It is a measure of his growing importance that the most-talked-about ministerial change has been Jairam Ramesh’s move from environment to rural development.
Ramesh was an early proponent of economic reforms, but has now come to be closely identified with the Congress’ Left that is grouped around the Gandhi family. He breathed life into a moribund environment ministry, but then overreached to become a one-man licensing authority for large industrial projects. He held public discussions with scientists and activists on important issues, but sometimes did not listen to his own bureaucrats, even the best of them; his unilateralism during the climate change talks at Copenhagen was one likely reason why a man of the calibre of Shyam Saran, a tough negotiator, had to resign.
Yet, we welcome his move to rural development, with an annual budget of Rs 77,000 crore. Ramesh can bring intelligence and honesty to his new job. He has already spoken of the importance of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission in his scheme of things, with its aim to generate self-employment. The rural economy needs diversification, better infrastructure, technology, access to urban markets, financial inclusion, and new skills. Some of these challenges are way outside the ambit of Ramesh’s ministry, so he will have to work with other ministerial colleagues to succeed.
His most immediate task will be to break the deadlock on the land acquisition Bill. The old colonial law that was introduced way back in 1894 has to be thrown into the trash can. A Bill introduced in 2007 lapsed a year later. A new law is overdue, even more urgently than the Lokpal Bill. There is no shortage of current examples about how farmers can be dispossessed under the guise of promoting the public good. Meanwhile, land disputes are emerging as a major roadblock for new projects, both in the public and private sectors.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hinted during his recent meeting with editors that he had put pressure on Ramesh to overturn some of his decisions. And look what happened. He has become a cabinet minister, a sign of how decisions are made in the ruling alliance.
Between the land Bill and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, there can be no doubt that Ramesh is now a central player in the United Progressive Alliance’s strategy for inclusive growth.
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