All smoke, no fire

All smoke, no fire

Green Signals: Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India
Jairam Ramesh
Oxford University Press
2015, pp 616, Rs 850

Need it be said that integrating environmental concerns into the mainstream of economic growth is beset with unresolved complexities, leading to unwarranted conflicts. No surprise, therefore, that for the present-day growth-obsessed state politics, ecological concerns are no more than middle-class ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ aimed at stalling economic progress, which the growth-jihadis have unhesitatingly started calling a conspiracy to keep the country in a state of perpetual poverty.

Notwithstanding the fact that successive governments have been hostile to the environmentalism of its times albeit selectively, during his 25-month tenure as the minister of environment, Jairam Ramesh remained firm in acknowledging that the dissenting voices of non-governmental organisations were essential to the democratic processes, and not part of some foreign plot to destabilise the country. Could environmental issues be left to the call of the politicians and technocrats when the issue was essentially linked to people and their daily survival?

Green Signals chronicles the time spent by the author behind the “transparent door” (he apparently installed transparent doors wherever he had been a minister) which led to the transformation of an enviro-agnostic into an enviro-believer minister, and Ramesh doesn’t seem to have any regrets on this unintended conversion because he was tasked to rid the ministry of its “corrupt” and “managed” image. To this end, and much to the displeasure of his cabinet colleagues, the minister not only heard every word of dissent, but engaged with multiple stakeholders to let them into the policy-making process.

Far from scoring any brownie points from among competing interests, Ramesh was at the receiving end of their wrath instead. While the growth zealots dubbed him as anti-development, the conservationists accused him of not backing intent into action. By his own admission, the rate of environment clearances could only be reduced by about five per cent, from a high of nearly 99.99 per cent in the past. Holding public hearings on controversial Bt Brinjal, saying “no” to bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills, and setting up the Madhav Gadgil Committee on Western Ghats didn’t add-up to conjure an eco-friendly image for the minister.

This was bound to happen given the precarious balancing act the minister was trapped into, between contradictory pulls and pushes. Green Signals can be easily read as an exercise in self-defence by the then environment minister, but it could also be seen as an unfinished agenda of change that Ramesh had embarked upon. That his short-tenure evoked strong responses stands testimony to his out-of-the-box approach in putting in place a system within the ministry that made choices on the basis of hard facts and information without losing on transparency and accountability, the key anchors of the new approach in decision-making.

Within a democratic system, trade-off between environment and development is determined by the political economy of growth. No wonder, the environment ministry cannot act at his own behest without taking the chief ministers, the cabinet ministers and the prime minister on board. Quite often, Ramesh had ended-up rubbing the wrong side of his colleagues in other ministries which were entrusted with the task of taking the country high on the growth trajectory. Green Signals is an honest record of a minister negotiating the twists and turns involved in trying to ensure ecological security amidst growth fundamentalism.

It is clear that Ramesh was not keen on keeping diverse stakeholders, both within and outside the government, in good humour. Instead, he tried to find ways to make high economic growth ecologically sustainable. In doing so, he sought to move away from the binary approach to green clearances for projects to a three-day classification — ‘yes’, ‘yes, but’, and ‘no’.

Such an approach warranted a need for acknowledging diverse perspectives and for appreciating good science within the framework of constitutional provisions, such that predictability of outcome and possibility of conflict could be avoided.

Ramesh was seized of the fact that hard choices by the state will lead to public grievances, for which he played an important role in setting up the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The functioning of NGT indicates that it will take a lot of doing on the part of subsequent governments to “undo” the institutional changes he could bring about in his short but momentous tenure. Conservationists ought to be kind to him because the impacts of his decisions are likely to last longer than his short stint with the environment ministry.

Green Signals is a rare gesture of honouring the democratic obligation of reporting back to the people about what went behind the “transparent door”, which will go a long way in writing the history of environmental decision-making in the country.

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