More smoke, less fire

The Modi government invokes Mahatma Gandhi for its clean cities drive but ignores his dislike for promoting economic growth that neglects the weaker communities.

Published : Jun 08, 2016 12:30 IST

Garbage collection in north-west Delhi on May 25. The Smart Cities Mission, the ambitious urban development programme, misses the opportunity to build sustainability into the urban environment.

Garbage collection in north-west Delhi on May 25. The Smart Cities Mission, the ambitious urban development programme, misses the opportunity to build sustainability into the urban environment.

GOVERNMENTS need political symbols that anchor them to a great event or an individual from the past. The symbolism that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) evoked before the general election in 2014 was the idea of India as a large, powerful nation whose greatness was lost owing to centuries of poor governance. The BJP promised to help India regain its lost glory if elected to power. It is one thing to use symbolism to woo the electorate before an election but another to use it for governance once in power. For goverance the BJP needed a symbol that was tangible and whose historical veracity was not in question. So it borrowed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, until then the icon of the Independence movement and the Congress party. Gandhi was adopted as the symbol of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s environmental concerns. The BJP evoked Gandhi in earnest soon after it formed the government. Broom in hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) on October 2, 2014, Gandhi’s birthday. Using Gandhi as a symbol for a cleanliness campaign was like using one stone to kill not two but many birds. It was an act of political ingenuity. It had an immediate buy-in from the urban middle class, who had voted for the BJP’s development agenda. For them it signified a government that was willing to put in action a pre-election promise. And it was easy to do—wear specially designed T-shirts and caps and sweep a part of the street on one particular day in a year. It also provided a wonderful photo opportunity.

By idolising Gandhi as the man of action, the BJP could also effectively scrap the holiday observed in his honour. One of the earliest rumblings that the new government heard was over the lost national holiday. But those were the heady days and here was a government of action, and social media activists berated the lazy ones.

Gandhi was also not an inappropriate symbol. Sanitation to him was a step towards modernity and social equality, and the NDA could tease out that argument as a subtext.

Two years on, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has its successes. Many railway stations are cleaner than they were two years ago. The Indian Railways has started the process of introducing bio-toilets in trains, thereby reducing institutionalised open defecation. There is a similar positive impact in public places in many other parts of the country. Somebody in a leadership position had to articulate the idea of civic hygiene, and Prime Minister Modi did it.

However, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, like other much-publicised activities of the NDA, does not address the fundamental lack of infrastructural support that causes environmental problems. For instance, the urban waste issue came into prominence in Chennai when the city was flooded in December 2015.

Chennai’s garbage issue is only partly because of the city dwellers’ poor sense of civic hygiene. The structural issue is the inadequate collection and disposal infrastructure. Every day 4,500 tonnes of unsegregated garbage is dumped in two open landfills in the city. In addition, there are hundreds of tonnes of garbage at various points in different parts of the city at any given time. Sweeping, cleaning and photo opportunities at one end of the street cannot deal with this structural inadequacy.

The BJP invoked Gandhi once again a year later. This time it was for international consumption. India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for abating greenhouse gas emissions was submitted to the United Nations Climate Change Convention Secretariat on October 2, 2015. “Much before the climate change debate began, Mahatma Gandhi, regarded as the father of our nation, had said that we should act as ‘trustees’ and use natural resources wisely as it is our moral responsibility to ensure that we bequeath to the future generations a healthy planet,” the INDC document stated in its preamble. This reference led to the call for climate justice by Prime Minister Modi and Environment Minister Prakash Javedekar at meetings of the Conference of Parties held in Paris in December 2015. In fact, when the Paris Agreement was reached, Modi expressed satisfaction that India’s concept of climate justice was included in it.

Although India’s INDCs was rated as “medium” by Climate Action Tracker, the Paris Agreement itself did not live up to the expectations of limiting global warming to 2° Celsius above the global average temperature before industrialisation. With their rhetorical positioning, Indian negotiators missed the opportunity to leverage the best out of other countries. And having made the commitments, the Indian government has not followed up with action to realise them.

Smart cities

This has been the trend with the Modi government on environmental issues: more smoke, less fire. The Smart Cities Mission, the ambitious urban development programme, misses the opportunity to build sustainability into the urban environment.

The mission’s green targets want 10 per cent of the energy needs to be met through renewable sources and 80 per cent of building construction to be green. However, the mission document does not specify how the targets can be met or how the funds can be developed, or even what constitutes “green” for buildings. Each of the city administrations is tasked to develop detailed plans for them in consultation with their citizens.

Cities are appropriate laboratories to work on sustainability, since by their very definition cities are points of consumption. They consume the agricultural produce and industrial products produced elsewhere, and generate a high concentration of garbage per unit area because of the high consumption and a high density of population. Through the Smart Cities Mission, the government could have developed and supported innovations that could have helped cities reduce their ecological footprint. Instead, the focus of the mission is on urban infrastructure development and Internet connectivity.

Much of the Modi government’s talk has been disproportionate to the walk. In fact, the walk has been in the reverse direction many a time, with the government taking decisions and actions that can harm the environment. Although there has been no major public confrontation, the NDA has been quietly dismantling protective measures for the environment. In a recent media interview, Javadekar said that the focus of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change was to make it easy for those wanting to do responsible business in India. The Ministry, he claimed, brought down the average time for getting an environmental clearance from 600 days to 190 days and that it would be further reduced to 100 days.

Among the steps he listed to support his claim, Javadekar said there was now general approval for defence-related infrastructure, and forest clearance for areas below 40 hectares had been decentralised to 10 regional offices in partnership with State governments. Further, he said the Ministry had standardised the terms of reference for clearances for all industries, whereby if the expert appraisal committee had no questions or objections, the project would be deemed approved under the standardised terms of reference after 45 days.

In its eagerness to fix timelines, the government seems to be missing the spirit of environmental clearances. While unexplained delays in clearances for projects cannot be condoned, environmental clearances are also not something that can be given without appropriate assessment. If they take time, so be it. They cannot be fixed into arbitrarily decided timelines.

In the first two years of the government, Javadekar and his Ministry implemented what the BJP had promised. “We should no longer remain a market for the global industry,” the BJP’s manifesto had emphasised. “Rather, we should become a global manufacturing hub.” There would be an enabling environment for doing business, which would cut down the red tape, simplify procedures and remove the bottlenecks. “Decision making on environment clearances will be made transparent as well as time-bound.” The government will “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay”. Within months of coming to power, the Environment Ministry instituted a high-level committee (HLC) headed by a former Cabinet Secretary, T.S.R. Subramanian, with a mandate to assess whether the existing environment and forest laws can meet the government’s objectives, and to suggest changes that will align them to the cause if necessary. The Subramanian Committee went about its task in right earnest. Its recommendations reflected the government’s thinking. It wanted a review of the project clearance and approval process. The revised project approval should be through a single window process, and special treatment was to be accorded to power, mining, defence and strategic border projects, the committee said.

In order to bring the laws into one framework, the committee recommended the enactment of an Environmental Laws Management Act. To process, clear and monitor approvals, it recommended the creation of a National Environment Management Authority and similar authorities for the States. The committee recommended the dilution of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, one of the rights-based laws that emerged during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure. It wanted the removal of the clause in the FRA that directed projects to get a clearance from gram sabhas, or village local bodies.

Interestingly, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests rejected the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee recommendations in July 2015. It said the three months that were allotted to the committee to review environmental laws were insufficient for a job of such importance. “Some of the essential recommendations of the HLC have been doubted and would result in an unacceptable dilution of the existing legal and policy architecture established to protect our environment,” the Parliamentary Committee observed. Like in the case of environmental clearances, the HLC was working against an arbitrarily fixed timeline.

Although the HLC recommendations were scrapped, the Environment Ministry has persisted with its efforts to remove the need for the gram sabha’s approval under the FRA. Combined with the NDA government’s consistent efforts to undermine the rural employment guarantee scheme, it is clear that its real priorities are to quicken environmental clearances even while reducing the social security net for those adversely affected by projects.

Clearly, the NDA did not intend to use Gandhi as a full-bodied prop for its environmental concerns. Gandhi as a symbol came in handy to promote the government’s image with the urban middle class for a cleanliness drive and in climate change negotiations as a country demanding equitable growth. But Gandhi’s dislike for promoting economic growth that neglects the weaker communities was quietly forgotten.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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