Thirty years ago, a department of environment was set up in the Central government; 25 years ago, this was upgraded into a full-fledged ministry of environment and forests. As we mark these anniversaries, it must be said that the ministers in charge of this ministry have generally been incompetent, or malign, or both. Some might make an exception for Maneka Gandhi, who was minister of state for the environment between 1989 and 1991. However, she was an animal rights activist with no real understanding of the development-environment interface. As minister, she showed little interest in the issues of sustainable water management raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan; nor did she provide support to sensitive bureaucrats in her own ministry who were seeking to promote decentralized models of forest management. She did, however, concentrate most fiercely on depriving bear-handlers of their traditional means of livelihood.
Intellectually speaking, the present incumbent, Jairam Ramesh, is a considerable improvement on Maneka Gandhi, and on all others who have held the post since 1980. Trained in technology, and then in economics and public policy, Ramesh has a sophisticated appreciation of the environmental challenges facing the country. Like perhaps no else in the cabinet, he understands that present models of economic growth, based as they are on scarce fossil fuels and on the chemical contamination of our life-support systems, are simply unsustainable. As an economist, he knows that we have to lift the masses of our people out of poverty; as an environmentalist, he knows that at the same time we have to moderate the demands on the earth of the richer and more wasteful sections of our population.
As the last two decades of economic development have demonstrated, the business community in particular and the middle class in general are quite unmindful of the ecological footprint of their lifestyles. Consider the pattern of urbanization in India. Cities extract water, energy and other resources from the hinterland, and give only pollution in exchange. Meanwhile, the urban poor have scant access to safe housing, or to clean water and sanitation. Although these processes impact hundreds of millions of Indians, urban environmental planning — in both its internal and external dimensions — is a subject seriously neglected in the media and in political circles alike.
In the year that he has been minister of state for the environment holding independent charge, Ramesh has undertaken some important initiatives. He commissioned the country’s leading ecologist, Madhav Gadgil, to assess the research record of the Botanical and Zoological Surveys of India. He appointed, to high positions in the forest department, the best qualified officers, disregarding political lobbying on behalf of lesser candidates. He has drawn attention to the destruction of forests caused by unregulated mining. Unlike some of his predecessors, he has not allowed infrastructure projects to wantonly devastate our national parks.
Ramesh’s work and record have, however, been undermined by a certain flamboyance and lack of discretion. His recent broadside against convocation robes on behalf of a romantic indigenism was plain silly; and his criticisms of the home ministry when on tour in China were damaging to the credibility of both his party and his government. Such lapses are in keeping with past trends. As an officer on special duty in the prime minister’s office in the early 1990s, Ramesh lost his job because he spoke too readily to journalists. A decade later, having just joined the Congress, he was almost thrown out of the party for joking to newsmen about its president’s alleged incapacities.
It is tempting to see Ramesh as another Shashi Tharoor, as an intelligent and well-read man undone by his own self-regard and lack of judgment. Many people already have. One columnist writes of Ramesh and Tharoor that “these guys are obsessed. Jairam’s carefully blow-dried, gently hair-sprayed coiffeur competes with Shashi’s side-swept locks and immaculately dyed sideburns. They also share a swagger that goes with their very apparent vanity”.
At any level other than the superficial, however, this comparison does not wash. Through the 1980s and 1990s, while Tharoor was living overseas, Ramesh worked in public service in India —with, among others, the Planning Commission and the Technology Missions. On the job, and by travelling around the country, he deepened his understanding of the links, positive and negative, between technology and social change. In educating himself about India, he had the benefit of outstanding mentors such as Sam Pitroda and the late Lovraj Kumar.
When the United Progressive Alliance government was sworn in last summer, these two hair-obsessed men were given very different assignments. Foreign policy was (and is) kept in the hands of the prime minister, the foreign minister, and the national security adviser. As minister of state for external affairs, Tharoor’s responsibilities were limited. On the other hand, Ramesh was put solely in charge of a very important ministry.
Although the media focus a great deal on climate change nowadays, we should in fact be even more concerned about the sustainable management of nature and natural resources within the country. For India today is an environmental basket case, and in at least five respects: (1) the rapid depletion of groundwater aquifers; (2) the impending or actual death of our major rivers through household sewage and industrial effluents; (3) the excessively high rates of air pollution in our cities; (4) the unregulated disposal of chemical and toxic waste; and (5) the continuing degradation of our forests and the associated loss of biodiversity. These problems have local, regional, and national impacts. Collectively considered, they raise a huge question pattern against the sustainability of present patterns of agrarian and industrial development.
We must therefore become more proactive on the environment in our own national interest, and regardless of our global obligations. It is not enough to stop destructive practices (such as mining in tropical forests); rather, the ministry of environment must nudge other ministries and society at large towards more sustainable forms of resource use. The ministry must take the lead in framing suitable policies in different resource sectors. At the same time, individuals and communities also must take greater responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
The environmental crisis in India is many-sided and multi-faceted. It has to be addressed on different fronts and by a variety of different actors. We need to harness scientific and social-scientific expertise to develop and promote eco-friendly technologies in energy, water management, housing, and transportation (among other fields). Scientific innovation needs to be complemented by legislative change as well as by changes in social behaviour. For this, we need new ideas, new innovations, new institutions and, perhaps above all, a more imaginative and less short-sighted political leadership.
The future of India, as an economy and as a society, as a nation and as a civilization, depends to a far greater extent on the state of our natural environment than on the state of the Sensex. It is to the credit of Ramesh that he is one of the very few politicians who realizes this. His recent indiscretions should therefore be forgiven — by his party and by the public at large. He should be asked to speak less to the press, and speak more to the very many environmental activists and scholars whose advice and expertise can help his ministry become what it has so rarely been in the three decades of its existence — a genuine force for good.