Ministry was on hyperactive mode

Ministry was on hyperactive mode

Big companies can no longer take environment lightly. Neither can the government departments dealing with electricity, coal, ports and cement, thanks to the Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who showed an infectious activism and zeal to cross swords with the high and mighty, violating the green norms.

Bolstered by support from the first family of the Congress as well as the Prime Minister, Ramesh ripped through Vedanta’s Rs 8,400-crore bauxite mine in Orissa’s Niyamgiri hills, put the future of Posco’s Rs 54,000-crore integrated steel plant in jeopardy and locked horns with the UPA ally NCP on two key infrastructure projects.

The environment ministers before Ramesh – including the scam-tainted A Raja – never made visible efforts to implement the laws passed by Parliament.

Legislations like the Environmental Protection Act, 1986; Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Forest Rights Act, 2006 were not implemented in letter and spirit. Clearances needed under these acts were relegated to mere tokenism.

Ramesh changed all that. He not only decided to implement the laws strictly but also reopened approved cases to check if they had followed the norms. This led to the opening of a can of worms including those pertaining to Vendanta and Posco. Forest clearance given to Vedanta’s bauxite mines were canceled due to the company’s failure to secure the forest rights of two notified tribes while the firm’s plan to expand its capacity by six times was nixed on the ground that it usurped a portion of forest land illegally. On Posco, the jury is still out.

Across the other side of the country in Maharashtra, plans to set up a second airport near Mumbai and a hill-top, lake-facing residential township for the rich hit the wall too. Ramesh played hardball with Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel for six months before agreeing on a compromise. “We bargained, negotiated and compromised. It’s good to start in a dogmatic manner,” Ramesh stated after concluding the Navi Mumbai airport deal.

The minister locked horn also with Maharashtra strongman and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar on the Lavasa hill city project near Pune. He did not spare his Cabinet colleague and Surface Transport Minister Kamal Nath (roads through tiger reserves) and Sri Prakash Jaiswal (not allowing coal mining in some of the pristine forests) as well as Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia either, arguing that the Prime Minister wanted to put up a green cover to the development story. All three are sulking.

The year, however, began on a sour note for Ramesh in the wake of the failure of the Copenhagen talks. But he managed to emerge as India’s top climate negotiator replacing a bunch of retired and influential bureaucrats. Even though there was no headway in climate talks in 2010, at the Cancun summit Ramesh opened a new window showing flexibility on India’s behalf. India’s agreeing to a legally-binding emission cut has earned kudos from rich countries and the minister promised to explain the new ‘nuanced position’ in Parliament with the Opposition parties questioning the shift in position.

The activist in Ramesh was the most prominent in the Bt brinjal debate when he overruled the opinion of a statutory expert committee to rule out introduction of genetically modified eggplant. The minister held a series of public consultations where voluntary organisations and anti-GM lobby used their lung power to silence those in the favour of Bt brinjal. The scientific community had to swallow the bitter pill at the end.

The year 2010 definitely belonged to Ramesh not only for bringing environment to the core of the development process but also ushering in a series of reforms that will go a long way in improving green governance.

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