“We are not going to compromise ecological security in the name of development……The Ministry of Environment and Forests is going to be quite fundamentalist on these issues” - Jairam Ramesh, environment minister
India’s energetic and enthusiastic environment minister has many critics, which is not surprising given his appetite for wading into controversies. As if his battles over India’s climate change policy (see my blog post two days ago) are not enough, he is now building up an assault on environmental approvals and wildlife conservation that will bring him up against tough and often rough political and business opponents who are accustomed to flouting regulations.
As I wrote in that post, Jairam Ramesh is India’s first non-corrupt, policy-oriented and knowledgeable environment minister for a decade. He is determined to clean up a ministry that has been allowing India’s environment and wildlife to be plundered and to decay in the ten years it has been headed by nominees from a regional Tamil Nadu-based party, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK). And he is backed by Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress Party, and Manmohan Singh, the prime minister.
“Not since Indira Gandhi have we seen so much positive focus on wildlife issues,” says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, referring to the country’s former prime minister.
Jairam Ramesh at Sariska tiger reserve, July 2009
Two announcements made by Ramesh on Wednesday (December 9) at a Wildlife Institute of India conference in Delhi underline how meticulous and tough he is hoping to be.
First, he said that he would not allow two coal-mining projects linked to an Adani Group 2000MW power project, and located 10-12kms from near Maharashtra’s Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve, to go ahead. Initial environmental approval (terms of reference or TOR) was granted last year, but the mines would be within a proposed buffer zone of the reserve. Sonia Gandhi took up the cause in August and Ramesh said on Wednesday they could not go ahead.
This pits him against powerful business and political forces. The Gujarat-based Adani trading and infrastructure group has notoriously strong government links (especially on coal imports where it dominates). Its power project is located in Gondia, the home town of Praful Patel, India’s business-oriented aviation minister, who has complained to Ramesh about the decision.
According to reports, Patel has said that while protection of environment is important, industrial development too was equally important.
Ramesh challenged that when he said on Wednesday, while referring to this project, “We are not going to compromise ecological security in the name of development……..The Ministry of Environment and Forests is going to be quite fundamentalist on these issues”.
He also intends to stop a 231km river-linking canal project between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. “I was shocked to find that Panna Tiger Reserve is involved in the Ken-Betwa river link which is the only project (on inter-linking India’s rivers) that has progressed so far,” he said.
When Ramesh was appointed in May, many observers assumed that his job was to speed up big project approvals, which have for years been hampered by often mischievous and corrupt environmental blockages. That speed-up has been an unfulfilled aim of the prime minister’s office (PMO) for most of this decade.
But Ramesh’s pro-environment approach is stalling or stopping several projects, not speeding them up – so I asked him how he could explain this apparent dichotomy.
“No dichotomy,” he said in a quick e-mail reply. “Both the Congress president and the prime minister deeply concerned with environment and forest issues as well. Balance is crucial – sometimes it is a NO and sometimes it has to be a YES, BUT”.
That brief answer is packed with messages. He acknowledges the need to speed up project approvals, but is striking a balance between that and protecting the environment – as he showed in the remark about “not going to compromise ecological security in the name of development”. And, as I said, he has the backing of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
On Wednesday, he outlined some of his other plans:
- Amending 1972 wildlife legislation early next year, which would include “steeply increasing penalties which are laughable” so that they match those in, for example, foreign e change and money laundering legislation. Also protecting biologists and other academics from the ire of “bad” wildlife officials.
- Making wildlife management a more attractive civil service career, maybe by creating a formal specialisation within the Indian Administrative Service (an issue, he said, first raised by Indira Gandhi in 1972).
- Providing state government’s with a direct stake in tiger conservation and the government’s 26-year old, but ailing, Project Tiger. Maybe by providing them with funds to boost the occupations and livelihoods of local people who are moved out of sanctuaries to nearby areas - possibly with the help of the World Bank.
- Improve the handling of human-animal conflict, which currently often turns local people against wildlife conservation.
He also had some dire statistics to hand out. Of Project Tiger’s 38 areas, only 12 are in “relatively good condition” while nine are “satisfactory but could be better” and 17 are in a “very very precarious state”. Last year the government said the total number of tigers in India was down to 1,400, and that was probably an over-estimate.
World Bank project “institutionalised corruption”
Ramesh’s initiatives are welcomed by wildlife experts, apart from the possible involvement of the World Bank, which is condemned by many environmentalists in India.
Belinda Wright blames it for “financing the devastation of huge swathes of tiger habitat without any accountability or comment,” and adds: “Along with its fossil fuel projects, dams and highways, the Bank is not – and never has been – good news for the tiger”.
It does seem odd that India is bending to pressures to allow the World Bank to become involved in wildlife conservation. The Bank has no expertise that is not already available in the country, or that could be brought in from specialist conservation organisations abroad, and its record in forest management is dismal.
“The Bank’s forestry programmes in India single-handedly institutionalised corruption in the Forest Department, and took it took its eye off the ball as far as protection and forest management is concerned,” says one environmentalist.
As I mentioned in my post two days ago, Ramesh is sometimes criticised for being too prone to fall into line with the wishes of the US government. It would be a pity if that leads him to allow the World Bank into an area where it arguably is not needed – unless he can put together a cogent argument about why the bank’s involvement would be good for India.
Just saying, as some observers are doing, that Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, is pushing for a role in India because he is personally interested in tigers, is surely not enough.
Despite that controversy however, Ramesh has to be regarded as one of the main stars of the current government – and just what India’s environment needs.