In a post-pandemic world, a green budget as a vaccine for nature
Our relationship with nature has seldom taken centre-stage in the cold harsh world of Gross Domestic Product, balance sheets and the temperamental stock exchange. But even hard-nosed economists will accept now that a stable economy must have a resilient ecological system as its bedrock. As the finance minister gets ready to present the budget, it may be appropriate to ask whether we are investing in our natural green capital so that it continues to give us the benefits of clean air, water and other ecosystem services.
Take a look at the funds allocated to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) — a statutory authority of Project Tiger for ensuring better management of tiger reserves across India. The funds allocated may have increased marginally from year to year, but the fact is that the number of tiger reserves, too, has gone up — starting from just nine in 1973 to more than 50 in 2020. And so have the problems in their management. For instance, they need more boots on the ground to patrol and protect them.
Rajesh Gopal, who has served as the member secretary of the NTCA, argues that an investment in tigers is also an investment in ecosystem services such as clean air or water, and tourism is not the only revenue the animal generates. For instance, in 2016, nearly 2.5 million man-days worth of daily wages were dispensed to local people who are employed to patrol the forest. The nearly 350 rivers that originate from tiger reserves and tiger habitats play a major role in carbon sequestration.
Forest officers complain that while budgets are announced with great fanfare, how much reaches the states and when is crucial. Due to the delay in disbursement of funds, salaries to frontline staff and daily wage workers also get delayed.
Still, wildlife experts hope that the budgetary allocations will move beyond tigers and elephants to many species in need of attention. The ministry of environment, forest and climate change has identified more than 20 critically endangered species that need support. Wildlife conservationist MK Ranjitsinh, who was one of the key architects of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, hopes that funds are allocated for each of these species such as the Great Indian Bustard or the Gangetic dolphin.
Another aspect of a green budget is how much money is being spent on providing clean air to cities suffering from high levels of pollution. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was launched in 2019, aimed at reducing key air pollutants across 102 cities in India. A detailed analysis was conducted by Legal Initiative on Forest and Environment of the funds dispersed by the environment ministry to state pollution control boards to tackle air pollution. The study found that funds were allocated on an ad hoc basis to the states and the amounts allocated were not enough. For instance, ₹1 crore has been allocated to Varanasi for one mechanical sweeper, whereas Patna has got a budget allocation for three mechanical sweepers. Just one mechanical sweeper is not sufficient to cover the entire city of Varanasi. Additionally, just this one intervention, in lieu of other technology, is questionable as mechanical sweepers have been unable to remove smaller dust particles, ie, particulate matter.
The same analysis found that cities such as Agra, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Kanpur and Lucknow have specific budgets for construction and demolition waste (C&D) management facilities, whereas other cities do not. It’s not like the other cities don’t have the problem of construction and demolition waste. Therefore, budgetary allocations for clean air have to be guided by sound science if any of the targets are to be met
As Ranjitsinh points out, the question is not just of finding the money, but finding the political will to protect nature. And perhaps, if the finance minister is listening, a green budget may be just the vaccine that nature needs in a post-pandemic world.
Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist teaching at the Shiv Nadar UniversityThe views expressed are personal
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