Workers carry a damaged photovoltaic panel inside a solar power plant in Gujarat, July 2, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave/Files
The Union Budget for financial year 2022-23 is out of the bag or the ceremonial red Bahi Khata pouch to be more precise. However, just like the red pouch, the shades of green were also ceremonial with little to offer in terms of substance.
It was amply clear that the green elements of the budget were developed against the backdrop of the Glasgow Climate talks. The terms “Energy Transition” and “Climate Action” appeared six times in the finance minister’s budget speech whereas the term “environment”was mentioned only three times, that too only in the context of the business and education sector.
Climate action cannot be an isolated exercise of installing solar panels or driving electric vehicles. The limits to our growth experiment have become abundantly clear over the past decade and its impacts will only exacerbate in the future. Therefore, our response to climate change has to pivot around resilience and adaptation rather than just mitigation. Unfortunately, the budget has allocated Rs 30 crore towards the Climate Change Action Plan and Rs 60 crore towards National Adaptation Fund, with no increase from last year.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, vulnerable countries are better off adopting Climate-Resilient Development Pathways (CRDP) i.e. trajectories that strengthen sustainable development at multiple scales and efforts to eradicate poverty through equitable societal and systems transitions and transformations while reducing the threat of climate change through ambitious mitigation, adaptation and climate resilience.
The systems transition and transformation that the IPCC talks about is a transition away from the business as usual, that is doing less of what has got us here in the first place. Preserving our natural capital that offers us invaluable ecosystem services should have been a priority.
In that, the budget fails to deliver.
River linking projects
River linking has made a comeback in budget that too with rigour. An allocation of Rs 44,605 crore has been made for the controversial Ken-Betwa Link project. In addition to this, draft detailed project reports for five river links, namely, Damanganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi- Narmada, Godavari-Krishna, Krishna-Pennar and Pennar-Cauvery have been finalised and will be implemented in due course.
Numerous experts and communities have opined that river-linking would be the most disastrous infrastructure undertaking that will sound a death knell for India’s already ailing rivers. Such projects would also lead to mass displacement and thus massive migration, that too at a time when climate change-induced migration is at its peak.
For instance, the Godavari-Krishna link project could displace nearly 1.5 million people due to the submergence of 27.66 lakh hectares of land. According to a recent report on climate-induced displacement and migration in India by Climate Action Network South Asia, India has the highest level of disaster displacement in South Asia in absolute terms and one of the world’s highest. Around 3.6 million people a year were displaced between 2008 and 2019, mostly during the monsoon. India will see 45 million people being forced to migrate from their homes by 2050 due to climate disasters, three times more than the pre-sent figures.
Dams are an integral part of river-linking projects. For instance, the Ken-Betwa project proposes to generate 103 megawatt (MW) of hydropower. However, such perceived gains are easily outweighed by the disastrous impacts dams have on biodiversity, local ecosystems and more importantly, the climate. As dam reservoirs fill, upstream forests are flooded, eliminating their function as carbon sinks. As the drowned vegetation decomposes, decaying plants in manmade reservoirs release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from dams amount to about a billion tonnes annually, making it a significant global source.
India’s perennial air pollution crisis received less attention in this year’s budget. It made no extra commitment on air pollution mitigation strategies and projects like the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). In fact, the Commission on Air Quality Management for National Capital and Adjoining Areas has been allocated Rs 17 crore as opposed to Rs 20 crore last year. The biggest cut was seen in the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) or the LPG subsidy scheme, one of the flagship air pollution mitigation programmes. The budget allocated only Rs 4,000 crore for LPG subsidies as opposed to Rs 12,000 crore last fiscal.
The commitments made to clean and sustainable mobility for urban areas is noteworthy. Especially the development of the electric vehicle (EV) ecosystem. However, the budget provides no further details regarding the financial allocation towards this transition. Moreover, given the fossil energy dependent future of most Indian cities, any transition towards EVs will be cosmetic.
India’s air pollution woes are rooted in our poor regulatory ecosystem. Nodal agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) are ill funded and understaffed given the enormity of the environmental crisis. The allocation to CPCB has remained flat at Rs.100 crores for the last two budgets. The government of India spent a whopping Rs 713.20 crore on print, electronic and outdoor advertisement in the fiscal year 2019-20.
A meagre amount of Rs 8.5 crore has been allocated for biodiversity conservation – Rs 3.5 crore less than the previous year. The National Biodiversity Authority’s allocation has also been reduced to Rs 17.5 crore from Rs 19.5 crore.
In his pathbreaking study, The Economics of Biodiversity, Partha Dasgupta refers to biodiversity as an ‘enabling asset’ and an intrinsic part of ecosystems which in turn are capital goods.
An ecosystem that is rich in biodiversity is productive and valued based on the goods and services it offers. Then there are many products we use that are from biodiversity called bio-resources. They include the varieties of foods we eat, the medicines that save our lives, the cosmetics we use etc. Bio-resources are the base for many manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceuticals, herbal medicine sector, cosmetics and biotechnology. Added to that, the loss of biodiversity also has a direct impact on human lives and their wellbeing.
A wealthy nation is only possible with a healthy biodiversity – it is high time our economic system begins making this connection.
Single window for green clearance
The budget announced a single window green clearance process merging environment, forest, wildlife and coastal regulation zone clearances in a single format. The minister made this announcement as an economic virtue under the Ease of Doing Business 2.0 scheme.
Environmental regulations meant for the protection of our ecological capital have always been perceived as an impediment to economic growth. Environmental clearance processes meant for diversion of forest or coastal land or to mitigate the impacts of developmental projects have been politically vilified. However, there is no hard evidence that these projects are only stalled on environmental grounds.
Five mega infrastructure projects – the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, Navi Mumbai International Airport, Nariyara Coal Power Plant, Pollavaram irrigation project and Delhi-Jaipur Expressway were all delayed due to issues that had nothing to do with environmental clearances.
The green clearance process has been the only safeguard against unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources. Moreover, the idea of sustainable development is at the heart of the PM Gati Shakti scheme of the budget. The bureaucratic process accompanying the green clearance process should be perceived as an integral part of the sustainable development agenda and should not be short-changed.
The devil is in the details
The Union Budget 2022 might be touching a few right cords by incorporating the climate action and clean energy transition narrative, the key, however are the details. The allocation of Rs 19,500 crore for Production Linked Incentive (PLI) for manufacture of high-efficiency solar modules might seem like a welcome proposition. However, the recently announced increase in the goods and services tax (GST) for critical components of solar projects from 5% to 12%, seems to dampen the prospects of a solar-based future.
The glaring lack of commitment to climate adaptation and climate action plans is concerning given the spate of climate-related disasters India faced in the last year alone. India lost 5.04 million hectares of crop area to cyclonic storm, flash floods, floods, landslides and cloudbursts till November 25, 2021. Climate disasters are also a huge burden on the exchequer. Just two cyclones – Yaas and Tauktae in 2021 – alone cost India $4.5 billion.
Overall, the budget’s professed climate gains are squandered away due to the ecologically damaging proposals like river linking and highway expansion. The failure to allocate sufficient funding for biodiversity conservation and pollution abatement is a missed opportunity in the wake of COVID-19 recovery.
Dharmesh Shah is a senior technical advisor at Delhi based Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).