Before we delve into the book, let’s consider the author, former union minister of environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, whose image was arguably larger than the chair he occupied. Was Ramesh a ‘Green Terror’ as labelled, rather unkindly, by a mainstream weekly magazine?
The statistics speak for themselves — even during Ramesh’s tenure there was no letting up in the clearance rate: the ‘green signal’ to projects continued to be 95 per cent upwards, including those causing irrevocable damage to pristine habitats. What Ramesh brought to the table was something that was rarely seen, either through the regime of the UPA government, and certainly, in the current NDA rule — transparency, engagement with civil society, an eagerness to understand the subject, and most importantly, an endeavour to build and consolidate institutions.
At the launch of his book, Ramesh quipped: “This is not a kiss and tell book. It is not a work of fiction. So if you are expecting a Sanjaya Baru or Natwar Singh type book, you are going to be very disappointed.”
Indeed it is not. And therein lies the worth of this book. The functioning of the Ministry of Environment & Forests has been notoriously non-transparent and lacking in accountability. And here isGreen Signals, a factual record of the 25 months of Ramesh’s tenure. It gives us a background, and tells us the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of policy-making in what was easily the most contentious period that the ministry has seen to date.
The author begins by saying the book is “about how he became from an ‘enviroagnostic’ (Ramesh had played a role in the 1991 economic reforms, besides holding positions in the ministries of commerce, power, finance and the Planning Commission) to an ‘enviro-believer’. However, it would be remiss to describe it as a personal journey.
It is more of the ministry’s approach to the increasingly high-pitched “growth vs environment” debate. Ramesh calls for a need to redefine this paradigm: Growth is not just about a rising GDP but must be inclusive, sustainable and “in a manner that is more mindful of its impacts and consequences.” Green Signals offers a well-grounded justification on India’s imperative for environment conservation, and makes a strong case for India to take Climate Change seriously.
Ramesh also writes on the coal saga, and the energy dilemma. For instance, how does India meet its growing energy demand without destroying vast swathes of wildlife-rich forests underneath which lie coal deposits? One chapter deals with ‘trade-offs’ citing cases — like the nod for mining in Saranada (Jharkhand), which would destroy Asia’s finest Sal forest, but was “essential for SAIL’s survival”.
Many of Ramesh’s decisions were relayed through ‘speaking orders’, a tool he mastered in a bid to be transparent. But the same arguments that worked in favour of halting the destructive mining in Niyamgiri did not hold true for the Korean magnate POSCO’s steel plant. More of such speaking orders, speeches, parliamentary questions and letters are chronicled in the 600 odd pages. Also included are Ramesh’s whimsical observations: “Tiger mortality is good news for tiger experts.”
The book details the various issues that kicked up controversy: the go-no-go areas for coal mining, violations of environment laws by the Adarsh housing society, the Bt-Brinjal debate, India’s stand on Climate Change negotiations, and the various bigticket projects including the POSCO steel plant, Vedanta’s mining plan for Niyamgiri and the Jaitapur nuclear power plant.
A chapter that must be mentioned is ‘Beyond Clearances’. Simply because it draws attention to the MoEF’s actual mandate — to ensure the country’s environment and ecological security, and not to be a clearing house for projects. Here, one is acquainted with the MoEF’s rarely-seen avatar of defending its turf — urging the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi to protect the critically-endangered Great Indian Bustard to devising fiscal incentives for state governments on environment parameters.
The reader may get a sense of the book being a self-serving exercise of building up Ramesh’s global image as an articulate South politician in the arena of Climate Change and environment. But the author is at pains to point out that he is no environmentalist, and repeatedly draws attention to the throne of thorns he occupied, with the consistent tussle between the “two cultures” of environment and development. Incidentally, Ramesh’s well-crafted speech on the two cultures is a must read, as are the other essays. The writing is crisp and though the subject is heavy, it makes for interesting reading.
Occasionally, through the officious sarkari documents, Ramesh lets a not-so-diplomatic dig slip through. Like the letter to the then Union minster of steel, Virbhadra Singh: “In today’s newspaper, I read about your advice to me to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. Your advice is well taken. The problem is that all ministers want me to be automatic.” Green Signals is a must read for policymakers and politically-conscious citizens. You may not agree with what Ramesh espouses, but no matter which ‘culture’ we belong to, do read and join the debate.
The author is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, trustee, Bagh and Editor, TigerLink