Jairam Ramesh, 56, has been India’s environment and forest minister since May 2009. His ministry gives environmental clearances — mandatory for all mining activities. In November last year, it rejected coal-mining proposals in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. In April, activist groups along the Western Ghats wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi praising the minister’s efforts to protect India’s forests.
The question that's on everyone's minds -- is the earth really getting warmer?
Anecdotally it certainly seems to be true. Every time the temperature shoots up to over 42 degrees, and since all of us are amateur scientists we think it is… but is there incontrovertible evidence to show that the world is getting warmer? Well, responsible scientist like James Hansen of NASA is on record as having said that the earth is getting warmer. Rainfall patterns have certainly become irregular - every time I go to Cherapunji for example, people tell me it's raining much less than what it used to earlier. So yes, perhaps, the earth is getting warmer.
Let's talk about mining. We've been seeing cases of rampant and illegal mining tumbling out - it has become a serious issue now. How has your ministry responded to it?
Well, we have identified regions of our country where clearly mining has reached limits that may cross the carrying capacity of that region. Goa is a classic example, where we have put a moratorium on future mining. Western Ghats is another area where I've set up an expert panel under the chairmanship of Madhav Gadgil, one of our top ecologists who is identifying the critical areas in the Western Ghats. Then we have put critical mining projects on hold, like the Vedanta project is still under examination. We are much more careful now. We've put a number of coal mining projects on hold. We've identified go areas and no go areas and have actually rejected a number of coal mining openings in no-go areas particularly in Chattisgarh. But we need to mine. Let us be very clear. Mining activity cannot come to a halt. But illegal mining must stop. We have taken very tough action. I've written to the chief minister of Karnataka for example where a lot of illegal mining has taken place, we've cancelled a number of mining leases also in Karnataka. Mining must go on, legal mining must go on. But even where there is legal mining and if it is in dense forest areas, then we have to have a second look as is in the case of coal. It's a ticklish issue. But unfortunately in our country, mining has not been done in an ecologically sustainable manner so far…
Is there a sustainable way to mine?
Well yeah, the Germans have done it, the Americans have also done it. Even in India, Neyveli Lignite is a good example of sustainable mining. Singareni is another one in Andhra Pradesh. If we are more sensitive we can come up with ways. But we have to be careful of mining in tribal areas particularly - where you have to look at issues like who's going to be the beneficiary of those mines…
How do you read mining scams like the Reddy brothers in Karnataka, Madhu Koda in Jharkhand?
I can't do anything about the scams. I can only enforce the acts, which are the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act. Those are the only three instruments I have. I can't go after Madhu Kodas, if he has violated any of these acts, then I can take action.
Ok, so how does the ministry look at the state forest departments who are in collusion with mining lobbies in their states?Well, I cannot deny the collusion. Whether it's Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh…any state, there is collusion. But then remember state governments are also under pressure to show results of investment. Chief ministers want to get private investment; they want to show their economies are doing well.
In the case of Goa, recently there were two approved projects that your ministry overturned, and there is enough material to prove that the forest department of Goa is hand-in-glove with the mining lobby there. How does the ministry look at this?You take tough action…
What kind of tough action?
We've issued a moratorium on mining, we're rejecting projects… what more action do you want?
What about action against such officials?
There is a fine constitutional balance to be protected here. I can only bring it to the notice of the state government. They have to take action against its officials. If there are officers in the forest department, in our regional offices, then we can take action against them.
What about forest departments denying the presence of tigers in certain areas because they don't want buffer zones that would affect mining? Again taking an example from Goa.
Yes, that and even Maharashtra has been very slow in declaring buffer zones around Tadoba. Traditionally, state governments have been reluctant to declare buffer zones because it would preclude mining activity. But I've also rejected a proposal of opening a coalmine in Tadoba buffer zone in Maharashtra. I think the signals that have gone from the ministry are strong. But the idea is not to stop mining activity or bring economic activity to a halt. The idea is to deal with illegalities in mining and ensure mining doesn't violate the three acts under the environment ministry.
So how do you look at preventing illegal mining?
We've taken action against Oubalapuram where there were allegations of illegalities. We've ordered a survey. Supreme Court has also intervened. I've written to the chief minister of Karnataka where there are a lot of allegations of illegal mining. If they are violating the forest conservation act we can take action against them.
Let's talk about the dams coming up in Arunachal Pradesh…
See, on the same river you can have a series of projects and we know the project wise assessment is not going to work, so we must look at the carrying capacity of the river. We have done this for the north Teesta, we have put a halt to five projects. Similarly we have made recommendations on abandoning projects on the Bhagirathi because you need a minimum environmental flow in these critical rivers. The idea is not to stop dam construction per se but the idea is to say look at balance between development and environment. And where these projects are essential, let's do them in an ecological sustainable manner.
Forest clearances are required for mining. How does the ministry look at these? People on the ground in Goa have said that mining continues in places without relevant leases.
That the state government has to take action. All I can say is if a project has got clearance under the Forest Clearance Act, it's not an illegal project. An illegal one is where they don't have permission. It'll start with the local authorities where the state governments have to play their role. I can't be a policeman al the time, only a facilitator. The laws are central; the legislation has to be local.
How does one enforce them?
The state government has to enforce them. The machinery is under them…
In case there's violation, how does the ministry deal with it?
We can certainly take action if there s violation. In the case of Vedanta, we sent a team, they gave a report, we are examining that report. Where reports come to us of violations we don't have the machinery to check ourselves so we send teams. I have sent teams to Kerala, on Vedanta, Goa, Karnataka…
How has the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) played out on India's coastline over the years?
We have a CRZ 1991, we have had 25 amendments to it. We're now in the process of Draft CRZ 2010, which will clean up a lot of the CRZ 1991. We don't want to weaken CRZ 91. We're coming out with CRZ 2010, which will strengthen CRZ 1991 and recognise that certain areas in India that need specialised treatment. For example Goa, Kerala, Mumbai, Andamanas, Lakshwadeep. You may have an overarching CRZ but for each of these ecologically special areas, it'll require special treatment. The Draft will be put in public domain; I've already had five public consultations in Goa, Mumbai, Cochin, Puri and Chennai with the public and fishermen...
The mining policy in India is not legally bound. But the government is in a position to regulate activities. How does the government look at the scams?
I can't do anything about the scams, my mandate is limited. I have to ensure the laws are not violated. You're asking larger questions of the nexus of mining and politics, I can't get into that, I don't have the wherewithal…
But the environment ministry plays a big role in clearing mining leases...
The environment ministry's mandate is to ensure the three laws are complied with. We can't get into corruption act, money laundering etc, that's not our mandate. We have to see that our troika of acts is implemented in letter and spirit.
What kind of development is the environment ministry looking at?
There are three responses I will have to any project - one is yes, second is yes but, third is no. This can't be a 'yes yes' ministry, it can't be a 'no no' ministry, it has to be a nuanced ministry. The nuance is that today a bulk of the projects are in the 'yes' category, a good number in the 'yes but' category, a few in the 'no' category. The headlines only end up on the 'no' category, the media will focus on clashes between two ministries. The fact is that this ministry clears 95 per cent projects from an environmental point of view, over 85 per cent from the forest point of view...
Then how do some projects get clearances faster than they should?
Some projects have had push and pulls. Today the system is transparent, I have removed all conflict of interests, I have changed chairmen of environmental appraisal committees. Today all information on each pending project is on the website, we are making it as business like as possible.
How are you planning to crackdown on illegal mining projects?
We will be more careful…
How can violations by forest departments in states be dealt with?
Not clearing projects without feasibility studies, we will take action if there are violations. Look at them more carefully. I have turned down many proposals recommended by forest advisory committees. We plan to do more studies. It all starts from the top; I have to send the right signals.
What about sustainable economic development?
There's no magic formula. All three have to form part of finding the balance, find the golden mean. You can't be theological, you need development, you need projects, they create employment.
India is looking to increase its forest cover and yet there's rampant mining taking place. How do we reconcile these two?
We have identified go and no-go areas especially in the case of coal mining in nine major coalfields. Almost 35 per cent of coal blocks are in no go areas, where there is high tree density and forest cover. We haven't done this for iron ore yet. Coal is serious because we have to double our coal production in the next 7-8 years. Incremental coal is going to come from forest areas -- Orissa, Jharkhand, MP, Chattisgarh…
How will you look at illegal mining?
Stop illegal mining. Courts. Only way to do it. Rule of law prevails.