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There is no doubt that Jairam Ramesh loves action. There is also little doubt that he often provokes extreme reactions. Government grapevine says that the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change, Shyam Saran, quit because of differences with Ramesh, who is environment minister. Saran is said to have opposed Ramesh’s bending India’s stance to a more accommodating one vis-à-vis developed countries at international climate change talks.
Under the silver-maned, hard-texting Ramesh, the ministry has shaken off its inherited somnolence to reposition itself as a powerful entity, quickly removing the cobwebs in regulation, bringing rigour to monitoring, having dialogues with stakeholders and building institutions to bring a scientific focus to the portfolio. With the Prime Minister behind him, Ramesh has so far brooked no opposition. His ministry has earned the reputation of being one of the most dynamic ones with unprecedented transparency and a willingness to engage in debate.
Wildlife biologist M.D. Madhusudan remembers the first meeting of ecologists and scientists just after Ramesh took charge at Paryavaran Bhavan. “I will make the decisions here. You may like some of them and you may not like some. But what I assure you is complete transparency,” he told them.
The minister kept his word. He famously replaced the wooden door to his office with a glass one. The ministry put all important documents online. Now flashes of “New” constantly blink on its home page. The quality of action, however, does not always match the frenzy on the surface.
“There is no doubt that our dialogue with the ministry has improved, but there is no substantive improvement in environment assessment and clearances,” says Kanchi Kohli of environmental action group Kalpavriksh. Kohli, who keeps a close watch on the environment impact assessment (EIA) of the ministry, says that it continues to clear projects with impunity. The ministry approved 59 mining projects within six months of Ramesh taking over. It also cleared 41 construction plans and industrial estates and 40 projects in the coal sector. A New Framework
A ministry official says EIA issues will be ironed out once the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the National Environment Protection Authority (NEPA) are in place. The official says that the NGT and NEPA will be the pillars of monitoring and regulation in the country.
The NEPA is expected to be a professionally managed, Parliament-created authority that will be independent of the ministry. It will work on the ‘polluter-pays’ and ‘precautionary’ principles on all matters related to environment in India, mainly project clearances and enforcement of environment laws. The Central Pollution Control Board and the state regulators will report to the authority. While NEPA will carry out monitoring and compliance, the NGT will settle disputes.
“Enforcement has been the basic weakness of our environmental process in India. The idea of a statutory and independent NEPA entrusted with this critical functioning cannot be disputed,” says A. Damodaran, who teaches economics and social sciences at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
Damodaran, who has previously worked in the Indian environment ministry as well as the US Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) — which NEPA copies — in the mid-1990s, says that the real issue in India is failure of enforcement at the local level.
“We need to have state and local level agencies that provide space for local governments and communities to act. Clearly, state governments have to be enthusiastic at their levels as well,” he says.
Ramesh is closely working with the state governments on most issues, say his ministry colleagues. When he had to take a call on allowing cultivation of Bt brinjal, one of the feedback he went by was from states. “Every chief minister wrote to us not to allow it [Bt brinjal],” says one official.
The minister is said to be actively engaging with the states on other issues too. Immediately after he took over, he visited national parks in every state and major institutions such as the Forest Research Institute. Every time he goes to a state, he holds talks with the local minister, the forest conservator and other department officials, says an official who travels with him often.
Conservationists say that now there is a feeling that at least someone is listening. Koustubh Sharma, regional field biologist for the Snow Leopard Trust, remembers a consultation meeting on Bengal Tiger where a ministry official came up with the idea that you should turn people living in forests into protectors. “After listening to everyone he said, ‘I realise that I was completely wrong. It cannot work the way I thought’,” says Sharma.
A Muddled Path
Yet, many fear Jairam Ramesh is tilting towards the US on many issues, most importantly climate change. He recently commissioned Arvind Subramanian, an economist with the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, to define the concept of ‘equity’ in climate change
negotiations. Ministry officials justified the decision saying that Subramanian is one of the best minds to define the principle of equity. Not many agree with that view though.
“I have worked in this field for several years, in both the US and India. I have never heard of any work of Subramanian of any consequence on climate change,” says a member of the Planning Commission’s expert group on low-carbon economy. A Times of India report quoted an unnamed Indian negotiator as saying that Subramanian is known to have a different view on ‘equity’ that will take away the country’s central negotiating plank.
Jairam Ramesh’s credibility suffered in the public eye when he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister advocating a conciliatory line at the Copenhagen talks.
T. Jayaraman of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, a trenchant critic of Ramesh’s new position, has now mellowed his criticism. He draws relief not from what Ramesh did at Copenhagen but from the complex nature of international climate change politics and the broad debate in India. “Jairam was controlled by a set of guidelines set in Parliament,” he says. “In his apparent eagerness to chart out a new pathway, he was brought down to earth by the sheer obduracy of the developed world.”
Before setting off for Copenhagen, Ramesh made an open commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20-25 percent from 2005 levels in a decade. However, the entire projection was based on a three-page Planning Commission note that admits that it had used a simplistic method of calculation and not complex modelling. “How can you commit the country to an international commitment on the basis of such a note?” asks one member of the expert group on low-carbon economy.
The expert group is expected to chart out India’s strategy towards a low carbon economy and its recommendations, due by September 2010, would feed into the 12th Plan. At the second meeting of the group on February 23, all the industry heavyweights — Pawan Goenka, J.J. Irani, Amit Mitra — were present only by proxy. “Perhaps they know something that I don’t. Perhaps they know this group is useless,” the member said. Some believe that the government decides first and debates later. While the discussion paper on NEPA was put up for public comments in September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama signed a Green Partnership agreement in November that envisaged USEPA’s technical help for NEPA.
Kalpavriksh’s Kohli asks if the government had already decided on the USEPA to be its model and advisor, why should it seek the public’s comments? India has several agreements with the USEPA, including an MoU on co-operation in environment protection. On its Web site, the USEPA’s office of international affairs states: “Our mission is to protect human health and the environment while advancing US national interests through international environmental collaboration.”
The ministry has also set up a Global Advisory Network Group on Environmental Sciences of non-resident Indian scientists. Of the dozen members in the network, 10 are from US institutions and one is from Canada. Such skewed representation is bound to draw flak in a country which still retains the legacy of the non-alignment movement and where large sections of the public have a deep suspicion of the US.
Charles George, who heads the Leftist Matsya Thozhilali Aikyavedi, a fisherfolk grouping in Kerala, says that Ramesh’s public consultations are a garb, though even he admits that some of the steps the minister has taken are progressive. For instance, George supports the minister on Bt brinjal. He also acknowledges that if the ministry restores the primacy of coastal zone regulation of 1991, it will greatly benefit the fisherfolk. A ministry official told Forbes India that it was indeed reverting to the 1991 notification.
However, George points to the proposed Marine fisheries Regulation and Management Bill as a retrograde one. “The ministry is planning to allow foreign vessels in Indian waters beyond 12 nautical miles. That will result in the depletion of one of the last remaining fertile fishing fields in the world.”
Jairam Ramesh has certainly raised heckles across the sector in the country. However, it is not clear on whose side he is on. At a public meeting recently in Chennai, he was questioned about the hundreds of project clearances given by his ministry. “I have to take a middle path. I cannot be with the growth fundamentalists or the eco fundamentalists,” he replied.
(This story appears in the 19 March, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)