Why India needs a green manifesto

Environment is good politics now, and it’s time for administrative and political action to give India a green roadmap

According to the just-released Global Carbon Budget report, India is expected to record a two-per cent increase in carbon emission this year. But before that happend, in the week leading up to Diwali, the Supreme Court banned sales of crackers in the NCR region. But soon, large parts of northern India was under a blanket of smog. And there was controversy surrounding the Odd-Even traffic management scheme in Delhi.

Even as these events were unfolding, the PM (particulate matter) pollution levels reached alarming levels, with the children and the elderly facing the risk of permanent lung defects, forcing schools to be shut down and sales of air masks and purifiers going through the roof.

So, in a span of a month, as a country and as a capital, we have tried to deal with the issue of air pollution in myriad ways — from domestic use of mild explosives, farmer stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana and vehicle emissions.

A fresh take

As large parts of the northern and central India struggle to breathe, it is time to bring a breathe of fresh air to the pollution problem. While civil society and citizens can and do play a critical role in solving environmental issues, institutional action is critical — from political establishments and the executive alike. Caring about the environment has now become both good politics and good governance.

Why? Because, for one, pollution costs India dearly — according to the Lancet Commission, 2.51 million Indians died in 2015 due to pollution-related causes. We rank No. 1 in pollution-related deaths and 25 per cent of all deaths are caused due to pollution.

Moreover, according to a 2013 World Bank report, air pollution alone costs India 8.5 per cent of its GDP due to welfare costs and lost labour income.

Next, pollution has also entered the public discourse. Indians (especially urban Indians) are now increasingly concerned with the issue.

Social media outrage, memes and other forms of satire on the subject shows a clear trend. Rigorous surveys tend to corroborate the mood — as per a 2015 Pew Research, 73 per cent of Indians were “very concerned” about global climate change.

A similar tone is repeated in a 2016 Pew Study which finds that 73 per cent of city dwellers and 65 per cent of rural Indians view air pollution as a “very big problem” with 47 per cent of the people willing to forgo economic growth for cleaner air. A separate Nielsen (2011) study shows that 90 per cent of Indians were “concerned” about air and water pollution and 80 per cent thought climate change was an “important issue”.

Reaching a crescendo

While the problem is not a new one and the debate is not a first, but the issue has reached a crescendo both in terms of public consciousness and externalities.

Firstly, there is a need for a Green Manifesto when political parties gear up for elections at least in urban India. Not only is that a moral imperative, it is also tactically suave.

The recent manifestos of most major parties did not give sufficient space to a green agenda. Come 2019 and beyond, that should, and will, change. There is a need to have a separate environment vision document especially for urban India.

Given the recent events political parties should expect environment to become a focal campaign point, at least in cities. A glimpse of this coming change can be seen in some of the more recent documents albeit from relatively young political parties.

While the West does suffer from double standards in international negotiations there are still some lessons to be learnt. In the American context, candidates are compelled to articulate their respective positions on the matter. Former US Vice-President Al Gore built an entire movement and narrative around the subject. The UK even has a Green Party, albeit it has seen limited success.

Secondly, there is a need for an environment roadmap from the administration and the executive. The Niti Aayog could set green goals akin to the UNDP’s Millennium Development Goals. While air pollution is one of the main culprits, it is not the only one and radical solutions need to be sought.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) needs to be revamped and armed with more scientists and environmentalists. As some have suggested India should have a federal green agency akin to the US EPA. Certain government measures are welcome steps — for example, the vision to sell only Electric Vehicles by 2030.

Battle of green

We are seeing early signs of the political boundaries being marked out in the battle of green. Various proposals are doing the round. These include creating a multi North Indian CM committee headed by the Prime Minister to floating a “Right to Clean Air” Private Member’s Bill.

There is also public debate around the RTI disclosure surrounding the high under utilisation of the ₹787 crore Green Fund by the Delhi Government.

A developing country which continues to face dual challenges of unemployment and poverty, needs to balance environment concerns with needs for rapid large-scale industrialisation. That economic engine along with accelerated urbanisation will put immense pressure on India’s Green Report card — and that is a juggling act political leaders and administrators will need to master.

A recent article talks about the various “time bombs” India is sitting on and its path of “self destruction”. Climate change and pollution figured high in the list of reasons for us to be very worried about our future and the future of our nation.

Every Indian has a right to life and according to Articles 21 & 48 of the Constitution, a clean environment is part of that right. Neglecting pollution concerns not only violates fundamental rights but it also have economic, human and political costs. The Indian voter is ready with open doors for an environment conscious politician to walk in. But this time, the concern has to be real, the manifesto substantial and the promises delivered.

The writer is an entrepreneur

Published on December 13, 2017


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