Suffocating budget

Suffocating budget in the end, it turned out to be a facade. All the promises to give importance to the environment by the Bharitiya Janata Party came to nought, when the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, presented the Union budget in Parliament on June 1. As far as the allocation of funds to the environment was concerned, the changes were cosmetic. The casualties were many - air, health, soil, ecology and equitable growth.

Petrol prices - still driven by the administered price mechanism - are up by a rupee to a litre, though the international prices are slipping. Diesel, meanwhile, freed from controls, has taken its cue from international prices and has dipped. If more and more people shift to diesel, the rate of pollution will rise appreciably especially in urban areas. It is an established fact that diesel vehicles emit a much higher degree of carcinogens and suspended particulate matter than petrol vehicles. The government refuses to tax diesel as it is used in rural areas to run pump sets for irrigation. However, studies indicate that 70 per cent of diesel related pollution occur in urban areas.

Noted economist and former finance minister, Manmohan Singh, says: "The process can be checked to some extent if the there is greater dependence on railways for bulk goods movement. Heavy vehicles are often responsible for the spurt in diesel pollution in congested urban areas. Besides, full implementation of the rural electrification programme will also reduce the dependence of the agriculture sector on diesel to a con-siderable extent".

But the rate of increase in air pollution due to dieselisation in the urban areas has been increasing over the years. And the finance ministry has done nothing to check this. The health concerns generated by increased dieseli-sation completely bypasses it. Most cars that are on diesel are expensive and are driven by the rich upper crust. So, increasing petrol prices also mean heavily taxing the middle class.

Surprisingly, despite increased dieselisation, the government of India has not allocated any money to control air pollution other than double the grant to the Central Pollution Control Board which looks into air pollution, among other things. In fact, as part of Sinha's Swadeshi "saral samadhan", the excise duty on pollution control equipment has gone up from five to eight per cent. Charan Wadhwa, an economist with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, says: "The depreciated rupee and the inflation inducing decisions of the budget will make pollution control equipment more expensive. It is certainly not going to help."

However, there has been a Rs 100 crore hike in the allocations for the prevention and control of pollution from Rs 206.83 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 306.13 crore in 1998-99. The major part of this has been earmarked for the Ganga Action Plan - from Rs 109 crore in 1997-98, it has been increased to Rs 191.70 crore this year.

It is good to see the finance minister stressing clean water in his budget speech, but the increase in allocation is surprisingly little in absolute terms - from Rs 50 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 55.58 crore this year.

A significant decision of the government is to step up plan allocation for The National Watershed Development Programme from - Rs 517 crore to Rs 677 crore. The finance minister has said that top priority will be given to this programme to boost agricul--tural productivity on a sustained basis. Sinha has announced that watershed development programmes, currently spread over several ministries and departments, will be unified. It is to be hoped that the government's aim to "achieve the twin objective of sustainable production of biomass and restoration of ecological balance in the vast tracts of rainfed areas in the country" materialises in the end.

The plan allocation for the ministry of environment and forests (mef) has jumped from Rs 552 crore to Rs 704.09 crore in the current year. It is understood that the ministry had sought Rs 800 crore. However, the mef's performance was so pathetic that it could not devise imaginative projects to spend nearly one fifth of what was allocated in the last year. So, what chance the higher allocation will be consumed this time round?

But it is the government's attitude towards afforestation that takes the cake. There has been absolutely no hike in budgetary funds for the National Afforestation and Eco-development Board over the 1997-98 budget figures. They remain a meagre Rs 33 crore. The import duty on sawn wood how-ever has been reduced from 30 per cent to 25 per cent in a bid to contain deforestation. But this can only be called tokenism.

It is no surprise that in a country contemplating nuclear weaponisation, the allocation for the department of atomic energy should increase from Rs 1,391 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 2,608.06 crore in 1998-99. The question is whether the money earmarked for atomic energy will mostly fund nuclear weapons or will be channelled towards the benevolent use of nuclear energy? Experts remain sceptical.

At a time when progress and deve-lopment in science is measured in terms of nuclear war-heads, it is not surprising that non-conventional energy has received step-motherly treatment. The total plan and non plan expenditure budget for 1998-99 is Rs 407.62 crore in this area against Rs 403.02 crore in 1997-98 - at a time when more and more countries all over the world are pooling resources for research and development of non-conventio-nal energy. Other than the Indian Renewable Energy Development, whose funds have been hiked from Rs 408.17 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 516.68 crore this year, all other departments and programmes have been sacrificed to meet the challenge of sanctions induced cash crunch. Allotments to the solar energy programme have gone down from Rs 56.57 crore to Rs 48.90 crore. The biogas programme will also face a cut. Against last year's allocation of Rs 66.65 crore, it will get Rs 62.34 crore this year. The biomass programme has also been slashed from Rs 13.05 crore to Rs 12.15 crore.

"It is extremely unfortunate that this government has neglected non-conventional energy to this extent. There may be a resource crunch but turning a blind eye to such a crucial sector is shocking," says Wadhwa.

As if to make up for all this, the finance minister has given a much hyped thrust to the social and rural sector. A new scheme for the rehabilitation of tribals displaced from National parks and project areas is also being launched with a provision of Rs 25 crore. But its success or even thrust, is a matter of complete speculation.

A 50 per cent increase in allocation has been announced for education at Rs 7,047 crore as against Rs 4,716 crore in 1997-98. But the truth is that the increase in allocation will be used to meet the increased expenditure on salaries. The University Grants Commission had recently increased the salary structure for college and university teachers.

The customs duty on paper and paper-board has been raised from 20 per cent to 30 per cent. This applies to both industrial and cultural use of paper. It must be remembered that the paper and paper board industry went on strike in February to protest against the fall in the demand for domestic paper and paper board as imported paper was much cheaper than those produced in the country. The duty hike is expected to bring in price parity. However, there has been a welcome reduction on the customs duty for newsprint from 10 per cent to five per cent.

The allocations for rural employment have also gone up from Rs 8,356 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 9,912 crore this year. But how they are managed and whether they can really control rural-urban migration will be clear only in the long run.

The total allotment for the ministry of health and family welfare is higher - till one takes a closer look at the break-up. Against Rs 897.26 crore of plan allocation last year, the plan funds available in 1998-99 stood at Rs 1,122.16 crore. But the money for aids control, the biggest concern of the health workers in India, has been increased by just Rs 11 crore.

In case of agriculture, the support has been increased by 58 per cent at Rs 2,854 crore over previous year's Rs 1,807 crore. Duty on "eco-friendly" bio-pesticides has been slashed drastically from 30 per cent to five per cent. This, it is hoped, may discourage the use of ddt as a pesticide. Direct agricultural subsidies will actually go up by Rs 1,300 crore this year despite an increase in the selling price of the most predominantly used nitrogenous fertiliser, urea, by Re 1 per kg, which the government has had to reduce by 50 paise under pressure from the opposition. At the time of going to press, there was talk that the government may further reduce the price, or perhaps even scrap it altogether.

The question is how serious is this government towards the poor of this country or the environment? Symbolic concerns such as reducing duty on effluent plants and tax holidays for manufacturing units producing bio-degradable wastes can at best save the government from being bran-ded politically incorrect. That may perhaps also help it find a few friendly donors to cope with the post-Pokhran sanctions.

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