Are BJP & Congress’ Election Manifestos ‘Green’ Enough?
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.Photo: Kamran Akhter/ The Quint)

Are BJP & Congress’ Election Manifestos ‘Green’ Enough?

Are environmental concerns ever top of the agenda as far as elections in India are concerned? Well, the good news is that (unlike previous elections), both leading national parties, namely, the Congress and the BJP, have separate sections related to issues such as forest, tribal rights and clean air, in their respective manifestos.

A cursory glance at their manifestos shows that while the national parties finally appear to allude to the green cause, the devil lies in the detail.

Also Read : Congress manifesto recognises air pollution crisis

Tackling Air Pollution: Cong Vague on Implementation, BJP’s Targets Too Low

The Congress manifesto that was released first, got many thumbs up from environmentalists for its strong emphasis on combating air pollution. The Congress has recognised that ‘air pollution is a national public health emergency’, and promises to strengthen the National Clean Air Programme.

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How it plans to take action is not clear, given that many of the thermal power plants were cleared under the UPA regime. On the issue of the tribal access to forests, the Congress has promised to “implement, in letter and spirit, the Forest Rights Act, 2006”, saying, “No forest dweller will be unjustly evicted.” It has also promised minimum support prices for non-timber forest produce.

The BJP, that released its manifesto closer to the elections, decided that business as usual may be the best when it comes to green issues. And so while it promises to make the National Clean Air Programme into a mission, the targets set remain abysmally low – to reduce pollution levels by 35 percent by 2024 in 102 cities. Experts have decried this as being too little to address the air apocalypse the country is facing right now.

It is surprising that the party is limiting clean air to only 102 cities. The fact is that the most polluted areas in the country are not the cities but the industrial and mining belts such as Singrauli, Korba, Raigarh, Talcher, Angul, and Karanpura etc. It seems that the party has forgotten that there is not just ‘India” but also a ‘Bharat’ that is facing pollution and needs to be addressed on a priority basis.
Ritwick Dutta, Environment Lawyer 

Also Read : Over 1.2 Mn Early Deaths in India Due to Air Pollution: Report

BJP Faces Flak For Tom-Tomming ‘Forest Cover’ Figure

One aspect of the BJP manifesto that is worrisome is its tom-tomming of figures when it comes to forests, a fact disputed by many. The BJP manifesto states, “We have ensured speed and activeness in issuing forest and environmental clearances for eligible projects due to which we have added around 9000 sq. kms to the forest cover of the country. We are committed to maintaining this pace through adoption of cleaner practices to make our nation a greener country”. Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta is scathing in his criticism of this figure. He says:

There is a serious contradiction in the statement since one is unable to understand as to how granting permissions for clearing forest land could lead to increase in forest cover? This statement implies that the country has cleared/ deforested a minimum of 9000 sq. km of natural forest land in order to do compensatory afforestation on equivalent area of non forest land. 
Ritwick Dutta, Environment Lawyer 

Dutta continues, “This means that the country has lost 9 Lakh hectares in the last five years, which is equal to an area covered by more than six lakh (6,33,803) cricket fields of the size of Eden Garden stadium. The BJP should also disclose how many national parks and sanctuaries opened up for destructive projects. Just to give an example, the 105 sq. km of Panna Tiger Reserve has been allowed to be destroyed for the river kinking project and an entire Turtle Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh was de-notified.”

‘BJP Manifesto Disappointingly Lukewarm About Air Pollution’

Santosh Harish, fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, finds it surprising that the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, that was championed by the BJP, has no mention in the party’s manifesto. (Household use of solid fuels like firewood is the single largest source of average ambient PM2.5 exposure across India, in addition to the severe health impacts on the households themselves). The Ujjwala scheme could thus, have been an effective tool for combating air pollution, while empowering rural women.

Comparing both the manifestos on air pollution, Santosh argues, “The BJP manifesto is disappointingly lukewarm about air pollution. It promises to convert a flawed, status quoist NCAP into a mission, and focus on 102 polluted cities. But the NCAP has many limitations, such as the absence of specifics on the targets or the consequences of missing the targets, the city-focus instead of air shed-level approaches, and the absence of reforms to fix the ineffectiveness of the regulators. I am not sure how it will do better as a mission”.

But even the Congress manifesto has some problems – “the idea of a new environment protection authority should be treated with caution. “I think it addresses a legitimate gap in capacity, but it’s not obvious that a new agency will solve it,” he adds.

‘BJP’s Focus On Renewable Energy Commendable, But Coal Dependence Must Reduce’

Harish is of the opinion that “given the increased levels of engagement on air pollution from the civil society and the media in the last few years, political parties will also be forced to engage more. As the Congress manifesto correctly puts it, it's a national public health emergency. And we need our elected governments to empower the regulatory agencies, make difficult choices, and create space for political resolution.”

Ramapati Kumar, who is the CEO of the Centre for Energy Environment And Development based in Lucknow, acknowledged that:

It is heartening to note that both national parties acknowledge that air pollution is a major threat to humanity. As a result, both Congress and BJP have included it in their manifesto in their own way.

Kumar also praised the BJP’s manifesto for its focus on mobility and renewable energy.

Brikesh Singh, who leads the Clean Air Collective – a conglomerate of NGOs fighting against air pollution – observes that, “the BJP manifesto promises bullish investment on renewable energy to meet the target of 175GW by 2022. However, there is no mention of reducing our dependence on coal, or meeting the new emission standards for thermal power plants”.

As the country gets ready to face an election, the right to clean air and water is clearly on everybody’s minds. It now remains to be seen which party delivers best on the green promises made in their manifestos.

(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist and conservation biologist. She tweets at @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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