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Does Chidambaram really read his 'favourite poet'?

Saint Thiruvalluvar, the union finance minister’s “favourite poet”, was not invoked till the very end of his budget speech this time around. Instead, P Chidambaram began by spelling out the lofty goal of “higher growth leading to inclusive and sustainable development”. But the budget he went on to present deviated spectacularly from this “mool mantra”.

In the name of inclusive growth, a slew of schemes were announced for women, minorities, scheduled castes and tribes. For sustainability, Chidambaram funded water purification and waste-to-energy plants. Clearly, the government has junked its own panel’s 2010 report that recommended a ban on producing energy by burning waste in the absence of proper emission safeguards. Chidambaram also promised low-cost finance for clean energy and incentives for windmills but stopped short of according renewable energy the status of a priority lending sector.

An allocation of Rs 1000 crore was made to boost green revolution through rice production in eastern India while another Rs 500 crore was offered to fight problems of stagnating yields and over-exploitation of groundwater in the “original Green Revolution states”. A pilot programme on Nutri-Farms got Rs 200 crore to try crop varieties rich in micro-nutrients across districts most affected by malnutrition. But an efficient distribution network to ensure that food crops did not rot in sarkari warehouses remained as distant a dream as ever.

India's Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram (C) arrives at the parliament to present the 2013/14 federal budget in New Delhi February 28, 2013. Reuters

India's Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram (C) arrives at the parliament to present the 2013/14 federal budget in New Delhi February 28, 2013. Reuters

These are just a few of many paradoxes in Chidambaram’s budget. The fate of the poor integral to his so-called inclusive growth model hinges on the country’s ecological future that his lip-service of sustainability did not address. His budget offered nothing on restoring soil quality, rationalisation of aquifer use, protecting forests as catchment areas or securing the land and livelihood of the tribal poor.

While proudly announcing a sharp hike in allotments in several sectors – rural development (46 percent), social justice (31 percent), culture (33 percent), urban development (26 percent), SC-ST-OBC welfare (24 per cent), agriculture (22 percent), sports (20 percent), external affairs (16 percent) and tourism (15 percent) – Chidambaram had reasons to remain silent on environment and forests in his speech. During 2012-13, the green ministry was allotted Rs 2629 crore. This year, the sanction has been increased by Rs 1 crore to Rs 2630 crore.

Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan, who confronted Chidambaram’s proposal of National Investment Board that has subsequently been reoriented as Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI), did not complain. Her convoluted reaction went like this: “It's a good budget and my ministry, although we didn't receive what we actually requested for, we received a little less, just a little less than our usual budget but what is more important is for industry to understand how they can help environment and for industry to focus upon the environment instead of blaming the environment or treating the environment as something opposite.”

She was perhaps referring to the mention of the CCI in the budget speech. Chidambaram informed the House that two meetings of the CCI have already been held to clear regulatory hurdles. While some key decisions have been taken regarding a number of oil and gas, power, and coal projects, he assured that more projects would be taken up by the CCI soon. Within hours, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also underlined that the CCI would tackle the problems of wildlife, forest and land (tribal rights) clearances to clear roadblocks.

No wonder the government does not want to invest more than 0.016% of its Rs 16,65,297 crore budget in a ministry that it blames for propping up roadblocks to growth. Compared to the Rs 2,630 crore marked for the green ministry, the estimated revenue foregone in corporate income tax is Rs 68,007 crore during 2012-13. Custom duty exemption to precious stone and jewellery alone runs into Rs 61,035 crore. Such annual concession to the super rich could fund the green budget at the current rate for next five decades.

Forget the so-called green concerns often ridiculed as Luddites’ fad, the apparent big thrust on agriculture rings astoundingly hollow without any attention to the recommendations of the 12th Plan to address the soil health crisis. The suicidal fertiliser subsidies continue, encouraging farmers to use chemical fertilisers in ever larger quantities, triggering rapid soil degradation. There is no talk or funds yet to try natural alternatives to revive the dying fields.

While Rs 10,000 crore was set aside to fund the Food Security Bill, funds were also pumped in to promote research in agro-biotechnology without clearing the air about the urgency for genetically modified food in India. Particularly, when the Economic Survey itself pointed out that “while it may appear that the performance of the agriculture and allied sector has fallen short of the target, production has improved remarkably, growing twice as fast as population”.

Concluding his budget speech, Chidambaram quoted Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar: “Kalangathu Kanda Vinaikkan Thulangkathu Thookkang Kadinthu Seyal (What clearly eye discerns as right, with steadfast will and mind unslumbering, that should man fulfil)”. This sounded touchingly resolute of the finance minister, if only his vision itself was not skewed.

Unfortunately, Chidambarm can only see what many of his colleagues also believe is the obvious: “Growth is a necessary condition and we must unhesitatingly embrace growth as the highest goal. It is growth that will lead to inclusive development, without growth there will be neither development nor inclusiveness.”

This blind rush for growth does not pause to question if development, as the industries perceive it, holds diametrically different implications for different stakeholders. It does not weigh in the economic cost which includes irreversible losses of natural and human resources. Lip service apart, it does not care for either sustainability or inclusiveness.

Not many are attracted to ancient poetry. But Chidambaram must have read his “favourite poet” thoroughly enough to remember this couplet (verse 461) from Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural:

“Azhivadum Aavadum Aagi Vazhipayakkum

Oodiyamunj Choozhndu Seyal

(Weigh the loss, the consequences, and then the profits before proceeding to the act).”

You can write to the author at jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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