Elections throw up muck

Elections throw up muck

Development tends to trump environment despite Modi’s clean-up promise

By Pranay Gupte (Reporting from New Delhi)

Published: Thu 15 May 2014, 9:39 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 5:51 PM

The first impression that a visitor from Dubai landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport gets is how clean and well run it is — nearly matching Dubai’s own aero palace.

The second impression is how indifferent its officials generally are to the consequences of India’s national election, which ended on Monday and in which a record 67 percent of the country’s 813 eligible voters went to the polls.

“What’s there to be excited about?” said Raghunath Malvia, a middle-aged factotum stationed near the customs enclosure. “Governments come and go. That’s democracy for you.”

I told him how impressed I was by the new airport and its lack of chaos, a condition that pretty much characterises most public facilities in India.

“Impressed?” said Malvia, with a half-smile that suggested he did not think I knew what I was talking about. “Just wait until you go outside. I can tell you that the garbage has piled up from the election campaign.”

And indeed it had. Driving into South Delhi from the airport, I could see mounds of torn posters and billboards, not to mention political leaflets, at street corners. Will they be recycled? Hard to say: someone has to gather the garbage first.

Garbage is a big issue in India — but it wasn’t during the long election campaign. Of course, political leaders paid the usual lip service to environmental security and sustainable economic development. But once the mud slinging and name-calling began as the campaign heated up for the national parliament’s 543 constituencies, few candidates — if any — talked about global warming, or depleting natural resources.

Later in the day, I met with Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Director-General, TERI (The Earth Resources Institute), and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Back in 2007, as chairman he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

“In India, environmental issues are often presented within the framework of conflict between environment and development,” Dr. Pachauri said. His institution has prepared a plan of environmental action for the incoming government, no matter who heads it. If it’s Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party – as is widely believed — then India’s environment lobby may be in for better times. That’s because Modi has pledged to clean up India’s rivers, starting with the holy Ganges. He has also promised all sorts stringent ecological laws to curb urbanisation and revive villages.

But there’s a catch to this. Irrespective of what India’s federal government decrees, the country’s 29 states are the ones who ultimately decide how hard to push to protect the environment. When one looks at fallen forests and burnt meadows, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that at state level, at least, development trumps the environment every time.

We’ll know soon enough what Narendra Modi — if he gets to be prime minister on Friday or Saturday — does to introduce a new time of leadership that respects nature as a constituency, even if trees and hills cannot vote.


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