The contested story of India’s green shoots
Jairam Ramesh was one of independent India’s most successful heads of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). Activists loved him (they still do) while those worried about economic growth considered him a Luddite. This member of the Manmohan Singh government has now penned his record of the 25 months when he was at the helm of the MoEF. Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India (Oxford University Press) is the story of a contemporary conflict.
The book is worth reading for one big reason. In its history, the record of the MoEF’s functioning has rarely been transparent. Instead, this book is a near-total record of Ramesh’s tenure as environment minister. All controversial issues—no-go areas with respect to coal mining, moratorium on the commercial introduction of Bt brinjal, India’s stand on global climate change agreement negotiations and other topics—have been treated comprehensively. If one could sum it in a single line, the book’s strength is in delineating the “how” of the aggressive environmental policymaking seen in India from 2009.
Ramesh covers the technical reasons for environmental conservation in a fair degree of depth. This is largely an issue of justice, however one may conceive it. The matter can be further refined along two lines. One, justice for citizens who live in India’s forests and other fragile zones and two, the issue of intergenerational equity. It is no longer feasible to think of production processes delinked from clean environment as a resource. Just as capital and labour are part of a production function, so should be clean environment. If a clean environment is used up and degraded during production in one time period, less of it will be available in the future. So, if the current generation of consumers uses up its quota, future generations will have to do with polluted rivers and degraded land resources. This is the intergenerational equity story. It is believable.
The trouble lies with the conception of current period justice. What Ramesh advocated is a very static conception of justice. If India does not pursue industrialization now, a relatively pristine environment will be left for future generations. But in that case what will happen to the current mass of citizens in rural and urban areas hungry for jobs? In the first two decades of this century, India will add a huge number of persons to its workforce. Only a fraction will be absorbed in the services sector. Agriculture, with its declining output per person, can’t sustain more. That only leaves industrialization and higher growth as an option for India.
The history of environmental policymaking—specifically the actions that the MoEF has taken since 1980, when Indira Gandhi created the department of environment—can be seen as a series of swings in trade-offs between current and future environmental “consumption”. For the most part, the current period has loomed large politically. Except for idiosyncratic episodes, the MoEF has been viewed as no more than a permissions office. Ramesh swung it in the opposite direction.
His book elides what is an important part of policymaking: the political environment that makes a policy possible or unfeasible. The silence is not unexpected. Ramesh is, after all, an active member of the Congress party. Unless his party gained from the policies he pursued, he would not have been given the space for what he did.
The political background to these choices was the secular decline in the Congress’s fortunes since 1989. Since then, the middle castes determined the fate of governments. The Congress’s inability to tap into these castes for support was woefully inadequate or non-existent. This mass now follows regional parties. So how does one overcome these structural issues? Environmental politics cuts across these identity and caste barriers while building support for the party’s traditional vote banks of poor and tribal citizens.
This kind of politics worked well for one reason: people affected—tribals, villagers, etc.—by displacement, forcible land acquisition for mining and industrialization and denial of forest rights—will support any measure that prevents alienation. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the new land acquisition law passed in 2013 (when Ramesh was the rural development minister) brought a huge number of citizens under their ambit. But in the end, this will prove self-defeating: you can keep your land but as population pressures increase, migration to urban areas for jobs will increase. Without skills, there is no future for these people. The expiry date for this sort of politics has been erased in the excitement generated by activists. This was the high point for the MoEF, which became a very powerful ministry during 2009-2013.
Whatever one may think of environmentalism and the trade-offs in preserving India’s forests and environment, Green Signals is a book that should be read by all politically conscious citizens.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.
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