Mr Green, Not so Green

Published: March 3, 2011 - 13:51 Updated: March 3, 2011 - 13:56

The deceptive truth is, Jairam Ramesh has made crystal-gazing easier. Post Posco, there are no more surprises in store
Sandeep Bhushan Delhi

In the last fortnight, with a mere stroke of his pen, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has signed off nearly 1,900 hectares of prime forest land to the POSCO steel project in Orissa, and the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) in Jharkhand. This, amidst protracted protests at ground zero, apart from two official committee reports citing serious environmental violations.

Jairam's sudden burst of generosity comes days after a group of 14 eminent citizens, mostly India's top corporate honchos like Keshub Mahindra, Azim Premji and Jamshyd Godrej (interestingly, none with mining interests), wrote a letter to the prime minister complaining that there had been "impediments" to development because of "critical issues like environmental concerns and differences in perspective between central and state governments".

Jairam munificence sits oddly with his own high-decibel proclamations favouring increased green cover in the last 20-odd months. It also adds to the phenomenal diversion of forest land - some three lakh hectares between 2000 and 2009.  

Had it been his less than illustrious predecessors - Namo Narayan Meena, A Raja or TR Baalu - the spin to these shocking statistics would have been different. 

But Jairam has set the bar high. Not since Indira Gandhi has a politician mainstreamed the environmental issue. After all, 'Green' concerns have always been seen as the staple of fringe groups, faddists or desperate tribals looking for photo-ops. 

"We need to have a more business-like, transparent and time-bound regulatory system," thundered Jairam, soon after taking charge in May 2009. Since then, he has failed to live up to his promise and heightened expectations even as he has gone about trying to bridge the enormous chasm between the government and 'its people'. 

An 'activist' minister had arrived. But was it so? 

Within days of taking charge, Jairam convened a workshop of the field directors of all the 37 tiger reserves, where he came down heavily on the construction mafia for reducing the legendary Corbett Tiger Reserve from a breathtaking wilderness to a concrete jungle. "Prime Minister Singh and I have personally written to the Uttarakhand chief minister not to allow any construction around Corbett," he said.  

While Jairam made the legion of big cat lovers starry eyed, his ministerial initiatives did not register with the big cat. According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, India has lost 12 tigers in the first 45 days of this year. Of the six dead at Corbett Tiger Reserve, officials claim three have been 'suspicious' deaths, while the rest have been attributed to festering wounds from an encounter with porcupine, one due to territorial reasons and another due to old age. 

Madhya Pradesh tops in the number of tiger deaths in 2010, followed by Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

Even more refreshing were Jairam's initiatives on putting a temporary moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal - an issue which had been hijacked, many say, by gigantic American biotech companies like Monsanto in collusion with Agriculture and Food Minister Sharad Pawar, who seems more interested in cash-rich cricket than seeds or farmer suicides. 

Reining in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the shadowy apex body which regulates biotech crops, Jairam went in for a direct dialogue with all civil society stakeholders on the commercial use of Bt brinjal. Wherever he went (Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai), there was drama, often in full view of television cameras. In Kolkata, he was so badly heckled that at the Bose Institute he threatened to quit the deliberations: "If you don't behave I will leave. Either you leave or I leave." 

Within months of taking charge, there was hubris around Jairam - embellished undoubtedly by his MIT and IIT, Mumbai, background. Here was a minister who understood complex issues relating to environment and was in a position to articulate it in impeccable English and Hindi. In a media-driven society, Jairam's demeanour was casual without being flippant, and all the tonnes of knowledge, unusual for a politician, sat lightly on him - he appeared to simultaneously have one foot in the system and one outside it, not a mean achievement in these cynical times. Accolades flew thick and fast, with one weekly hailing him as the 'New Mr Green'. 

The stuffiness of the neta's office at Paryavaran Bhawan, the headquarters of the environment ministry, gave way to a 'glass door' policy in which the aam aadmi was invited to drop by with their comments, complaints and suggestions. He took their calls and used the blackberry to good effect in 'networking' with an admittedly demanding 'Green' constituency.Jairam was simply unstoppable. 

From calling Yamuna a nullah and not a river, and rightly so, to panning Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) for unfairly guzzling hugely subsidised diesel, to threatening the illegal Adarsh housing project in Mumbai with demolition, from red-flagging the Sharad Pawar backed Lavasa township to not permitting coal mining in the ecologically sensitive Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh forest tracts, Jairam had dramatically changed the profile of his ministry, forcing people to contend with its relevance. 

Even as people's expectations climbed, Jairam would do an about turn, more often than not letting off the violators without any punitive action. In project after project, Jairam excelled in this one act play, quite like the Pied Piper - only to hasten its denouement in the most predictable manner. 

Indeed, the international media was positively smitten by his seemingly reckless audacity at the high table. "This is the man who dressed down Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year when she pushed for India to adopt binding emissions targets. He was the first politician of a major nation to question the United Nations' claim that the Himalayan glaciers were melting at a rapid pace. And he's spearheaded his country's very own climate-change research institute - a direct challenge to the UN's now-discredited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change." 

This was a gushing Mary Kissel writing for the The Wall Street Journal in a prophetically titled piece, 'The climate change chameleon'. 

At the Copenhagen summit on climate change, Jairam stuck to his guns on not accepting binding emission cuts, despite mounting pressure from the developed countries. Yet, precisely a year later, in Cancun, Jairam reneged on this key commitment. 

As the BJP and the Left pinned him down in Parliament, he was forced to concede that India's position had indeed shifted. "All I said was all countries must take binding agreements in an appropriate forum. This does not mean that India is taking on a legally binding agreement at this stage," Jairam said, clearly not ruling out such a deal in future. 

The celebrated POSCO case is a classic illustration - though far more sordid in some senses with the government guilty of violating its own legislation and committee reports. In December 2009, the Union government banned any further work on the multibillion dollar steel project. Subsequently, it appointed two high-powered committees, which virtually upheld the ban, questioning the environmental impact of the POSCO project. Among other things, both committees, led by former secretaries to the Union government, slammed the state government for acquiring forest land in gross violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, widely seen as the handiwork of Sonia Gandhi, which mandates that no tribal land can be transferred without the written consent of the gram sabha.

And yet, this is precisely what has happened. The project will now displace and snatch away the livelihoods of more than 20,000 locals. Reports from the affected areas indicate that not one of the three affected gram sabhas has okayed the POSCO project. 

In a flagrant violation of its laws, the Union government has shifted the onus of manufacturing this consent of the gram sabhas to the state government, which is only too willing to appease notorious mining and multinational companies, even while unleashing police atrocities on its 'own people' who are refusing to move. 

But POSCO was not the first shocker of its kind.

Last year, Jairam cleared the Polavaram dam project which will submerge nearly 3,700 hectares of forest land and displace close to two lakh people. Pretty much like POSCO, the approval was based on a mere assurance by the Andhra Pradesh government that there are no forest rights to be settled under the Forest Rights Act in the project area.

According to RTI activists, a total of 535 big industrial projects have been cleared and only six rejected during Jairam's 20-month-plus tenure. Part of the inevitable pattern, on February 15, he gave the go-ahead to 16 coal projects. Uncannily, during his predecessor A Raja's stint, around 1,700 projects were cleared and 14 rejected, a strike rate similar to that of the current environment minister.

The deceptive truth is, Jairam has made crystal-gazing easier. There are no more surprises in store.

The two big ticket issues before the environment ministry - genetically modified (GM) food and the Vedanta group's bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa - fear civil society groups, await the same fate. GM food, banned in most parts of the world, including Europe, for health reasons, is in abeyance mainly because it relates to the livelihood of millions of farmers in the country. But that may not be for very long as the 'second' biotech-powered Green revolution is the prime minister's pet agenda, forming a critical part of the Bush-Manmohan joint declaration in 2005 (it went under the name of a benign sounding, 'Indo-US Knowledge Initiative').

As for the Vedanta bauxite mining project, which physically threatens the endangered primitive Dongria and Kutia Kondh tribals in the Niyamgiri hills, an ecologically precious hot spot, will Jairam repeat the POSCO track yet again, under pressure from the prime minister and the mining mafia? Like in the case of POSCO, a government -appointed committee has slammed the sustainability of this project, too, from ecological and human angles. However, such reports might get the status of trash at the end of the day.

Looking back, what is infinitely more damaging than Jairam's fading halo is the growing cynicism about laws meant to protect the environment and thousands of forest dwellers critically dependent on it. While subversion of the Forest Rights Act may not have the same apocalyptic resonance as the disbursal of 2G spectrum at throwaway prices, it matches in scale and depth the present government's callous disregard for laws framed by Parliament.  

There is yet another spin to this discourse. The 'opening up' of forest areas, it is widely believed, is designed to root out Maoists who currently operate from the safety of dense central Indian jungles. But exactly the opposite could as well happen. Policies such as these will swell, as indeed has happened in the past, the ranks of ecological refugees, many of whom may have little option but to throw in their lot with the Maoists. 

Many months ago, Jairam had told a foreign correspondent, "In our country, you are not accepted if you start thinking out of the box. You have to be inside the box. You can go out of the box occasionally but be sure you return back quickly." Thank you, Jairam Ramesh, for taking us for a jolly good eco-friendly ride - on a diesel-powered SUV! Jai Ho! 

The deceptive truth is, Jairam Ramesh has made crystal-gazing easier. Post Posco, there are no more surprises in store
Sandeep Bhushan Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews