Many nice words, some money but no direction for real change
Let us look at the big budget announcements for sustainability and what they mean.
- Enhanced clean energy cess on coal. It is increased from Rs 50 to Rs 100 per tonne. But the finance minister does not spell out what will be done with this money. At present, Rs 3,000-3,500 crore is collected in the National Clean Energy Fund but not much is spent. The National Clean Energy Fund is important as it signals the need to make dirty coal more expensive to use. It is even more important as it is the money that should be invested in renewable energy projects that meet the needs of the poorest. But this is not done. Instead the money is frittered away in many small projects.
- Duty exemptions and other mentions of solar and renewable energy in Budget 2014 are welcome but not enough. The budget does not appreciate that the big potential lies in decentralised and off grid solar solutions; smaller power plants that provide clean energy to millions across India. Instead, it falls back on the “big” solar plants, announcing Rs 500 crore for ultra mega solar power plants.
- The annual fund allocation for cleaning the Ganga enhanced to Rs 2,037 crore but without recognition that the programme must be reinvented to succeed. The finance minister utters no word about the new direction needed to clean the river. Even the previous UPA government had made funds available, even secured a loan of Rs 4,600 crore from the World Bank for cleaning the Ganga. But all this money has not cleaned the Ganga because the approach is flawed. It focuses on building sewage treatment plants when our poor cities lack sewerage network.
- The recognition that climate change is real and the need to “adapt” to it is urgent, is a very important message of this budget. The finance minister provides Rs 100 crore to the national adaptation fund. While it can be argued that this is too little, it is the first step in recognizing the need to invest in building the resilience of poor communities against climate change. The question now is what this money will be used for.
- Total sanitation is spoken about in big words, without any big idea on how to achieve this objective. The UPA II government, to its credit, had progressively increased the funding for drinking water and sanitation—going from Rs 8,000 crore in 2008-09 to Rs 15,000 crore in the February 2014 budget. But sanitation—the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan—still gets Rs 4,000 crore annually. This is miniscule given the scale of the challenge. So, are we to assume that NDA does not see the need for anything different in this budgetary allocation? And if so, then how does it aim at providing toilets to over 600 million people who still defecate in the open. How will it scale up this work without additional money and effective delivery?
- Focus on transportation is important but Budget 2014 does not provide directions that will work. The finance minister sets aside Rs 100 crore for metro projects in Lucknow and Ahmedabad. But metro systems cost between Rs 150 crore and Rs 300 crore per km to build. So, will this Rs 100 crore go into building a kilometre of metro line or just go into feasibility studies?
- The Gujarat model is the flavour of the day in Budget 2014 but its most innovative and successful initiative to build bus rapid transit systems is ignored. There is no mention of buses, still the affordable transport system for millions in cities. Is it because it is too low-tech and old-fashioned?
- Budget 2014 puts tobacco and sugar in one category. Excise duty on cigarettes, pan masala, gutkha and aerated drinks with sugar has been increased. It is clear that aerated drinks are the new tobacco. This is to be cheered.
- The NDA budget is not different from UPA II when it comes to polluting vehicles. In Budget 2013, then finance minister P Chidambaram had increased the tax on SUVs, saying they were inefficient and polluting. But in February he removed the tax. This Budget 2014 also believes that it must help cars that are large, inefficient and dirty.
Post script: Budget 2014 allocates Rs 200 crore for statue and Rs 50 crore for 50 million people who depend on the handloom sector. What does this say of priorities?
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