India drags its feet in the face of climate catastrophe

Environment ministry unable to use nearly half the money allocated for controlling air pollution even as the scale of the problem continues to grow

Delhi pollution
A recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment quotes an earlier study to show that air pollution in India increased dramatically between 2009 and 2018.

In this pandemic year, when climate change and the devastating effects of rising pollution are in more focus than ever, India’s environment ministry has said it has been unable to use nearly half the money allocated for controlling air pollution. To which a parliamentary panel has responded by suggesting that the ministry could show some innovation and use idle funds to boost the infrastructure needed for electric vehicles and set up bio-degraders so that the annual problem of stubble burning – which causes significant pollution in Delhi-NCR and other north Indian cities – can be mitigated.

It is no secret that India is waging an increasingly difficult war on pollution. A recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment quotes an earlier study to show that air pollution increased in 33 of the 88 industrial clusters in India between 2009 and 2018; water pollution was up in 45 of these clusters, and so on. Given the scale of the problem, the inability of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate change to spend allotted amounts in countering pollution is baffling. Nearly half the budgetary allocations for various schemes and programmes this fiscal year have remained unutilised.

Also watch: Can India curb air pollution faster than China?

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In the budget estimates for 2020-21, the ministry was allocated 460 crore under the head ‘Control of Pollution’. This scheme largely funds the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the most prominent central initiative to tackle air pollution. The targets under NCAP were stiff: to achieve 20 per cent to 30 per cent reduction in particulate matter concentrations by 2024, keeping 2017 as the base year for the comparison of concentration.

Of the 460 crore allocated, the ministry had utilised only about 190 crore, or 58 per cent, till January end. Overall, the BE for the ministry was 3,100 crore but only Rs 1,673.71 crore was used till January 31 this year.

This is why the parliamentary standing committee has asked the ministry to innovate and invest the unused funds in, among other things, setting up charging stations for electric vehicles. This would take care of the infrastructure bottleneck being faced by the government in promoting EVs and simultaneously help the fight against air pollution. Investments needed in setting up country-wide charging infrastructure for EVs are scarce.

In fact, another parliamentary panel examining the demands of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has suggested that vehicle makers should be asked to invest in developing charging infrastructure. According to a study by the CEEW-Centre for Energy Finance, the government has allotted 1,000 crore for charging infrastructure under the FAME II policy for electric vehicles, but the scheme does not provide specifics and no targets have been set. Given this background, it is sensible for the environment ministry to use idle funds in creating the much-needed EV infrastructure.

The panel’s other suggestion – about bio-digesters – is also a pertinent one since establishing effective microorganism bio-digester units will not only help increase the efficiency of waste treatment and biogas production in urban areas, but also reduce the problem of stubble burning in north India.

Also read: Heavy metal pollution in southern Indian sea threaten marine, human life: Study

Seeking a central mechanism for coordination of various central and state agencies and ensuring accountability through monitoring of the progress of the works undertaken, the parliamentary panel has also asked for audits to be freely accessible to the public and civil society on information relating to expenditure of ‘Control of Pollution’ scheme.

And what is the status of research on ecological and environmental topics? Here, too, the ministry doesn’t seem to have exerted itself. In the three years between 2018-19 and 2020-21, just a fourth of the budget for research has been utilised.

India has, on the whole, been walking back on its climate goals since the start of the pandemic. The CSE report quoted earlier has pointed out that of the various fiscal stimuli – estimated to be equal to 10 per cent of the GDP – announced by the Centre so far to boost the sagging economy, we seem to be pursuing high-carbon economic production instead of walking the path of sustainability.

Then, due to the adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy, the automobile industry is seeking to delay the implementation of Corporate Fuel Consumption Standards for passenger cars; a vehicle scrappage policy for promoting the sale of new vehicles does not provide for safe dismantling of ageing vehicles; power plants have already pleaded for a delayed deadline to meet the new standards beyond 2022; and private investments in the coal sector are being sought for accelerated commercial coal mining while removing end-use restrictions.

In this scenario, where growth is expected on the back of lax norms, and the ministry tasked with upholding norms to counter pollution, protect forests and address climate change is unable to spend even budgeted amounts, perhaps a complete overhaul of climate initiatives is the need of the hour.

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