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An Ecologically Illiterate Budget

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By 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
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 question 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, the decline in forest health and destruction of wetlands, and much else, is testimony to the dismal gap between government 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, substantial allocations to sectors 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.

Representational image.

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 infrastructures 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 the 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 the 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 a 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 displace artisanal and traditional fish workers and 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.

Representational image.

Potentially, an allocation of Rs. 18000 crores for public transport could have significant benefits for people and the environment if it reduces 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 and eventual lack of affordability for the poor.

There is then the issue of allocations to non-environmental sectors that hurt 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 the 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. This is the bigger version of the article.

The author is associated with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam and Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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