- India’s second largest state, Madhya Pradesh, is going to polls next week and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is looking at winning a straight fourth term even as it is facing a strong anti-incumbency.
- Mongabay-India travelled for over 1,000 kilometres across Madhya Pradesh to find out if green issues are an important part of electoral discussions in the state.
- MP is home to several rivers and it is also the state with a large forest cover. Yet environmental issues like pollution and human-wildlife conflict are not among the significant issues in the election discussion.
- A simple analysis of the election manifestos of the two main parties reveals that environmental issues form a very small part of the exhaustive and detailed manifestos that they have released for voters.
All is not well with the heart of India. The country’s second largest state, Madhya Pradesh, is all set for elections next week, but environmental issues like pollution, human-wildlife conflict, poor water management, that are impacting the basic life of citizens are nowhere close to the ones that are in the limelight in the electoral battle.
A simple reading of the manifestos of the two main political parties in the state – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress – shows that the focus is on other major issues like agriculture and employment. Environmental and water issues are mostly either part of the bigger problems or are just mentioned by the political parties in an effort to cover all subjects.
Madhya Pradesh (MP) is among the five states – along with Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram – that are going to polls in November and December this year. The polls for the 230 seats of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly on November 28 will seal the future of over 72 million people of the state.
BJP has been in power in the state since 2003 and MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is eyeing a consecutive fourth term while the principal opposition party, Congress, is trying to exploit the 15-year anti-incumbency. Elections for 543 parliamentary constituencies in India are expected to take place in April-May 2019 and thus elections in MP are significant for the BJP, which is ruling in the centre, as it will give them a sense of the public’s mood. MP accounts for 29 parliamentary seats.
Lip service to environmental issues?
Manifestos may or may not be a binding document for political parties but they certainly give a glimpse of what a political party is offering to voters. Hoping to win a straight fourth term, BJP, last week, released a 74-page ‘Drashti Patra (vision document)’ while Congress also unveiled an exhaustive 116-page ‘Vachan Patra (promise document)’ featuring lofty promises.
The two exhaustive documents touch upon a wide range of issues. As far as the environmental and forest issues are concerned, BJP promised that if elected to power, they will make MP the first state in the country to have a carbon emission reduction target. It also promised a Rs. one billion (100 crore) MP environment challenge fund, focus on agriculture and power sectors for reducing carbon emissions and the creation of tiger safaris to reduce the pressure on core areas of the tiger reserves. BJP also promised a series of measures for protection and welfare of River Narmada including afforestation on the banks of the river.
Meanwhile, Congress too has made a series of promises in its document. It promised to start “Sanjay Gandhi Environment Mission” which will include measures like community plantation and involvement of self-help groups to protect those plantations, programme for conserving rivers and water resources and ban on cutting of trees in catchment areas of these rivers, steps to control air, water and noise pollution, preservation of origin of perennial rivers and freeing them from encroachments, plan to preserve and maintain the groundwater, programme to increase the catchment area of the ponds, control factors affecting environment, steps for waste management and rainwater management.
The Congress party also promised a series of measures for protection and conservation of the River Narmada. One of the most discussed promises of the Congress’s document is that of setting up cow shelters in thousands of gram panchayats across the state. The party also promised the creation of animal shelters to make residential areas free from stray dogs.
Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Durgesh Sharma accused the current BJP-led MP government of mismanagement in afforestation work.
“Madhya Pradesh is a land of forests and tribals. Under the rule of BJP, trees were cut indiscriminately. The government talked about creating a world record of planting crores (tens of millions) of trees but in reality not even a few hundred trees are visible on the ground. We plan to turn MP green,” Sharma told Mongabay-India.
However, Madhya Pradesh BJP leader Hidayat Ullah Sheikh defended the record of the BJP government in the state highlighting the afforestation work done along River Narmada.
“We have taken several steps to protect the environment and the results of those efforts are visible as well. We opened a sanctuary for white tigers in Rewa which is one of its kind. We increased the land under reserve forests. We planted millions of trees and plan to plant many more,” said Sheikh.
Even as political parties are making tall promises before votes are cast next week, some voters in Bhopal have demanded written assurances from candidates for the fulfilment of old promises.
Besides being MP’s capital city, Bhopal also bears scars of the 1984 gas tragedy which is counted amongst the worst chemical and industrial disasters of the world. In December 1984, nearly 3800 people died due to accidental leakage of tonnes of toxic gas, Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The unofficial estimates peg the death toll at over 10,000.
But the disaster didn’t end with those deaths. Civil society groups often point out that children born after the tragedy still suffered from the poison that was leaked from the factory. Even though nearly 34 years have passed since the accident, the factory that was abandoned after the accident is still creating problems for locals due to contamination of groundwater from the toxic waste in the factory.
According to the MP government’s data, about 560,000 people were affected due to the tragedy and it resulted in the registration of over one millions claims. The government claims that it has already awarded over Rs. 15 billion (Rs. 1500 crore) over the years to those affected by the tragedy.
But the civil society groups working in the area claim the groundwater contamination is spreading. They also accuse the successive governments at the centre and in MP of being negligent towards the poisoning of groundwater in Bhopal.
The activists allege that governments are are not taking the steps required to contain the spread of chemicals which can damage the brain, lungs, kidneys and liver of people, causing cancers and birth defects.
Rachna Dhingra, who is the member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said these are the reasons due to which the voters in the affected community are now seeking written assurances from candidates.
“While politicians largely do lip service to the issue of contamination due to the Bhopal gas tragedy, voters across several legislative assembly constituencies in Bhopal are demanding from candidates to express their position on the issue. The affected population in those areas – Narela, Bhopal Uttar, Govindpura and Bhopal Madhya – have clearly told the candidates that they will vote for only those who have given them written assurances on the issue of compensation of gas victims and those affected by water contamination,” said Dhingra.
“It is definitely a political issue but both the main parties – BJP and Congress – have not mentioned it in their manifestos,” she emphasised.
Rising human-wildlife conflict
Madhya Pradesh is India’s second largest state and a significant area of it is covered under forests which account for over 30 percent of the state’s total area of 308,000 square kilometre, which is about 9.38 percent of the country’s total land. But such a vast area of land under forests comes with its own set of problems.
For instance, among the states, MP has the largest forest cover in the country. But according to India’s State of Forest Report 2017, the forest cover in the state has decreased due to reasons like the expansion of agriculture, developmental activities, submergence, mining and rotational felling.
The rising cases of human-wildlife conflict have also emerged as a new area of concern. In their promises, the political parties have promised steps to address it, like increasing the amount of compensation for the losses of crops due to the conflict. It has also resulted in death of both animals and humans.
According to the data of the MP government, at least 260 people were killed and nearly 11,000 were injured in human-wildlife conflict during 2011-12 and 2015-16. The conflict cases also resulted in the death of several wild animals like tigers, leopards, bears and wild boars.
“Poor forest management and decrease in forest resources is leading to increase in human-wildlife conflict in the state. Two years ago, a tiger had even strayed into human habitation in Bhopal. We estimate that 10-12 tigers are in close vicinity of our capital city, Bhopal, which has a population of about two million,” said Ajay Dubey, a wildlife activist who works with a non-governmental organisation Prayatna.
Dubey also stressed that MP never had a human-elephant conflict but due to pressure on forests in neighbouring Chhattisgarh state they are facing a severe situations of human-elephant conflict.
“A sad reality is also this that in areas of Indore-Malwa, poor families are keeping their elders outside their homes at night to get compensation in case they are attacked by wild animals. Another issue that needs attention is proper human-wildlife conflict management training of ground level staff of forest department,” he added.
Experts believe that even though environmental issues are an integral part of the larger problems that people in the Madhya Pradesh face they are not an important and separate issue for the voters at present.
“The main issues that the people are still concerned about are very basic – water, electricity, road and agriculture.,” said former journalist and environmentalist Rakesh Diwan.
Banner Image: Posters by Bhopal gas tragedy victims. Photo by Satinath Sarangi.
Part 2: Agriculture distress in MP could be the clincher in these elections
Part 3: Singrauli, India’s energy hub, fails to power lives of its people
#EnvironmentAndElections: A series which examines the role of environment in the elections.