It is remarkable that the minister of environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, still has his job.
Showing business its place is not typically associated with his office. Certainly, it is not associated with his ministry, which over the years has earned a reputation as being creaky, even shady.
Occasionally, it has run shrill with limited, though laudable, causes. Maneka Gandhi’s stint at this post during the National Democratic Alliance government was notable for high decibel concern for stray animals and prevention of cruelty against animals on film sets.
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But projects rarely ran the gauntlet of official environmental concern and intervention, unless it was to apply the squeeze or settle scores. Clearances appear to have less concern for the environment, forests, and the people contained in them, and more to hustle business to its chosen spot.
Since he took office here in May 2009, following somewhat hamstrung stints as minister of state in the commerce and power ministries, Ramesh and his ministry have butted heads with some of the most powerful ministers in Delhi, chief ministers in India, and influential businesses.
The latest is the fracas over the Lavasa project. In late November, the ministry issued a “show-cause” notice to Lavasa Corp. Ltd asking why buildings in the eponymous property located an hour’s drive southwest of Pune in the Western Ghats, should not be removed, as the project had been developed beyond what was sanctioned without clearance from the ministry. This resulted in an outburst from Lavasa chief Ajit Gulabchand.
Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar soon stepped in on Gulabchand’s behalf, saying he couldn’t understand Ramesh’s stand. Ramesh stood his ground, saying it wasn’t him, it was the law—the show-cause notice stands.
Pawar, no stranger to controversies, and who admits he showed Gulabchand the spot for the Lavasa project, has made no comeback as yet.
There are significant others in a growing list of queries. Posco’s proposed iron and steel project in Orissa is now questioned—and stalled—by a committee established by Ramesh’s ministry for the violation of land use norms, among other issues. Vedanta Resources Plc’s bauxite mining and alumina refining project, also in Orissa, is stalled on account of a ministry assessment committee finding fault with several issues.
Ramesh and his ministry have raised scores of questions, and made points, with regard to special economic zones, flawed environment impact assessments conducted by businesses for various projects, and on mining across India. (The notice to Lavasa and news related to several other projects and issues can be found at http://moef.nic.in)
Ramesh is sometimes described as curbing India’s economic growth. Instead, it might do to see Ramesh as among a handful of ministers in the present United Progressive Alliance administration trying to do his job.
His way is to use legitimate procedural positions to question the subversion of law in letter and spirit by government and corporations.
Moreover, the man is not a mannequin. Ramesh is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai, Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied technology policy and management, among other disciplines.
And while he has a reputation for being a motor mouth—Ramesh’s way with repartee dogged him as he worked his way up the ranks of politics—few deny his spark and determination at a given task.
It shows in his CV, which encompasses stints at the Planning Commission—where I first met him in the early 1990s in a room not much larger than a telephone booth; the Prime Minister’s Office; as P. Chidambaram’s adviser during his 1990s stints as finance minister; and since, in numerous policy posts with the Congress and in government.
Ramesh’s chutzpah appears to finally have wrapped itself around him as a cloak worn well as chief of a ministry that needs all the chutzpah it can get.
Especially, in times of push-comes-to-shove business that is directly feeding conflict in India’s heartlands and poses a direct threat to economic and social security.
It’s a matter of debate whether Ramesh would have been able to survive even for the year-and-a-half that he has in his current job, were it not for a couple of possible reasons.
One is the charged atmosphere of activism and the cyber-viral nature of such communication, which makes Ramesh too visible for easy axing. Another could be the slim need in the Congress party to have a few tokens as stated conscience. If Ramesh is one, so be it.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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