Ashish Kothari

In 1991, when the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh ushered in ‘economic reforms’ that catapulted India into the global economy, I had asked him a question in a public lecture he gave, about how he intended to balance rapid economic growth with environmental protection. He said that the experience of the west is that once there is enough money in the economy through growth, it can be put for ecological purposes.

Ashish-Kothari

Leaving aside for the moment the fallacy of believing that all ecological damage can be compensated (a rainforest drowned under a dam can’t be recreated, however much money you pour into it), the qs is: have governments put in the substantial new financial resources raised through rapid growth into environmental protection? A simple answer: NO!

Budgetary allocations for the Ministry of Environment and Forests (now with the added term Climate Change, MoEFCC) have consistently fallen as a percentage of total allocations. Secondly, even when there are increased allocations, such as for cleaning up the Ganga, their usage is ridden with such design flaws, inefficiencies and corruption that the environment is no better off than before. Steadily increasing levels of air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, decline in forest health and destruction of wetlands, and much else, is testimony to the dismal gap between governmental rhetoric and the environment. Regardless of which party is in power.

The 2021 budget is no different. On several significant items relating to the environment, and taking inflation and needs into account, the allocations have remained stagnant or fallen. This includes the MoEFCC, and within or related to it, of several crucial institutions such as Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Zoological and Botanical Surveys of India.

As Debadityo Sinha of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy points out, this follows an earlier recommendation by the Ministry of Finance that government should disengage with many such institutions. One consequence of this is that these institutions are having to raise funds through the private corporate sector, which inevitably compromises their ability to speak the truth when this sector indulges in ecologically damaging activities.

The government could argue that while allocations directly to environment related institutions and schemes may not have risen significantly, there are substantial allocations to sectors that have a positive environmental impact. For instance, the 2021 budget has Rs. 3500 crores for wind and solar energy, Rs. 4000 crores for a ‘Deep Ocean Mission’, and a huge Rs. 50011 crores for urban drinking water. All of these have positive ecological potential, but let’s examine them a bit more closely.

India’s major push for renewable energy (RE) has earned it global appreciation (our PM is excellent at PR!). Back home, it is not so rosy. For one thing, there is no intention to phase out fossil fuels; on the contrary, coal mining and thermal power are being promoted under the Atmanirbharbharat package. And large hydropower is being promoted as RE, though its massive ecological and social impacts are well documented; several dams are in the offing in the fragile Himalaya.

Finally, even much of the solar and wind energy is coming in the form of massive energy parks that take up huge areas of land, displacing people and wildlife. I just came back from Kachchh, and there is dismay amongst people there about the proposed allocation of a massive area in the fragile Rann ecosystem for a solar park. No prizes for guessing who is getting the permit: Adani!

There is much evidence of the enormous negative impacts of solar mega-projects in Karnataka and elsewhere; many communities in Kachchh and other parts of India are resisting the establishment of wind energy parks on their lands. There is no indication in the budget (or in policies backing it up), that the RE push would be predominantly decentralised, community-managed, and will full environmental impact assessment (currently not required for RE projects).

Nor does the budget have anything on curtailing wasteful and luxury consumption of energy or other products and services by the rich. Without controlling demand, even a complete shift to RE will be unsustainable; after all, silica has to be mined somewhere! 

According to Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, the same issue bedevils the  drinking water allocations. In principle any scheme for urban drinking water is positive. But with the continuation of a highly centralised approach to all such schemes, there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach, heavily focused on expensive infrastructure like big reservoirs and pipelines.

Instead, a decentralised approach that uses a mix of local rooftop and backyard harvesting, restoration and conservation of urban wetlands, regenerating groundwater (still, despite widespread discussion, neglected in the budget), could achieve much better results. And as in energy, there is no focus on incentivising responsible consumption, restraining luxury uses, and redistributing water  more equitably, without which no amount of infrastructure will be enough.

The ‘Deep Ocean’ allocation is intriguing. It is being projected as a programme for conservation of biodiversity in the depths of our marine areas. This would be cause for cheer, given the serious neglect of our oceanic areas for decades. But the institutions that are given responsibility under this are Ministry of Earth Sciences, Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence Development and Research Organisation, Department of Atomic Energy, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Department of Biotechnology, and the Indian Navy, none with expertise in or even significant focus on marine conservation.

Could this be a euphemism for exploration and exploitation of deep sea minerals and resources, of the kind that in other parts of the world have caused serious ecological damage? News reports say that the Mission will be in collaboration with an UN organisation for mineral exploration; a Wikipedia article on it highlights the discovery of minerals as its main historical basis. Perchance, is Adani or Reliance setting up a ‘marine resources’ unit?

Significant corporate involvement that could both displace artisanal and traditional fishworkers as also lead to further unsustainability in an already heavily exploited ocean, has been a criticism of the PM Matsya Sampada Yojana by the groups like the National Fisherworkers’ Forum. This Yojana has been given a heavy allocation in the budget.

Potentially, an allocation of Rs. 18000 crores for public transport could have significant benefits for people and environment, if it helps to reduce private vehicle density in cities. But if much of this is allocated to the metro (every city seems to want one, as if this automatically makes it ‘smart’), rather than to buses and other such earthy alternatives (including last mile connectivity, incentives for walking and cycling), the picture becomes murky. Experience with the metro so far in India’s cities is one of significant environmental impact, as also eventual lack of affordability for the poor.

There is then the issue of allocations to non-environmental sectors that have a negative impact on the environment. This is perhaps the most worrying. For instance, the budget proposes 11000 km more of national highway corridors. In the last few years, massive road construction has fragmented fragile ecosystems and disrupted local community life in the Himalaya, Western Ghats, north-east India and elsewhere. It is not only the road itself, but what it brings with it, that results in opening up previously intact ecosystems.

Clearly, the government has not learnt any lessons from COVID, ignoring the scientific evidence on how these ‘zoonotic’ diseases are an outcome of such tampering with nature. As Kanchan Chopra of Institute of Economic Growth says, how much more can we afford to destroy our ‘natural capital’ without it rebounding on us in forms like COVID?

Given that this could have been the occasion to climb into a green, nature-and-land based livelihoods recovery that could create tens of millions of jobs as also regenerate India’s badly depleted environment, this budget is disappointing. But it is not surprising. It is in the logic of neo-liberal ‘development’ planning, with a blind trust in growth as the panacea for all ills, to treat nature as a commodity for exploitation, or a ‘sink’ into which to dump waste.

With global alarm about the ecological catastrophe we are rushing headlong into, COVID recovery packages announced by the Indian government since mid-2020 ought to have put environmental regeneration and conservation, and self-reliance built on this, at the core of the budget. Clearly, too much to expect.

The article was originally published in The Hindu, titled An ecologically illiterate Budget published on February 9, 2021. The link can be found here. This is the bigger version of the article.

Author is associated with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam.

Picture Courtesy: Conversation Institute