The playbook has to be rewritten. The monochromatic definition of infrastructure to only mean built structures should change.
On July 5, exactly a month after the World Environment Day, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present the Union Budget in Parliament. Ecologically speaking, indications are that this Budget too will not make any radical shifts in the interest of ensuring our long-term survival on this planet.
United Nations' Inter-governmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned last May that globally, ecosystems and critical habitats are in a free fall. Biodiversity decline and extinction are ongoing at alarming rates.
With an increasingly changing climate, the collapse will be more precipitous in the absence of “transformative change”. The report, authored by 145 experts from 50 countries, calls for “the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth”.
IPBES declares that “current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80 percent of the assessed targets of [Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)] related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land”.
If the pronouncements of climate scientists hold true, India will witness intensely violent climatic behaviour and a rising sea level that will swallow critical infrastructure, endanger cities like Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai and Kolkata, and salinise groundwater in coastal regions. A healthy, biodiverse natural landscape is the most robust protection against cataclysmic events and creeping disasters like droughts and sea level rise.
To tackle the ecological crisis starkly visible across India, this and subsequent Budgets need a perspective shift. The environment can no longer be viewed merely as a source of raw material, a surface on which infrastructure is put up or a sink created for effluents and wastes.
The monochromatic definition of infrastructure to only mean built structures should change. Open, unbuilt spaces – which a growth-obsessed economy views as lazy, unproductive land – need to be valourised.
Beaches, grasslands, forests, wetlands, farmlands, roadsides, backyards and urban commons need to be revived as natural infrastructure for generation and preservation of biodiversity, local economies, cultures and sources of water and energy.
A Budget to shift from a growth-based “paved earth” economy to a steady state “open earth” economy can begin with a few big steps.
Forests: UN's IPBES has categorically stated that the only worthwhile forests that remain outside protected areas are those that are maintained by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. The government should abandon its plan to convert “wastelands” into corporate plantations, and invest instead in enabling local communities to control, maintain and derive value from re-wilding the commons. The increased water security, access to fuel, fodder and livelihood will put many SDGs within reach with little effort.
Water: Sources of surface and groundwater need to be protected. Groundwater meets 40 percent of India's water needs, including 60 percent of irrigation and 85 percent of domestic needs. More than 50 percent of India's groundwater wells are showing a declining trend. Two-thirds of the surface water resources – nearly 1,200 billion cubic metres – is unusable because it is contaminated. Increased focus on FDI and big manufacturing only increase the infrastructure of extraction and pollution without any commensurate investments in curbing pollution, or enhancing the monitoring and enforcement agencies at the Centre and states.
The Bullet Train, the Salem-Chennai expressway or the Sagarmala proposals on Ennore's tidal wetlands all represent capital expenditure for built infrastructure that will compromise water infrastructures and impoverish and weaken local economies and people.
There will be no jal for the nal unless the Jal Shakti ministry gets its game right, and ensures that other ministries such as highways and agriculture don't end up replacing productive water infrastructures with the infrastructure of big commerce.
Agriculture: Expansion of irrigation infrastructure and supply side enhancements have been the mainstay of budgetary agricultural expenditure. Budgets of the future need to focus on conserving water and using the massive agricultural landscapes as water harvesting and biodiversity enhancing spaces. This can be done by promoting local innovation in water efficient irrigation, and water retention structures.
Gradual elimination of chemical inputs and revival and improvement of traditional agricultural practices will enhance agro-biodiversity. Budgetary investments in promoting millets must increase even as water-guzzling crops in arid landscapes are disincentivised.
Millets are climate-tolerant, nutritious and can be grown with just a few rain showers. Such investments should focus not only on local procurement, but also on localised value addition and market development so that the nutritional needs of the producers are met before anything else.
Expensive investments in AIIMS like institutes aside, investment for health has to cut across ministries so that their actions do not degrade air quality, compromise water availability or quality or erode the nutritional security or livelihood of local communities.(Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. Views expressed are personal.)Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro and gain access to curated markets data, exclusive trading recommendations, independent equity analysis, actionable investment ideas, nuanced takes on macro, corporate and policy actions, practical insights from market gurus and much more.