India's political parties gloss over degraded environment, water warnings in election campaign

As India faces certain water scarcity and ecological decline, the country's main political parties campaigning for elections have all but ignored environmental issues seen as crucial to India's vast rural majority, policy analysts say.

Environmentalists say the omission is alarming given the problems India faces. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation costs India 5.7 percent of its annual gross domestic product, and causes a quarter of the country's 1.6 million deaths among children each year.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization confirmed that India's capital, New Delhi, has the most polluted air in the world, according to data reported by 1,600 cities in 91 countries.

The three main national groups competing in the elections have published manifestos that touch on the environment, but say little about major problems such as worsening pollution or projections that the country will have only half the water supply it needs by 2030.

Instead, politicians have focused on alleviating poverty, creating jobs and reviving the economy, all key concerns for voters as growth of India's gross domestic product flagged to 4.7 percent in the past year. The country's political parties are in the final stretch of a marathon, five-week vote, with results expected May 16.

Analysts say Indian incomes and the country's future stability depend enormously on a healthy environment. Some 65 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people work in farming, while hundreds of thousands rely on forests for clean water, food, firewood and medicinal plants.

"It isn't possible in a country like India to separate issues of livelihood and environment," said Ashish Kothari, founder of the Kalpavriksh environmental group. "The fact that it's not given central attention is extremely scary."

India's major rivers have become clogged with garbage, sewage and industrial runoff. The country's air is now the world's dirtiest, according to a study by environmental research centers at Yale and Columbia universities.

The country is the world's third-worst emitter of carbon dioxide — behind China and the United States — even though a third of Indians still lack electricity.

Analysts say India's politicians — traditionally focused on bagging or buying easy votes while protecting political patronage built on communal identity — may see the environment as a fringe issue given other, more obvious priorities like lifting 400 million still living in extreme poverty.

They may also be wary of antagonizing industrial or corporate entities, many of whom see environmental protection as an obstacle to profitability.

"There must be money involved for the environment to become an election issue. But preserving, protecting, managing resources, these are not interesting for politicians," said Raj Panjwani, a lawyer in both India and the United States. "There has to be a calamity for politicians to take notice. In that sense India's democracy is a firefighting system."

Many voters have told the Associated Press in recent weeks that they believe corrupt, self-serving politicians have allowed the natural world to decline even as their constituents wait for basic infrastructure and necessities.

"Citizens have been pushed too hard, and candidates aren't listening," said Anjali Madhav, a 20-year-old student in the southern city of Bangalore. "People still don't have enough food and water. How can that still happen?"

Residents of remote northeast states like Assam and Manipur want relief from flooding and landslides that hit the rain-soaked area every year. In impoverished Bihar, where only 16 percent of homes have electricity, voters demand power grid access. Villages near the Gujarat city of Rajkot want an end to pollution emanating from a solid waste dump since 2004.

Politicians pledge to deal with local concerns.

Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi — aiming to become prime minister should his front-running Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party win — has promised water flowing to every farm, ignoring that there simply may not be enough to go around.

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party, vows to work for a sewage system and a cleaner Ganges River in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. He and his party say little more on public health or the environment, except that such issues must be decided in concert with local governments.

Varanasi's voters are doubtful. "As soon as they are voted in, they head back to Delhi, forgetting the problems of this city," textile trader Ahmed Zahir said.

The ruling Congress party has focused on pledging relief for pervasive poverty while promising to make it easier for industrial projects to clear environmental hurdles.

"There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion" in granting environmental clearances, Rahul Gandhi told the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in March, suggesting the government run by his own party for the past decade had been overcautious or arbitrary in managing resources.

But the federation's secretary general, Dr. A. Didar Singh, said political parties should plan on doing more to protect the environment, not less.

"Efficient and effective management of environment and natural resources is in today's world a crucial parameter for long-term sustainability and stability of any country," Singh said in an e-mail to the AP. The environment "hasn't got the necessary weightage that it should."

The major parties discuss water in their manifestos, but not in ways that satisfy environmentalists. Congress and AAP briefly say water should be a legal right, though Congress contradicts that by also discussing water pricing.

The BJP is the only party to mention water scarcity predictions in its manifesto, but it proposes expensive solutions — desalination plants and river-linking — without saying where the money would come from.

"These politicians, they say 'The Ganges is my mother. We will save her.' But it's a meaningless slogan, said in every election," said water conservationist Rajendra Singh.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the BJP's intention to link India's rivers to alleviate drought, saying it would likely exacerbate water scarcity, particularly if the seasonal monsoon becomes more erratic with climate change as is predicted.

Leena Srivastava, executive director of The Energy Research Institute in New Delhi, said politicians have missed an opportunity to connect with voters.

"The energy and environmental challenges facing the country are so critical that merely playing around with words is unlikely to win elections," she wrote in a recent editorial for the Financial Chronicle. "The Indian electorate is smart."


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