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Environment

In Polls Pell-Mell, Parties Rush To Offer Both Infra Projects and Green Governance

The manifestoes of major political parties in the fray in all five states promise both great infrastructure development and greater environmental safeguards.

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Kochi: In February and March, people in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur will vote to elect their next chief ministers and ruling parties. If not at any other time of the year, the public consciousness of environmental issues is heightened in these states today, as both the people and political leaders pay more attention to their troubles.

This is why most political parties in the fray have published poll manifestoes that mention the environment – either in passing or in some detail. However, and as a reflection of their fragmented attention to environmental issues when they were in power, some of the manifestoes are self-contradictory, promising both great infrastructure development and greater environmental safeguards.

In Goa, for example, one party is pushing for “sustainable and legal” mining. Another has promised more infrastructure development in Uttarakhand – where poorly designed infrastructure has already rendered the region more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Any big push for new infrastructure will come at the cost of the environment, and any big promise to protect a forest or a water body will be met with concerns about lost jobs.

The Wire Science went through the manifestoes of the major political parties in the fray in all five states.

Some couldn’t be accessed because they hadn’t been published in their entirety online. Of those The Wire Science could access, two – belonging to major political parties – seemed to be confused about their support for both infrastructure and the environment at the same time.

Elections and the environment

Crop burning in Punjab. Photo: CIAT/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Voting in Uttar Pradesh began on February 10 and in Goa and Uttarakhand on February 14. Punjab will go to the polls on February 20 and Manipur on February 28.

All these states face grave environmental issues. Air and water pollution dominates in Uttar Pradesh as forest loss does in Goa. Uttarakhand, a mountainous state, has to decide between increasingly precarious hydroelectric power projects and the lives of many thousands of people.

Punjab is known for its farming, which in turn implies extreme groundwater extraction and contamination. Manipur, in the northeast, is in a region grappling with biodiversity protection, community forest rights and economic growth, all at once.

So environmental issues have found mention in the manifestoes of political parties in these states, but to different degrees. Those of the Aam Aadmi Party in Uttarakhand and the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh only make passing mention.

The Wire Science couldn’t find a manifesto for the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab; the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh has said it won’t publish a manifesto.

The combined manifesto of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Punjab, on the other hand, clearly includes several environmental issues in its agenda, such as addressing the depletion of sub-soil water, pollution in rivers and implementing scientific waste management. It also promises to increase forest cover by 10%.

Punjab has the least forest cover among Indian states, with encroachment being a serious issue.

The manifesto of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh also writes in detail of numerous environmental issues the party will address once in power. These include several schemes to tackle water pollution in the state’s rivers and air pollution in urban centres, further wildlife conservation and ecotourism, and promote environmental education. Even a ‘Green Building Technology Research Institute’ is on the cards.

The BJP’s manifesto for Manipur says the party will implement a Rs-2,600-crore mega-tourism project on Loktak lake, the largest freshwater lake in the northeast. Locals and researchers have said the project will destroy the lake’s floating grasslands, the surrounding cropland and habitat of the brow-antlered deer, Manipur’s state animal.

On the other hand, the Congress has promised to protect and conserve the lake in its Manipur manifesto. It also proposes to implement initiatives to harvest rainwater in hill districts, introduce a “sustainable forest certification” to identify genuinely sustainable forest products, provide cooking stoves to decrease dependence on fire wood, and ban “environmentally hazardous” plantations.

The BJP’s manifesto for Uttarakhand also appears to be clear on its environmental goals. Its strategy is founded on “three important pillars” of “ethics, economy and ecology and environment,” Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari had said when he released the manifesto on February 9.

Table showing treatment of environmental issues in select party manifestoes. They have been graded based on mention of these issues and how their agendas could impact the environment given the issues the states face. Green is ‘good’, yellow is ‘moderate’ and red is ‘bad’ (good/bad pertains to mentions, not the substance). Grey is manifestoes we couldn’t source and/or news reports of which don’t mention any pro-environment agenda. An asterisk indicates information obtained from news reports alone.

Here, the BJP lists 25 ‘visions’. One of them is ‘Mission Himavat’, to improve soil slope stability. Uttarakhand has had numerous landslides and flash floods in recent years. One flood, triggered by a rock and glacier avalanche in Chamoli, claimed around 200 lives in February 2021, destroyed the Rishiganga hydropower project and partly destroyed the Tapovan Vishnugad project.

But the manifesto is not all clear. Most of the ‘visions’ focus on developing more infrastructure for tourism, the backbone of the state’s economy. One goal is to triple tourists’ footfall in the state by developing 45 new tourism hotspots. Another aims to provide Uttarakhand with “truly world class infrastructure” by establishing ropeways as a means of transport.

A third mission has the party building infrastructure in Haridwar, a major site of pilgrimage for Hindus, to transform it into the “largest destination for spiritual tourism in the world”. A fourth proposes to expand physical infrastructure at and transportation access to all gurudwaras and temples within the Char Dham circuit, with a similar scheme in the Garhwal area of the state.

(Chamoli is located in the Garhwal Himalaya.)

The Char Dham project, to widen around 900 km of mountain roads to expand year-round connectivity to Hindu religious shrines has already come under severe criticism by scientists and environmentalists. Widening these roads could further destabilise these already fragile areas, they have said.

“Considering the vulnerability of the biological and physical features of the Himalayan ecosystems, we must think of how we can reduce the scale of human-induced disturbances at the community and local levels,” C.P. Rajendran, a geologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, wrote in The Wire Science.

“The Char Dham project goes against just such an environmental outlook and ethos.”

Wider roads, bad science

Mountainsides being blasted off and cleared to make way for the Char Dham highway. Photo: PTI

Uttarakhand definitely needs good roads because this is tied to the region’s socio-economic development, Soumya Prasad, a research associate at the Nature Science Initiative, Dehradun, said.

“But these roads have to be engineered in a scientific way,” she added. “Currently, the roads have been widened in many places unscientifically.”

This ‘unscientific way’ refers to the double laning with a paved shoulder, or DL-PS, configuration: in which a highway has two lanes (for two streams of traffic) and an additional paved strip on either side.

But a DL-PS road more than 8 m wide is not recommended for these areas, Prasad added – yet this is the design of the redone Char Dham highway. Her organisation is among many that have petitioned the Supreme Court over the resulting problems.

But in December, the Supreme Court dismissed these concerns and allowed the road transport ministry to build a 10-m-wide DL-PS highway for 674 km.

‘Problematic’ infra push

An aerial view of the Dhauliganga river flowing through Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, February 12, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

Against this background, adding more infrastructure – as the BJP has proposed to do in its manifesto – while also saying “ecology and the environment” are a pillar of its vision for the region sounds dubious.

In fact, Kavita Upadhayay, an independent water policy researcher and journalist in Uttarakhand, said the term “ecology and the environment” is missing from the manifesto in any place other than among the list of pillars.

“The focus clearly remains on infrastructure development, which is needed, of course, but not at the cost of [widespread] environmental impacts that may manifest in death and disasters,” she told The Wire Science.

Upadhyay called this focus “problematic”, because in spite of “a set of rules that must be followed for the projects to be built, on the ground many rules are flouted to expedite project work and save construction-related costs”.

She gave the example of the Char Dham road-widening project and several hydropower projects, which are illegally dumping muck in valleys and rivers.

“The muck that enters the river bed elevates it, leaving little room for accommodation of excess water when floods strike,” she explained. “Hence, it increases flood risk.”

This is in addition to the thousands of trees that have been cut and hill slopes left vulnerable to landslides.

“We are a fragile Himalayan state. We are already witnessing the impacts of climate change, and the current schemes and policies of the BJP don’t seem to pay heed to the issue and devise plans to build or enhance the state’s resilience,” Upadhyay said.

Indeed, the BJP’s manifesto doesn’t mention the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, she added.

‘Sustainable’ mining

Representative image showing preparations being made to mine iron ore in Goa, 2020. Photo: Reuters

The Congress’s manifesto for Goa focuses on economy and employment, and also mentions the environment. It says the party will oppose planned linear projects in Mollem National Park – projects that already face considerable public opposition. It also declares that it will repeal the Coastal Regulation Zone notification of 2019 and reinstate the 2011 notification.

The former has come under criticism because it allows construction that will threaten the state’s fragile coastal ecology.

But though the manifesto says that it will not permit Goa to become a ‘coal hub’, it doesn’t take an open stand against mining.

Illegal mining and the unchecked transportation of ore are big environmental and health problems in Goa. Courts stopped mining twice in the state – in 2012 and in 2017-2018. This boded well for the environment and for the locals but also caused large-scale unemployment, affecting over 3 lakh people.

The Goan economy is erected on tourism and mining, and new jobs are hard to find.

According to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the party will allow “legal and sustainable mining” to restore those ‘lost’ jobs.

“We plan to restore sustainable mining. We have studied it,” he said in a press conference on February 11. “There is no problem in restarting it. We will restart it in a sustainable, manageable, legal way and we will do it as soon as we come to power.”

Similarly, the Trinamool Congress, which is contesting in the state, is also pushing for “environmentally sustainable mining” along with other supposedly pro-environment plans.

The Trinamool manifesto says it will erect a comprehensive waste management system, mobilise Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds to create community forests. Mahua Moitra, the party’s person in charge of the Goa campaign, also reportedly said it would cancel the three linear projects in Mollem National Park.

Noted local environmentalist Claude Alvares has endorsed the Trinamool Congress’s proposal – but others won’t have it.

According to Abhijit Prabhudesai, of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, if mining resumes in Goa, it could neither be legal nor sustainable – contrary to what both Gandhi and Moitra have said.

This is because once miners get back to work, they will use the same leases they renewed in the 1990s – which were based on shoddy environment impact assessments and clearances, Prabhudesai said. So unless whichever party comes to power also forces mining companies to reapply for leases and conduct new and proper impact assessments, the term “sustainable” will live and die on paper.

“Many of these areas have perennial streams running through them. Others have forests, even tigers. None of these appear in the projects’ environment impact assessment reports,” according to Prabhudesai. “If they conduct authentic environmental studies, there is no way mining could be permitted to operate here. Mining leases are fraught with illegalities.”

In fact, he added, iron ore mining in the state shouldn’t be allowed to resume in Goa for at least two decades more to reverse the damage it has already wrought in the state. Mining activities have displaced villages and degraded many parts of the Goan Western Ghats. Mining for iron ore in particular has weakened the soil’s ability to hold water, triggering water shortage and drought in many villages for the first time.

In roughly the last decade, the Centre and many states have progressively weakened environmental safeguards, ignored the consequences of large-scale projects and privileged the interests of business-persons over native communities of flora, fauna and people.

It’s important for governments to shed these reckless habits. It matters less as to how they plan to compensate for their recklessness.

This is why it isn’t just confusing when a manifesto offers to resume mining while opposing linear projects in a national park – or to build more dams and highways while treating the environment as a “pillar” of development. It stokes suspicion that the manifestoes aren’t really about the environment at all.

This article was first published on The Wire Science.