New Delhi: Shifted from environment ministry, Jairam Ramesh was an activist minister who gave teeth to it and credited with bringing about a change in government’s approach to progress and development but he courted controversies as well.
A no-nonsense high profile minister, Ramesh(57), an IIT alumnus and an environmentalist, was perhaps the country’s first independent thinking environment minister who almost single-handedly put ecological issues on the top of UPA government’s agenda.
But Ramesh often turned out to be the nemesis of development enthusiasts, especially promoters of big projects which had an environment cost, who felt his ministry was essentially an obstacle since he took over the ministry in May 2009 as part of UPA II government.
The silver haired and articulate minister was no stranger to controversy in the wake of a string of public gaffes by him with his critics often accusing him of putting his ‘foot in the mouth’.
Ramesh recently kicked up a controversy claiming the faculty of the premier IITs and IIMs are “not world class” but the institutes are “excellent” because of the quality of students.
Ramesh was also slammed once for his “filth remarks” “Our cities are the dirtiest cities of the world. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt,” he had said. The minister was referring to poor facilities for disposal of municipal waste and though he might not have been terribly off the mark, the comment did not go down too well.
Ramesh once got flak from the Prime Minister for saying India would match China in emission cuts. He later retracted and said India would not accept any legally binding emission cut targets.
On another occasion, Jairam termed wearing of gowns at convocations as a “barbaric colonial practice” and publicly shrugged off the gown he was wearing at one such function.
A darling of environmentalists, Ramesh became increasingly assertive and was often accused of delaying the construction of dams, power and steel plants and mining projects in the country on environmental and forest issues. He has also spoken out strongly against fuel-guzzling big cars.
The minister’s defence has been that there is a need to balance development with the preservation of the environment.
In the view of the technocrat turned politician, what is being asked is that procedures has to be followed and that laws have to be abided.
Posco and Vedanta projects in Orissa and Maheshwar dam in Madhya Pradesh were cited as examples by the critics. Some of his policy decisions often pitted him against big business and his ministerial colleagues.
However, some recent decisions have also been criticised by environmentialists—he gave the go-ahead to a new Mumbai airport and a nuclear power station in Jaitapur in Maharashtra.
During the climate talks in the Mexican city of Cancun, Ramesh fuelled further controversy when he suggested India might be willing to accept binding cuts in carbon emissions—something it has opposed until now.
Ramesh’s ministry also denied permission for commercial cultivation of BT brinjal—a genetically modified (GM) vegetable.
Before taking the decision he held a series of national consultations to help him decide whether to allow the genetically modified version of the vegetable to be grown in India. Ramesh was also heckled during some of the meetings, notably in Kolkata.
Ramesh, who worked with the World Bank and as an adviser with Planning Commission before joining Congress, took a tough line on the controversial 31-storey Adarsh Housing Society building in Mumbai. The order has since been put on hold. Ashok Chavan lost his job as Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the wake of the Adarsh scam.
Critics also feel that Ramesh during his ministerial stint sometimes ends up playing to the gallery.
On one occasion, the alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) blamed fans of fictional boy wizard Harry Potter for their role in the dwindling number of wild owls.
He had said that Harry Potter books and films featuring his feathered friend Hedwig were so popular in India that they had contributed towards the demise of owls, because people were buying them from illegal bird traders.