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An Activist Minister: Jairam Ramesh
From being one of the architects of the new economic policy, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is almost single handedly bringing about a paradigm shift within the government about how to view progress and development, writes Sandeep Pandey.
Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh briefing the press at the launch of a Monitoring System for Tigers’ Intensive Protection and Ecological Status in New Delhi April 14. Ramesh is India’s first independent thinking environment minister and it is also probably for the first time that an environmentalist has become a minister.
Jairam Ramesh has given teeth to the environment ministry as T.N. Seshan had done to the election commission. Nobody used to take the environment ministry seriously earlier. Projects used to go on without environmental clearances or conditional clearances which were never honored. It was believed by development enthusiasts, especially promoters of big projects which had an environment cost, that this ministry was essentially an obstacle which was not insurmountable.
Jairam Ramesh initially attracted attention by junking the much trumpeted idea of interlinking of rivers. To come out openly against a project which had advocates like the technologist-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the Supreme Court itself required some courage. Interestingly, it was only after Jairam spoke against the project that Rahul Gandhi also became critical of this.
He stunned even his own cabinet and party colleagues by deciding to go around the country and conduct public consultations on the issue of introduction of bt-brinjal, the genetically modified eggplant being promoted by global agribusiness in India.
In a country where decisions are normally taken behind closed doors and even after an Right to Information Act in place most departments and ministries prefer not to disclose their decision making process, it was a refreshingly bold exercise undertaken by Ramesh, which is the only manner in which decisions should be taken in a democracy. He faced adverse criticism from colleagues, corporate houses and even some motivated media but decided to stick to his guns.
He pulled up the Orissa government for violating bauxite mining guidelines. Vedanta, a private company which plans bauxite mining on a large scale, has been able to influence the Orissa government to ignore the environmental stipulations in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, part of which also falls in Niyamgiri forests.
Indira Sagar Project is one of the 30 major projects proposed in Narmada Basin with the largest storage capacity in the country. The project is located near Punasa village in Khandwa District of Madhya Pradesh. Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has suspended the work of Maheshwar dam on river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh as conditions of statutory environmental clearance were not complied with and the resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected families was unsatisfactory.
Ramesh has not hesitated from correcting his stand with evolving understanding. For example, once he served on a board of advisors on environment matters of Coca-Cola. When he realized that the company was a threat to the environment and was causing water scarcity, he resigned from this board. When he went to Bhopal in September 2009 he made light of the threat due to toxic waste lying there as a result of the world’s greatest industrial disaster in a Union Carbide plant in 1984. After realizing that he had hurt the sensibilities of victims of the gas leak during this accident, he announced the setting up of the first National Green Tribunal in Bhopal in April 2010.
On the crucial question of global warming Jairam Ramesh has finally risen above sectarian nationalist interest and agreed to the only reasonable position any globally thinking human being would take, that of committing himself to reducing India’s carbon emission in the years to come.
Another proof of his conviction was on display April 2 when he removed his convocation gown at the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal, terming it a “colonial relic.” Normally a person in his position would not take a risk like this. His action cannot be dismissed as a publicity stunt and he was not reprimanded by party bosses because his stands are based on sound reasoning and understanding.
Now he has suspended the work of Maheshwar dam on river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh as the conditions of statutory environmental clearance were not complied with and the resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected families was less than satisfactory. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and dam builder S. Kumars are livid. They are putting pressure on the prime minister to allow resumption of construction of the dam. However, it is going to be very difficult for the Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Limited or the M.P. government to respond to the clear cut specific objections raised in the letter from the Ministry of Environment and Forests as examples of non-compliance of conditions of environmental clearance issued in 2001. Out of 22 submergence villages rehabilitation has taken place in only one — Jalud. No agricultural land has been identified for rehabilitation. Backwater level calculation report due in December 2009 has not been submitted. No work has been done towards creation of two wildlife sanctuaries.
The main complaint of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, under whose banner the displaced families have united, was that the relief and rehabilitation work of Maheshwar-dam affected people which should have taken place pari passu with the dam construction, was completed only to the extent of 5 percent while the dam was 80 percent complete. The builders and the M.P. government chose to ignore the stipulated conditions for nine years and brazenly continued to build the dam. This exhibits the attitude most people in the system have towards environmental ministry.
It is hoped that the prime minister will not give in the pressure of the corporate lobby and forces of vested interests and will allow Jairam Ramesh a free hand to take decisions in the interest of people and the environment. He is India’s first independent thinking environment minister and it is also probably for the first time that an environmentalist has become a minister. He is taking positions which are normally taken by activists and their organizations. But he is not somebody who can be merely dismissed as one moved by passion alone. After all, he has been an important member of the team of experts which put into place the new economic policy of globalization, privatization and liberalization since its very beginning. What he is doing is based on sound logic and in the context of changing realities of the world. From being one of the architects of the new economic policy now he is almost single handedly bringing about a paradigm shift within the government about how to view progress and development.
Sandeep Pandey, a Magsaysay award-winning activist, is India editorial consultant for Siliconeer.