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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Amid poll heat and dust, green shoots emerge in Kerala’s politics

This green strand is a characteristic of a new Left in Kerala. A host of sitting legislators and candidates have been involved in projecting a green vision as part of their politics.

Written by Amrith Lal | Thiruvananthapuram |
April 6, 2021 12:40:20 am
Kerala assembly elections 2021Thiruvananthapuram: Polling officials finalise arrangements in a polling booth on the eve of the Kerala Assembly polls, in Thiruvananthapuram, Monday, April 5, 2021. (PTI Photo)

On March 20, just as the election campaign was picking up steam, the Left Democratic Front held a public meeting in the heart of Kottayam town with Finance Minister Thomas Isaac as the main speaker. The highlight of the event was the release of a collection of essays by the CPM candidate from Kottayam, K Anil Kumar, that detailed his experiences while leading an effort to revive dying rivers in the region.

Isaac, who has been supportive of such localised grassroots initiatives in his social media posts as well as through financial allocations as minister, chose to speak in detail about the government’s Haritha Mission (green mission) and its commitment to the environment.

On Sunday, the last day of campaign, Kumar, who had started his campaign by harvesting paddy from a field that had recently been restored, also hosted a Facebook Live where he fielded questions related to his work on reviving rivers and retrieving wetlands.

This green strand is a characteristic of a new Left in Kerala. A host of sitting legislators and candidates have been involved in projecting a green vision as part of their politics.

Days before the release of Kumar’s book, Puzhakalkkidam Thedi (Finding Space for Rivers), M Swaraj, the CPM MLA seeking re-election from Thrippunithura constituency in Ernakulam, released a collection of his writings on wild flowers, Pookkalude Pustakam (Book of Flowers). A major campaign plank of I B Sathish, the CPM MLA looking for a second term from Kattakada in Thiruvananthapuram, is the work he did to preserve ponds and water sources and revive paddy wetlands.

P Prasad, the CPI candidate from Cherthala, refuses to categorise these interventions as environmental issues. He says most of the “green issues” are now livelihood issues and need to be addressed in policy-making as such. The experience of the 2018 floods has influenced common people, politicians and political parties to give due attention to ecology, he says.

Prasad, who had volunteered with the Narmada Bachao Andolan before becoming a whole-timer with the CPI, had the tagline in the last election: Prakrithikkoru koottu, Prasadinoru vottu (A vote for Prasad is solidarity with nature).

The injection of an ecological consciousness into the political discourse started with the Silent Valley Struggle in the 1970s. The movement against a dam proposed in an evergreen forest patch in the Western Ghats forced politicians to confront a new politics that sought an ecological audit of development.

M A Baby, a politburo member of the CPM, recalls that Silent Valley divided the party with senior leaders like P Govinda Pillai taking the side of anti-dam activists. EMS Namboothiripad intervened and weighed in favour of Pillai and others, citing that party forums can’t pronounce the final word on complex scientific subjects and may need to heed to expert opinion.

The revised party programme (2000) had two paragraphs on the environment that drew from the insights offered by Engels in Dialectics of Nature. However, the party chose to oppose the Gadgil Committee Report on the Western Ghats in 2014 fearing a backlash from the residents in the high ranges.

The Congress reportedly denied its sitting MP from Idukki in the high ranges, P T Thomas, nomination in the 2014 election because he chose to support the Gadgil report. Thomas has since returned to state politics and is now seeking reelection in Thrikkakara, Ernakulam.

Green agendas received a boost after 1990s when CPM leader VS Achuthanandan began to champion them following offshoots of new social movements campaigning against deforestation, quarrying, loss of wetlands and such. In the Congress, legislators such as V D Satheeshan, T N Pratapan and VT Balaram have tried to influence the debate in the assembly and within their party in favour of pro-environment positions.

In the past, the Indian Union Muslim League and CPI have published green manifestos.

What leaders like Kumar and Sathish seem to be doing is to weave green issues into the development narrative and link them with basic needs such as water and employment. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad’s campaigns have been pioneering efforts in this direction.

So the restoration of Meenachil, Meenamthala, Kodoor rivers is pitched as a communitarian effort to end the regular flooding of Kottayam and the retrieval of wetlands and revival of paddy cultivation is framed in the context of opportunities for tourism, leisure, recreation and related employment.

Sathish mentions that his interventions — Jalamitra, Jalasamruddhi etc —have had tangible outcomes such as increasing water availability in deficit areas and raising incomes through farming. Both Kumar and Sathish say that the interventions found public support because these were grassroots initiatives that welcomed the involved citizens and groups across party lines.

Kumar, however, cautions that green politics is difficult on its own — it is about engagement, education and consensus building, he says.

And, of course, the contradictions in pursuing a green agenda when the public common sense and the state’s goals demand conspicuous consumption are obvious. For instance, critics of the government point to the policy leeway offered to quarry owners when the state Budget speaks about a green vision.

Sathish points out the thin line public representatives have to walk since public infrastructure, especially roads, top the development needs of people. It calls for continuous supply of stones and other building material, which often come with a cost to the environment. This contradiction is often a cause for tension within political parties and environmental groups.

Baby suggests that building a development narrative that factors in ecology is a long-term agenda. “Marx, Gandhi, Ruskin and so many such thinkers will have even engaged with to produce a critique of consumerism. Society needs to develop the consciousness to recognise and respect ecological concerns. That’s a task the Left is engaged in,” he says.

The manifestos of LDF and UDF suggest that both the fronts are aware of the need to factor in the environment in their development toolkit. The 2018 floods, Cyclone Okhi etc have nudged the people to sit up and listen.

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