Budget 2021: Environmental conservation or business as usual

There is a need to estimate the ecological footprint of all activities. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a need to estimate the ecological footprint of all activities. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s budget was tabled when the country was grappling with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 induced crisis. The government was expected to provide an effective response to the pandemic-induced recession. In the chase to tackle the immediate emergency posed by the pandemic, measures dealing with the climate change adaptation were cut down. The country’s environment and climate goals took a back seat.

With the Conference of Parties (COP 26) rescheduled for later this year and India’s Biennial Annual Report - BUR 3 on the anvil, the budget was riding on a lot of expectations to deliver on the environment front.

“Is the budget allocation for the environment sector sufficient? Does it yield anything substantial for the country’s fight against climate change and environmental excesses? Does it propose any measures for the restoration, conservation, and preservation of India’s ecosystem? Or, is it business as usual?” These were some questions raised for discussion by Dr Simi Mehta, CEO, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) in the panel discussion on Environment and Budget 2021: Business as usual?.

Allocations for environment highly inadequate, say experts

“Despite the country’s economic growth and its position of being the fifth largest economy in the world, the allocations to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) have been shrinking in real terms,” said Ashish Kothari, Founder-member, Kalpavriksh, Pune while chairing the session.

We have a highly centralised budgeting process in place and there is room to make it participatory. Kothari emphasised that the focus should be on how the allocated money is put to use. Other non-environmental sectors, which have seen sizeable fund allocations should be viewed from the lens of how they impact the environment. A case in point is the increased allocation for chemical fertilizers, the push for more national highways and railway line doubling.

Sunidhi Agarwal, Nikhil Jacob, and Manoswini Sarkar, researchers from IMPRI in a presentation highlighted the key proposals and announcements like the push for clean energy sources through the Hydrogen Energy Mission and the capital infusion into the Solar Energy Corporation and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency.

The thrust was on mitigating pollution through the National Clean Air Program, the voluntary vehicle scrapping policy, and the Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0. There was an announcement of a Deep Ocean Mission to study and conserve marine biodiversity. Further, there was a quantum jump in the allocation to Jal Jeevan Mission in the drinking water sector.

The allocations to the MoEF&CC saw a drop compared to the 2020 budget estimates. The allocation to pollution abatement was discontinued and the climate change action plan received a meagre allocation. The allocation of schemes that adversely affect the environment increased.

“We are currently in an era of worst environmental governance with the term ‘ecology’ not finding a mention in the budget speech. The vehicle scrappage policy is voluntary, and does not tell how exactly it will help in abetting pollution,” said Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

Dr Indira Khurana, Vice-Chair, Tarun Bharat Sangh, who works in the domain of drinking water and water resources highlighted how COVID-19 and other modern diseases are zoonotic in origin and spread to humans due to rapid deforestation.

Water and its sustainable use

With the quantum leap in the allocations for the Jal Jeevan Mission from Rs 11,000 crore in the Budget 2020 Revised Estimates to Rs 50,011 crores in the current budget, water gained much limelight.

“Jal Jeevan Mission’s allocation cannot be hailed as an environmentally sound investment as it is just an infrastructure project. The mission adopts a top-down and one size fits all approach with no environment and social impact assessment. The sustainability of the water supply has not been taken into consideration. There is nothing positive for water, groundwater, or rivers in the budget,” said Thakkar. He batted for a National Urban Water Policy and the need to develop water-smart cities.

Khurana too spoke of the need for source sustainability of water supply, considering that about one-third of India’s districts face drought issues. She also emphasised the quality of water, given that nearly 70% of surface water is polluted and the groundwater is increasingly getting polluted. ‘The one size fits all’ approach for a diverse country like India should be avoided, she maintained. She also expressed disappointment over the increased allocation towards Jal Jeevan Mission’s urban component without making any mention of source sustainability.

Push for renewable energy

While lauding the capital infusion of Rs 1,000 crores to the Solar Energy Corporation and of Rs 1,500 crores to the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, Prof Kanchan Chopra, Former Director, Institute of Economic Growth expressed concern over the lack of mention of manufacture of solar panels and other equipment’s needed to harness the benefits of solar power in the budget. She criticised the government’s silence over closing down inefficient and polluting coal/thermal power plants, despite finding a mention in the previous budget.

Reduced allocations to environmental institutes

“There has been a consistent year on year reduction in allocation to institutions like Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Forest Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, National Green Tribunal, among others. These institutions are vital for data collection and conservation actions and should be supported appropriately,” said Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, who works at the interface of ecology, law and policy. He added that the focus is entirely on aspects such as pollution control and water supply with less emphasis on matters such as forest preservation.

Conserving the marine ecosystem

Concerns were raised over the true intentions behind the newly announced Deep Ocean Mission, which is said to be aimed at studying and conserving the marine ecosystem. The involvement of bodies such as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) along with the Ministry of Earth Sciences raises serious doubts over the aim of the mission.

Way forward

“There is a need to create a framework for future action and allocate increased funding to the vital environment conservation, monitoring, and research institutes while also improving the statutory organizations’ capacity, such as the State Pollution Control Boards, by recruiting more manpower,” said Thakkar.

Sinha voiced the need for more conservation projects and increased investment in natural assets. He also suggested that the Himalayan states should be provided compensation for their conservation efforts and the ecosystem services they provide to the states in plains. He concluded that India should move beyond the GDP growth model and carry out the Strategic Environment Assessment of every plan and project.

Stressing the importance of decentralized approaches, Khurana called for an urgent need to emulate the examples of people managing their water using rural technology, in keeping with their culture and ecological diversity. She also spoke of the need for bringing eminent environmental economists and ground-level people on the same table to estimate the true cost of infrastructure projects by factoring in the actual cost of natural assets. “There is a need to rejuvenate the economy, build people’s movements and raise pertinent questions,” she said.

“There is a need to estimate the ecological footprint of all activities. A methodology should be devised under which every ministry/department can access the ecological footprint of their work and come out with the indices and results. Similarly, every city and each individual should have the capacity to estimate their ecological footprint. The government should consider these aspects for the budgeting process,” added Thakkar.

“Budgets can’t do everything and there should be an attempt to link environmental policy with the budget. In the long term, there should be a focus on building back better and greener by promoting resilient infrastructure and preserving the natural capital,” said Chopra. The government should focus on green transport by providing capital subsidies for electric buses and incentivising other electric vehicles.  

Concluding the insightful deliberation, Kothari echoed the vibrant suggestions from the panelists and reemphasised the need for long-term planning. He pointed out that the growth fetish guiding the country is unsustainable as we have finite resources.

 

Acknowledgements: Nishi Verma, Sunidhi Agarwal, Nikhil Jacob, Manoswini Sarkar, Researchers at IMPRI

The discussion was organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal.