ENVIORNMENT MINISTER Jairam Ramesh recently likened himself to a fox—crafty, calm and stealthy, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Drawing on British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, he said hedgehogs have one big idea which they relentlessly pursue, while foxes constantly adapt to achieve their goal. “The hedgehog is an ideological crusader, supremely convinced of the rightness of the cause, while the fox will admit of doubt and uncertainty,” he told a group of students at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. And as he explained at a recent press conference, he won’t just do the right thing, but also do the thing right.

But don’t look to Ramesh for a crusader’s point of view on environment. As environment minister, he likes to be seen as the interface between India’s development challenges and growth needs—a role more like a manager than an environmentalist.

However, the steps he has taken since assuming office, such as withholding clearances for the Maheshwar hydel project in Madhya Pradesh, and Posco’s steel plant and Vedanta’s mining project in Orissa, have kicked up a lot of dust. “In two years, Ramesh has bitten off more than he can chew,” says a senior executive. “Dramatic change worries everyone and disturbs the status quo. And he has not just disturbed but destroyed the status quo.”

That’s just what Ramesh wants to do. “I don’t lose sleep over what corporate India has to say. It will say lots of things because it’s being held accountable for the first time,” he says. “India Inc. cannot drive the government’s agenda. The greater good of the nation drives it. Anyone who thinks that there can be business as usual is mistaken.”

Ramesh draws inspiration from Kautilya, the wise and wily statesman in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, a prominent Indian emperor around 320 B.C. Kautilya wrote the Arthashastra, one of the greatest treatises on economics and statecraft ever written. Ramesh even used to write a column under the nom de plume Kautilya. “But Kautilya was a little cynical. We can’t afford to be cynical. After all, he only had to report to Chandragupta Maurya but we…” He laughs and refuses to finish the sentence, giving a hint of the kind of pressure he’s under.

Ramesh is braving, indeed battling, twin pressures. One, an economy that wants to grow at 9% annually, and the industrial activity that will help achieve it. And two, the environmental challenges of a country whose per capita forest area is half the world average.

“India needs more of the fox to find the balance between high growth and enduring conservation. The fox uses qualifiers liberally—‘yes but’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’,” he says. This explains Ramesh’s oft-quoted policy line—that he has three responses to India’s green issues: Yes, Yes But, and No. “It is a Yes 95% to 96% of the time,” he says, and adds that this approach allows growth and green to coexist. It is aimed at ensuring that industrial projects take off without clashing with forest, land, and tribal rehabilitation laws. “But when it’s a No, it’s a No.”

This mechanical engineer from IIT Bombay, with a degree in public policy management from Carnegie Mellon University, made his name as a dedicated backroom boy of the Congress party, having been with it since the 1980s.

He worked on environmental and technological policy, and revamped the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1987. He was inducted into the environment ministry as a technocrat after a series of political heavyweights had held the post. The Congress party wanted a loyalist and someone with a clean record to head the ministry. He fitted the bill perfectly.

Even some of Ramesh’s detractors rate him as India’s best environment minister ever, though they insist he is a crusader (more hedgehog than fox). It is a label he dislikes.

“I am not championing a cause. I am not an activist. None of that,” he says, at his office on the third floor of the only building painted green in a clutch of around 20 that make up the Central Government Office Complex in the heart of Delhi. A stack of music CDs—classical to jazz—rests beside his desk (he plays them on his laptop). “I am against having to choose between the growthwallahs, who support growth at any cost, and the greenwallahs, who want green at any cost. There has to be a balance.”

Ramesh says India can neither afford to have the fear of growth or environment, nor can it become a mania. “I avoid both. I am not a hedgehog, but a fox. I accommodate and try to find ways and means.” That’s all he has been trying to do from the day he entered Paryavaran Bhawan (the environment ministry headquarters), he adds.

The green lobby accepts that he’s vociferous on environment issues, but feels he needs to be just a crusader and not keep accommodating conflicting interests. Some say a clear picture of his approach emerged from a press conference days before he sat down for the first interview with Fortune India.

On May 6, Ramesh said he was lifting the ban on the 400 MW Maheshwar Dam on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh in spite of his strong reservations. The project got an environmental clearance in 2001, but Ramesh revoked it in February 2010 because of serious concerns about the relief and rehabilitation of 9,400 families who would be displaced. The Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation, which is building the dam, said Rs 2,350 crore had already been spent on the project, promoted by MW Corp, a company owned by textile major S. Kumars.

Ramesh says the prime minister’s office and two powerful politicians pressured him into lifting the ban. “The Madhya Pradesh chief minister [Shivraj Singh Chouhan] and a former chief minister of the state [the Congress party’s Digvijay Singh] put enormous pressure on the prime minister,” he told Fortune India.

At a conference on sustainable development a day before the May 6 press conference, he had said his hand was
being forced. “Unfortunately, many times, I am forced to regularise. I have no option because a refinery or a steel plant has already been built. On some occasions, I had to compromise.”

SURESH PRABHU, WHO WAS environment minister in 1999-2000, when the National Democratic Alliance was in power, understands Ramesh’s predicament.

“Do we have a law? Yes. But everyone wants to break it under some pretext or the other. Every business house wants to break it,” says Prabhu, who is still remembered as an efficient and pro-active minster. The biggest challenge for environment ministers, he adds, is not the law but their own colleagues in the cabinet.

“When I was environment minister, the power minister turned against me and complained to the prime minister that none of his projects were taking off because of me,” says Prabhu. “This is because very often in India, political and business interests are deeply intertwined.”

Ramesh’s moves have also regularly pitched him against his fellow cabinet ministers. The 2009 Go-No Go policy, which demarcates the forest areas where coal mining can be done, has led to a continuing row with the coal ministry. It led to a ban on mining 230 coal blocks with a potential of 660 million tonnes a year. (That translates into an opportunity of nearly Rs 10,000 crore at current prices.) Last year, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde protested that Ramesh’s ministry was blocking scores of power projects. Ramesh also clashed with the then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel on the Navi Mumbai airport project, and with Surface Transport Minister Kamal Nath on building roads through forest reserves.

Ramesh says the idea behind Go No-Go was for the coal ministry to map out coal blocks and see where they overlapped on the environmental map. “They thought it would overlap on 2% of the area. They were not prepared for a 40% overlap.” Adding: “It is not my job to meet the targets of some other ministry. That makes some people unhappy.”

THAT'S THE DILLEMA of Jairam Ramesh. On the one hand, he must continue to take on powerful lobbies and enforce the rule of law. On the other, if he pushes too hard, he will alienate his own colleagues, who may gang up to get him removed. “In India, when given a choice, we want to have both [choices]. That’s the problem,” says Ramesh.

Simply put, like the fox, Ramesh must burrow deep, pick his battles, and slink away when he cannot win. But he has to strike hard where he can, and without mercy. Looking at his trajectory of wins and losses, that is what he seems to have been doing.

Often, the interests of industry are the same as those of the growth proponents and his political colleagues. Ask
him about this and he refers to what the British physicist-author Charles Percy Snow said in the Reith Lectures on
the BBC more than 50 years ago. Snow spoke about the breakdown of communication between modern society’s “two cultures”—science and humanities. That’s where Ramesh locates himself in the environment versus growth debate. He wants to be the link between the two, the balancing factor.

On Ramesh’s report card, for every project cleared there is also one that has been withheld. He stopped the south Korean steel giant Posco’s $12 billion (Rs 53,964 crore) port-and-power plant project in Orissa last year to check whether the livelihood rights of forest dwellers had been protected. It was cleared on May 2 this year.

But Vedanta’s $1.7 billion alumina project and bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills hasn’t been cleared yet.

“It’s simple,” says Ramesh. “In Posco’s case, nothing exists on the ground. All the debate has happened before the project began. But in Vedanta’s case, not only have they started the factory but they have built more to expand its capacity without the environment clearance. There’s a big difference.”

It’s what Prabhu calls the Pipeline Syndrome. “Environment is an over-arching ministry. Every project finally comes there. But why finally? The problem is that projects come for clearance at the end of the pipeline.”

Ramesh agrees. “When everything has been completed, the argument is: ‘Oh, but so much has been done, so much money has gone in.’ Projects have to build in environment clearance at the beginning. We do not have a blanket yes-or-no policy. We go by the law, and on a case-to-case basis.”

Former bureaucrat N.C. Saxena, who authored a report on Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project last year, says Ramesh is almost reinventing the wheel on the corporate-environment relationship. “There is no doubt that he is a great environment minister and a champion for the environment. All these issues were being lost before he came in,” says Saxena. “But it is not easy to make people follow rules in this country. He has an uphill task. He is much better than earlier ministers who, when faced with encroachment on forest land would say, ‘That’s how it is. So what?’”

To reinforce his stand, Ramesh cites an instance when he had written to former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh. “He said I should be pragmatic not dogmatic. I replied, ‘But the trouble is that you expect me to be automatic! Whatever comes in front of me, I should just pass. That will not happen.’”

This is the attitude that gets him 5 out of 10 for his two-year performance in an analysis by former journalist, environmental researcher and Magsaysay award winner Boobli George Verghese.

“He has taken the right point of view that laws are non-negotiable. Some NGOs take stands that make no sense in a growing country, and some industrialists want to break all laws. Jairam is a balancing factor,” says Verghese, visiting professor on environmental law and governance at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, India’s premier policy think tank. “He can do more, but given the pulls and pressures, he is doing a damn good job.”

Verghese says Ramesh is putting in place a system of legal scrutiny. “With a case-to-case approach, he is trying to show how industry and the government’s laws can work together. But both sides must be flexible [for such an approach to work].”

Ramesh calls this approach The Clear Tradeoff Rule. It begins with an understanding that environmental resources are scarce in India. “With whatever we have little of, we start by pretending that we have endless amounts.” Land per capita in India is scarce, but the country only wants to grow horizontally. Forest cover is thin but there is a tendency to use techniques that consume a large amount of natural resources. Natural water sources are few but people want to pollute them. “There is a clear tradeoff for everything. So when projects are planned and evaluated, preventive or remedial action for the tradeoffs must be factored in,” says Ramesh.

He has suggested that India’s growth target of 9% to 9.5% a year should accommodate tradeoffs for a low-carbon growth path. For this, his ministry has set up a national green accounts committee that would calculate the gross domestic product (GDP) after taking environmental costs into account.

According to World Bank statistics, Ramesh points out, India’s gross national savings as a percentage of GDP was around 34.3% in 2008 but its adjusted net savings in the same period was 24.2%. The difference was a result of
depletion of natural resources and pollution damages in addition to conventionally measured depreciation of national capital assets.

Ramesh says each project should have such accounting mechanism to enable faster processing and ensure environmental protection. His two big ideas are the National Green Tribunal Act passed last year, which will create a network of special courts to look into complaints, and setting up a National Environmental Protection Authority, to appraise projects and monitor compliance.

CHANDRA BHUSHAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR of the environment policy research foundation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says Ramesh has given “voice” to environmental concerns ignored earlier but has drastically gambled with India’s stand on climate change.

Bhushan says Ramesh is the first minister who stopped dams on the Upper Ganga reaches. “No one had an idea of things like this before Jairam. He’s a problem solver. But I don’t agree with many things he’s done.”

The minister has deeply compromised India’s position on climate change, Bhushan says. “He cut a deal with the rich countries, which was pure triumph of politics over content. It eliminates historic responsibility and also the difference between emissions and growth patterns of developed and developing countries. [The] Cancun [climate change summit] was his big failure.”

Environmentalists, led by the CSE, and the opposition in Parliament slammed what they called Ramesh selling out to the rich countries, especially the U.S., and accepting emission norms. It marks a departure from India’s traditional position that emission norms should be different for developed and developing countries.

“I believe that the minister gave away too much,” says Bhushan, whose organisation had criticised Ramesh for agreeing to a deal that will force developing countries to slow down growth and enforce emission cuts that are higher than in developed countries, and receive no monetary help in return.

Says Madhuresh Kumar, national organiser National Alliance of People’s Movements, a forum for people’s rights groups, which has been tracking developments in the ministry: “He makes the right noises, but in many cases the decisions are subjective to political interests. If they [proposals] do not serve political interests, they are stopped, otherwise they go through.”

Ramesh disagrees. “My clear mandate is to be part of the solution, not the problem,” says Ramesh. “We had to move away from looking at everything through [the filter of] per capita emissions and transfer of money and technology. It [the new position] showed India in a new leadership light. As a dealmaker and not as a deal breaker,” says the minister. “The trouble here is that before you can do anything, there are experts who tell you why nothing can be done.”

In this deal-making spirit, Ramesh points to how his No can become a Yes. For instance, the proposal for an airport in Navi Mumbai was withheld because it would destroy tracts of mangroves that are the lungs of the over crowded financial capital. A compromise was reached on the $220 million dollar project by adding 32 clauses that would take care of the environmental impact. These included a promise from the state government never to build malls and hotels around the airport, and replanting around 555 hectares of mangroves and forests.

“We have never said that anything is cast in stone. A No can become a Yes if we work collectively towards a solution. But it cannot be circumvention,” Ramesh says.

ANOTHER CASE BEING DEBATED is the Jaitapur nuclear power project in Maharashtra. Talking to Ramesh, it’s clear he’s disheartened by the politicised campaign that has drawn all opposition parties into the protests and derailed the project. “It’s naive to believe that India can fulfil all its power needs from renewable sources such as solar and wind. We need nuclear energy. Security and safety measures will be taken, and can always be discussed. But we need this. Yet, such issues get politicised,” says Ramesh.

In his address to the students of the Asian College of Journalism, Ramesh gave an idea of what he expected from industry. Quoting the scholarly former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi (also the Mahatma’s grandson), he said: “The thrill of circumvention must be replaced by the joy of compliance.”

Ramesh sounds upbeat but unsure of the future as every now and then the corridors on Raisina Hill buzz with talk of his imminent departure from the ministry. He is non-commital about his tenure.

He says: “I don’t know. Let’s see. I have survived for two years. I am 57. I think 65 should be the retiring age for politicians. I am a young politician only by Indian standards.” This, from a man who a few years ago was said to have prime ministerial ambitions.

Now he is more comfortable talking about a former prime minister who is his green icon, Indira Gandhi. Ramesh quotes her famous speech to the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in June 1972, where she raised the question: Aren’t poverty and needs the greatest polluters?

And therein lies his message.

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