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India's law to feed poor threatens to gobble up climate funding

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 11 Sep 2013 15:05 GMT
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People reach out as they wait to receive food provided by a charitable organisation outside a temple in New Delhi, India, Sept. 3, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change, a hugely ambitious programme requiring billions of dollars, is being starved of funds, officials say, as a new law aimed at giving food to the needy threatens to eat up a large chunk of government spending.

In 2009, the government set up eight national missions to tackle climate change: the Solar Mission, Energy Mission, Sustainable Habitat Mission, Water Mission, Himalayan Mission, Sustainable Agriculture Mission, Green India Mission and Strategic Knowledge Mission.

The funding allocated for these missions during the 12th Five Year Plan, which ends in 2017, was just over $40 billion. The largest amount was earmarked for the agriculture mission at $17.6 billion, followed by $8.36 billion for the Green India Mission, which aims to expand forests.

But officials and experts warn that these spending plans are now at risk due to the arrival of the National Food Security Act, which was passed last month.

The controversial new law commits the government to providing heavily subsidised food to around 819 million poor people in urban and rural areas. The legislation mandates the state public distribution system to provide 5 kg of rice per person per month at not more than 3 rupees (Rs) per kg, wheat at not more than Rs 2 per kg, and coarse grain at not more than Rs 1 per kg.

According to the act, the cheap food will be extended to 75 percent of rural dwellers and 50 percent of those living in urban areas, which amounts to roughly two thirds of the South Asian nation’s population of over 1.2 billion people.

“India does not produce enough food, and we would have to pay for imports, as well as spending millions of dollars to set up the systems and infrastructure. Thousands of officials would likely be needed to achieve the task,” said Ajay Dikshit, a senior official in the agriculture ministry.

Food for the poor has been criticised as a highly populist project, aimed at giving the ruling United Progressive Alliance a big lift in the 2014 polls.

It also comes at a high cost, and could drain funds from other important government programmes, including those intended to tackle climate change – which are already in doubt. The estimated bill for the food security law to be implemented is Rs 124,724 crore, or around $25 billion.

Before the act was passed, BK Singh, director of the state-run Afforestation and Eco-Development Board, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that, once it became law, the government and its rural machinery would concentrate on putting it into practice, leaving little money for anything else until after next year’s elections.

‘SYMBOLIC ALLOCATIONS’

Abhijit Ghosh, deputy programme manager for climate change at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India’s top environmental NGO, said the national climate change missions had received almost no funding to date.

“The allocations that were made seem to be symbolic, and today it all seems nothing more than a wish list,” he said.

He pointed to the lack of a chapter on climate change in the final version of the 12th Five Year Plan. “Where is the money? Where is the source (of finance)? There is nothing,” Ghosh said.

The Planning Commission of India had in fact prepared a chapter on climate change, but the text angered the Ministry of Environment and Forests. It deemed that the document “overstepped” accepted government policies, because it emphasised generating climate change funds from domestic carbon taxes, rather than international sources. After a strong missive from the ministry, the Planning Commission decided to remove the chapter altogether.

This, in combination with the approval of the Food Security Act, has left the national climate action plan effectively dead in the water, opening the door for the money it should have received to be diverted into food subsidies, experts fear.

KN Vajpai, a senior scientist at Climate Himalaya, an NGO working on Himalayan systems based in Uttarakhand, questioned the Indian government’s political commitment to tackling climate impacts.

“After the unprecedented flash floods (in June) that killed thousands and destroyed property worth billions of dollars, one would have thought the government would take climate change seriously. Where is the money, where is the action?” he said.

Since 2009, when the national climate action plan was launched, there has been just one meeting of a handful of scientists in New Delhi under the Himalayan Mission, he added.

“The topmost officials tell me now that around 25 studies have been commissioned, which could cost roughly Rs 3 crore (around $600,000), out of an allocation of $218 million,” he said.

The CSE’s Ghosh said that, under the Strategic Knowledge Mission, scores of scientific institutions were meant to be opened, “but not a single one has come up so far”.

Mushtaq Bhatt, head of the Department of Science and Technology in another Himalayan state, Jammu & Kashmir, confirmed that his agency had received nothing under the knowledge mission either.

FORESTS OUT OF FASHION

The Green India Mission is also in limbo due to a lack of resources. Its intention was to double India’s forest and other vegetation cover over the decade from 2011, to enhance ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and biodiversity, while providing fuel, fodder and other forest products.

The plan was to expand forest cover to an additional 5 million hectares of land and improve the quality of forests on another 5 million hectares, including degraded forests, grasslands and wetlands, doubling existing forest cover from 10 million hectares. The money budgeted was Rs 46,000 crore ($8.36 billion).

But Singh, the director of the afforestation board, said the project had yet to start. Only Rs 2,000 crore ($363 million) has been earmarked, but that money is still pending cabinet committee approval, he said.

“The mode of operation has changed - it does not involve only forestry, there are livelihood issues involved and (it) involves Panchayati Raj (village councils) in the implementation process,” he said.

In another negative signal for climate change policy, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam and West Bengal have all prepared state-level action plans on climate change, but none have received any funds so far.

The CSE’s Ghosh and Climate Himalaya’s Vajpai both said they believe the government is not serious about climate change issues. “The government takes up dramatic positions for the foreign politicians and media to think how progressive India is, but nothing happens on the ground,” Ghosh said.

Vajpai said India gets “climate proactive” before and during the annual U.N. climate talks, “starts lobbying to ensure its position on the Kyoto Protocol is not affected, and that’s all”.

The June flood disaster in Uttarakhand may have awakened millions of Indians to the realities of extreme weather and climate shifts. Yet the government seems to have put its much-needed climate policies on the back burner while it concentrates on short-term fixes for the hungry poor in the hope of winning votes.

Sujit Chakraborty is a science and environmental journalist based in New Delhi.

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