Jairam Ramesh was one the most visible ministers for environment that India has seen so far. He did not shy from courting controversy while doing what he thought was right. In his forthcoming book Green Signals: Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India (Oxford University Press), he gives an overview of policymaking on this vital subject. Excerpts from the book.

The trade-offs

I had spent most of my professional life, whether in the government or in the party, focusing on mainstream economic issues—the stuff that makes for high economic growth. I was more than an ardent proponent of the need to liberalize the economy and had played a role in the July 1991 “big bang" reforms episode. But this commitment to high growth does not mean undermining environmental concerns.

High growth is an imperative. We cannot ignore the overriding essentiality of growth in creating jobs, in generating revenues for investing in health, education, and infrastructure. At the same time, managing environmental risks must be integral to the growth strategy. The reverse is also true—the need for higher economic growth must be integral to environmental protection. Ecological security in a framework that promotes economic growth is what the country is looking for. We cannot forget that poverty is both a cause and consequence of environmental degradation. To take-off and logically extend from the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh’s 1991 budget speech, “we cannot deforest our way to prosperity and we cannot pollute our way to prosperity."

There is no running away from the fact that developmental and industrial activities can lead to environmental degradation. The trick, then, lies in how we balance the demands of today—high growth and its concomitant benefits with the imperatives of tomorrow—the impact and cost of ecological degradation. This balance is the essence of sustainable development. This balance can be achieved through interventions to minimize and limit adverse environmental impacts.

Just as nearly twenty-five years ago we realized the need to make economic reforms fiscally sustainable, the time had come to find ways to make high economic growth ecologically sustainable. I do not believe that there is a conflict between a high-growth strategy and ecological security, it is a matter of achieving balance. In the attempt to achieve this balance where environmental concerns are an input into economic decisions, I sought to move away from the binary approach to green clearances for projects to a three-way classification—"yes", “yes, but", and “no".

Before I took over, 99.999% of the clearances were in the “yes" category. I increased the population of cases in both the ‘yes, but’ and ‘no’ categories. However, contrary to perception, the fact is that almost 95 per cent of the proposals for environmental clearances got the go ahead and 85 per cent of the proposals for forests projects received the green signal and on time. In striking the balance between ecological security and high growth, it is the “yes, but" category that should concern us most because these form or should form the bulk of the clearances, and this is where the balance is precarious. The conditions under which the projects are given the go-ahead should be interventions that limit and minimize environmental damage, but these conditions must not stifle and strangulate. (Pages 78-79).

The coal saga

The toughest challenge I faced during my tenure was on the “go–no-go" issue—it placed me right in the cross hairs of the environment versus development debate. If putting a halt to or questioning few projects on their record of adhering to environmental norms earned me the moniker of Dr No, then the “go–no-go" imbroglio cemented it. It wasn’t just the criticism that made it tough for me. It was also an instance when I had to balance my commitment to growth and the environment, in a manner that both sides won or were left equally dissatisfied.

On the one hand was my understanding that India needed to grow and it needed energy, which came primarily from coal, and on the other was the understanding that India needed to protect its forests and be more sustainable in its natural resource management. It was one of those ‘practise what you preach’ moments.

Though, both I personally and the ministry were targeted as obstacles to growth, the irony was that the suggestion to clearly demarcate forest areas where mining would not be allowed came from the then chairman of Coal India Ltd (CIL). Perhaps, what was even more of an irony was that the announcement that no clearance proposals would be entertained in areas demarcated as ‘no-go’ and that CIL would not submit any proposals for the ‘no-go’ areas was made jointly by then minister for coal Shriprakash Jaiswal and I. This was agreed on as part of the six-point agenda prepared by the environment and coal ministries to expedite the forest and environment clearances for coal mining projects, while keeping environmental interests in mind. The ministries of coal and environment, and CIL agreed to work jointly on an exercise to map coal reserves and forest cover across nine major coal fields—Singrauli, IB Valley, Mand Raigarh, Sohagpur, Talcher, Vardha Valley, Hasdeo–Arand, North Karanpura, and West Bokaro—to determine areas where mining could be permitted.

However, once the exercise was completed, the coal ministry backed out, perhaps, as the areas that would remain closed to mining activity were far more than it had anticipated. For CIL, which was facing a shortfall in production, this became an opportunity to lay the blame for not meeting targets at a doorstep other than its own. The ‘go–no-go’ formulation became the cause of the coal shortage. Soon, I was at the receiving end of criticism from the ministers holding infrastructure portfolios. The growth card had been flashed.

Having successfully blamed the environment ministry for ‘endangering growth’, the coal ministry attempted to ride the public opinion, and even the opinion of many in government, to gain access to larger swathes of forest areas. In late December 2010, the coal ministry moved a cabinet note, which would make it almost mandatory for the environment ministry to divert forest land for each coal block allotted by the coal ministry without taking into account the effects of such diversion on environment, forests, and wildlife. Not only would acceding to such a demand be in contravention of the laws and the Supreme Court, it would also mean having to say ‘yes’ to every project and proposal across the board. A situation that would render the environmental legal regime meaningless. Faced with this demand, I wrote to the Prime Minister spelling out the manner in which the coal ministry was passing the blame and how unfettered access would discourage investment in development and adoption of new technology for coal extraction.

With no compromise in sight, the matter was referred to a twelve member group of ministers (GoM) headed by the then finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee—whose task it was to find a solution to this imbroglio.

As the stand-off continued, I offered the GoM a compromise—the environment ministry would take the decision on each case, taking into account recommendations from the statutory forest advisory committee (FAC). The decisions would be presented to the GoM, which could overrule or support my decision. To some, the compromise was akin to a Faustian bargain but my offer was an effort to maintain the integrity of the forest clearance process and the FAC while giving the Cabinet the option to reconsider decisions in the context of the country’s larger energy picture.

I took a decision on four projects in the ‘no-go’ areas. Of these, two were given clearance, in one case, the project developer realized it was better to opt for a mine in a ‘go’ area and for one project, I denied the clearance, a decision that was subsequently overturned by the GoM.

The “go–no-go" debate and compromise solution made it clear that the environmental concerns were still not central to economic decisions. But a bigger concern was that the concern for ecological security was being used as convenient excuse to not address other issues. The coal saga once again provides a good illustration of this trend of making environmental concern the scapegoat. The coal ministry blamed the “go–no-go" classification and the comprehensive environmental pollution index for lower production. However, there was no discussion on other factors that were responsible for CIL failing to meet its production targets, something that was a regular condition. I did try to raise the issue of CIL’s production practices; for example, the coal mining major has 200,000 ha of land (including 55,000 ha of forest area) in its possession, but only 25 per cent of the area had been worked upon, or that it often mined below permissible production limits. Both issues beg the same question, why did it need access to more forest areas for mining? CIL’s environmental track record was abysmal—mining over and above its permissible limits in some coal blocks was par for course, or its remedial efforts to address the adverse impacts of mining virtually non-existent.

My quest was to make environmental concerns central to growth strategies but it now was beginning to look like ecological security had become the convenient scapegoat for all other failings. The ‘go–no-go’ imbroglio only served to remind me that twenty-five months might be almost at the half-way point in the life of a particular administration, but it was too short a time to affect a change in mindset. My quest was beginning to look like the impossible dream, only I was not ready to give up. (Pages 376-378)

A final word

By all means we must make laws pragmatic. By all means, we must have market-friendly means of implementing regulations, and we must accelerate the rate of investment in labour-intensive manufacturing especially. But none of it should not become a mockery of regulations and laws. There is no denying that laws, regulations, and rules need to be reviewed from time to time, to ensure that new and emergent realities are addressed. But no review and no iteration should move away from the basic purpose and intent with which the legislations were created. In the case of environment-related laws and regulations, the aim is to create a balance in which concerns of ecological security and other needs, such as economic growth, are met in a manner that neither is put at a great disadvantage. The work of achieving that balance, precarious as it is, is a continuous one.

Maintaining the balance, carefully calibrating it to meet emergent needs requires constant vigilance. While we focus on the legal structures, we often forget the key lies in how the laws and regulations are implemented and observed. We need to be more watchful, in our approach to using our natural resources, be it forests, minerals, or water. This need to be vigilant should not at the same time be stifling, and it is for this that we need independent institutions that are transparent, accessible, and tasked with people with expertise, who are able to function without fear or favour. Compliance with laws and regulations should be the watchword at all times.

India has huge unmet development needs. But its development imperatives should not impede its engagement with the world. Developmental needs, including the goal to eradicate poverty and deprivation should not become an excuse for hanging on to outdated ideas and templates or for limited and defensive engagement with other countries. As a country that is home to both a large number of the world’s rich and the poorest people, India is placed in an unique position to craft a blueprint that balances the needs of people across the economic spectrum, in a manner that addresses the imperatives of ecological security in an ever-warming world. India should not let the shibboleths of the past prevent it from assuming a leadership role in crafting the solutions of the future. As a country that sees itself as a global leader, India must step up, and engage proactively, thinking out of the box to safeguard its development space, while at the same time helping the world craft an equitable solution to global concerns like climate change and a warming planet.

Indian civilization, amongst all world civilizations, has always shown the highest respect for biodiversity in all its myriad forms. Therefore, it should not be difficult for us to become world leaders in green growth. This is an area of strategic leadership where India can show the way. Both the champions of “growth at all costs" and the crusaders for ecological causes must work together to enable India to attain this position. Reasoned and sober dialogue must give way to the present acrimony, must give way to simplistic solutions advocated by either side.

There is an ancient Sanskrit saying, prakrutihi rakshati rakshita (nature protects us if we protect nature); As the edifice of India’s environmental laws and regulations comes under renewed assault because of corporate interests, we ignore that piece of wisdom at our own peril. (Pages 579-581)

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