Making news for all wrong reasons: from blocking projects to making India's position on climate “flexible” was possibly what proved to be the undoing of Jairam Ramesh. He was elevated to cabinet rank and given the rural development ministry. Environment will be handled now by Jayanthi Natarajan.
Contrary to popular perception that Ramesh sat on or delayed clearances, facts tell a very different tale. Under his tenure in the last two years the ministry gave environmental clearance to over 90% projects.
No major projects, whether it was the Posco Steel Plant in Orissa or the Nuclear Park in Jaitapur or the Navi Mumbai Airport, was stopped. He even altered his own go no go policy for the coal sector by allowing three major blocks in no go areas with some stiff environmental conditions. That was part of his “flexible” approach on environmental issues.
Before Ramesh, the ministry was perceived as a rubber stamp for clearing projects and there were also allegations of corruption. He cleaned up the system and brought in transparency in functioning. In fact, one of the first things he did was to put in a transparent glass door in his office at the ministry since he believed that transparency had to begin with him. Ramesh also raised the hackles of several cabinet colleagues, the Prime Minister’s office and of course the industry from which he zealously guarded India’s ecology.
His ante on environmental issues was more for byte hungry journalists rather than bringing in any real changes in implementing environmental laws. On his own, he took action against the Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai, the Lavasa Lake City Project near Pune and Nirma’s Cement factory in Gujarat for violating environmental norms but failed to set up a system where violation of environmental laws will be dealt with automatically.
Another area of controversy for Ramesh was climate change negotiations where he was seen as the final word. At two UN conferences on climate change, Ramesh subtly altered India’s position evoking strong domestic reaction. But it earned him lavish praise and admiration from American and and European climate negotiators.
In a ministry, which has hogged the limelight for awhile now, Natarajan, a Congress spokesperson of standing can bring in some sobriety. But her job will be tough as Ramesh has raised the bar of expectations, especially for pro-active environmental NGOs and has infused new life of activism into the ministry.
He has also left a lot of unfinished agenda items for Natarajan to deal with such as having a sound environment monitoring mechanism, giving a new direction to India’s climate change campaign and focus on preserving forests for wildlife protection.
What remains to be seen is whether Natarajan will be able to cope with the “pressure” to give environmental clearances to projects, especially from the coal and power sectors?