05 January 2011

Jairam Ramesh | Environmental protection efforts rile pro-development forces in India

By Rama Lakshmi Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NEW DELHI - Every time Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says no to a project, his critics give him a new label: Green fundamentalist, anti-business, anti-growth, obstructionist, Luddite and Dr. No.

The job has rarely attracted so much attention, but Ramesh has turned a sleepy and apathetic ministry into a controversial one in recent months.

His pronouncements have stopped projects worth billions of dollars, creating powerful enemies in industry and business. His political colleagues have also turned against him, saying he has rejected proposals that would eradicate poverty.

But Ramesh says he is not against industrial expansion and that he is enforcing laws. "We cannot afford to pollute our way to prosperity," he said in an interview.

In the latest flare-up, the coal ministry sought the government's permission last week to mine 203 coal fields to generate 660 million tons of coal. But Ramesh rejected the plan, declaring the heavily forested areas where the fields are located "no-go" zones.

"We are not allergic to the no-go concept of environment," said Sriprakash Jaiswal, India's coal minister. "But the government has to decide: Do we want to pursue economic growth or not? We need electricity."

About 70 percent of India's power supply comes from coal, and new nuclear power plants will take more than a decade to build.

'An absolute no'

Jaiswal pledged that trees would be planted in the coal fields in 20 years, after the mining is done. But Ramesh said he would not jeopardize the 4.3 million acres of dense forest left in India.

"Protecting the last bastion of good quality forests in India is more important than generating power from coal," he said. "This is an absolute no."

An engineer by training, Ramesh, 56, was one of India's earliest advocates of privatization and economic reform and helped shape several pro-business policies.

"There is no conflict between economic growth and environment protection. It is a question of adhering to the existing environment laws," said Ramesh, who was appointed 19 months ago. "We Indians delight in passing new laws and then bypassing them. That has to stop."

He has denounced profligate consumption and the emerging suburban SUV-driving lifestyle. But he loves electronic gizmos, and his colleagues privately call him "PowerPoint politician."

He is known for his one-liners and sarcasm. He recently called India's attitude toward China "paranoid" and said India should get a Nobel Prize for filth. In October, the steel minister, Virbhadra Singh, advised him to be "pragmatic" instead of "dogmatic." Ramesh replied in a letter that the problem arises because everybody expects the environment ministry to be "automatic."

In recent months, he has set up special environment courts to expedite cases. He is also forming an independent environment monitoring and assessment agency and will soon launch an emissions trading scheme among Indian states to manage air pollution.

At the Copenhagen and Cancun climate talks, Ramesh offered to allow international inspection of India's measures to mitigate climate change. But back home, he was accused of selling out India's national interest to Western nations without getting anything in return.

"The same environmentalists who give me bouquets in the morning often give brickbats in the evening," Ramesh said. "But today, we are in a pivotal position to play a constructive role in the climate talks."

The projects he has canceled include a four-lane highway that passed through a tiger reserve and construction of a dam in the Himalayas that would have destroyed thousands of trees. He denied permission for a $ 7 billion bauxite mining project in the impoverished eastern state of Orissa because, he said, it would destroy forests. He has also delayed giving the go-ahead to a coastal steel factory in Orissa on environmental grounds.

"We don't have the luxury of turning down projects," said Jai Panda, a lawmaker from Orissa. "We need to tap every possible source of investment for growth. Thousands of jobs would have been created."

In November, Ramesh halted construction on a $9 billion project to build a hillside township in western India because he said it violated environmental laws. The builder said it had obtained all clearances from the Maharashtra state government.

"We have been building there for over eight years with all the necessary environment permissions. All of a sudden, now he says we should raze it to the ground and destroy all the trees we have planted," said Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Hindustan Construction, which built the town with American and Australian conservation consultants. "Without giving us a hearing, how did he pass such a harsh order?"

Ramesh acknowledges that his work comes with a huge political risk. He told reporters that he had a "friendless and thankless job."

Environmentalists hail Ramesh for fixing a ministry that has long been seen as a rubber stamp for most projects. But many fear that the energy Ramesh has injected into the environment ministry might not last.

"Jairam Ramesh has won a lot of praise for all his decisions," said D. Raghunandan, secretary of the Delhi Science Forum. "But the real test is to see if he has altered the decision-making structures and processes in a way that will outlast him."

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Small follow up - he's also gone ahead to claim that the iconic Akshardham Temple did not get environmental clearance. Maybe I'm biased as an atheist, but the man is a legend :)

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6 comments:

  1. I guess in the end the arguement between Ramesh and all the industrialists is either Indians can be rich in an ugly country or poor in a beautiful one. What the industrialists need to realise is that there are other options for development even if they aren't quite as lucrative or as easy as the as the ones that would lead to environmental destruction.

    I really hope this man sticks around because he's making alot of hard decisions that, in the end, have to be made by someone if the environment is going to last. Men like this also force businesses to get off their lazy asses and pull out all those not-quite-as-profitable but sustainable development options they're hiding away.

    With regards to the temple issue though, no the builders may not have had environmental clearance but the temple is there now and is a place of worship and razing it would not bring back what was lost in it's construction and would only generate more unneeded enemies for Mr. Ramesh.

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  2. Couldn't have put it better myself. He's the only person in our country with not just the power and influence, but the guts to take a stand and make a difference. I feel he's going to revolutionise India's environmental legislation. I'd like to see more on climate policy, but I suppose a country like ours can only take baby steps with such progress.

    You're right, Akskhardham is too iconic a monument to shout about now. It's just nice to see that he wasn't too scared to make the claim about it's clearance and construction by the Yamuna (the CWG village also). Most people wouldn't dare to raise issues with anything to do with religion but he did.

    What you say about sustainable business options though - there are a lot of NGOs doing great work in this field. The CII-ITC Centre for Excellence in Sustainable Development and WWF especially. Take a look at the Carbon Disclosure Project that's carried out jointly by them. I'm currently interning at the Business and Industry division of WWF-India and have learnt first hand about a lot of these initiatives. Slowly but surely, more and more businesses are realising the importance of sustainability and including it in their corporate policies. Wipro and ITC are good examples of this. So, if post-Ramesh we don't get somebody as proactive, at least some of the leading companies in India will be onboard :)

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  3. I understand there are companies like the WWF who are urging businesses to reduce their carbon emissions and such but my complaint is that alot of big companies know that there are alternative ways of producing electricity (for example) that would be much more sustainable but knowing that the end of year turn-over would drop, prefer to pollute and destroy for as long as they can get away with it. This is why India (among other countries) needs someone like Ramesh to tell these companies they can't get away with it anymore thus forcing them to implement these alternative plans.

    I like the way WWF is 'converting' companies a bit like an alcoholics anonymous group by first forcing the companies to admit they have a problem (leaving an unacceptably large carbon footprint) and then showing them how to better themselves but also showing that doing so will be more profitable in the long run for the company which, as you say, means that post-Ramesh there will be leading companies setting an example.

    By the way, India's not doing too bad if you think about it. At least people there are trying

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  4. True, a lot of the companies will just choose the profit over sustainability, ignoring that the latter can be the more profitable option.

    The individuals doing work in India are trying to make a difference and doing an amazing job plus now the government's taking charge too. But our large population will always be a hindrance. The concept of awakening the general public has a completely different meaning here, how do you work on such a huge general public? We've got it much harder than the other countries.

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  5. Well the best place to start making a difference in a high population country would be the corporates then I suppose. That way you're awakening the public in small groups at a time as you convert each company. From there, the companies themselves could teach their employees a few techniques in sustaining the country in general (save water, electricity and paper etc)

    The hard part of bringing the public around comes when you get to the poverty areas where people just have so much trouble barely surviving the day nevermind doing it in an eco-friendly way. Hard not to pollute rivers when you don't have a proper toilet. But this comes back to reducing poverty by creating jobs by increasing development quickly by destroying nature. Ultimately what would be best is if all the larger companies got on board with carbon reduction, thereby working together on sustainable development which would slowly reduce the poverty. The big problem is that very few people have the fore-sight, patience or stubbornness to go through with such a plan.

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  6. Definitely, at least for the middle class/elite, corporates can encourage healthy and sustainable consumerism. Hopefully that's just a matter of a few companies taking the lead and the rest eventually following their footsteps.

    For the population as a whole I think education's a big one we can work with. I was so glad to hear that CBSE incorporated environmental science into the syllabus, it's really about time.

    As for sustainable poverty alleviation, it must be a combination of government and private/NGO efforts in order to make an all-India impact.

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