Elections 2009: Where is the green party?

Whenever election to India’s Lok Sabha approaches, two questions tend to emerge: When will India get a green party? Are environmental issues important in our elections? The answers are interlinked; they relate to the nature of the Indian electoral system as well as the nature of India’s environmental concerns.

Our parliamentary democracy borrows its structure from the Westminster system of first-past-the-post, which makes it difficult for any pan-India issue-based party to succeed. For instance, it is no surprise there exists a Green Party in Germany that even comes to power within a coalition government, but cannot in UK. Some years ago, in elections to the European parliament, the UK Green Party got a substantial percentage of votes. In other words, there is a green concern in the UK, but because of UK’s electoral system, the concern cannot translate into a presence in Parliament.

Of course, it is also true, in Europe, the green agenda has been incorporated as a set of mainstream issues by all parties—Left, Right or centre. All parties, for instance, do accept the need to protect the environment, to mitigate emissions, necessary to tackle climate change and even agree to invest in low-carbon technologies such as renewables and hybrid vehicles. The challenge these governments face, once voted to power, is whether they can bite the bullet and make the structural alterations in their economy that climate change imperatives demand. This has been, and remains, Europe’s green Waterloo.

Consider, in this light, the conservative government of Germany’s Angela Merkel. The Christian Democratic Union took on the Green Party agenda so totally that it almost marginalized the latter. But now, when the government has to take some tough decisions about acting on climate change, on the one hand, and move fast on the economy and job-losses, its true anything-but-green colours are showing. The German government which once stood for matters green is now backtracking—it’s seeking emissions allowance for big industry, giving the automobile industry benefits in terms of subsidies to car owners to buy new vehicles, even lobbying hard for time for this industry to tighten fuel efficiency standards.

It is the same in the case of Australia, where, interestingly, the major political party, the Australian Labor Party, came to power saying it was against the environmentally-hostile policies of its opponent (the John Howard government). But now the Labor Party is in power, its actions on environment and climate change are even more pathetic than its predecessor’s. It is tough to walk the talk, when it comes to reinventing the economy for real change. It will be no surprise (it will definitely be disappointing) if Barack Obama finds he, too, has little room to make the changes he has so persuasively promised us all.

For us in India, the issue is similar, yet different. Green issues, including climate change, have made it to all major party manifestos. The Congress, the bjp and the cpi(m) all promise to protect the environment, check river pollution and invest in renewable energy systems for a low-carbon economy. There are even nuances and differences in approach. The bjp, for instance, says it will also protect the tiger and other wild animals through a permanent task force, while the cpi(m) says it will review the Environmental Impact Assessment draft notification, which is seen as industry-friendly. All pure green issues have been listed and there is a minimum common agreement on this matter.

Here, I have questions: are these so-called pure green issues really the core environmental issues that need to be addressed? Can these be addressed without tackling the key issues of growth and economic change? Such questions directly lead to the nature of India’s environmental concern. The fact is in our country, the bulk of the people depend on the environment—the land, the water, the forests—for their survival. The core environmental issue is to increase the productivity of these natural resources in a sustainable manner and to ensure the benefits of the increased productivity go to local people, so building a local economy and livelihood. It is about investing in the resources of the poor. It is about the political framework—the rough-and-tumble of governance—in which this investment will benefit people and build green futures.

We need to care about the pollution of our rivers because people depend on them for drinking water and for survival. We need to revise our strategy for development because these projects take away land, or forests, critical for livelihood security. We need to invest in decentralized water or energy systems so that we can minimize the damage to the local environment and provide access to resources to all, not some.

But this is where political party manifestos get frayed on the green-edge. It is easy to talk about green issues—particularly those the middle-class of India understands as green. But it is difficult to join the dots—to show how the country will green its economy itself, so that it can provide growth for all, without compromising on the present and the future generations.

Interestingly, but also predictably, no manifesto discusses how parties intend to deepen democracy in India—move it from the representative nature, which exists even in the Panchayati Raj system, to a participatory system. The green agenda demands that local communities must have rights over their resources and that participatory democracy—through the strengthening of gram sabhas, for instance—must work. The green agenda is a political agenda, not a technocratic laundry list.

This is why it is easy, here, to look like a green party but not promise a ‘green revolution’.

—Sunita Narain