Early in the morning on February 1, I spoke to a few experts in the environmental and climate change movements regarding their expectations from the Union Budget 2021, and got the usual checklist of fantasies of the ‘green lobby’: clean air, clean water, plastic ban, phase-out of coal, wildlife and forest protection, ecosystem and river restoration, renewable energy and resilience building.
With no personal expectations, except counting how many times 'climate change' is mentioned in the speech — in 2020 it was five —I settled in front of the TV for an afternoon of no surprises.
First the good news. In the background of the pandemic and increasing climate-induced disasters that has exposed the abysmal conditions of India's public health infrastructure, various health experts and doctors were expecting an increase in the outlay for the health sector, and their expectations have been fulfilled to a large extent with a whopping increase of about 137 percent in healthcare spending totalling ₹223,846 crore.
To tackle air pollution, ₹2,217 crore had been allotted for 42 urban centres with a population over one million to tackle the crisis. Also mentioned was the reduction of air pollution by effectively managing waste from construction and demolition activities.
For clean water, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission Urban programme with an outlay of ₹2.87 lakh-crore for five years. The minister also said that as the World Health Organization has repeatedly stressed the importance of clean water, sanitation, and a clean environment as a prerequisite to achieving universal health, the mission aims at better water supply across India. About 4,378 urban local bodies would benefit, and liquid waste management would be carried out across 500 AMRUT cities.
Stressing on 'Swachch Bharat, Swasth Bharat', the further strengthening of the 'swachhata' (cleanliness) campaign of urban India, to focus on complete faecal sludge management, wastewater treatment, source segregation of garbage, reduction in single-use plastic and bioremediation of legacy dump sites, was announced. The Urban Swachch Bharat Mission 2.0 has been allocated Rs 141,678 crore.
On renewable energy, the focus seems to be on capturing the emerging energy transition trends — from hydrogen to smart metering. The sector received an additional infusion of Rs 1,000 crore to Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and Rs 1,500 crore to Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA). She also announced the launch of a National Hydrogen Mission in 2021-22 for generating hydrogen from green power source.
The Budget also lays focus on an increased outlay for the expansion of the City Gas Distribution (CGD) network and Ujjwala beneficiaries, to cover over 10 million more families. This will ensure that India has a 100 percent blue fame coverage of all willing household access to clean cooking fuel — that’s up from 55 percent households with access in 2014.
A new scheme will be launched on public transportation at the cost of Rs. 18,000 crore to support the augmentation of public bus transport services. It is unclear whether this will be for electric buses or not, and one hopes it is to tackle air pollution and improve mobility.
The Indian Railways will soon be a major contributor to India's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as the eastern and western dedicated freight corridors will be commissioned by June 2022 and 100 percent electrification of broad-gauge routes will be completed by December 2023. According to the World Resource Institute, dedicated freight rail corridors can lower India's cumulative railway emissions over the period 2019-2046 from 1.26 billion tonnes to 0.29 billion tonnes.
So in general that was it on the environment and climate change front. It was more or less business as usual, with no vision of a green recovery or a post-pandemic new world that many were expecting.
In the 75th year of Independence, a year after the hottest year of the century, at a time when countries including the United States and China are increasing their climate change ambitions ahead of COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, sadly, there was no mention of ecosystem restoration, forest and wildlife protection, phase-out of coal, adaptation or resilience building and to my personal dismay, 'climate change' was not mentioned even once in the almost two-hour-long budget speech.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.