Interviews |

Environment slides further down in priority

New Delhi, March 23 (G’nY News Service): The Union Budget of 2015 has set several ambitious goals for renewable energy, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, conventional energy, and more. But, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had had a fourth of its budget slashed. The budget slash, juxtaposed against the name extension of the Ministry to include climate change, feels superfluous now.

G’nY correspondent spoke with Ashish Kothari, one of the founders of Kalpavriksh, to understand the government’s outlook towards India’s environment, revealing some hard-hitting facts. Kalpavriksh is a non-profit organisation working on environmental and social issues since 1979.

A K Pasan
Ashish Kothari, one of the founders of Kalpavriksh

Earlier this year, the present government emphasized its commitment to the environment. Do you think that their words are translating into actions?

Absolutely not. This government is even more gung-ho about sacrificing the environment, and peoples’ livelihoods dependent on it, than previous ones, which were already pretty bad.

The budget of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF and CC) has been cut by 25 per cent? What do you think will be the impact of that?

Last year too, after coming to power, the MoEF and CC budget was slashed. What this signals is a clear ‘we don’t care’ attitude. Note that the MoEF is already seriously understaffed for the kinds of things they are responsible for, e.g. to monitor over 6000 projects to which environmental clearance have been given, they have only about 20-25 staff (these are figures for a few years back, but I doubt there has been any significant change in this).

Inevitably there is poor monitoring of the conditions under which permission is given to mining, industries, ports, highways, dams, etc. Similarly there is poor monitoring and even poorer enforcement on aspects like pollution. Budget cuts will further impact these crucial tasks.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) was established with several lofty targets, cross cut with environmental ministries and organizations. In your view do you think that the NAPCC was an unnecessary overlap?

The NAPCC was conceptually flawed in many respects. I had at that point looked at the forest action plan, and the agriculture one, and they were both dependent on heavy bureaucracy, little devolution of power to communities, and in the case of agriculture no clear direction towards organic, sustainable, biodiverse farming focusing on small farmers. If this has subsequently changed, I am not aware.

I know that Jairam Ramesh as environment minister did try to make the forest action plan more open and progressive. But from what I remember it was still very forest department-centric, still focusing too much on forests rather than on all natural ecosystems that are important for climate mitigation and adaptation, and not willing to fully utilise the potential of the Forest Rights Act in empowering communities to regenerate and protect forests.

In case you feel that the NAPCC has nodal role to play in overseeing the other environmental activities should it not have been strengthened?

As above. I think that environment protection can only happen if (a) all relevant sectors are modified to become ecologically sensitive and (b) communities, rural and urban, are empowered to look after their environment, with facilitation to ensure coordination across large landscapes. A bureaucracy-heavy, and/or technocratic and/or market-based approach to the environment is likely to fail badly.

Also it would be important (speaking of the budget) to not only enhance MoEF and CC budget, but to have measures that ensure that environment is incorporated at the planning and conceptual stage in all ministries, that is the true meaning of ‘sustainable development’ – a term I don’t like because it is severely misused. But, since we cannot have ‘development’ forever, I am using it as the flavour of the season!

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