Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Nikhil Jacob
“Back in 1991, when economic reforms were introduced under the then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, I asked him how do you propose to protect the environment given that liberalization can cause damage? He said that all countries have gone through this curve of prosperity and growth, then they put money to ecological uses” – Mr Ashish Kothari
Mr Kothari, outlined the broad context of the discussion from a layman’s perspective by drawing attention to the fact that despite the economic growth achieved by the country, which today is the 5th largest economy in the world, the allocations to the Ministry of Environment has been shrinking in real terms. Mr Kothari tracked that more money was being spent on the environment for at least 15 years after economic reforms till 2000s. But the spending had been gradually decreasing over those years. It was dropped to 0.5 percent of the budget from little less than 1 percent.
Apart from this monetary view, he emphasized the need to focus on how the allocated money is put to use. For instance, crores of rupees have been allocated to Clean Ganga Mission, but still it has failed to deliver the desired results. He also questioned the effectiveness of the increased allocation of clean drinking water on ground. Other non-environmental sectors that see sizeable fund allocations should be viewed from how they impact the environment. For example, the increased allocations for chemical fertilizers paving the way for ecologically destructive agriculture. Push for more than 11000 kms of National Highways which will pass the ecologically and socially fragile areas such as Adhivasis areas.
Most of the budget is made up of concession and tax cuts to industries, mostly in the backward areas, which tend to be ecologically sensitive. He questioned how much the budgetary allocation to the environment could offset the effects of such concessions. He also commented on the highly centralized budgeting process and inquired on how it could be made more participatory.
During the deliberation on the need to focus on non-carbon renewable energy sources, Mr Kothari raised concern over the practice of commissioning solar and wind mega parks by converting fragile ecological habitats. He added that it is inappropriate to think such a practice is sustainable just because it is for renewable energy generation. Proper social and environmental impact assessment is necessary even in such cases, he maintained.
Mr Kothari briefly touched upon the tremendous scope of urban agriculture in the present era citing the example of European countries and the garden city of India – Bengaluru. Apart from capturing some of the foul air in the city, it also provides urban communities with fresh food and prevents long-distance travel to purchase these produces, which in itself has an ecological footprint, remarked Mr Kothari.
He emphasized that the consumption habits of citizens are impacting the environment. People move to new technology without disposing off the old utilities efficiently. This can be included in the budget if government incentivizes people to adopt sustainable and ecological sustainable habits.
He elaborates that dependency on consultants have given up their power of local knowledge. He exemplified the Rann of Kutch where despite having lowest rainfall, villages have become self reliant due to decentralized water harvesting by using local traditional water knowledge along with hydrologists. They have formed the groups of young geohydrologists who have solved the water crisis in many villages there.
In his concluding remarks, Mr Kothari shared an interesting anecdote while making the point that without understanding ‘ecology’, one cannot think about ‘economics’ as the economy is within ecology. He supplemented that there needs to be a focus on long term planning while keeping a check on the ‘growth fetish’ given that we have only finite resources.
Mr Ashish Kothari is a prominent Indian Environmentalist and Founder-member of Kalpavriksh, Pune, Mr Ashish Kothari, lead an insightful deliberation during a panel discussion based on the topic, ‘Environment & Budget 2021: Business as Usual?’, which he chaired.
The session was organized by the Impact and Policy Research Institute – IMPRI and India Water Portal on February 03, 2021; two days after the Union Budget was tabled in the parliament. The panelists included Prof Kanchan Chopra, Former Director and Professor, Institute of Economic Growth; Mr Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People; Dr Indira Khurana, Vice-Chair, Tarun Bharat Sangh and Mr Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.