Jairam Ramesh: A Lasting Legacy
In his 25-month tenure as India’s Minister of Environment and Forest, Jairam Ramesh “demystified the decision-making process, [released] documents [only] available otherwise through the Right to Information Act…[Ramesh’s transparency] took away the sting from green activists’ common refrain that the ministry is not transparent.”
Ramesh sets a high bar
Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Outlook India noted, “Perhaps he has captured the imagination of the Indian public that development that tramples our environment, the land, the minerals, the rivers, that is not the kind of development we want.” Ramesh significantly increased public involvement and participation in decision-making, such as during the Bt brinjal and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification process.
Ramesh changed the perception that environmental law and concerns were automatically relegated as second-tier afterthoughts; he ensured that his ministry’s ‘rubber stamping’ was taken seriously. He revamped the Ministry of Environment’s website, using it as a platform to upload decisions, letters between corporations and the ministry, and to make a public chain of reasoning for his decision on several controversial issues.
“The level of transparency in decision-making in the environment ministry now probably exceeds those in any other ministry,” said Naresh Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second cabinet shuffle in six months shifted Ramesh to the Ministry of Rural Development, technically a promotion: “he has gone from one important portfolio to another. Rural development has many flagship programs [that have been beneficial to the United Political Alliance government]” argued a commentator on Times of India TV on July 13.
Mehta argued, “…I always expected that Jairam Ramesh would be transferred. Not because he has been a less-than-successful minister, perhaps because he’s been too successful…I think the Prime Minister felt Jairam Ramesh tilted too much toward the environment and not kept the development imperatives of the government intact.”
Ramesh was not perfect
Indian environmental advocates must remember that Ramesh was not a perfect Minister. From a Minister who was not willing to compromise, Himanshu Thakkar notes that Ramesh would “tow the PM’s line (e.g., Posco, Lavasa, Jaitapur, Navi Mumai airport, and dereservation coal block from No-Go areas)…. And at many such points, he claimed he had to balance, but balancing is not an environment Minister’s mandate. His mandate is protection of environment per legal norms and on many such occasions he did not do justice to his mandate.” Ramesh admitted his compromising was for India’s ‘strategic and economic’ interest.
The last few months have been marked with instances where Ramesh overruled the advise of statutory committees and approved ecologically and socially disastrous projects in various parts of the country.
The initial reform agenda for the MoEF did not progress much and Ramesh’s inability to ensure that the National Green Tribunal would start functioning before the National Environment Appellate Authority “was wound up meant that there was a vacuum for over a year when neither of them were available.”
Will the environmental movement suffer without Jairam Ramesh?
Even Ramesh’s skeptics and critics admit that the he brought environmental issues to the front page and his record will be difficult to emulate by his successor, Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan. The Indian Express editor, Shekhar Gupta, accused Ramesh of being “publicity clamoring.” While comments like this do not acknowledge the importance of environmental issues there is a question as to whether the environmental movement became too focused on the man himself. The efforts on holding the attention of the ministry leader ignored that the bulk of environment governance takes place at the state level where over two dozen environment Ministers matter the most.
It has been predicted that Natarajan, will be more flexible toward industry in the interests of “powering Asia’s third-largest economy.” On the CNN India program, Devil’s Advocate, Natarjan explained her view, “…there is no dichotomy between development and environment. There can be no compromise on either issue. The environment is absolutely critical, vital, important…Development is equally important. [I will look at issues on each individual’s merits.]”
Environmentalists are hopeful about what role Natarajan will play, as the director of Wildlife Protection Society of India, Belinda Wright muses, “I think it’s an interesting choice as she is a lawyer and has a very nice reputation. I think she would give a fair representation to the country’s environment needs like her predecessor.”