In my last blog post on 26.6.2014 titled MODI AND THE ENVIRONMENT: GREEN VISION OR GREY AREA I had expressed my misgivings about the new government's attitude to the environment. This apprehension unfortunately has been justified by its two recent decisions since then: the clearance accorded to the Renuka Dam in Himachal and the announcement that the MOEF proposes to relax the provisions of the Forest Rights Act to do away with the required consent of the Panchayats for some types of projects. Mr. Jaitely's budget yesterday further reinforces the government's antipathy to the environment. The following provisions in the budget, and the equally significant gaps in it, can lead to no other conclusion.
In a shocking cut and paste job the Finance Minister has actually REDUCED the size of the annual budget of the Ministry of Environment and Forests by Rs. 400 crores to Rs.2256 crore, a cut of about 15% on the previous year's provision. I find this totally baffling when the world over governments are beginning to realise that investment in the environment is actually a sound economic strategy. Compare this, incidentally, with the 133% increase in the budget of the Urban Development Ministry, from Rs.7548 crore to Rs. 17628 crore( which includes Rs. 7060 crore for 100 new smart cities). How "smart" will these cities be if, like Delhi, they have to devastate neighbouring states for their water supply; if, like Kanpur, they pour billions of litres of sewage and chemicals into the Ganga; if, like Calcutta, they obliterate precious wetlands for their expansion? There is an urgent need to strengthen the MOEF to deal with the inevitable expansion of urbanisation and industrialisation, but the government has instead weakened it.
During his election campaign and even after assuming office Mr. Modi has spoken about establishing a Council of Himalayan States to evolve a more specific planning model for them so that their environmental concerns could be addressed. Preservation of the environment of these states is vital for the northern plains of India for they provide the water, the carbon sink, the biodiversity, the climate modulation without which north India would revert to the planet of the apes. So Mr. Modi's announcement was certainly no charity for the Himalayan states. But the Finance Minister made no mention of this Council in his budget.
States like Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand particularly are on the verge of ecological disaster with hundreds of dams coming up or proposed, rivers without waters, forests being submerged, lakhs being displaced. There are any number of reports documenting all this. These projects need an urgent review by the Centre since the states themselves are so mesmerised by the lucre, both on and off the table, that they cannot be expected to take rational decisions. Typical examples are the Lower Subhansiri HEP in Arunachal Pradesh and the Renuka Dam in Himachal against which local populations have been agitating for years. Is Mr. Modi afraid that the setting up of a Council could jeopardize these projects? In that case he should learn from other countries which have found the vision to realise that the environment is a more worthy cause than the ego: Chile has recently rejected a proposed network of five dams in Patagonia, the Hidroaysen HEP which would have cost eight billion dollars, because of its environmental impacts; in the Congo the govt., responding to ecological concerns, has forced SOCO, an oil giant, to drop exploration in the Virunga National Park because it is the habitat of 200 endangered mountain gorillas-yes, just 200! Can we , an aspiring superpower, not even show the environmental sensitivity of a Congo, for God's sake?
Climate Change is happening even as we speak, and the delayed monsoon is another proof of it, if indeed any more proof was needed. We need to urgently set up a body of experts to assess its impacts, their timelines and intensity and to prepare short term and long term strategies to mitigate the effects. This is a massive exercise as it will cut across many sectors- agriculture, forestry, water resources, health, animal husbandry, and will have to plan for consequences such as displacement and migration of populations, shifting cropping patterns, water scarcity, food security, even cross border tensions. One would have expected Mr. Jaitley to have responded with some urgency to this issue but he has provided only Rs. 100 crore for an Adaptation Fund for Climate Change, even less than that provided for a certain statue! This is only a lip service and cannot even begin to tackle the problem.
Isn't it high time, Mr. Jaitley, that we started moving towards a regime for capping carbon emissions and putting a cost on such emissions? Mr. Modi is an unapologetic admirer of the Chinese model of growth, and there are certainly elements of it which should be emulated. One of them-which seems to have escaped Mr. Modi's attention-is the realisation that, GDP notwithstanding, carbon emissions have to be reduced in the interest of its own citizens.( Incidentally, this realisation dawned when the air in Beijing was generally acknowledged to be the most polluted in the world; today Delhi has surpassed Beijing to claim this dubious distinction). China has now embraced reforms to clean up its air and environment in a major way- it will spend $ 275 billion over the next five years to do so. It has plans to cap its carbon emissions at 4 billion tce by 2015; it has set up a carbon trading scheme in seven cities and plans to roll it out nationally by 2021, along with carbon budgets for every province. China has learnt its lesson the hard way; we have the opportunity to learn from it and avoid some of the pitfalls, saving both time and money in the process. Sadly, this budget does not hold out any hope for this because there is not even a mention of any intent in this direction.
One would have welcomed a few more environment related policy inputs in the budget: strengthening of the Environment Protection Act and the Wildlife Protection Act to provide for easier prosecution and even harsher imprisonment for willful defaulters, notifying the Western Ghats as an ESA( Ecologically Sensitive Area) on the basis of the Kasturirangan report( a decision held up since 2012 because of lobbying by mining interests), a subsidy support for electric/ hybrid cars, a greater thrust on wind energy, specific state-wise targets for generation of power from renewable sources.
This is not a budget which is sensitive to the natural environment.