Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The budget’s ecological bankruptcy - The Hindu

The budget’s ecological bankruptcy - The Hindu

The budget’s ecological bankruptcy

The NDA’s first budget has thrown a few sops in the direction of the environment and the millions dependent on it. But much like its predecessors, in painting the big picture it remains embarrassingly devoid of innovative ideas on how to move India towards ecological sustainability and justice

“While 2015 will be a landmark year for sustainable development and climate change policy, 2014 is the last chance for all stakeholders to introspect to be able to wisely choose the world they want post 2015.”
These are significant words, contained as they are in the government of India’s Economic Survey 2013-14. The reference is to the framing of a new set of sustainable development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that all countries agreed to in 2000 (due to end in 2015), and to a possible new climate agreement to be framed in 2015. The Economic Survey was released a day before Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the first annual budget of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
So, does the rest of the survey and the budget reflect such introspection? Are the new power-holders in New Delhi any wiser about protecting the interests of the next generation while meeting the needs of the present? Or indeed about how several hundred million people of the present generation, who are directly dependant on nature and natural resources, can have more secure livelihoods?

Lower carbon emissions economy

Let us first look at the good news. The survey contains (for the third year running) an independent chapter on ‘Sustainable Development and Climate Change’, which contains a few more pearls of wisdom like the one quoted earlier. It recounts in detail several goals set by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (without mentioning it of course), especially as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). Of significance is the goal to reduce “emissions intensity of GDP” quite substantially, meaning moving towards a lower carbon emissions economy.
The budget too has a few provisions to gladden the hearts of “sustainable development” and “green economy” advocates, such as cleaner energy technologies, a big fund for cleaning the Ganga, a boost to watershed development and provisions for water purification in areas badly affected by toxic wastes. Solar energy gets Rs.1,000 crore, including for agriculture pump sets and water pumping stations. A doubling of the Clean Energy Cess (from Rs.50 per tonne to Rs.100 per tonne of coal) is aimed at financing “clean environment” initiatives.

No solutions

Unfortunately, as in the case of previous budgets and economic surveys, the few concessions given to securing our environmental future are overwhelmingly submerged by what is missing and, worse, what is contradictory. The survey’s chapter on ‘Sustainable Development and Climate Change’ appears to exist in isolation of the other chapters; indeed, if the government was serious about “sustainable development,” sustainability would run like a thread through all the sectoral chapters. A few examples will suffice to show that it does not.
The survey’s chapter on industry acknowledges that it is a cause of “natural resource depletion (fossil fuel, minerals, timber), water, air, coastal and marine, and land contamination, health hazards, degradation of natural ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity.” Yet, neither in this chapter nor anywhere else is there an indication of how this is to be tackled. The chapter on agriculture and food has no mention of the enormous health implications of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, nor does the ‘Sustainable Development and Climate Change’ chapter say anything about the need to reduce emissions from fertilizer use. Indeed, the Union budget makes an increased allocation for the fertilizer subsidy, ignoring the repeated advice from both within and outside government to begin moving towards organic, ecological fertilization measures (it does have a token provision of Rs.100 crore for organic farming in northeast India, peanuts when compared to the Rs.70,000 crore plus subsidy for chemical fertilizers). Nowhere in the survey are the issues of dryland farming or the importance of reviving millets for the health of soils and people mentioned.


A lot more could be said about the ecological bankruptcy of the Economic Survey; for instance, how can anyone gauge whether we are moving any closer to sustainability in the complete absence of any indicators to measure this? But let us move now towards the budget Mr. Jaitley presented on July 10. Astonishingly, his 43-page budget speech is deafeningly silent on sustainable development, forests, wildlife, biodiversity, ecology. It is as if a quarter of the country that contains forests and grasslands and wetlands and other ecosystems, and the 500 million people directly dependent on these, simply do not exist for the purposes of deciding where the country’s money is to be allocated. Tribal welfare does get a substantial allocation, but there is no indication whether it will be allocated to continuing the intricate nature-culture relationship of such peoples; thus far it has not, and the NDA is unlikely to be any different. And what appears to be good news on the solar energy front pales into insignificance when one realises that the allocation is only 0.6 per cent of the total energy budget, with the lion’s share still going to dirty sources like coal and big hydro and nuclear.
The “Key Features of Budget 2014-2015” document has no section on the environment. Mr. Jaitley’s speech mentions the environment only in respect of coal, clean energy cess and mining. The promise of sustainability in the mining sector has been made for many years, but no government has taken serious measures to implement it. We need to see whether the NDA does any better. It will be surprising given the other measures it is already taking or proposing, such as faster environmental clearances and even self-monitoring by companies which have shown scant regard for even mandatory provisions.

River linking

The budget lays great stress on industrial corridors. If Gujarat’s model is anything to go by, this will mean massive amounts of forcible or induced land acquisition and pollution. This is a recipe for conflicts and social disruption. Early July has seen massive farmer protests in Raigad district of Maharashtra, against the proposed acquisition of 67,500 acres for a part of the Mumbai-Delhi Industrial Corridor.
The budget also initiates the River Linking project (Rs.100 crore for Detailed Project Reports), which has been under discussion for many years. Mr. Jaitley’s speech lamented that India was “not uniformly blessed with perennial rivers.” Both the UPA and the NDA are ignoring expert opinion that warns of the enormous ecological disruption and social displacement that such a massive engineering project would cause; equally important, they are turning a blind eye to the hundreds of initiatives that have shown how water security can be achieved through decentralised solutions even in the driest of regions.
I have said earlier that Mr. Jaitley’s omission of crucial ecological terms was astonishing. Perhaps it is not. The fact that almost uniformly, corporate India welcomed the budget is an indication that the NDA is as gung-ho about a neo-liberal agenda as the UPA was … if not even more. In such an agenda, the focus is on growth through making it easier for industry and commerce, with the assumption that a larger economic pie will help the poor rise above the poverty line. The fact that despite a blistering pace of growth through much of the 1990s and 2000s, the employment situation worsened (latest figures show nearly 15 per cent unemployment), and 70 per cent of Indians remained deprived of one or more basic needs, appears lost on the proponents of such an agenda. And the fact that such growth actually trashes the ecological pie on which all of us depend for our very lives, appears to be of little consequence. Not even the World Bank’s 2013 study showing that environmental damage annually knocks off 5.7 per cent of GDP growth, seems to have made a dent in such thinking.
The NDA’s first budget has thrown a few sops in the direction of the environment and the millions dependent on it. But much like its predecessors, in painting the big picture it remains embarrassingly devoid of innovative ideas on how to move India towards ecological sustainability and justice.
(Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune.)
Keywords: carbon emissions economyclimate change policyecological bankruptcyUnion Budget 2014-15NDA government

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Birders should return to observation instead of ‘collecting’ - The Washington Post

Birders should return to observation instead of ‘collecting’ - The Washington Post

"In a world where natural habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, humans have a responsibility to avoid deliberately intruding on the lives of animals that are barely hanging on as it is. For the love of birds, let’s stop birding and return to bird-watching — thereby putting the welfare of wildlife ahead of human desires."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tea at the Phool Mahal Palace, Kishengarh

30th November 2013

It has been six months since we stopped by for tea at Kishengarh, Rajasthan, on our way to a school reunion at Ajmer.

The last time it was Dungarpur where we had a lovely weekend, and I even managed some birding.  This time, the group had swelled and no royal palace was large enough for the reunion sadly, and we had to go off to one of those regular large places for the fellowship and fun.

But we could still stop for tea at Phool Mahal in the town of Kishengarh. 
First views of Gundalao lake

So much similarity between the  palaces - a lake front, lovely archways and cupolas, and a temple in the middle of the lake.

I took my cuppa, and sat here.  The hubbub and frisson was on the verandah, and I was in a sudden oasis of calm, imagining the days gone by.

The paintwork was beautifully maintained, and I took my time admiring the colours and enjoyed the detailing.

I didn't know it then, but read later on about the Kishengarh school of miniature paintings, which this royal family patronised and developed.  Story goes that in 1952, a Prof Eric Dickinson who was an English Prof at Mayo College, Lahore discovered a bundle of these exquisite minatures, on Radha and Krishna.

If only I had read this before my visit, I would have done a more detailed exploration of the walls, I thought!
Bani Thani:  (Wikipedia)

An interesting side story is that crown prince Savant Singh, a Krishna bhakta,  fell in love with the Queen Mother's "slave girl", a singer called Bani Thani, (who has since been immortalised on an India stamp).

So the prince got Nihal Chand, the main painter to do her portraits, which then began to represent  Radha.  He retreated more an more from affairs of the state, he wrote and sang as Nagaridas and Nihal Chand painted!

....And here was I on the verandah of the palace completely unaware of this beautiful, historical anecdote about Kishengarh, or the presence of poet Vrind in these courts, or that this was the place where Radha  came into her own.

A portrait of one of the kings (I've forgotten which one", with the symbolic halo.  In the main hall of the palace

The day was ending, and there was a happy bunch of middle aged men, who wandered around, oblivious of the views, caught up in nostalgia and the process of re-connection.

We wives too were swept into this torrent of infectious cheer, discovering sides of our spouses we were unaware of,  making new friends along the way.

Add caption

Add caption
The weekend had just begun!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The best Laburnum I have seen this year

The Laburnums have bloomed a little late this year. This is the best one I have seen so far. Gorgeous isn't it? In one of the lanes of Kotturpuram.