Despite its stated objective, the budget falls short of green ambitions

Three things stand out from the Union’s 2022-23 budget for anyone interested in the relationship between economy and ecology. One is the complete absence of the following words from Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech: nature, wildlife, environment, ecology, ecosystem, pollution and conservation (except for uses such as “business environment” and “growth ecosystem”). Second, it’s a budget with a stated focus on climate action. Third, there is a massive increase in allocations for infrastructure projects, with huge environmental implications. Taken together, these highlights demonstrate the profound contradictions in the government’s approach to sustainable development.

The budget can be analyzed from three points of view: direct allocations for the environmental sector, environmental allocations in non-environmental sectors and allocations for other sectors with environmental impacts.

On the first count, there is a slight increase in the budget of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC) from the revised estimate for 2021-22
from Rs 2,870 crore to Rs 3,030 crore. But this is easily wiped out by inflation. More importantly, it is a measly 0.08% of total budget expenditures. While some sectors like forestry and wildlife have seen a healthy increase in allocation, spending on others like the National Rivers Conservation Plan has fallen – this, surprisingly, also includes the allocation to combat air pollution, widely recognized as a national emergency.

On the second count, the news is mixed. The emphasis is on natural and organic farming and the promotion of millet. But there are no details on allocations, including for the links needed to make this agriculture viable, such as manure and markets. Additionally, given the big budget push for food processing, with no reservations for community-run businesses, there is a danger that big business will take over the organic space. It completely misses the focus on rain-fed agriculture which involves 60% of the farming population and which is ecologically more sustainable than artificially irrigated agriculture. The FM announced the government’s support for ‘chemical-free farming nationwide’ but also allocated a massive chemical fertilizer subsidy of Rs 1,05,222 crore. A chance to start shifting this subsidy to organics was missed.

On the climate front, there are several positive provisions – use of biomass for power plants, battery reinforcement, energy efficiency measures in large commercial buildings and sovereign green bonds. However, these gains will be more than offset by the much greater fiscal support for climate-unfriendly investments like those in mega-infrastructure, air transport and coal expansion.

Renewable and “clean” energy received significantly higher allocations. But the focus remains on mega-parks of solar/wind power, nuclear power and large hydroelectric plants that have serious ecological impacts. These projects also threaten to grab people’s lands. The extra budget for farm-level solar pumps and rooftop solar generation is welcome, but it’s miniscule compared to megaprojects. Another chance to switch to decentralized renewable energy with less ecological impacts and better community access was missed.

There is a striking schizophrenia in government that recognizes the climate as “the strongest negative externality” but invests next to nothing in coping mechanisms for hundreds of millions of people facing the consequences of rising floods, fires, droughts, coastal erosion, downpours, unpredictable rainfall and extreme temperatures. The National Climate Action Plan gets a grossly inadequate Rs 30 crore – the same as in 2021-22. And the focus is not on a “just transition” that could help workers in fossil fuel sectors, like coal, transition to jobs in cleaner, greener sectors.

It is encouraging to see the budget propose a “paradigm shift” towards sustainable urban living. A committee should be set up to advise on this. The budget promises increased support for public transportation, something citizens’ groups have been calling for for decades. Unfortunately, most of the allocation will go to metros which are extremely carbon intensive in terms of construction. The budget misses the transition to a full bus, bike and walking system – which would help both the environment and most road users in cities. Even the boost to electric vehicles is likely to benefit the wealthy unless it focuses primarily on buses.

The third dimension is the most worrying. As the FM pointed out, this is primarily an “infrastructure budget”. While infrastructure investments in small towns and villages are urgently needed, much of what is on offer are megaprojects. The proposed 25,000 km increase in highways will further fragment forests, wetlands, mountains, grasslands, farmlands and bypass most villages. What is missing is a paradigm shift towards decentralized, sustainable and community-driven infrastructure.

Several specific allocations are also of concern. For example, the Ken-Betwa River Link Project, endowed with more than Rs 40,000 crore, will overwhelm the valuable tiger habitat. Viable decentralized irrigation alternatives have been ignored. The Deep Ocean Mission and Blue Revolution allocations are geared towards commercial exploitation rather than conservation and sustainable use. A new budget item is oil palm, with almost Rs 500 crore (under SC, ST and gender budgets). A recent announcement that palm plantations are proposed in northeast India and the ecologically fragile Andaman Islands makes this prospect worrying.

Finally, the budget misses a major shift towards “green jobs”. This includes support for decentralized production (including artisanal) of textiles, footwear and other products. Even MGNREGS, which could have been used to regenerate two-thirds of India’s landmass that is ecologically degraded, got a reduced allocation.

The economy will continue to be extremely unsustainable and inequitable, as the private business sector has been favored and environmental regulations are gradually reduced. Another chance to turn the economy towards real sustainability and equity – a veritable “Amrit Kaal” as India heads towards a centenary of independence – has been missed.

The writer is in Kalpavriksh, Pune. Opinions expressed are personal

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