Is climate change too complicated for Indian politicians?

India’s politicians believe that spending time, effort and funds to clean up the environment is such a waste. Such is their disdain for the environmental cause that they are not willing to enforce the existing pollution control laws. In Tamil Nadu, the Government has spent money on creating a dam at Orathupalayam on the Noyyal river, but instead of holding water, it has for a long time been filled up by effluents from dyeing units. Mettur, in the upstream textile belt, is one of the most unhealthy places to live in in this part of the country. The environmental metrics for Tiruppur, the globally-connected textile town that hosts many prosperous people are appalling (Foreign trade visitors invariably go only to a particular hotel for discussions with entrepreneurs and then head back to the airport in Coimbatore).

But the even more fundamental question of climate change, caused by global warming is simply too complicated for our political parties. Most Indian politicians do not understand what it is, or even if they do, pretend that they don’t.

The mainstream media, which is enjoying a boom in advertising revenues thanks to unbridled consumption and industrial growth, is wary about hosting strong environmental discussions. Television is of course quick to latch on to a ‘cute’ mascot like the tiger to push its own ratings, without meaning to engage society in serious debate. But it is the print media that has willingly shackled itself to commercial interests.

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A refreshing exception is Pasumai Vikatan from the Ananda Vikatan group. It is rare to find a popular journal in the local language today that is ready to advocate organic farming, oppose chemicals and fertilisers, environmentally-damaging consumerism, and analyse rural affairs from a strong development perspective.

In its February 25 issue, Pasumai Vikatan has rebuked the leading political parties in Tamil Nadu for failing to heed the unmistakable signs of climate change, and its roots in global warming.

None of the greats, starting with Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi, the leader-in-waiting M.K.Stalin, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, her friend Sasikala, PMK leader S.Ramadoss, his son and Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, and Finance Minister P.Chidambaram and his ambitious son Karthi Chidambaram, escape the searing criticism of columnist Kovanandi in Pasumai Vikatan.

Of what use is the massive and continuous accumulation of wealth for many future generations by you leaders, when scientists are doubtful about the welfare of even the next few generations, Kovanandi asks the leaders. Why should India join other cash-hungry nations and take over the polluting manufacturing of the West, only to kill people in India?

The columnist also launches a broadside against the one lakh rupee Tata Nano, as an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Kovanandi makes the valid point that our political parties have all manner of intra-party units (or wings), in the name of women, youth, poets, doctors and so on, but they have no environmental wing. Why? Is it because the environment is so abstruse a concept for them, that it translates into no specific voting interest at all? Is that why they never cared to bring healthcare, housing, drinking water and sanitation to the vast majority of Indians?

To Kovanandi’s point, I would like to add: some parties such as the PMK have environmental NGOs that are run by their members. Pasumai Thayagam is one, run by those connected to PMK. I would have liked to see Pasumai Thayagam focus on real environmental issues not as discussion events, but as active, militant interventions.

Why for instance can’t PT keep planting trees in the urban areas? This can improve air quality, capture carbon dioxide and help the rain cycle. But they did nothing to mitigate the cutting down of trees for bridge construction in some city areas.

Why isn’t PT campaigning for a massive increase in train and bus services and a reduction of fares? This single intervention will tackle carbon emissions significantly, improve air quality and ensure that everyone has access to good transport.

The fact that political parties, affiliated NGOs and Trade Unions are not doing all this seems to me to confirm that scientific understanding among political parties is dangerously low. Those individuals in such parties and organisations who do understand are obviously not in a position to influence their policies and discourse. How much trauma we must endure before they acquire the necessary intelligence and resist their itch for filthy lucre is, unfortunately, not predictable.

Notes: The Central Pollution Control Board had the following to say on Orathupalayam dam in 2005:

Almost 16 km downstream of Tiruppur, there exists an irrigation dam (Orathupalayam) to impound the flows of river Noyyal for irrigation purpose. In principle, the discharges from this dam are released to Muthur Barrage and thence to Athupalayam reservoir for irrigation purpose.

Tiruppur area has very high TDS in ground water (ranging between 358 and 13,630 mg/l) therefore, water demand of the industries are largely met through tankers from nearby areas having relatively low TDS ground water. This massive ground water extraction in the region is further elevating TDS levels in the ground water. The drains in the Tiruppur area carries untreated sewage and partially treated industrial wastewaters. These wastewaters ultimately reach Orathupalayam dam, from where water is utilized for irrigation use. The concentration of total dissolved solids in the river and ground water is being reported to the order of 5000-7000 mg/l, almost ten times higher than the drinking water standards.

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