Green challenges

Print edition : August 12, 2011

Jairam Ramesh's removal as Environment Minister creates uncertainties for domestic environment policy and the deadlocked global climate talks.

WHATEVER one may think of its overall impact, the recent Cabinet reshuffle was not exactly a damp squib. Its single most important component was Jairam Ramesh's replacement as the Minister of State with independent charge in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) by Jayanthi Natarajan, a relative political lightweight with very little administrative experience. Jairam Ramesh has shown great equanimity at his shift to Rural Development as a Cabinet Minister. But he could not have but known that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was uncomfortable with some of his decisions, positions and statements, and therefore removed him. During his recent meeting with a few print media editors, Manmohan Singh admitted to applying pressure on Jairam Ramesh to have his positions on some issues reversed.

One can only hazard a guess on what the issues were, based on Jairam Ramesh's first responses or statements on them, and their later reversal or modification. They probably involved the Posco steel project, the Jaitapur nuclear reactors, the Lavasa lake-city project, and coal-mining blocks in no go forest areas, among others. On Posco, Jairam Ramesh went to extraordinary lengths to override committees appointed by his own Ministry, including the statutory Forest Advisory Committee.

On Jaitapur, he made at least four different pronouncements calling for either a rethink or a pause in the light of the still-unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster. But he was made to fall in line at a meeting held, in grotesque irony, on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. This decided that the government would forge ahead with the project based on the exorbitantly expensive European Pressurised Reactors developed by the crisis-ridden French company, Areva, whose design is untested and unapproved anywhere in the world.

In each case, non-environmental considerations trumped sound environmental logic including party-political reasons, deals promised to foreign powers, pressure from industry lobbies, and maintaining India's image as an investor-friendly country that unreservedly welcomes a $40 billion steel project regardless of its impact on forests, forest-dwellers, and inland and coastal hydrology.

There was a clearly identifiable pattern here signalling that a project has adverse environmental impact but eventually approving it subject to conditions. In between came various committees and attempts to greenwash a by-now premeditated outcome. This pattern prevailed during much of Jairam Ramesh's tenure. Jairam Ramesh knew that a large number of projects the MoEF cleared would harm the environment. He also confessed that more than 700 had been approved subject to conditions, compliance with which would not be monitored. The MoEF lacks the means to do so. Jairam Ramesh acted as if he had decided to capitulate invariably to pressure from Manmohan Singh when the crunch came.

Jairam Ramesh knew how to play to the gallery. Early on, he reached out to environmentalists and groups campaigning against genetically modified foods. Both his method holding public hearings in different cities and inviting various stakeholders and his final decision to refuse approval to Bt-brinjal endeared him to many environmentalists.

Here was one Minister they could talk to. He had a transparent glass door installed at his office. He was accessible. He was on the same wavelength. Many forgot that Jairam Ramesh had altered some institutions and processes for the worse. For instance, coastal zone regulations have been changed radically to permit roads-on-stilts and high-rise buildings in fishing villages right on the coast.

The list of negatives can go on. Yet, Jairam Ramesh played a positive role too, for which industry reviled him. He greatly raised the profile of environmental issues in public debate and maintained, more eloquently than most of his predecessors, that environmental protection was not a luxury but an imperative. Although he did not always abide by it, he ardently defended and highlighted the principle that attention must be paid to the environment while deciding on developmental projects. Unlike some of his predecessors such as Kamal Nath or A. Raja, who had no real understanding or interest in environmental matters and who used their position to dubious ends, Jairam Ramesh had a good grasp of issues. He got on top of problems and knew exactly where the rub lay. He extended the remit of the environmental agenda by creating new institutions such as the National Green Tribunal and by paying serious attention to the Forest Rights Act. He also introduced great transparency into the MoEF's working. All relevant documents and decisions would be put up on its website almost immediately.

On the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Jairam Ramesh understood that India's stated position of refusing any climate-related obligation would not fly. India, the world's fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, and perceived as an emerging economic giant, could not indefinitely claim to be just another developing country, which would cite the North-South differentiation of climate responsibility. India's responsibility might be much less than the developed countries', but it is not trivial and will grow with rising greenhouse emissions.

India's stand of accepting no limits on its emissions barring that they would never exceed those of the North in per capita terms was seen as ossified, negative and recalcitrant, even obstructionist. Jairam Ramesh showed flexibility and broke the stasis. He understood the vital need to take the wind out of the United States' argument that it was unwilling to make deep cuts in its greenhouse emissions only because China (which is now the world's biggest emitter) and India were not prepared to take climate actions.

Jairam Ramesh thus rightly offered to reduce the emissions intensity of India's production by 20-25 per cent by 2020. (China's offer is 40-45 per cent.) It is possible to criticise the Indian offer as unambitious or low-hanging fruit. India can and should do more. But the offer showed that India was willing to move.

Regrettably, with flexibility came inconsistent and unconceptualised shifts, most importantly at the Copenhagen climate conference. India suddenly made a total break with its stated position of demanding a 40 per cent reduction in the developed countries' emissions and agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012.

The BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) group, representing the greatest current and future emitters, and the U.S., the greatest historical emitter, colluded to draft the Copenhagen Accord, under which each nation would pledge whatever emissions-reduction target it considered expedient. The accord contained no global targets or warming limits, and no obligations for individual developed countries. Under its voluntary pledges, the earth would get locked into 4 Celsius-plus global warming. But it can at maximum tolerate 1.5-2 C.

The Cancun conference which followed sanctified pledge and review instead of the top-down, science- and equity-based approach the world needs with quantitative emissions-cut targets and temperature limits. Once these pledges are inscribed into the Climate Convention, the world will inexorably move towards a climate disaster. Jairam Ramesh also agreed to put scrutiny (international consultation and analysis) on the table even for developing-country mitigation programmes unsupported by the North.

Meanwhile, Jairam Ramesh completely overhauled India's negotiating team, taking charge of it. This led to the departure of the Prime Minister's Special Envoy and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. Jairam Ramesh is also reported to have told UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres that it would not be worthwhile to ask developed countries to increase their emissions-reduction pledges; we should now think of operationalising the elements of Cancun Agreements including the ambitions in a legal framework.

The climate talks are deadlocked on many issues. A likely make-or-break issue is a second commitment period for Kyoto after 2012, which Japan, Russia and Canada oppose. India will have to play its cards extremely carefully and make the right tactical alliances with progressive states if it wants to help rescue the talks and make them yield results conducive to a fair, ambitious and legally binding deal in the near future.

This is a complex and difficult agenda for the next climate summit at Durban, beginning November. It is unclear if Jayanthi Natarajan, the new Environment Minister, can grasp the complexity and craft a strategy in the short time available. Going by her June 6 article in Deccan Chronicle, she only has a limited acquaintance with environmental issues based on her brief and rather inactive membership of the Environmental Society of Madras in the late 1970s. She apparently believes that India seized the lead as an environmental activist country in Stockholm in 1972. Our efforts have not flagged since that day.

In her first media interaction, Jayanthi Natarajan mouthed shop-worn shibboleths about striking a balance between economic growth and ecological protection. I will do everything I can to protect the environment and facilitate growth. But facilitating growth is not her job. Evidently, Jayanthi Natarajan has a long learning-curve ahead of her.

Manmohan Singh took a huge risk in appointing a relative novice to succeed Jairam Ramesh. She needs the help of advisory and consultative groups, which can brief her well without imposing their own agendas upon her. Far too much is at stake at the climate negotiations for India not to have a strategically focussed, competent and agile negotiating team.

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