Stop! Or I’ll vote Green


Why are Indian political parties so clueless about millions of green voters, asks Kunal Majumder

Illustration: Samia Singh

WHO DO you think is a green voter in India? An urban college graduate passionate about the environment? Someone who donates to Greenpeace, subscribes to environmental websites, tweets on green issues?

Think again. The Indian reality turns out to be quite different, as usual.

You’ll have better luck meeting green voters if you leave the urban centres and venture into the Indian countryside. Try the village of Sompeta in northeast Andhra Pradesh, where you’ll find 20- year-old Sevanti. For Sevanti, environmentalism is not lifestyle, it is livelihood. Last July, her fisherman father G Krishnamurthy was shot dead by the police. He and his fellow villagers had started a vigorous movement to protest a proposed thermal power plant in the area. Krishnamurthy, 54, and Joga Rao, 40, were also shot dead. The next day, the politicians descended. TDP chief and former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu arrived in his open jeep. Chiranjeevi came with folded hands. They walked to Sevanti’s home, asked about her father, expressed their ‘grief’ at her loss and promised help. She told them her only concern is the thermal plant. “It will destroy our lives and our sea,” she remembers telling them between sobs.

Everywhere in India, political parties are waking up to the fact that lakhs of their potential voters practise Sevanti’s variety of green politics.

Now venture to the opposite coast. At Jaitapur in southern Maharashtra, another fisherman, Tabrez Soyekar, 32, was shot dead in police firing this year. Since 2006, the villagers have been protesting the government’s plans to set up a 9,900 MW nuclear power park. There have been innumerable arrests, jail bharo andolans, marches and candle-light vigils. All these years, no political party would touch them. Then early this year, something changed. Sensing the public resentment against the ruling Congress party, Shiv Sena started opposing the plant despite actually having proposed it when in power. Earlier, on the same day that Soyekar was killed, a mob of around 100 locals led by Shiv Sena MLA Rajan Salvi pelted the police with stones at the plant site. The protests spread, leading to police firing and Soyekar’s death.

But despite the rising interest, do political parties actually have a green strategy? Are politicians interested beyond the occasional environmental flashpoint? Let’s look at the official party lines.

1. Congress MP and spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi calls sustainable development and environmental protection non-negotiable principles for the Congress; in his sweet picture, “Forest conservation and economic development are not and should not be seen as antithetical.” Singhvi points to laws like the Forest Rights Act and the Wildlife Protection Act and agrees that mining, economic development and land acquisition are important since “without them growth becomes impossible”. But if you look at the 2009 Congress election manifesto, you only find old ideas like the Ganga River Basin Authority and National Action Plan for Climate Change — without any promise of future strategies.

2. BJP MP and Parliamentary Forum of India on Global Warming and Climate Change Convener Rajiv Pratap Rudy talks about growing concern in the political spectrum about environmental issues. The 2009 BJP manifesto is more organised towards the green voter with several interesting ideas like including traditional rain-fed crops in the PDS system and providing incentives to encourage energy-saving devices.

3. Shiv Sena MP and Samna editor Sanjay Raut promises to fight industries that “suck out a lot from the environment at a grave cost”. But his party’s 2009 manifesto had just two lines on environment — proposing a “stop water to preserve water” scheme and announcing a need for an ayurvedic medical system.

4. CPM Politburo member and All India Kisan Sabha President S Ramachandran Pillai talks about a common Left approach to “resist today’s bourgeois approaches in environmentalism”. The 2009 CPM manifesto discussed the need to revisit the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) process as well as regulating ground water depletion.

Prod the politicians some more and the doublespeak comes tumbling forth. Will the Shiv Sena oppose the multiple thermal power plants that threaten to destroy the entire Konkan region? “Look, the Shiv Sena is not opposed to all projects. We support development,” says Raut defensively.

Ask the same TDP that promised to fight thermal power plants in Sompeta about its own parliamentary party leader N Nageswara Rao’s stake in some of the thermal plants — and suddenly no one from the TDP is available for an answer. Why does the BJP lack a comprehensive environment policy? Rudy tries to recuse himself and says, “I personally feel that political parties should have a comprehensive green policy but it hasn’t been so. Mostly that space is taken by causes of poverty, hunger and agriculture.” But the Indian green voter knows that these are all complementary rather than supplementary causes.

VETERAN ACTIVIST Medha Patkar has agitated for many green causes over the years. In hospital after nine days of fasting to demand housing for Mumbai slum-dwellers, she says, “The mainstream politicians are now bowing down to our demand because they realise the importance of such issues.”

For many politicians, green politics means pandering: ‘I use CFL bulbs in my house. I shut down my SUV engine at the red light’

Greenpeace India policy officer Kapil Mishra is more sceptical, allowing that politicians have begun to recognise the gravity of environmental issues but also pointing out that most are taking opportunistic positions rather than having a clear vision of sustainable development. “As of now, the tactical flip-flop depends on whether you are in power or in the Opposition,” says Mishra with some resignation. Even for politicians seeking the young urban vote, green politics means pandering by saying things like, “I use CFL bulbs in my house. I shut down my SUV engine at the red light.”

Midway between Sompeta and Jaitapur is Bastar in Chhattisgarh. In the past few years, the state government signed over a hundred mining MoUs with leading private companies. In April 2010, Maoists killed 77 CRPF jawans to protest how mines are destroying local water resources. Their motive might have been political but their excuse was environmental. This is in step with political parties, who remain apathetic about the environment but have begun to mouth opportunistic platitudes.

Someone like Patkar blames “the reality of neo-liberalism” for weak political will on the environment, but this explanation won’t pass muster with India’s increasing, and increasingly vocal, green voters. People like Sevanti or Soyekar’s 50-year-old father Abdul Sattar vote green because they rely on the environment for their livelihood — and politicians ignore this at their own peril.

In Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, where the Russians are building another nuclear park, many shopkeepers at the town square are instinctively part of the green brigade. With studied sarcasm, they ask each other, “Why doesn’t Manmohan Singh build a nuclear plant at 10 Janpath? Why does he have to come to our neighbourhood?”

Kunal Majumder is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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