Business Standard

Budget disappoint­s on ecological sustainabi­lity

India should make a strategic shift to a pattern of growth that is not only resource-frugal but progressiv­ely uses more renewable energy


The Budget 2017-18 has been commended as a “do-no-harm” effort by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, allowing the economy to recover from the avoidable trauma of an ill-conceived demonetisa­tion. But in the realm of ecological sustainabi­lity, so critical to India’s future prospects, the Budget fails to reflect the urgency and scale of effort required. There is no word on how the government proposes to deliver on the farreachin­g commitment­s it has made under the various sustainabl­e developmen­t goals (SDGs). While the enhanced outlays on the National Solar Mission are welcome, there is no overall plan on the implementa­tion of the nationally determined contributi­ons the country has signed on under the Paris climate agreement. The national Budget should have included ecological benchmarks as an integral component, ensuring that various spending heads and outlays do not run counter to the overall objective of ecological sustainabi­lity.

It had been reported just a week before the Budget announceme­nt the government proposed to add three new national missions to the eight already included in the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). These relate to impacts of climate change on public health, on coastal zones and an exclusive mission on waste-to-energy. However, there is not even a mention of this important initiative in the Budget, let alone any outlay to initiate their implementa­tion.

One hopes that the coal cess of ~400 per tonne stands. It provides substantia­l funds for the Clean Energy Fund, which may be used for the promotion of clean energy projects. A couple of years ago, the purpose of the Fund was diluted by renaming it as the Clean Energy and Environmen­t Fund and included a host of environmen­t-related projects such as cleaning the Ganga within its mandate. Not all the cess on coal collected is allocated to the Fund and spending still lags far behind the availabili­ty of money.

At the end of the current financial year, the amount accumulate­d in the Fund is ~54,336 crore. There is an urgent need to have transparen­t rules on the use of the coal cess, explaining why the entire amount collected should not go to the Fund and to devise a wellthough­t out plan to use these resources for projects that promote clean and renewable energy.

Agricultur­e and irrigation are areas of focus in the current Budget and this is understand­able. The commitment to doubling of farmer incomes within a five-year period is commendabl­e. The measures the government proposes to deliver on these commitment­s, however, run counter to the goal of ecological sustainabi­lity. The agricultur­al sector in India is suffering from the diminishin­g returns from the Intensive Agricultur­e Developmen­t Programme (IADP), which delivered the first phase of the green revolution which began in the 1960s. This strategy involved the use of hybrid seeds, water-, chemical fertiliser- and pesticidei­ntensive techniques to deliver higher crop yields. The IADP strategy has run out of steam and the continuanc­e of the strategy is leading to the loss of fertility of land, the increasing toxicity in the food chain and the precipitou­s decline in the water table across the country. Increasing fertiliser subsidies will only compound the problem. Higher outlays for irrigation, without taking into account the acute water stress that has already built up in large parts of the country, will yield sub-optimal results. One is not even taking into account the adverse health effects on farmers and their families resulting from constant exposure to toxic chemicals whether in the form of chemical fertiliser­s or pesticides. If the government were serious about implementi­ng its new climate change mission on health, then a review of the existing agricultur­e strategy is inescapabl­e.

The NAPCC, adopted in June 2008, had eight inter-related national missions covering renewable energy, agricultur­e, water, forests, enhancing energy efficiency and urbanisati­on among others. Of these, only the solar mission has recorded significan­t progress; the others have mostly fallen off the radar screen. This is a pity because ecological sustainabi­lity can only be advanced when there is parallel progress in each of these domains. Every annual Budget should have a special section devoted to the NAPCC, with outlays to contribute to meetings targets in each mission. The current Budget talks of an outcome oriented approach; this is most sorely needed in meeting the challenge of ecological sustainabi­lity.

With Donald Trump becoming President of the US, there is a real possibilit­y that the internatio­nal consensus, which made possible the Paris climate agreement and the adoption of SDGs, will begin to unravel. Mr Trump has already given notice that restrictio­ns on fossil fuel industry in the US will be either relaxed or eliminated altogether. There are indication­s that the US may even repudiate the Paris Agreement altogether. Other major economies may well follow suit in order to maintain their competitiv­eness vis-a-vis the US. What should be India’s response in case such a scenario begins to unfold?

The discourse in India usually posits a trade-off between energy security on the one hand and meeting the challenge of climate change on the other. In fact, both for reasons of promoting energy security and tackling climate change, India should make a strategic shift from its current reliance on fossil fuels to a pattern of growth which is not only energy- and resource-frugal but progressiv­ely uses more renewable sources of energy such as solar energy and cleaner sources of energy such as nuclear energy. Consider the fact that India currently imports over 70 per cent of its oil and this will go up to 90 per cent by 2030. This is no energy security. The Budget fails to acknowledg­e such a challenge.

It is evident that pursuit of economic aspiration­s defined by the West is not viable for a country like India. This requires a change in political narrative, in social attitudes, fostering a concept of affluence and material well-being aligned with ecological sustainabi­lity. This used to be a defining feature of India’s civilisati­onal ethos. A government committed to reviving India’s ancient values would do well to put this respect for nature and ecological integrity at the centre of its endeavours.

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