation, encroachment and developmental projects.

A forest in Kashmir’s Pahalgam. Photo: Flickr/ Ankur Panchbudhe CC BY-SA 2.0

However, threats to the environment and wildlife in the state don’t stop with the Aravallis alone. The state of Rajasthan is one of the last strongholds of the great Indian bustard, a large grassland-dwelling bird that very narrowly missed being crowned the national bird several decades ago. Of the estimated 150 birds left in India, around 120 are found in Rajasthan. Being the state bird of Rajasthan hasn’t helped the bustard much: it is threatened by habitat loss, as the patches of grassland and scrub forest and farmland that it dwells in are being converted to large solar farms in India’s push for more renewable energy. Solar farms also mean that high power transmission lines abound in the area. Bustards, being heavy birds, fly low – and many have died due to collisions with power lines meant to transport solar power to other locations. Though the Supreme Court had ordered that power lines be replaced underground, this hasn’t been implemented yet.

Telangana

In June this year, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) ranked the state first in overall environmental performance in its annual report. But over the last 15 years, around 19,000 hectares of forestland have been diverted in Telangana for non-forestry use, the union environment minister said in Parliament in August. Clearly, forest loss is an issue in the state: as per Global Forest Watch, the state lost 135 hectares of natural forest, equivalent to 101 kt of CO₂ emissions, in 2022. Forest fragmentation is also a concern, according to one study

Per the Congress manifesto’s Chevella SC ST Declaration released during the current election campaign, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) “will be strictly implemented to provide pattas for Podu lands to all the eligible beneficiaries.” The implementation of the FRA has been a bone of contention in many states, including Telangana. The Wire reported on November 30 about how the Haritha Haaram, an afforestation project rolled out by the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi government, has displaced small-scale farmers and tribal communities in its wake. 

The Congress manifesto also mentions that drains in Hyderabad will be modernized to make it a “flood-free” city. It promises to “formulate a robust policy for flood,disaster management and heat wave action management” as well as take steps to build a “sustainable ecosystem”, though it doesn’t say how exactly it proposes to do so. Flooding in the capital city has been a problem, with around 95% of its area being identified as being at “moderate risk” of floods.

Rainwater pits in new houses and industrial constructions will be made compulsory, and people will be identified as “voluntary volunteers” in villages to protect the trees. These volunteers will be paid an honorarium to protect trees, per the manifesto. The Congress if it comes into power will implement “all measures for sustained environment protection” and control the use of plastic, and encourage the manufacture of jute and coir bags. Per the manifesto, the state Pollution Control Board (PCB) will be modernized and a Pollution Control Ward established to “provide better services in the prevention of air pollution”.

Madhya Pradesh 

In the currently BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, several environmental issues abound. The BJP-ruled union government has pushed forward the Ken-Betwa river linking project in Madhya Pradesh. In December 2021, the Union cabinet approved the Rs. 44,605 crore Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, apparently intended to address water scarcity of the Bundelkhand region across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The project aims to connect the Ken and Betwa rivers and transfer water from the former to the latter to irrigate agricultural tracts of and supply drinking water to the water-starved Bundelkhand region. However, the project entails the loss of 23 lakh trees. It will also submerge around 9,000 hectares of land – 5,803 of which lie within the core area of the Panna tiger reserve. Experts told The Wire that Bundelkhand “will suffer for decades to come” if this project is implemented. Read why here, and in this six-part series by The Wire on the project. 

A Bengal tiger. Photo: Pallavibarman10/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Project Cheetah, another programme implemented by the union government, is India’s ambitious programme to reintroduce cheetahs (the fastest land mammals went extinct in the country around the 1950s), and is currently ongoing in MP’s Kuno National Park. However, Project Cheetah has been plagued by several issues – from the potentially-avoidable deaths of African cheetahs imported from Namibia and South Africa by the government, to issues surrounding the ability of Kuno to accommodate cheetahs within its bounds. The state government even imposed a gag order on officials to not talk to the media. 

Both the BJP and Congress are contesting all 230 seats in the state. The BSP is contesting 218 seats, followed predominantly by the Azad Samaj Party (ASP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the AAP, which are contesting between 66 to 86 seats.

Mizoram

Mizoram, currently ruled by the BJP-allied Mizo National Front (MNF), adopted a resolution against the amendment to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980, in August this year. The new amendment to the FCA, brought in by the union government at the Centre, will remove protection for community and deemed forests, per experts. Most forestland in Mizoram, like many states in the northeast, comes under community forests. The FCA amendment also ruled that projects – developmental or those pertaining to national security – within a 100 km radius of the national border will not require forest clearances, contrary to what the FCA currently imposes.

The Mizoram resolution against the amendment emphasized the “need to protect the rights and interests of the people of Mizoram”, reported Newslick. Per the report, the state environment minister highlighted the potential threat to Mizoram’s forest cover that will result if the amendment is brought in force.

Mizoram’s Mizo National Front (MNF), which is currently in power, broke off from the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre. While the Congress has declared that it will pass a Bill guaranteeing protection of land, forests, tribal people’s rights in Mizoram, the battle is supposed to be tied between the MNF and the Zoram People’s Movement in the state, as per exit polls. Votes will be counted on December 4 and not on December 3, as previously declared by the Election Commission.

The proliferation of oil palm plantations plays an important role – and is possibly one of the most crucial the state has recently witnessed – among the environmental issues that Mizoram faces today. In 2021, the union government launched a Centrally Sponsored Scheme – the National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) – to promote oil palm cultivation to make India ‘atmanirbhar’ in edible oils with a special focus on the northeastern states and Andaman and Nicobar by increasing the area of oil palm from 3.70 lakh hectares to 10.00 lakh hectares in 2025-26. This scheme is being implemented in 15 States/UTs during 2022-23.

However, oil palm has come with disastrous consequences in Mizoram, per reports. It will threaten biodiversity in many ways but also because it will replace forest land with oil palm, The Wire Science reported. The Wire Science also reported about how more than 100 scientists and conservationists wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office in December 2021, urging that the Centre’s newly-launched National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), which aims to increase the extent of area under oil palm cultivation in India, incorporate a scientific plan for the expansion of oil palm in northeast India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands so that existing areas are tapped instead of biodiversity-rich areas in the northeast. 

Oil palm is an extremely water and nutrient intensive crop. Per a detailed report by The Caravan, both farmers and companies have found that it is a failure to invest in the crop due to this.