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The ecological balance-sheet (Hindu)

Greater focus is required to reverse both inadequate budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Environment and its under-utilisation

The Union Budget presented this month has made a broad-brushed allocation of ₹2,675.42 crore to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), an apparent increase by 18.88% from last year. Worryingly, the devil is in the finer details that mirror casual indifference shown to specific issues of wildlife conservation, pollution abatement and related areas demanding immediate policy interventions by the state.

Prima facie the budgetary approach to environmental protection appears to be as fragmented and flawed as the legal approach. Even as the issues of forest management, resource conservation, pollution control and wildlife protection are manifest to be increasingly interconnected, they are treated in isolation with attention paid only at the macro-level. Often proactive measures for environment are disproportionately counter-balanced by lax regulation in other sectors such as energy and large industries. Illustratively, dedicating funds, however large or small, for the Environment Ministry, in the complete absence of corresponding measures to boost alternative energy sources, place curbs on polluting industries and vehicles and adopt sustainable development approaches to economic growth is a farcical exercise. In the current Budget too, while there has been an increase in allocation to the MoEFCC, funding for renewable energy forms, solar use in rural areas, etc. has been reduced. The pluses of additional funding have been offset by paltry efforts at consolidating environmental conservation.


Highlights of Union Budget 2017-18
Meagre budgetary allocation
In light of the increasing challenges faced by environment in India, budgetary allocation to the Ministry of Environment under various heads is palpably inadequate. There has been superficial renaming of ‘Clean Energy Cess’ levied on coal, lignite and peat as ‘Clean Environment Cess’ with an increase in the rate of levy to ₹400 per tonne. Even as climate change and increasing pollution have been matters of great concern, a measly sum of ₹40 crore and ₹74.30 crore have been allocated to the Climate Change Action Plan and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), respectively. While the national capital reeled under the heavy effects of air pollution, triggering heated debates on spiralling pollution levels in prominent urban pockets, the funding received by the CPCB is visibly unremarkable. Similarly, heads of environment and ecology, coastal management, environmental monitoring and governance, National Afforestation Management have received funds sketchily with no accompanying rationale for such allocations or a clear framework for their utilisation. The treatment of wildlife conservation has been no different, with ambitious projects like Project Tiger having the budget slashed by ₹30 crore and Project Elephant receiving a marginal boost of ₹2.5 crore.

Under-utilisation of funds
Budgetary flow for the schemes under the Ministry of Environment has been fluctuating in the past and can be best described as insubstantial. The rise and slump in allocations have been perplexing as they do not appear to have been based on receipts and expenditures of the preceding financial year. In 2015, the total budget for the Ministry was reduced by 25% to ₹1,681.60 crore, only to be increased to ₹2,327 crore the following year. Centrally sponsored schemes have also experienced similar ups and downs with Project Tiger witnessing a slash of 15% in 2015. This time as well, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has been allotted an arbitrary sum of ₹8.15 crore. Even as it is difficult to negotiate and coordinate with the State governments to chart an effective framework for conservation projects and streamline budgetary allocation, the funds dedicated to Central bodies such as the NTCA intuitively appear to be insufficient.

But the persistent problem has also been of under-utilisation of existing funds, which would otherwise have been used for an effective overhaul of several environmental issues. The expenditure budget for the MoEFCC reveals that under the Centrally sponsored schemes, transfers made to the States and the Union Territories remain grossly under-utilised. While the revised estimate under the expenditure profile for MoEFCC was at ₹2,327.51 crore, the actuals were only ₹1,521.12 crore. Estimates for 2017-18 have pegged the total amount at ₹2,675.42 crore. A closer breakdown of the actual expenditure shows that out of the ₹850.02 crore dedicated to implementing the Centrally sponsored core schemes, the total outlay was only ₹566.38 crore. These Centrally sponsored schemes include Project Tiger, Project Elephant, Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats and Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems. For instance, Project Tiger has barely managed to utilise half the funds allocated to it. The spectre of under-utilisation haunts State projects as well.

Priorities and problems
In the Fiscal Policy Strategy Statement, the envisaged outlook for the financial plan states that the “government will aggressively focus on the objectives of pushing economic growth… (and) has the prime responsibility of providing a safe and stable environment for the private sector to create wealth.” However, the need to rein in mindless propulsion of industrial growth at the cost of environment is obvious, to address the problems of disappearing wildlife, increasing conflicts, deterioration of ecology and habitat destruction. For this, scientific, sustained and intensive measures of conservation are required. A small step in this regard would be to acknowledge the role of the environment in budgetary allocations and ensure rational dedication of funds.

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