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4 February 2017 Editorial



The stakes in Punjab and Goa

Punjab and Goa go to the polls today, heralding a multi-phase election schedule, with three other States set to vote over the next month. Punjab and Goa, where a hectic campaign has been running for the past month, are united by a common strand — the contest is not limited to the two national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, or alliances with them, as has been the case for some years. In Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party has sought to build on its strong debut performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when it won four out of 13 seats and had leads in 33 of the total of 117 Assembly segments. The presence of the AAP has meant a three-way contest as the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance seeks to defend its record not just in the State but also at the Centre over the demonetisation policy and farmers’ issues. The AAP polled well in rural and semi-urban areas in Punjab in 2014, taking up issues that had been inadequately addressed by the Congress and the BJP, such as corruption, and drug consumption that has devastated so many lives in the countryside. For the Congress, the stakes are high as it seeks to turn the tide after a string of losses in Assembly elections in major States since 2013. In former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh the Congress has perhaps its most capable regional leader today, but it remains to be seen how the anti-incumbency vote splits.

Goa, on the other hand, is engaged in an electoral contest that is more dependent on local issues and variables than national ones. But here too, the entry of the AAP has made election forecasting difficult. The BJP is projecting its record of providing a stable government in a State prone to political volatility, but its task has become more difficult with the loss of its alliance partner, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, to another right-wing front. The Congress has fielded its share of former chief ministers. With compact and smaller constituencies — some of them have only about 25,000 voters — close contests are expected, with even minor parties and independents having the potential to influence the final result. It is no wonder that heavyweights such as Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar have been deployed for local-level campaigning; the BJP wants to leave nothing to chance. The elections in Punjab and Goa go well beyond mundane identity politics. Securing a clean environment with regulations over mining in Goa, and tackling agrarian problems and narcotics use in Punjab, give the vote immediacy, promising an electoral contest that has some focus on civic issues and is not confined to patronage or identity.

Tarred by the oil spill

The destruction caused to a significant part of the Chennai coastline from the oil spill that followed a collision between two ships is both tragic and ironic. A large quantity of oil was released into the sea, affecting marine life and livelihoods of coastal communities. What makes the collision ironic is that it comes at a time when there is steadily declining pollution due to such incidents. Ship collisions are less common today because GPS-based navigation systems have made their operation much safer. It is apparent that the first response to the Chennai collision involving an LPG tanker and the fuel carrier off the Kamarajar Port was seriously deficient. The port initially denied any significant environmental damage from oil, but as the scale of the disaster began to unfold, and a large number of dead turtles and fish were washed ashore, it became obvious that the spill had not been quickly contained. Such failure calls into question the efficacy of the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan that is updated periodically for all stakeholders, notably ports, under the leadership of the Coast Guard. That the removal of the coastal sludge depended in large part on volunteers wielding buckets does not inspire much confidence in the protocol for mitigation.

An independent inquiry is vital to determine whether the training and acquisition of equipment to handle such accidents for all agencies passed muster. Moreover, pollution response equipment for all major ports and 26 non-major ports is funded to the extent of 50% by the Centre, casting a responsibility on ports to contribute the other half and build the capabilities to handle disasters. Obfuscation of facts after an oil spill is counterproductive, since the impact is prolonged; moreover, it could erode the confidence of the international community in the country’s ability to fulfil its commitments within the UN system to protect marine life and biodiversity. Failure to safeguard marine turtle and bird habitats, for example, is a clear violation of the provisions of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and its specific memorandum on the Indian Ocean-Southeast Asian region to which India is a signatory. Considerable oil pollution is caused not just by catastrophes but through the discharge of ballast, sludge and water used for the cleaning of tanks. On the other hand, the efficacy of chemical dispersants to degrade oil at sea remains controversial. All this underscores the importance of timely advice from agencies such as the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, which is mandated to forecast the course of an oil spill.


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