Environment minister Jairam Ramesh is not new to controversy. At present he is being targeted by the political opposition and some green activists for relaxing India’s stand on climate change at the just concluded negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. Ramesh believes his actions have been misunderstood and that his stance, sometimes controversial, on domestic development projects is based on existing green laws. In an interview with Mint, Ramesh maintained that his tenure has marked a shift in the way the environment ministry views the development versus environment debate. Going forward, he is convinced that his actions will not be reversed. Edited excerpts:

Critics say that you sold out at Cancun. True?

That is a complete misreading of the situation. I think what we accomplished at Cancun has been recognized internationally. Whether in developed or developing countries, India’s role in fashioning a solution at Cancun and restoring the primacy of the multilateral process has been acknowledged. It is a bit unfortunate that there have been certain sections in India which have sort of cried foul and said sovereignty has been bartered away, for the umpteenth time.

What is your justification of the change in stance?

I have sent a detailed six-page letter to all members of Parliament where I have explained what all our contributions at Cancun were. I have explained the comment that all countries should take binding commitments in appropriate legal form. I think we should recognize the changing political landscape. Developing countries want a legally binding agreement. Within BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), Brazil and South Africa want a legally binding agreement. The Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States) countries, the LDCs (Least Developed Countries), which are natural partners and allies of India want a legally binding agreement and, therefore, we have to be sensitive to this issue and we have to expanded the negotiating room (for India).

I think what we have actually accomplished at Cancun is to put India in the driver’s seat; in a pivotal position to determine the future course of negotiations. We are not talking absolute emission cuts. I have said categorically that all we are doing is internationalizing a domestic voluntary target, which we have set for ourselves, which is the emissions intensity of GDP (gross domestic product) declining by 20-25% by 2020 on 2005 reference levels.

Why the criticism then?

Actually I think we have gained very substantially, but I recognize that every new idea in India, every new policy initiative in India goes through this ‘Rama’ cycle: First rejection, agitation, second, modification, third and finally, accommodation and acceptance, which was true of Manmohan Singh’s 1991 reforms and certainly true of our evolving position on climate change. Let me say that I am not defensive. Our position has evolved. Our position has changed. And that is the essence of negotiations when you are confronted with geopolitical realities. Otherwise we keep chanting mantras… Negotiations are about repositioning India. From day one I have had three fundamental objectives in climate change. First, to protect India’s economic growth of 9% per year. Second, to advance India’s domestic environment agenda and third to reposition India, to change the narrative of India globally. To reposition India diplomatically from a defensive player to a player who is actually working to craft a solution. I think today it is universally acknowledged that we were responsible for crafting the Copenhagen Accord and certainly in the Cancun agreement as well. So, yes, the world is full of risks. How the world will evolve we don’t know. But we have bought ourselves time and credibility. And now we should follow it up.

So, in this evolution of negotiating strategy, there is also a time for India to agree to mandatory emission cuts?

Yes, maybe by 2050. Maybe in the next 30 years. Maybe 20 years after China agrees to go in for mandatory cuts.

You are increasingly being referred to as a green warrior for your stance on some projects.

Well, interesting that the one major Indian newspaper, which attacks me day in and day out for being a green warrior has gone out of its way to support my position on Cancun. It is amazing that they couldn’t find anything good to say about me except on Cancun. So, environment does make strange bedfellows, whether domestic or international. But I am no environmentalist; not an activist, not an NGO (non-governmental organization). I come from the growth constituency. Long before liberalization and globalisation and privatization became acceptable in this country, I was part of a small minority advocating this aggressively. I can think of only three people: Montek (Singh) Ahluwalia is one of them and Rakesh Mohan is another. Long before people discovered the need for globalization, we were advocating this and I had a small role to play in the 1991 economic reforms. And the PM (Prime Minister) knows this because I work very closely with him. So, I don’t need any certificates for my commitment to growth from anybody. But what I am doing here is plain and simple—implementing the laws that Parliament has passed. Now you can ask me what was happening in the past? I don’t want to get into the past. Environment was seen to be a formality in the past, an obstacle. It was seen to be something to be navigated around creatively and innovatively. That is no longer true.

Do you have the PM’s backing on your decisions?

The PM and the Congress president appointed me here 19 months ago and contrary to my epitaph being written in the media from time to time, I have survived. It couldn’t have been without their support. They might have a different view or a nuance here or there but if they didn’t have sympathy with what I do, I wouldn’t be here. Parliament did not pass these laws in a fit of amnesia. if they want to amend, I am all for it. In fact, I am doing a complete root and branch amendment of the coastal regulation zone (CRZ), 1991, and very soon, in the next couple of days, we will come out with with CRZ notification 2010, which I am sure will make many environmentalists unhappy. I am sure I will be accused of pandering to the builder lobby in Mumbai and many fishermen organizations will ask me what I have done. But we need economic activity, we need these slums to be redeveloped, we need these old buildings to be redeveloped. We have created new windows for Mumbai and Goa and Kerala, Sunderbans, and Lakshadweep and Andaman. India’s coastline is 7,500km long and you cannot have a cookie-cutter approach.

Will this change end with Jairam or will it be an institutional change?

Let me ask you when (T.N.) Seshan came to the Election Commission, people said ‘oh it will only last during Seshan’s tenure.’ But the Election Commission today is no doormat. CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) is no doormat. People do make a difference. I believe whoever succeeds me will continue the work and see the merit in it. I am not doing this to take panga with A or B. If anything my actions have hurt Congress-ruled states as much as others. Individuals bring their own style into the picture, but I am sure it will outlast.

You are effecting a change in the mindset of the country in terms of environment.

We need to look at the debates of environment versus growth and conservation versus growth. We need to take them seriously. We need 9% growth, no doubt. In 1991, Manmohan Singh created the paradigm of growth. And for 20 years we talked of fiscal sustainability. Now we have to talk of ecological sustainability of this growth. We need the fiscal and ecological pillars. We can’t deforest our way to 9% growth. Over time people will get used to the idea. In 1991, the PM (Manmohan Singh) said we can’t spend our way to prosperity. And similarly now, we can’t pollute our way to prosperity.

What is the status of the long-pending fuel-efficiency norms?

They will be notified by BEE (Bureau of Energy Efficiency) very soon. Initially, it will be voluntary labelling and will become mandatory, I am hoping by the middle of 2012.

Earlier, the target was mid-2011, so it is delayed by a year. But I do believe India needs mandatory fuel-efficiency norms.