Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Amid focus on development, scant attention to environment

In the emphasis on railways, energy, port corridors and tourism, Budget ignores the lessons learnt from climate disasters, makes no provisions to tackle pollution

Sumaira Abdulali
Published: Feb 1, 2024 05:33:52 PM IST
Updated: Feb 1, 2024 05:43:36 PM IST

A goods train runs across the Sharavati river.
Image: ShutterstockA goods train runs across the Sharavati river. Image: Shutterstock

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget Speech 2024 references the ‘Panchamrit’ goals of India’s international commitments of net-zero by 2070 made at CoP26 of the UNFCC; However, the Budget’s focus on “unprecedented development, and golden moments to realise the dream of developed India @ 2047” entirely dominates, at the cost of environment and of India’s climate commitments.

A focus for railways for “energy, mineral and cement corridors” will be implemented under the more-than-trillion-dollar PM Gati Shakti (which “will also help in safety and higher speed travel for passenger trains”).

The Budget’s focus on energy and minerals emphasises our ever-increasing reliance on mineral extraction, especially coal, a primary driver of the climate crisis.

‘Coal – Indian Energy Choice’ proclaims the website of the Ministry of Coal, Government of India. As India’s energy needs expand due to our development needs, ever-increasing amounts of coal are extracted from eco-sensitive areas. Even as tree-felling to extract coal began in December 2023, local protests spanning 22 months intensified in Hariharpur, a village in the 1,700 square-kilometre eco-sensitive forests of Hasdeo in Chhattisgarh.

The Budget also focuses on a need for “port connectivity corridors”.  Railway corridors will clear the way for faster development of other eco-sensitive areas along our coasts and vulnerable islands. The Lakshadweep Islands were specifically mentioned for accelerated development in the Budget Speech; other plans which will decimate ecologically fragile areas include the plan for a mega-port and airport at the Great Nicobar Island.

The Lakshadweep Islands, 35 coral islands of pristine beauty, contain only 10 inhabited islands spanning a total land area of 32 square kilometres, but are planned for tourist development vying with the 298 square kilometre Maldives. The Great Nicobar Islands, where a mega-port of Rs 41,000 crore is planned, will displace the Shompen Tribes and result in the cutting of about 8.5 lakh trees.

In the emphasis on tourism development in the Budget, lessons learned from climate disasters in the past few years including the Joshimath disaster have been largely ignored, though in its 135th report tabled in the Rajya Sabha, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment Forest and Climate Change highlighted “the tremendous increase of tourist activities in these areas has put the natural resources under pressure. This has led to over-exploitation of natural resources and illegal construction of home stays, guest houses, resorts, hotels, restaurants and other encroachments.”

The Budget emphasises its highest priority for the needs, aspirations and welfare of the ‘Garib’ (Poor), ‘Mahilayen’ (Women), ‘Yuva’ (Youth) and ‘Annadata’ (Farmer). “The country progresses, when they progress…Their empowerment and well-being will drive the country forward.”

Nevertheless, some of the most devastating consequences of climate events like the Joshimath disaster (mirrored in other parts of India where rapid unchecked development has also led to worsening of climate events) are experienced by the poor, by women, by youth and by the farmers—the very people that are sought to be protected.

Also read: Budget 2024: Plan to develop 'iconic tourist centres' and islands, including Lakshadweep

In Sitharaman’s Budget speech, scant mention is made of the destruction of environment from “more resource-efficient economic growth” beyond sustaining “energy security in terms of availability, accessibility and affordability”.

Clean energy capacity, including solar and windmills, is a focus area of the Budget. "Through rooftop solarisation, 1 crore households will be enabled to obtain up to 300 units of free electricity every month” with a saving of “up to fifteen to eighteen thousand rupees annually.”

Nevertheless, though India has taken a worldwide lead through its "One Sun One World One Grid" and "World Solar Bank" programmes, the Budget makes clear that its thrust to build houses which will use coal-generated energy far exceeds the increase in solar capacity. PM Awas Yojana (Grameen) is “close to achieving the target of three crore houses. Two crore more houses will be taken up in the next five years,” says the Budget.

Though the excess energy from solar generation on rooftops will be available for sale to the grid or to charge EV stations, the losses of electricity in India’s electricity grid, the highest in the world remain unaddressed.

In the absence of adequate clean energy to fulfil the increased energy needs of EVs, their energy needs will be generated by coal. “Coal will continue to occupy centre-stage of India's energy scenario,” says the Ministry of Coal website, and Sitharaman’s Budget appears to agree.

The Budget makes no provision for car manufacturers to change production methods towards production of EVs for replacing traditional polluting vehicles.

Her Budget makes no provision to tackle air, water or noise pollution resulting from urbanisation. The Budget’s thrust on the tourism sector does not tell us how increasing development in fragile areas will help us achieve net-zero goals and does not address the issues of climate events which are increasingly devastating eco-fragile areas with excessive development.

The Budget’s vision of “geographical inclusivity through development of all regions of the country” has potential to destroy the remaining and increasingly precious natural areas of our country.

The Budget says “aligning with the ‘Panchamrit’ goals, our government will facilitate sustaining high and more resource-efficient economic growth. This will work towards energy security in terms of availability, accessibility and affordability.”

Availability. Accessibility. Affordability. Not environment and not climate commitments. Net-zero by 2070, anyone?

(Sumaira Abdulali is the convenor, Awaaz Foundation)