Elections 2019 is happening right now, in a flurry of rallies, speeches, promises, mudslinging matches, and competing manifestoes. Expectedly, the two most-talked-about manifestoes belong to the two biggest political parties of the country. While the Congress’ well-received (by the liberal establishment) manifesto tried to concoct a heady mixture of proposals that sought to be pragmatic and progressive, the BJP’s remained stuck in the past decades, going by its rather atavistic proposals.
But team CB, like any concerned citizen, is worried about climate change (and pollution). So we decided to take a look at what the two manifestoes had to say about the number one global issue of our times. And some suggestions on what we would have liked them to say.
The main environment-related talking point from the Congress’ manifesto is recognising air pollution as a national public health emergency and a promise to strengthen the National Clean Air Programme. It doesn’t, however, mention specific targets or a timeline. The party also promises to launch two programmes to be implemented through Gram Sabhas and urban local bodies to solve the problem of deteriorating soil quality – the Water Bodies Restoration Mission for restoring water bodies and the Wasteland Regeneration Mission for regeneration and afforestation of wastelands and degraded lands.
It plans to constitute an independent Environment Protection Authority (EPA) —replacing existing bodies—to monitor and enforce environmental standards and regulations. It promises to clean up all the rivers in the country, protect coastal zones, and implement a solid-waste management plan in every village, town and city. It will work with state governments to increase the forest cover from 21 per cent to 25 per cent by the year 2025.
The manifesto pledges to present national accounts in a form that will account for the costs of environmental degradation (green budgeting) and increase the allocation to the National Adaptation Fund. There’s also a bullet point on developing a climate information system.
Interestingly, the Maharashtra Congress office released a separate manifesto for the environment with the agenda ‘Nothing at the cost of the environment’. One would have liked to witness this kind of bold ambition from its national counterpart.
BJP, on its part, has promised to reduce air pollution by 35 per cent in the country’s 102 most polluted Indian cities. Activists say that this ignores 139 other cities. It also pledges to convert the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission. There’s some chest thumping that the party is on track to achieve its goal of 175 GW of clean energy by 2022. This seems to be the theme of the manifesto – touting achievements, true or not, rather than proposing coherent plans. However, going by the paucity of space given to climate and environment concerns, especially when compared to Congress’ manifesto, it looks like the incumbent party would rather focus on other matters including the Ram temple. In fact, there’s barely any mention of climate-change proposals to mitigate its effects. This is contrary to BJP’s Sudesh Verma’s claim that the manifesto committee headed by Rajnath Singh ‘will focus on the environment with utmost priority’.
BJP has also ignored the question of the Forest Rights Act where it is actively trying to strip away the rights of the traditional land custodians even though it claims to promote the interests of forest dwellers including tribal communities. The Congress has stated that the original purpose of the Act will be restored and enforced.
While the BJP has promised that Himalayan states will get special financial assistance in the form of ‘green bonus’ for protection and conservation of forests, the Congress has said that it will work closely with state governments to preserve the rich biodiversity of the Himalayan range.
The plans that should be
Here’s a list of policies and actions that we would like the next government to aggressively take up with full, unflinching commitment. It goes without saying that this is not an exhaustive list.
1. A comprehensive plan for air pollution: While the National Clean Air Programme is a good start, it has been beset with delays and funding issues. What this country needs is a detailed plan to combat this menace across all towns and cities. Merely stating that the programme will be ‘strengthened’ shouldn’t pass muster. Specific goals and targets against set timelines are needed. Data isn’t the problem here – there are public and private monitoring systems (although there is a pressing need for more real-time monitoring stations) in place and their combined forces should be enough for the government to identify the main pollution sources and focus areas.
2. Enforcement of standards: Even without devising a radical new plan, there are some basic housekeeping duties that the incoming government should take up – viz. enforcing existing rules and regulations. As CB noted in this feature on India’s progress on its Paris Agreement commitments, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) revised the previous deadline issued by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) for coal-based power stations to cut down on polluting emissions from 2015 to 2020–2024. This was a result of government-owned and private power plants failing to meet the required standards on time. When enforcement is so lax and there’s little downside for companies flouting rules, how does the country plan to satisfy its fairly conservative nationally determined contributions (NDCs) towards meeting the overall climate-change goals as enshrined in the Paris Agreement?
3. A bold approach: While India’s NDC is considered to be just about compatible with the goal of limiting global temperature rise below 2 °C (above pre-industrial levels), the scientific consensus is that nations have to make efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. The same was mentioned in the Paris Agreement. This is where India’s modest targets to combat climate change fall short. When Costa Rica can make zero emissions an official goal, there is no reason why India, which is extremely vulnerable to the worst effects of global warming, cannot try to be at least half as ambitious. One would like to see a government that proposes and implements a bold new climate-change plan that targets minimal levels of carbon emissions, green infrastructure, creates new jobs for a green economy, and cleaves away from fossil fuels (a major burden on the country’s imports). In other words, our version of the Green New Deal.
4. Growing the renewable energy sector: Integral to any effort for a cleaner, greener India will be clean energy. This is where the government needs to use its might and resources to provide enough incentives to the renewable energy sector. Current projections indicate that by 2030 more than three-quarters of India’s electricity will be sourced from fossil fuels. Last year, poor policies led to uncertainties over the duties on imported solar panels, resulting in a sharp decline in new solar-capacity additions. While there has been some encouraging growth in the installation of renewable energy, this needs to expand exponentially if the country wants to meet the energy demands of its growing populace without further polluting the environment. This requires a mix of increased investment, better infrastructure, public-private partnerships to design innovative solutions, and financial incentives. The government should include manufacturing equipments and energy-storage solutions in its overall plan for this industry. Policies should be designed to serve the end goal of a green economy. This requires a holistic view wherein renewables are seen as a critical factor in moving towards clean energy rather than a piecemeal approach that merely looks at specific solutions and not mitigation and adaptation.
5. Adaptation mechanisms: Special focus needs to be given to adapting to the unavoidable consequences of a warming planet, such as rising sea levels, food and water shortages, extreme weather, and higher frequency of devastating floods and cyclones. Most of these will primarily affect the poorest sections of our society. This requires a government policy that recognises and understands the urgency of this impending catastrophe and takes steps now to thwart the worst tragedies. The National Adaptation Fund needs to be bolstered and it is heartening that it finds a mention in the Congress manifesto.
Climate-change adaptation is a part of India’s NDC (‘climate-adaptation strategy of enhancing investments in development programmes in areas vulnerable to climate change’) but there’s little clarity on strategies and implementation mechanisms, if any. A government that’s serious about tackling global warming will give this issue the attention that it deserves. With the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) falling much short of its funding requirements, India will need to figure out a way to budget for an overdue preparation for climate change-induced disasters. There’s no point trying to delay the inevitable; the country will have to pay the price, sooner or later.
6. A circular economy: Individual municipalities, towns, and even states are taking steps towards reducing and managing waste effectively. But the central government’s handling of this key environmental aspect has been shoddy. Aside from a few legislations such as the MSW (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016, and the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), there is no coherent, comprehensive policy on how to deal with waste, which not only takes a toll on the environment but also has repercussions on the health of citizens and other living beings. With a steady increase in GDP and population growth, waste management and reduction will become intractable problems of gargantuan proportions if the government continues to relegate it to an afterthought. There are enough towns and cities within the country that are dealing with this issue in an exemplary One hopes that the incoming ruling party (parties) will take note.
7. Environmental bodies and the rights of forest dwellers: Under the ruling BJP regime, basic checks and balances on corporates seeking environmental clearances have been diluted. Such changes have been executed ostensibly for speedy clearances and removal of red tape. The government has proposed amendments in all major environmental laws of the country that mysteriously favour only the private sector. For instance, the environment ministry amended coastal zone rules to give relief to projects that had begun in the coastal areas without required clearances. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) reported that environmental clearance and environmental impact assessment processes had major deficiencies and gaps. The Congress’ proposal to have one independent EPA to oversee this entire process is a step in the right direction. Profits cannot be the driving factor when it comes to the planet.
In the same vein, the current government is attempting to overhaul the Forest Rights Act to deny tribals their rights to access and use resources when they have been the traditional custodians of these forests. Instead, a policy that balances their rights and ownership along with protecting the rich ecosystems of our forests should be implemented by the next government. Forest bureaucracy and state intervention should be limited to resolving serious disputes and ensuring that the law is enforced in letter and spirit.
Political affiliations aside, global warming and the toxic levels of pollution that have become commonplace in this country need to be given the highest priority by the next government. There is no getting around it or deferring it to a later time. The climate is already changing for the worst and the record levels of pollution in our air and water are obvious to everyone. Some businesses will thrive, others may not survive – that is immaterial when it comes to the survival of life on this planet. We need and deserve bold, ambitious initiatives that translate into bold, effective action. The time for lip service is over; the time for doing is now.