Green memories

Print edition : May 29, 2015
On how Jairam Ramesh found the middle ground of engagement on economic growth and environmental conservation.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh was never known for impassioned and forceful public speeches. His interactions with the media were few and far between. But during one of these rare meetings, he made an unusually forceful comment.

In June 2011, during his interaction with editors of five newspapers, when Manmohan Singh was asked about his Environment Minister’s statement that the Ministry was forced to reverse many of its decision under pressure from the Prime Minister, he said: “I think he is right.” When asked, “Are you pressuring him?”, he replied, “As Gandhiji said, poverty is the biggest polluter. We need to have a balance.” Jairam Ramesh, the Minister in question, had built up a reputation for standing up for the cause of the environment and stalling development projects that could damage the environment.

Yet, as Adviser to the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, he was one of the voices that supported the economic liberalisation process that had begun in the country. In his presentation before journalists in October 1993, Jairam Ramesh criticised all those who held conservative views on economic growth. Why did he change his position of the 1990s? Or, did he change his stand at all? This is the topic that he sets out to cover in Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India. He starts with the following prelude: “This is a book on how an enviro-agnostic became an enviro-believer.”

Further, in the introductory chapter, he admits that his views on the environment had changed over the years. “I have to be honest and admit that 20 years ago, I was something of a zealot about putting GDP [gross domestic product] growth uncompromisingly ahead of everything else. I believed that the answers to India’s problems lay in increasing GDP growth. I still believe in growth, but I no longer equate it solely with rising GDP, I believe that we should focus on increasing wealth. I still believe that growth is absolutely essential but it is equally important to sustain growth, ensure that the benefits of growth accrue tangibly to all, and pursue that rapid growth in a manner that is more mindful of its environmental impacts and consequences.”

Jairam Ramesh was Environment Minister (Minister of State with Independent Charge) from May 2009 to July 2011. It was the first half of the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It was a period of great confidence for the UPA. Its popularity was on the ascendant at the end of UPA-I, and it could capitalise on it for a second election victory. Jairam Ramesh was an important electoral strategist for the Congress, and the independent charge of the Environment Ministry given to him was the party’s gesture of paying him back for his good work.

However, at least for those following the Environment Ministry, it was clear that by mid-2011 Manmohan Singh was uncomfortable with his Minister. And within a month after quoting Mahatma Gandhi to newspaper editors, Manmohan Singh shifted Jairam Ramesh from the Environment Ministry—but elevated him to Cabinet rank—to handle the portfolios of Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation. By this time, the UPA had reached the middle of its second term and was losing its sheen.

Being an Environment Minister in India is a difficult responsibility. A person in that position will feel the country’s needs for economic development and environmental conservation tug at each other. Jairam Ramesh tried to tread the middle ground, trying to approach decisions by looking at the case by itself. In the process, he made friends and enemies, from both the development and environment sides.

Politically, Jairam Ramesh had the benefit of steering his actions in that unique space provided by the UPA. While Manmohan Singh’s preference was for economic growth, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s preference was for a rights-based governance system. Jairam Ramesh created his space within these two pulls. However, in Green Signals he credits his decision-making space to the Prime Minister alone.

“He told me that the Environment Ministry had acquired a reputation for corruption and I should introduce a culture of transparency and accountability,” writes Jairam Ramesh about his first meeting with Manmohan Singh after taking charge. “He said that while India cannot afford to ignore ecological concerns, we should not forget the urgent imperative for sustaining high economic growth rates. Finally, he advised me that on international climate change negotiations, India should be part of the solution, even though we had not created the problem.”

Green Signals is a part memoir. Jairam Ramesh writes about the actions he took during his 25-month tenure. Memoirs are usually written after a person in position retires. But since Jairam Ramesh does not seem to be anywhere close to retirement from political life, this book can be seen as curriculum vitae for his future assignments. Jairam Ramesh appears to have maintained detailed written accounts of his decisions and other communications.

A significant tool that he added to his decision-making process was the “speaking order”, which enabled the public to understand the reasons for a decision. Despite the oxymoron, these written speaking orders added an entirely different dimension to the executive decisions of that time.

Speaking orders

The first high-profile speaking order from Jairam Ramesh came on February 9, 2010, imposing a moratorium on the commercial introduction of brinjal genetically modified with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene. He based his decision on the fact that “there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself, there is so much opposition from the State governments, responsible civil society organisations, and eminent scientists have already raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily, the public sentiment is negative, especially when Bt-brinjal will be the first genetically modified vegetable to be introduced anywhere in the world”.

He ordered a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal “till such time as independent scientific studies establish—to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals—the safety of the product from the long-term view of its impact on human health and the environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.” He added a caveat though: “This decision should not, however, be construed as discouraging the ongoing R&D in the areas of using tools of modern biotechnology for crop improvement and strengthening national food and nutrition security.”

The two other speaking orders that brought much attention on Jairam Ramesh were those relating to projects in Odisha. The first was the order rejecting the proposal for diversion of forestland for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills for Vedanta’s alumina refinery. The second was the conditional forest clearance (1,253 hectares) for the POSCO Integrated Steel Plant Project in Jagatsinghpur district. The Niyamgiri hills project was rejected for violations relating to the rights of the tribal groups, the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. Conditional forest clearance was given to the POSCO project since there was no legally valid resolution of the gram sabha claiming forest rights as required under the Forest Rights Act.

Jairam Ramesh justifies the clearances and non-clearances thus:

“Saying ‘no’ to bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills was therefore logical. The Navi Mumbai airport was a ‘yes, but’—it was a case of balancing the need for a new airport to manage the growing air traffic and the need to ensure that the destruction of mangroves, which provide a natural barrier to Mumbai in the event of natural calamities was minimal and that the course of the Mithi river was not altered so much as to adversely impact the city’s natural drainage system.

“In many of the cases such as the Adarsh Housing Society, the development of the Lavasa township, and Vedanta’s expansion of its refinery at Lanjigarh, it was a clear case of disregard for the laws of the land, which resulted in an imbalance. Rectifying the situation was seen as a step to stifle growth, when really it was about restoring balance.”

He denies withholding clearances unnecessarily. “Before I took over, 99.999 per cent of the clearances were in the ‘yes’ category. I increased the population of cases in both the ‘yes, but’ and ‘no’ categories. However, contrary to perception, the fact is that almost 95 per cent of the proposals for environmental clearances got the go ahead and 85 per cent of the proposals for forest projects received the green signal and on time.”

Environment Ministers have had their moments of glory during global meetings, especially at the conference of parties (CoPs) to the Climate Change Convention. Kamal Nath was in the limelight during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; the spotlight was on T.R. Baalu when the climate change CoP was held in New Delhi in 2002; and Jayanthi Natarajan had her moment of fame in the Durban CoP in 2011. Jairam Ramesh represented India in the Copenhagen CoP of 2009, which attracted the highest global media and public attention as the opportunity to save the world.

A senior journalist who covered the Copenhagen CoP told this reviewer that Jairam Ramesh was the centre of attraction for national and international media contingents. There were two reasons for this: his flowing hair and articulate speech and, more importantly, the fact that an Indian representative was communicating a non-rhetorical position.

However, Jairam Ramesh’s position at the Cancun CoP in 2010 came in for criticism. He writes that at Cancun there was a growing demand that countries enter into a legally binding agreement, similar to the Kyoto Protocol, to tackle climate change. Countries from the Group of 77 (G-77), and even South Africa and Brazil favoured a legal agreement.

“At Cancun, India’s manoeuvring space was fast vanishing, and in a bid to regain negotiating space, to literally live and fight another day, I made an impromptu addition —‘all countries must take binding commitments under appropriate legal form’—to my address to the high-level segment of the climate talks. This impromptu one-liner came in for instant criticism from influential sections of the media, who dubbed it as India committing to take an emission reduction target. Political opponents spared no punches even when I was in Cancun, and when I returned.”

Green Signals is a book that anybody interested in environmental developments in India should read, although the size of the volume is overwhelming. Jairam Ramesh’s main arguments are articulated in the introductory chapter. He begins each of the other chapters by explaining one of the facets and then supporting it with other material —speaking orders, transcripts from parliamentary debates, official letters that he wrote, his newspaper articles and speech texts. Together, the supporting documents constitute a good repository from the 25-month period during which Jairam Ramesh was Environment Minister, though the author is the sole curator and thus can be prone to selection bias.

Twenty-five months is not a long period in a political career. It is only half a term for a government, and since the UPA had two consecutive terms, it is only a quarter. Thus, it is not such a long period to have made a permanent mark on contemporary Indian environmental history. And it is not as if Jairam Ramesh’s decisions as Environment Minister were not without their limitations. However, what he needs to be given credit for is that he engaged internationally with other countries on climate change, and in India with multiple stakeholders. And in this he was more of a fox than a hedgehog. Speaking at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, Jairam Ramesh said:

“India needs to be liberated both from the ‘high gross domestic product growth hedgehogs’ and the ‘conservation at all costs hedgehogs’. … What India needs more of is the smooth fox—cunning and crafty—to find the balance between high growth and enduring conservation.

“The hedgehog is an ideological crusader supremely convinced of the rightness of the cause while the fox will admit of doubt and uncertainty. The hedgehog does not know how to make concessions to the other point of view while the fox will use linguistic qualifiers liberally—‘yes, but’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’. The hedgehog has feet on the accelerator but the fox works on the clutch forever changing gears to deal with varying traffic conditions.”

The very understanding and articulation of the fact that there is that space between the environment and development for a Minister to tease out and expand made Jairam Ramesh stand out among India’s Environment Ministers. Interestingly, even among those who handled the portfolio before him were hedgehogs —Maneka Gandhi from the environment side and T.R. Baalu from the development side.

Jairam Ramesh’s meeting with Chennai journalists in October 1993 took place soon after that paradigm shift in Indian economic and environmental situation—the 1991 launch of the liberalisation process. Much had changed in the period between then and the time when he took over as Environment Minister. The way India perceives environmental conflicts has changed, and the fox is more effective in finding the middle ground of engagement than the hedgehog. Environmental movements and environmental discussions in India before liberalisation pitted the community against the combined might of the state and industry. A Medha Patkar or a Sunderlal Bahuguna was seen as one with the community when they pitted their moral strength against the might of the state. The urban middle class did not fight these environmental battles.

Post-liberalisation, the urban middle class found an economic and political voice it did not have before. Young people in ponytails and baggy trousers were seen associating more actively in environmental conflicts. They took hedgehog positions such as “say no to coal mining”, and confronted head-on with the “development at any cost” hedgehogs. The result is what we see today, where electoral victory is used by one set of hedgehogs to deny the other set even the fundamental democratic voice.

It is in this battle between two sets of articulate, urban Indian middle class votaries that Jairam Ramesh’s school of engagement found its relevance. Without hiding his own urban and middle-class roots, Jairam Ramesh tried to find a middle space. It is this effort that matters and this is what he will be remembered for. It matters less whether he is an “enviro-agnostic” or an “enviro-believer”, or whether a 95 per cent approval rate is different from 99.999 per cent.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia.

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