Environment and Budget 2021: Preserving India’s ecosystem or business as usual?

By Amita Bhaduri, Ritika Gupta

The Union Budget 2021 is touted to be the mother of all budgets since it comes when the country is grappling its way out of the pandemic. In pursuit of tackling the immediate emergency posed by Covid-19, the actions to address the growing climate emergency took a backseat. 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 is riding on a lot of expectations to deliver on the environment front.

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, while formally inaugurating the panel discussion titled, ‘Environment & Budget 2021: Business as Usual?‘, organized by Impact and Policy Research Institute – IMPRI and India Water Portal, coined a few pertinent questions to be addressed during the ensuing discussion. She questioned whether there is anything remarkable in the Budget 2021, whether it yields anything substantial for the country’s fight against climate change and environmental excesses. And whether it proposes any measures for the restoration, conservation, and preservation of India’s ecosystem, or is it business as usual?

Setting the Context

Mr Ashish Kothari, Founder-member, Kalpavriksh, Pune and Chair for the session, drew the context in a layman’s perspective. Despite the country’s economic growth and the status quo of fifth largest economy in the world, the allocations to the Ministry of Environment have been shrinking in real terms. Apart from this monetary view, he emphasized the need to focus 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, for example, the increased allocations for chemical fertilizers or the push for more National Highways, added Mr Kothari. Lastly, he commented on the highly centralized budgeting process and inquired on how it could be made more participatory.

To facilitate an informed discussion against the background set by Mr Kothari, the Research Team at Impact and Policy Research Institute – IMPRI comprising of Ms Sunidhi Agarwal, Mr Nikhil Jacob, and Ms Manoswini Sarkar, made a brief presentation regarding the environmental aspects of Budget 2021. They 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. Thrust to mitigating pollution through the National Clean Air Program, the voluntary vehicle scrapping policy, and the Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 were also highlighted apart from the announcement of a Deep Ocean Mission to study and conservation of marine biodiversity a quantum jump in the Jal Jeevan Mission allocations.

The research team also noted that the substantial increase in overall budget outlay and capital expenditure did not accompany a concomitant improvement in the allocations to the Ministry of Environment which saw a drop compared to the 2020 Budget Estimates. They also dwelt upon the discontinuation of allocation to pollution abatement and the meager allocations to Climate Change Action Plan, and the allocations to other schemes that may indirectly impact the environment like chemical fertilizers and railway line doubling.

General Opinion on Budget 2021’s Performance Vis-A-Vis the Environment

Prof Kanchan Chopra, Former Director and Professor Institute of Economic Growth, who works in the area of environment and development, ecosystem services, ecological-economic modeling, and environment policy, opined that the budget was business as usual with not much to offer for the environment. She expressed concern over the meager funds allocated to the Ministry of Environment.

Mr Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, who look at issues related to dam and rivers, environmental governance and the functioning of bodies like the Environment Appraisal Committee, Forest Advisory Committee and the national and state wildlife boards, remarked that we are currently in an era of the worst environmental governance. He pointed out that the word ‘Ecology’ didn’t even find a mention in the Budget Speech. He also expressed reservations about the Jal Jeevan Mission’s allocation on being hailed as an environmentally sound investment as it is just an infrastructure project according to him. The vehicle scaping policy is voluntary, which does not tell how exactly it will help in abetting pollution, he added.

Dr Indira Khurana, Vice-Chair, Tarun Bharat Sangh, who works in the domain of drinking water and water resources strongly stated that the budget was just business, period. She highlighted how COVID – 19 and other modern diseases are zoonotic in origin and spread to humans due to rapid deforestation. She also expressed disappointment over the increased allocation towards Jal Jeevan Mission’s urban component without making any mention of source sustainability.

Mr Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, who works at the interface of ecology, law and policy added that the focus is entirely on aspects such as pollution control and water supply with less emphasis on matters such as forest preservation.

BUDGET 2020:

Water and Its Sustainable Use

With a 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. Commenting on this, Mr Thakkar opined the mission adopts a top-down and one size fits all approach with no environment and social impact assessment. He maintained that the sustainability of the water supply is not taken into consideration. He lamented that there is nothing positive for water, groundwater, or rivers in the budget. He batted for a National Urban Water Policy and the need to develop water-smart cities.

Dr Khurana corroborated the need for source sustainability of water supply, considering that about one-third of the India districts face drought issues. She also emphasized 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.

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 Chopra expressed concern over the lack of mention about the manufacture of solar panels and other equipment’s needed to harness the benefits of solar power in the budget. She criticized 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

Mr Sinha came down heavily on the consistent year on year reduction in allocations 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. He maintained that these institutions are vital for data collection and conservation actions and should be supported appropriately.

Other Concerns

The eminent panelists raised concerns 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, remarked the panelists.

Pertinent Questions

Dr Simi Mehta raised the important question on how to change the government’s policy ignorance and bring focus on the rapidly degrading environment? She inquired, whether the current measures like divesting fossil fuels or cleaning the air in 122 cities be enough? Responding to this, all panelists equivocally stated that nothing that is being done now is enough to tackle the issues at hand, and more needs to be envisioned and implemented urgently.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, inquired about India’s environmental track record compared with other countries like China. Responding to the query, Dr Indira pointed out that China is not performing very well viz a viz the environment or sustainable infrastructure. She added that even China follows the philosophy of ‘big is better’ and that India should rather look towards small and decentralized structures and mechanisms. Mr Kothari supplemented this by referring to the horrendous impacts of Chinese investments within the country and in Latin America and Africa.

Speaking on the highly technical requirements of the several projects and programs and the resultant role of consultants and Multi-National Corporation project management units, Special Purpose Vehicles etc in planning, monitoring and creating reports, Dr Kumar asked whether such a model is of any help? Responding to the query, Mr Thakkar pointed out that many Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), Cumulative Impact Assessments, monitoring activities etc are performed by the consultants, experts and committees and governance happens through them. He remarked that what is required is to consider the governance of these reports as most of these are dishonest and doctored. He added that the consultants could not be kept out, at least in the short term, and hence the focus needs to be on the credible governance of the decision-making process. Mr Kothari added to this saying that we are overdependent on the experts and consultants leading to ignorance of the local and public knowledge.

Way Forward and Concluding Remarks

Creating a framework for future action, Mr Sinha advocated for 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. He voiced for more conservation projects and increased investment in natural assets. He also suggested that the Himalayan states should be given compensations for the conservations’ efforts that they carry out 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 Strategic Environment Assessment of every plan and project.

Adding on the importance of decentralized approaches, Dr Indira maintained that there is 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 voiced out her idea of bringing eminent environmental economists and ground-level people on the same table to estimate the true cost of any interventions like infrastructure projects by factoring the natural assets’ actual cost. Before concluding, she echoed the words of a participant for the need for regenerative economics to rejuvenate the economy and voiced the need to build people’s movements and raise pertinent questions.

Emphasising on the need to estimate the ecological footprint of all activities, Mr Thakkar postulated a system in which every ministry/department should have a methodology to access the ecological footprint of their work and come out with the indices and results. Similarly, every city and even every individual should have the capacity to estimate their ecological footprint. The government should consider these aspects for the budgeting process, added Mr Thakkar.

Prof Chopra reiterated the need for estimating the ecological footprint of every project. She suggested that the government focus on green transport by providing capital subsidies for electric buses and incentivizing other electric vehicles. Regarding the restoration of urban water bodies, she added that the Jal Jeevan Mission should be linked to the Smart Cities Mission. She added that in the long term, there should be a focus on building back better and greener by promoting resilient infrastructure and preserving the natural capital. Budgets can’t do everything and there should be an attempt to link environmental policy with the budget, she concluded.

Concluding the insightful deliberation, Chair, Mr Ashish Kothari echoed the panelists’ vibrant suggestions and reemphasized the need for long-term planning. He pointed out that the growth fetish guiding the country is unsustainable as we have finite resources. He remarked that the economy should be within ecology.

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

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