The department-related parliamentary standing committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEF&CC”) tabled its report on Demand For Grants (DFGs) 2023-24 in Parliament on 15th March. The committee highlighted the stagnant nature of fund allocation towards the MoEF&CC. This year the budget allocation for the Ministry ₹3,079.40 Crores is similar to the Budget Estimate (“BE”) for 2022-23 (₹3,030 Crores). This was done in light of the decline in the Revised Estimate (“RE”) for 2022-23, which was 19% lower than the Budget Estimate for 2022-23 i.e. ₹2478 Crores. .
The committee made specific remarks with respect to control of pollution, Project Tiger and Project Elephant, construction in ecologically sensitive areas, and allocation to states under the Centrally Sponsored Schemes. The Finance Minister referred to the budget as the Green Budget. Hence, the committee’s observation requires some attention on a few important parameters.
Reduction in funds: A cause of concern
MoEF&CC informed the committee that the cause of the reduction in funds at the revised estimate level in 2022-23 was the change of procedure for the transfer of funds under Central Sector Schemes and Centrally Sponsored Schemes. The delay in onboarding state governments to the new Public Finance Management System was cited as the primary reason for reduced funds. However, the MoEF&CC did not provide any details to the standing committee on whether all the state governments have adopted the new framework.
The highest reduction at the revised estimate level under the Scheme column was for the National Coastal Management Programme (NCMP) (₹723 Crores to ₹12.5 Crores). The NCMP was funded by the World Bank, which later withdrew its offer of funding. This caused the reduction in funding to the NCMP, the Standing Committee was informed by the MoEF&CC. This instance highlighted the susceptibility of the National Coastal Mission (“NCM”). The National Coastal Mission was established by the MoEF&CC to conserve coastal environment and develop, generate revenue and provide employment to people. MoEF&CC has failed to bridge the financial gap for implementation of NCM. Over reliance on external agencies like the World Bank, makes the objective of coastal preservation vulnerable.
Bureaucratic processes have plagued the National Coastal Mission for a continued period. The Standing Committee, in its report on DFGs for the 2022-23 budget, also highlighted the deficiency in fund utilisation under the project. MoEF&CC also submitted that the decline in fund utilisation was because of the inability of the Ministry to get approval from the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs for the ENCORE (Enhancing Coastal and Ocean Resource Efficiency) project, part of NCM. The ENCORE project is aimed to enhance India’s coastal resources, protect coastal populations from pollution, erosion, sea level rise, and improve livelihood opportunities for coastal communities.
The Finance Minister announced the launch of the MISHTI (Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes) initiative during the 2022-23 Budget speech. The program is aimed to facilitate mangrove plantations along India’s coastline and on salt pan lands. However, the financial and procedural issues plaguing the ENCORE project in particular and NCM in general raises questions regarding the success of other coastal projects.
Compromise on biodiversity preservation
Project Tiger and Project Elephant schemes were combined in 2023-24 into one single scheme and allocated ₹331 Crores in BE 2023-24. This was a reduction from last year’s combined BE of ₹335 crores wherein Project Tiger was allotted ₹300 Crores and Project Elephants was allotted ₹35 Crores. However, the RE 2022-23 for combined budget for Project Tiger and Project Elephant was reduced to just ₹220 Crores. Additionally, as per the standing committee’s observation, the utilisation of this combined budget till January 2023 was just 30% of the RE 2022-23 i.e. ₹65 Crores out of ₹220 Crores. The change in the fund allocation mechanism to states (as mentioned above) was cited by MoEF&CC as the reason for the deficiency in utilisation of the fund in the Financial year 2022-23. This lack of funds is causing serious hardships to wildlife conservation, including risk to human settlements. In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministry highlighted the fact that there had been 535 human deaths because of elephants in 14 states in 2021-22 and 106 human deaths by tiger attacks in tiger reserves in 10 states in 2022.
It was noted in the standing committee report that the budget allocation in 2016-17 for Project Tiger was ₹375 crores. The number of tiger reserves has increased from 50 to 54 currently. Few tiger reserves have also increased their coverage, thus requiring more capital and revenue expenditure for proper monitoring. The committee observed that this is not reflected in the budget allocation for Project Tiger over the years.
Similarly, as per MoEF&CC data on the wild elephant population in 2017, there were 29,964 elephants in the country. The amount allocated under Project Elephant in 2021-22 and 2022-23 was merely ₹28.44 crores and ₹7.26 crores (till Jan’23). Assam, with 5 elephant reserves, and Kerala, with 4 elephant reserves, were allotted only ₹0.96 crores and ₹0.84 crores, respectively, till January 2023. The dearth of funds is jeopardising the welfare of elephants.
Enhance the substance of a “Green push”
MoEF&CC had submitted that it requires an additional budget of ₹374 crores over BE 2023-24. This was in line with its demand for an additional ₹370 crore in 2022-23, as recorded by the standing committee in its report last year. MoEF&CC submitted that the amount would be used for projects like Green India Mission, NCM, Project Tiger, etc. Thus, this continued demand for funds needs to be acknowledged by the Ministry of Finance at the budgetary allocation level.
Secondly, as noted by the committee, procedural bottlenecks cannot be allowed to compromise environmental concerns. NCM is an instance of how these bottlenecks are being prolonged without resolutions. MoEF&CC needs to establish a more robust self-sustaining model for the success of its schemes.
Thirdly, the element of “public experience and social audit” as advocated by the standing committee, needs to be incorporated into the monitoring and accountability framework under various schemes of the MoEF&CC. This will democratise the functioning of the Ministry whose actions now dictate the livelihood of humans and wildlife.