Bengaluru: In her budget speech in February 2020, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke of a big push for the environment--more solar energy, a blue economy where fisheries would thrive and clean air plans enabled by the progressive closure of old and polluting thermal power plants.

At the central level, such policies are mainly the domain of three ministries--the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), and the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MJS).

In 2020-21, the MoEF was allotted a total of Rs 3,100 crore ($424.66 million), a 5% increase over the Rs 2,955 crore ($404.79 million) in the previous year. The MNRE was given Rs 5,753 crore ($788.08 million), a 9% rise over the Rs 5,254 crore ($719.73 million) allocated in 2019-20.

The MJS that handles the Namami Gange project to clean the river, conserve other water bodies and support irrigation programmes was allocated Rs 8,960 crore ($1227.4 million)--an 8.6% rise from the Rs 8,245 crore ($1129.45 million) allotted the year before.

In this pre-budget explainer for the environment sector, we outline how funds are allocated for government-run programmes, how the money is spent, and what more needs to be done for effective financing of the sector. Overall, budget allocations for environment programmes are often not sufficient, and when they are, the funds are badly managed, as we detail later.

Most environment schemes are funded by both the Centre and to a lesser extent, the states, but they are largely delegated to and organised by state governments. The Centre funds certain state environment programmes relating to public health and sanitation, agriculture, preservation, protection and improvement of stock and prevention of animal diseases, water, land and so on.

How programmes were funded

The MoEF focused its 2020-21 budget on the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP, 14.8% of the MoEF budget), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB, 3.2% of the MoEF budget), the Green India Mission - National Afforestation Programme (8% of the MoEF budget), and Project Tiger (9.6% of the MoEF budget). While a small percentage (3.7%) of the MoEF budget was given to environmental education and awareness (Rs 114.36 crore), research and development for conservation and development got Rs 7.50 crore (0.25% of the MoEF budget).

The National Afforestation Programme was allocated Rs 246 crore, an increase of 37% from the Rs 179 crore the previous year. Launched in 2014, the scheme's aim is to protect, restore and develop forest resources with rural participation. In 2017-18, the Rs 47.8 crore allocated for the scheme was "grossly insufficient", a December 2018 Lok Sabha report had concluded. The afforestation carried out under the mission did not take into account soil and weather conditions when the trees were being planted, it had pointed out.

The CPCB, which deals with pollution monitoring, was allocated Rs 100 crore like the year before. The overall budget for pollution control under NCAP was Rs 460 crore, the same as the previous year. In many Indian cities, air pollution levels regularly exceed "very poor" and "severe" on the Air Quality Index (AQI). In 2019, air pollution caused 1.67 million deaths in India, a 2019 Lancet report, 'Health and Economic Impact of Air Pollution in the States of India: The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019', found.

The NCAP looks to target 122 'non-attainment' cities identified by the CPCB as not meeting pollution limits. Only 5% of cities and towns (339 out of 6,166) were being monitored for air quality, and less than 1% (only 60 out of 6,166) of cities had Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS), a January 2020 report by the Natural Resources Defence Council had stated.

The Centre also slashed the funds allocated for adaptation and climate action under the National Adaptation Fund established in 2015 to meet the cost of adapting to climate change for states vulnerable to its effects. Its budget was Rs 350 crore for the year 2015-16 and 2016-17, which was then reduced to Rs 100 crore in 2019-20 and Rs 80 crore in 2020-21.

Renewable energy push

At the MNRE, the focus was on renewable wind and solar grid energy, with Rs 1,299 crore ($177.95 million) and Rs 2,149 crore ($294.38 million) allocated, respectively, in 2020-21. Solar power also features in the off-grid set-ups, especially in the Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan (KUSUM) programme. The scheme established in 2019 was expanded in 2020 to enable up to two million farmers to install standalone solar pumps. It was allocated Rs 300 crore for centralised grid projects, and about Rs 700 crore for off-grid projects.

Despite the government assertion that India's solar power targets--100 GW by 2022--were achievable, an earlier IndiaSpend analysis had shown that weak infrastructure and the lack of cheap financing were a challenge. The Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, a government-owned renewables financing institution, received Rs 13,351 crore ($1.83 billion) in 2020-21, an increase of 10.8% from Rs 12,053 crore ($1.66 billion) the previous fiscal year.

"Overall, the key concern this year should be about a Green Recovery post-pandemic," Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, at the Centre for Science and Environment, said. "We should be looking at certain sectors that can push this recovery. There is also the need to have clean fuel priced better than coal, since there are now more liberal policies in the mining sector due to lowered environmental safeguards."

River conservation

The MJS finances the Namami Gange plan to rejuvenate and clean the Ganga, to which Rs 800 crore was allocated in 2020-21--7% more than the Rs 750 allocated the previous year. The Namami Gange project was started in June 2014 with an outlay of Rs 20,000 crore ($2.74 billion). During 2014-15 to 2016-17, only 8% to 63% of the revised estimate--the money estimated to have been spent at the end of the year--were utilised, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) had found in 2017. By March 2020, only 37% projects (116 of 310) had been completed.

MJS has also allocated funds for river basin management (Rs 200 crore), the National Hydrology Project (Rs 200 crore), Flood Management and Border Areas Programme (Rs 750 crore), and the Har Khet Ko Pani irrigation programme (Rs 1,050 crore).

Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Environment, Energy, and Water (CEEW), emphasised on the need to promote water-saving in agriculture through methods such as drip irrigation, and to move to better farming practices altogether. "There is a need to look at things from a less technocratic way. Larger reforms are needed in the agriculture sector," he said.

The Flood Management and Border Areas Programme is a centrally funded programme managed by 25 states to ensure protection against floods. Of the 206 flood management programme projects evaluated during a C&AG performance audit of 2017, funds amounting to Rs 171.28 crore in six projects among five states were found to have not been utilised.

Additionally, the revised budget estimates for Namami Gange in 2019-20 show 53% less expenditure than anticipated on the project, while other rivers got little attention, showed this IndiaSpend analysis.

Way forward

Budget allocations must be aligned with the nature of the problems that need addressing, said Amit Bhatt, executive director, integrated transport, World Resources Institute. "There is a difference between the budget allocation and the problems that really need to be addressed. For example, the Clean Air Plan has been allocated Rs 460 crore but when given to 100 cities, that's only Rs 4 crore per city. This isn't enough to tackle the whole problem, but can be used as seed capital to further the fight against air pollution," he said.

Despite the lockdown and limited functioning of the transport and manufacturing industry, 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record in the world. This shows the extent of the environmental problem that needs tackling and funding, said Chaturvedi of CEEW. "The Supreme Court, for example, recently brought back the idea of installing smog towers in Delhi. While they are effective to a certain level, they are largely wasteful expenditure. Instead, this money could be used for better ways to reduce air pollution," he said.

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