Jairam Ramesh as Environment and Forest minister transformed the ministry from being a rubber stamp to an independent think tank — but not without earning the wrath of many across the political class.
As a junior minister in UPA-2, Ramesh got rebuked by his senior Cabinet colleagues, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan, for imposing a moratorium on the introduction of Bt brinjal, after country-wise public consultations. Road transport minister Kamal Nath chided him for delays in clearances to road projects. Ramesh hit back saying “my job is to protect environment without jeopardising economic growth”.
For the first time, here was an approach that could refuse permission to projects opposed by locals — ranging from mining in Goa’s fragile eco-system to power plants in a 130 km-stretch of the upper Ganga basin and in the Tadoba tiger reserve in Maharashtra.
“Rarely does the government involve people in decision-making,” said Magsasay award winner activist Sandeep Pandey. “Ramesh showed it could happen with Bt brinjal. To me, it is a lesson for other ministers to involve people in government policy.” Though 30% of respondents found the environment ministry “effective” and “speedy”, around one-fourth wanted the ministry to be bolder.
Ramesh has fast-tracked policy interventions by notifying more stringent air and noise pollution norms, at par with the European standards, and got India’s worst-polluted industrial areas rated. To ensure environmental laws get enforced, Ramesh cut short his foreign visit to get the National Green Tribunal Bill passed in the Budget session. In the monsoon session, a bill to set up National Environment Protection Agency is to be introduced.
The 56-year-old minister has also had his share of controversies, especially the climate change one. He interrupted US Secretary for State Hillary Clinton during her speech on climate change in Delhi and was the first to question IPCC’s claim that most of the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. At the Copenhagen climate summit, Ramesh was among the busiest ministers, echoing his views on behalf of the developing world and was often described as “dynamic” for agreeing to slow down India’s emission growth.
In domestic politics, Ramesh “flexible” climate change approach earned him rebuke. “India diluted its stand on polluter pay principle and per capita emissions to be basis for negotiations at Copenhagen. Ramesh was too soft towards United States, the world’s biggest polluter,” said Prakash Javdekar, BJP leader, who had participated in an MPs conference on climate change in Copenhagen. Climate NGOs have been critical of Ramesh for piggy-bagging on China over climate issues.
His affinity to the Chinese nearly cost him his job after he contradicted the government’s stand publicly in Beijing. Ramesh may have been synonymous with controversies, but even his worst detractors credit him for bringing environment to the forefront of national policy.