Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stop visiting wildlife sanctuaries and start contesting elections, says Rishi Agarwal, environmental activist from India

‘Environment is clearly a political issue’

Well-known for his initiatives in saving Mumbai’s remaining mangroves, environmental activist Rishi Agarwal stood for elections from the new Jago Party this time, and got just 3,000 votes. He tells Jyoti Punwani why the experience left him bitter.

Why did you stand for elections in the recent Lok Sabha elections?

Mere sar par bhoot sawaar tha (I had a demon in my head). I’ve always been political, since my college days in 1995-96. We used to have huge discussions then about the possibility of civil war if things didn’t change. It turned out to be true -– look at the way the Naxalites are spreading. Some of us felt we needed to get into politics.

But then you got active in the environment?

I’ve always been active there. And that’s where I started realising the importance of politics. Politics decides which policies get priority; foreign policy and agricultural policy are intertwined.

I had followed the 1992 UN Rio Earth Summit closely and saw how ultimately, it’s politicians and bureaucrats who make statements on the country’s policies. I weaned myself away from visiting sanctuaries and going on nature walks, realising they were a farce. People who don’t mind spending Rs 80,000 on organising visits to bird sanctuaries, buying the latest cameras, will not spend a paisa on protecting mangroves. So how are they different from the businessman who prefers to blow up his money on food rather than the environment?

I have followed the Narmada issue since I was 11; I used to keep all the clippings. At that time too, I realised the important role of politics. There was a voter base for the Narmada dam in MP and Gujarat, and we were pitted against them. They would not understand the need for water conservation, or look at the dam as an environment issue.

So environment is clearly a political issue. Forget the tiger. What should get into people’s heads is food security, the availability of clean water, the quality of air. Ensuring all this is not the job of environmentalists but everyone.

I have been active in the mangroves issue since 2002. I was unhappy with my MLA and MP; I thought I could do a better job. Had I been financially stable, I would have fought the 2004 elections. I considered the 2007 municipal elections; I was at that time very active in the Loksatta party; telling them to move out of the NGO mode and get political, set up shakhas. Then after 26/11, I had had enough of just thinking. But Loksatta wanted to be very well prepared before fighting elections. On January 30, I joined the Jago Party.

Why didn’t you join any of the existing parties?

The choice was either BJP or Congress. The BJP was ruled out as long as it portrayed L K Advani as its leader. I have no faith in him, ever since the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Congress is the party that has clearly institutionalised poverty and corruption. It had a clear majority from the 1950s right till the ’70s ; it could have done anything. The policies which brought the country to its knees, the money that has gone out of India –- it’s the Congress that’s responsible.

How did you manage your campaign?

Through email, and people who knew me. In the last 10 years, I’ve built up a good standing. But communication is all about funds. You need banners, full-time staff… Just one meeting cost me Rs 15,000!

And how many people came?

A 100! It was a slum area. We decided the educated middle class doesn’t vote. We should try the slums, who may not speak your language, but who do vote. Actually, it was a friend’s driver who suggested that I should come and hold a meeting in the area like all the others had, especially because people there were not happy with the Congress.

What did you tell them?

Language was a big problem, though Hindi is my mothertongue.

Anyway, I spoke about water, which is a big problem there, because it’s getting diverted to the new redeveloped buildings. Plus, they were not happy with the builders who wanted to redevelop their slum.

I spoke to them about how 50-60 litres of water are flushed down everyday in each flat. People could be taught to recycle water; water rates need to go up; fiscal incentives could be given to buildings that install recycling systems. The water that would be saved can be given to others. But you need politicians able to think like that.

Similarly with the builders. You need proper urban planning to provide homes for the poor. Why leave it to private builders? MHADA should have architects, town planners. It could facilitate infrastructure.

People appreciated what I said, but obviously, good intentions and good work are not enough.

How much did you spend in all?

About Rs 500,000. In the last 20 days, from April 10 to 30, I spent Rs 1,63,000. I’ve spent about Rs 150 per voter! And there are 16,00,000 voters in my constituency.

Did you pay your campaigners?

No, so many people decided to participate on their own, I was pleasantly surprised. I had a core team of 25 volunteers, mostly new people, primarily young. The youngest was nine!

What was your main plank?

If you want change, give new people a chance. You need to vote for new people because nothing works better than competition. Suppose I had got 30,000 votes, Gurudas Kamat’s margin would have come down to just 5,000. He would have been scared. Right now there’s immense complacency because there’s no competition.

Did you ever hope to win? Did you ever regret having stood?

Winning was a remote possibility. Standing for elections was more like making a statement.

There were moments of confusion when I felt it was not worth it. Even when I finally filled my form, I realised I had not gone to so many places. I was unhappy at the response to my appeal for funds. I thought I should quit but my supporters kept me going.

What did you learn from this experience?

I realise now that we are a country of chamchas. It’s fundamental to our ethos, our patriarchal system, where the father is always right.

He may be taking the stupidest decisions, but you can’t question him.

It’s the same in politics. Criticism is fundamental to a democracy.

But in India, nobody questions our great leaders. India deserves to be ruled by the Congress. They’ve fooled you for 60 years and will continue to fool you. Look at the way the BJP’s `Bhay Ho’ counter to the Congress’ `Jai Ho’ flopped. The Indian public is very gullible; it loves being fooled. And it’s comfortable with corruption. They don’t relate to an equal playing field.

I feel extremely bitter. I’ve provided phenomenal leadership on the mangrove issue in Andheri. People have benefited; there’s been no flooding in Lokhandwala because of the mangroves in the last two years. I’ve got recognition from America for my work, but has anyone here recognised it? All I’ve asked for is Rs 1,000 a year from the people who’ve benefited, so that a few persons can work full-time to protect Mumbai’s mangroves. No one is willing, though I’m not unknown.

India doesn’t deserve good leaders, though it needs them.

Do you think then that elections are only for those with money ?

To get 50,000–plus votes, you need big money. I had just three months, and a complete lack of political base. Most of my votes were from those who knew my work. A political base takes decades to build; it needs a motivating ideology and funds.

The middle class won’t take the time off to go for your rallies. You can’t fill Shivaji Park if you talk about environment. IF you need crowds, you have to pay. And without crowds, the media won’t notice you. If the editor is bought over by the Congress, only a rival show of strength will work.

Elections are not for the honest. You need Rs 5 crore; you should be willing to spend Rs 2 crore as loose change.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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