NEW DELHI: The Rs 230-crore reduction in the budgetary allocation to the environment ministry has drawn flak from environmentalists who say it may slow down or completely halt green initiatives.
Besides the shrunk budget, they also feel that the Centre has not clarified how a separate amount of Rs 2,217 crore, set aside for tackling air pollution in 42 cities with minimum population of one million, will be utilised.
"The total budget allocated for the ministry this year is Rs 2,869.93 crore while last year it was Rs 3,100 crore. This implies that a number of environmental measures could be slowed down or halted," said Avinash Chanchal, a Climate Campaigner for the Greenpeace India.
"The government has allocated Rs 2,217 crore to tackle air pollution in 42 urban cities and introduced a voluntary vehicle scrapping policy. But it isn't clear how these funds would be utilized to resolve the pollution crisis," he said.
In the previous budget, he said, the government had announced Rs 4,400 crore for clean air, but there is no information on public platform on how this fund was utilized. Vikrant Tongad, an environmentalist and the founder of NGO SAFE (Social Action for Forest and Environment), said this reductions may have an adverse impact on environment-friendly intiatives. "By reducing the amount, the government is making clear that it is not serious about the environment," Tongad said.
The budget presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has also reduced the sum allotted to the climate change action plan by Rs 10 crore to Rs 30 crore. Shuchin Bajaj, the founder and director of Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals, expressed hope the government will re-look and assign more funds for it.
"Environment is the basic necessity of good health. We may have been looking at health in the COVID-19 scenario but we forget that climate change is one of the biggest health factors affecting the communities in the years to come and also has the potential of creating much bigger disasters than COVID-19," she said.
"So, we must keep working on the climate change action plan as much as possible. I am sure the government will have a relook and will assign more funds in fighting climate change in the near as well as distant future," Bajaj said.
Experts also felt that the amount of Rs 470 crore allocated for "Control of Pollution" out of Rs 2869.93 crore, was not enough. "The Budget document mentions that under 'Control of Pollution', a total of 470 crore are allocated for 2021-22. This includes providing financial assistance to Pollution Control Boards/Committees, funding to National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). There are 122 cities presently under NCAP and the allocation for it is merely around Rs 470 crore, which is clearly not enough," Chanchal said.
According to Greenpeace India's annual Airpocalypse report 2020, 231 cities out of 287 had PM10 levels exceeding the 60 µg/m3 limits, prescribed under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) by CPCB, implying that all these cities/towns belong to the non-attainment list. "The NCAP needs to include all these polluted cities. This would require an increased budget allocation for tackling the 'pollution control'," he said.
"The central government and local authorities must come up with a public platform where all actions under 'control air pollution' plan are updated and are available. This will ensure transparency and efficiency," Chanchal said.
Expressing disappointment over the reduced budgetary allocation for clean air, Jai Dhar Gupta, the Founder and CEO of Nirvana Being (a protective solutions company) and Founder of the Citizen Movement, 'My Right to Breathe', said air pollution is a far greater health emergency than COVID-19.
"I have to mention that I am disappointed by the reduced allocation for Clean Air. Air pollution is a far greater public health emergency than COVID; while COVID claimed 1.5 lakh lives in 2020, air pollution is responsible for about 18 lakh deaths across India. However, I do want to highlight other things in the budget that will impact the environment positively such as the voluntary vehicle scrapping policy and allocation for waste management to reduce plastic waste," Gupta said.
In her budget speech, Sitharaman also announced a voluntary vehicle scrapping policy, to phase out old and unfit vehicles as per which vehicles will undergo fitness tests in automated fitness centres after 20 years in case of personal vehicles and after 15 years in case of commercial vehicles.
The minister also proposed to provide additional capital infusion of Rs 1,000 crore to Solar Energy Corporation of India and Rs 1,500 crore to Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency. She also announced the extension of the city gas distribution project to 100 more districts.
Welcoming this announcement, Suyash Gupta, the Director General, Indian Auto LPG Coalition, said he hoped the city gas project is diversified to include Auto LPG along with CNG which is the current focus.
"Despite being one of the cleanest and most easily available gas, Auto LPG remains highly under-utilized in India's transport sector. Inclusion of Auto gas in the city gas distribution project will not only allow a wider choice for consumers but will also be a major boost to efforts to clean up the environment," he added.
"We absolutely need a low hanging fruit like Auto LPG, which can be implemented immediately. With 14 of the world's top 20 most polluted cities in India, we cannot wait until the next decade to breathe cleaner air," he said.