How fiscal incentives can help us reduce pollution

Fiscal measures can incentivise more sustainable practices from the automotive, petroleum and waste management sectors. They can also add to public finances for upgrading facilities.
Image used for representational purposes. (Photo | Pranav Kiran)
Image used for representational purposes. (Photo | Pranav Kiran)

Chant the name of the Sun out loud. Do not urinate in the temple pool. Do not fish, do not use soap. One should not break even a strand from a snake hut. Do not waste even a single grain of rice while eating. If you happen to mistakenly touch an adult with your foot, show respect with a bowed forehead or by touching their feet. Tulsi, karuka, brahmi—none of these should be destroyed. In the late 1980s, an average rural child like me often heard such do’s and don’ts from adults. There are many other customs and manners like these.

But in the 1990s, the ‘rationality’ of these customs started getting questioned when people started taking part in progressive movements and attending senior classes. “What would happen if you don’t?” some asked. They began challenging the customs with a mix of arrogance. “Just because you don’t pronounce the Sun’s name, you don’t get less marks in the exam. There was no accident after urinating in the temple pond. We ate the caraway fruit and the mouth didn’t get sore.”

Now let us look at the present condition of our environment. All the ponds are greasy and discoloured with garbage. At dusk, everyone is in front of the television or using their mobile phones. Green leaves are cut and allowed to turn white. The suffering behind cultivating a handful of rice is not even known by the eaters. There is less respect for the elders. Tulsi, karuka and brahmi take time to sprout even in a conditioned environment these days—we mostly see them in advertisements.

When we remember today that we opposed such simple practices in the name of rationality, we feel dismayed. It is not a good sign to be late in realising that just as beliefs should not be blind, objections should not be blind either. It seems there is nothing wrong in being a little conservative in keeping all the beliefs and practices that preach harmony with nature and protect it. This Earth is not a disposable cup that can be thrown away after drinking from it. In the life we ​​have, we have a responsibility to pass it onto the next generation.

Interestingly, we are more careful when we are outside India, where hefty fines are imposed for polluting the environment and we pay up without resistance. Why can’t we implement the same in India at the local self-government level? This will save a substantial amount spent by the government on the restoration of lakes, rivers and water bodies through national schemes such as the Jal Shakti Abhiyan and the National River Conservation Plan.

In this backdrop, it is imperative to strictly implement environmental fiscal reforms in India. Environmental fiscal reforms in the transport, energy and waste generation sectors should be the top priority. The key measures would include eco-tax reforms that would incentivise making the waste generation, energy and transport sectors more sustainable. The fiscal measures can help solve the problem of limited public finances for upgrading facilities. Such measures could, for example, include reforming fuel prices and taxes across sectors, clearly incorporating environmental, social and external costs. In this context, the potential for global human health problems caused by pollution can be discussed. Such incentives should also support new and more fuel-efficient transport equipment.

The non-fiscal reforms to reduce pollution caused by automobiles include shifting to renewable energy, introducing compressed natural gas, improving the quality of petrol and diesel, and strictly following vehicular emission norms.

India has sound environment legislations in place. They need to be implemented with the help of fiscal instruments such as fines, instead of criminal proceedings. The fines should be high enough to ensure that the crime never gets committed again. The use of emerging technologies with minimum human involvement should be the key focus of pollution control enforcement.

The promotion of environment-friendly products is also important. These are development-friendly and can also create jobs. The best examples are investments in solar technology and traditional environment-friendly yarn such as coir yarn. Coir and jute geotextiles prevent soil erosion and are much more environment-friendly than synthetic ones. Adopting these alternatives will help create jobs in the coir and jute handloom sectors. Internationally, geotextiles are generally made from plastics or some other non-degradable material. India could fill this gap with eco-friendly products.

Central and state governments’ environment management schemes play an important role in promoting environment awareness by incorporating eco-friendly content in the school syllabus. It is imperative to promote such schemes with the involvement of various sections of society, including private companies.

Thus, let us adopt environment-friendly tips to save the planet: reduce energy usage, reuse and reduce before recycling, simplify purchasing habits, eat without wastage, give up using plastic, and plant a tree. These shall definitely promote intergenerational equity in the usage of natural resources.

Surjith Karthikeyan

Deputy Secretary, Union finance ministry

(Views are personal)

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