- The national election process gives an opportunity to ordinary people to voice their environmental concerns relating to access to natural resources, biodiversity loss and climate change.
- While unreliable weather has added additional risk to farmers, recent extreme weather events have brought environmental issues into mainstream discussions.
- Mongabay-India will bring you stories that link environment and election stories from India’s unique landscapes.
It is the season for national elections, a mega event that comes once every five years and becomes the focus of all conversations across the Indian subcontinent. It is perhaps the largest such exercise in the world. In 2014 there were 814.5 million voters in the list. This year the numbers could be even higher, with many young people joining the voter base.
It is the only time in the five years when the voters have some say in the narrative. They talk about their concerns and hindrances. Sometimes their issues change the course of the elections at the constituency and the macro level, while at other times their concerns have no impact on the electoral results as other engineered factors take over. During the November-December state elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Telangana and Rajasthan, the agrarian crisis came out as a leading concern.
Many of the issues that communities in villages, towns, cities and forest hamlets raise during the election period are environmental in their root. Some are about lack of access to the natural resources around them, about pollution, or vulnerability to extreme weather events. It is only during the election period that these communities can tag their issues on to the larger political process, and hope to highlight them to catch attention.
Societal feedback from extreme weather events
There is another reason why environmental issues have started reflecting with increased visibility during the election process. Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and cyclones have started to become more intense, more frequent due to a climate that has been changing in the background.
For instance, in August 2018 Kerala received so much rain that it witnessed a flooding event of the kind it had not seen since 1924 – nearly a hundred years ago. The flooding was preceded by drought. Both the southwest and the northeast monsoon failed in 2016, and there was a severe water shortage in Kerala in the summer of 2017. The same event that brought floods to Kerala also caused serious damage in the Kodagu district of Karnataka, situated on the Western Ghats.
A year earlier, in August 2017, a 120-mm rainfall over a day left Bengaluru flooded. Similar events in the same month also left Agartala and Ahmedabad crippled. What is lost is the overall reliability of weather patterns that existed until a decade ago.
Some of the events were so severe that they did not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the well-heeled and the marginalised. One of the pictures from the Chennai floods that went viral on social media was of one of the richest individuals escaping on a fishing boat from his extensive estate on the banks of the Adyar river.
Environmental issues have now become the concern of all, and not just of the poor and marginalised. Extreme weather events are no longer developments happening to people far away. This has strengthened the feedback loop that environmental events have on the social and political processes.
Tribal issues may find reflection in the elections
There is a societal irony in a biodiversity-rich country such as India. The indigenous communities and the tribals who live in biodiversity-rich areas are themselves poor and outside the mainstream of the political process.
Even while the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendments of 1992 devolved power to the Panchayati Raj institutions in the urban and rural areas, it left out the tribal-dominated areas. This was corrected with the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996. However, the tribal communities lived in forest areas, where technically the land belonged to the forest departments and thus the Forest Rights Act of 2006 was enacted to give these communities rights in their traditional habitation space.
Despite these enabling legislations, the implementation has been slow and tribal populations are likely to bring their issues into the election process.
Farmers face double whammy from nature and policy
It is the farmers who face the vicissitudes of nature constantly. Agriculture’s contribution to the GDP of the country is only 18 percent, however the sector’s vulnerability to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events is high since it provides livelihood to more than 50 percent of the population.
One haunting image from the recent years is of the farmers from the Kaveri delta in Tamil Nadu protesting in Delhi holding human skulls to attract the attention of the national government to their plight. There were two farmers’ marches to Delhi and one to Mumbai in the past year. As this is written, Maharashtra farmers are again preparing for a rally to Mumbai to highlight their situation due to the drought-like situation developing in their fields.
If agriculture was not already risky enough, it has become worse with farmers not being able to judge how the weather would change during or before the cropping season. The Government of India’s Economic Survey for 2017-18 dedicated a chapter on the impact of climate change on agriculture.
The analysis notes that minor changes in weather have little or no impact on agriculture. However, the adverse impact is loaded when the weather swings to the extremes. This is of importance since climate change scenarios predict extreme weather events becoming more frequent and intense in the coming years. The Economic Survey adds another layer of concern. It states that these shocks have a greater adverse impact in unirrigated areas than in irrigated ones.
This is where the double whammy hits hard for the Indian farmer. According to data compiled by the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN), 55 percent of the country’s grossed cropped area is under rainfed agriculture, providing livelihood support to 61 percent of the farmers. This is a policy hangover not yet fully corrected from the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
To overcome food shortage, the Green Revolution provided a package of support – credit, improved varieties of seeds, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides – to already irrigated areas. This helped the country overcome the ignominy of food aid and the political uncertainty of a ship-to-mouth existence, but it skewed the agricultural system in favour of the irrigated tracts. Even five decades later, the unirrigated tracts have reduced from 66 percent to 55 percent only, and the lack of irrigation still continues to hurt a majority of the farmers.
The economic liberalisation process moved the politico-economic focus from the primary (agricultural) sector to the secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (services) sectors. So through four years and six months, the political class neglects the farmers. But they come to them during elections because the voter numbers are stacked in favour of the farmers. For instance, while the present NDA government’s first budget focussed on the urban middle class, the one presented this month brings back focus to the farmers.
However, for farmers to be more climate resilient the environments in which they live and farm have to be better conserved and robust. And this is where the limitations of the larger political economy since 1991 comes to play.
All four political possibilities push for development
There can be four possibilities after the 2019 elections. One, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government continues with a similar parliamentary majority as in 2014. Two, the NDA forms a government, but with a reduced majority. Three, the Indian National Congress forms a government with support from other parties. Four, a coalition of non-BJP, non-Congress parties form the government.
The benefit to the environment can at best be relative. In the larger political economy that has been operational since 1991, economic development has got preference over environmental conservation. During the build-up to the national elections of 2014, the manifestos of the BJP and the Congress aimed at clearing development projects quickly, through a single window.
The difference, however, has been that the BJP superimposed nationalism over its thrust for development. As a result, questioning a development project on environmental grounds would invite an additional tag of anti-national in addition to anti-development. This is an additional burden that environmental conservation needs to bear in the present situation. Using this as a shield, the current government had been systematically undoing the environmental rules framework.
All the four electoral possibilities will be pushing for development. So whichever formation comes to power, the environment will get sidelined. While with the first two possibilities the present trend would continue, the Congress will also continue with the neo-liberal economics that it initiated in 1991.
However, during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments from 2004 to 2014, there was a balancing out on the environmental front due to the yin and yang between the government and the party. While the government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pushed for development, the party leadership led by Sonia Gandhi pushed for the inclusion of rights-based legislations. These included the Food Security Act of 2013; the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013; and the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
The fourth possibility – a government formed by a coalition of regional parties – as was the case with the United Front governments between 1996 and 1998, also does not necessarily bode well for the environment. As was the experience then, a mixture of regional aspirations and ambitions pushed for multiple large development projects, while the centre could not say no to any of these due to the fear of jeopardising the coalition.
Political commentators have often observed that it is the weaker coalitions that have been able to provide better administration and governance. However, in the case of the environment, it is stronger governments that can push for change. Thus, a politically strong Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could shelve the Silent Valley hydroelectric project based on environmental recommendations.
Following the mountains and rivers
As the country prepares for national elections in the coming months, and the political narrative flips and flops between breaking news events, we at Mongabay-India will be continuing our coverage on environment and elections that we had begun before the November-December state elections. The environment does not understand political or linguistic boundaries. So we will be following our stories across ecosystems – the Himalayas, Western Ghats, the Gangetic plains, etc. Stay tuned.
Banner image: These forests of Silent Valley remain because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opted to favour environmental conservation over development. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.