If India’s wild animals were to watch the Budget speech, and review it, how many stars do you think they would give it? Perhaps one, or none!
What’s in it for the wildlife? Startlingly little. Between demonetization, the Goods and Services Tax and income tax, Arun Jaitley’s budget has no mention of protecting wildlife, conserving India’s environmental resources or making budgetary allocations that can meet India’s environmental obligations. Conservation comes under the concurrent list, so it’s handled by both Central and State governments. Alongside this, autonomous centres of excellence rely on trickle-down funding from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) – not to mention the Environment ministry’s own commitments to Project Tiger (which lost 20 crores in this year’s budget).
Expenditure reports, however, tell a slightly positive story – the MoEF received a 15% increase in funds from 2016. It’s a change for a ministry whose budget Jaitley slashed by a quarter in 2015 – then prompting the MoEF to turn to the corporate world to protect India’s endangered wildlife.
This year lacked big bang reforms for the environment, but the work of previous budgets is visible in expenditure figures. India is among the few countries on earth to levy a tax on coal produced, starting at Rs. 50 per tonne of coal in 2010, raised later to Rs.100 in 2015, 200 and then again to 400 in 2016. The proceeds went to the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF), later renamed to the Clean Environment Cess.
Budgeting is the art of making today’s numbers look better than last year’s. The NCEF helped in this – though there was no significant hike in the amount allocated to the MoEF from the centre, the budgeted expenditure was raised for various schemes like the National Adaptation Fund (by 12 crores), the National Mission on Himalayan Studies (by 33.5 crores), the National Mission for a Green India (14.35 crores crores), Project Elephant (7.5 crores), the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (which includes Project Tiger, Elephant and other state efforts – by 60 crores), Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems (8.21 crores), and the National River Conservation Programme (72.5 crores). In many of these, funds that went unspent in previous years were carried forward into this year’s budget, but all of these programmes are covered by the NCEF’s corpus of $8 billion. The problem is that the outlay is only 962.01 crores – or $143 million. In 2016, $5.16 billion, or 13 times the budget of the MoeF, remained unspent from the NCEF fund.
The government’s unwillingness to spend on the environment is contrasted by the amounts thrown into development and infrastructure. Largely, the increases don’t seem to reflect any new drive or sense of urgency within the government to fund conservation or the environment.
When money is spent, the large majority of it goes towards Project Tiger. Conservationist Murthy Kantimahanti wishes more money would be spent on other species as well.
The amount of funding that’s going to project tiger, even at a global level, is enormous… [and]the real impact these projects are having on the ground is questionable.
Government spending alone is not a full reflection of wildlife initiatives. As Dr. Ambika Sharma, an associate programme – director at the World Wildlife Fund, notes:
An annual approach cannot be taken for broader conservation needs…a deep study on the feasibility of fiscal instruments to further conservation goals needs to be done before any such measure is taken.
What else was green about the budget? Mr. Jaitley announced that every train coach would have a bio-toilet by 2017, and that more stations would adopt solid waste management units. The government has also allocated more money to solar projects – but it’s worth remembering that thermal power plants account for almost 70 percent of India’s electricity, and a large chunk of her emissions as well. 60 percent of this comes from burning coal. The irony is that with every ton of coal sold to these plants, a green fund grows larger and larger only to collect mothballs.
Stepping back, it’s clear that budgetary allocations alone won’t help India’s dwindling species anytime soon. The breaking-up of ecological corridors by infrastructure and development projects remains the greatest factor in their lives. While the amount spent on building cities, roads and railway lines eclipses what’s allocated for the environment, what really matters to India’s wildlife is where these roads and buildings are constructed, and how.
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