(GREEN SIGNALS: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India; Jairam Ramesh; Oxford University Press; 605 pages; Rs 850)
Jairam Ramesh (JR for short) is arguably, India’s best ever Environment Minister. His book Green Signals is essentially providing records and some explanations of his own actions during his 25 month tenure at Paryavaran Bhawan, the Ministry of Environment and Forests. JR in general laments the industry mindset on environment and says the NDA government’s attitude is dangerous. Grow now, pay later mindset won’t work in India. He says in India sustainability & ecological issues are not luxury but necessity & he tries to explain what they mean in the context of economic growth.
By his own confession, the author is permanently in search of a middle ground between GDP growth and environmental conservation. Whether that is a right quest or not is a different question. He has himself admitted recently that it is not the business of Environment minister to try to find a middle ground, an Environment Minister is supposed to work to protect environment as per the law of the land.
Some key questions that arise are: During his 25 month long tenure at Ministry of Environment and Forests, were there less number of green signals to projects than say during the tenure of his predecessors like Raja and Baalu or his successors like Jayanthi, Moily and Javdekar? Could he bring any systemic change in the Environment clearance process that outlasted his tenure? Could his tenure help improve the state of Ganga or other rivers? The answer to all these questions is same: Not really. Does it mean JR’s tenure at MoEF was without noteworthy achievements?
Of course not, there were many remarkable aspects of his tenure. Ramesh’s capacity to engage with all kinds of stakeholders, including communities, environmentalists and NGOs, particularly during his famous public hearings but also beyond them, his speaking orders and his forthright stand on national and international issues were certainly some of the remarkable contributions of his tenure. He is personally known to be very intelligent, open, hard working, high profile and yet accessible.
But the signals to projects seeking clearances from MoEF were no less green during his tenure than those during the tenure of ministers before or after him. In that sense, the title of the book is not inappropriate! However, if the middle ground is being searched between red light and green light, his book should have been called yellow signals! Unfortunately, JR was removed rather prematurely from MoEF, he was kicked upstairs after his tenure at Paryavaran Bhawan! He was promoted to cabinet rank and sent to Rural Development Ministry, where too he continued the good work.
Describing his first meeting with the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after he was given the charge of MoEF, Ramesh says, “He told me that the Environment Ministry had acquired a reputation for corruption and I should introduce a culture of transparency and accountability”. His personal integrity is beyond question, but could he significantly improve the image of the ministry he headed? The answer is again the same, Not really!
He claims, “Before I took over, 99.999 per cent of the clearances were in the ‘yes’ category. I increased the population of cases in both the ‘yes, but’ and ‘no’ categories.” While he did say no to a handful of high profile cases, ‘yes, but’ is not particularly path-breaking. Most clearances have always been ‘yes, but’ but he could not improve MoEF capacity to ensure compliance of what came with “but”.
However, while the book provides some record regarding his personal involvement in some specific cases, it does not provide a record of what he did to improve the functioning of his ministry. That is a big lacunae that most reviewers seem to have missed. The book itself could have been briefer, since the supporting documents could have been put up on websites and links provided. This book and his second published book (on land acquisition act) and his forthcoming one and numerous columns show how prolific a writer he is.
Incidentally, he dislikes hedgehogs and loves foxes, he has shown these preferences in the book. But we need much more biodiversity than just foxes and hedgehogs! It should be added though that this fox surely has a great future ahead! His book too is bound to remain as a reference book for future, besides providing some immediate excitement.
(An edited version was published on Aug 30, 2015, see: http://www.newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/books/The-Quest-to-Find-Middle-Ground/2015/08/29/article2997003.ece)