The Element of Doubt About Jairam Ramesh

  • 04/07/2011

By Nityanand Jayaraman


Is Jairam Ramesh a smooth, cunning and crafty fox? That's what he claimed to be at a journalism school convocation in Chennai on May 3, 2011. Invoking philosopher Isaiah Berlin's spin on an ancient parable called “The fox and the hedgehog,” the Indian environment minister used the metaphors to explain his stance on the environment-growth debate. No other environment minister has spent time or thought on this dilemma, leave alone articulate it. But that is not the only reason why Jairam's thoughts are important. The minister's flourishes to the decade-old neoliberal reformation of the environment ministry, triggered by the 2002 report of the Govindarajan Committee on investment reforms, will probably have the deepest and farthest reaching effects. In a sense, it really matters that we know whether Ramesh is a fox or a hedgehog. Will the Jairam tantra really reconcile the imperatives of environmental sustainability and enduring growth? Or will it come in the business-as-usual package of hurting the environment and less privileged communities?

According to the fable, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin's version eulogises the fox to argue for pluralist views over “hedgehoggy” monism, where the one big story overwhelms and overrides all others.

The growth fetishists and conservation-at-all-costs fetishists are growth hedgehogs and conservation hedgehogs, according to Ramesh's narrative. There are no shades of gray in his scheme of things. That would muddy up this crystal clear analysis. The hedgehog, he claims, “is an ideological crusader supremely convinced of the righteousness of the cause.” Unreasonable and intransigent, these problematic people – depending on whether they are growth or conservation hedgehogs – are dangerous for the environment or social upliftment, he maintains. The answer, Jairam suggests, is to be a smooth fox -- like him. Sometimes this, sometimes that. Ready to compromise, receptive to debate and discussion and dialogue.

Ramesh's love-affair with the fox has to be seen in light of his disastrous and legally questionable forest clearance given to Posco a day before the convocation speech. That decision was taken overruling the recommendations of two committees set up by him, and in violation of the Forest Rights Act. More broadly, it has to be seen in the context of the ever-relaxing regulatory hold on the environmental fallouts of industrial and commercial activities.

Going by Ramesh's description, being a fox must be easy. You don't owe allegiance to anything, anybody, any value. You change according to the balance of power. The goalposts can be constantly shifted. Consistency in governance can be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Where Isaiah Berlin uses the fox as a metaphor, Ramesh prefers using it as a disguise. Jairam Ramesh is a growth hedgehog, not a fox. That is not meant as an insult, but as a statement of fact. His self-professed skills as a tightrope walker don't stand up to scrutiny.

His record for clearing or rejecting projects is no different from his predecessors'. Between August 2009 and July 2010, Jairam cleared 535 projects and rejected 6. All 8 hydroelectric projects received during this period were approved; all 209 industrial project applications were okayed; barring one rejection, all thermal power plants were approved. That's comparable to the 1746 projects approved and 14 that were rejected between 2006 and 2008. When he took charge as environment minister in 2009, Jairam had declared that an increased rejection rate would indicate that the Ministry is doing a good job. The figures indicate, then, that he has failed by his own metric.

Ramesh may have given a few big-names a hard time, but as financial columnist Sunil Jain points out, he “seems to have had a rapid change of heart, given the way he is now clearing projects he would have earlier summarily dismissed as environmental disasters.”


The Minister's steadfast commitment to growth has been balanced (if you can call it that) only by empty words and high pitched green bombast. So the legally questionable Posco clearance finds its balance in the 60 “stringent” environmental conditions imposed on Posco, a vague reference to deleting the iron ore export clause from the MoU, and a subsequent plea to ensure that resident farmers are not evicted by force. The world's biggest nuclear plant complex in Jaitapur – with 2300 oustees, and concerns over Konkan's fragile biodiversity and the very likely damage to the marine ecosystem -- is balanced by 35 “strict” environmental conditions. The Navi Mumbai airport which will wipe out 400 acres of mangroves was cleared with 32 conditions.

These conditions mean nothing. The Environment Ministry and the state regulatory apparatus neither have the political will nor the means to enforce these conditions. Vedanta's flagship copper smelter in Thoothukudi is a case in point. Construction of the existing plant was completed even before environmental clearance was given. The 400,000 tpa smelter complex does not have the mandatory Consent to Establish under Air and Water Acts. Green belt conditions stipulated in 1995 remain uncomplied 15 years later. And as on date, this illegally constructed factory is running, but without a valid Consent to Operate.

Which agency in this country would have the courage to shut down Posco's Rs. 52,000 crore strategic investment even if it were to violate every one of the 60 stringent conditions? This is no squatter settlement where courts and the Government can display their unwavering commitment to the rule of law by authorising evictions. According to the People's Union of Civil Liberties, around 4000 people may have been sentenced to death by Indian courts since Independence. But very few, if any, corporate polluters have been shut down, even if they are demonstrably repeat offenders.


Posco and Jaitapur are no ordinary projects. The former received partial and conditional clearance four days after the South Korean President's visit to India as a guest of honour at the Republic Day parade. Clearance to divert forest land was given on May 2, 2011. The Jaitapur nuclear park was cleared to welcome French President Sarkozy. The PMO played a direct role in influencing the decision on both projects. In the speaking orders that accompany the two clearances, Jairam admits with characteristic candour that strategic considerations played a role in the grant of the clearance. While his candour does explain the basis for his decisions, that still does not justify the perversion of the law and of the original objectives of the Ministry he is heading.

What does the environment ministry have to do with strategic considerations? Why should the Environment Ministry do a balancing act? It is the balance to the growth agenda of other agencies of the Government. After all, the Coal Ministry pushes coal, the Department of Atomic Energy peddles nukes; the steel ministry steel, and other dedicated departments to promote commerce, strategic interests, ports, tourism, everything. None of these agencies are concerned about the environmental fall-outs of their actions. The Ministry of Mines would not hesitate to propose the eviction of Paryavaran Bhavan, if sufficient reserves of bauxite were found beneath it.

Why, then, should we tolerate our environment ministry laying open India's 7500 km coastline for exploitation by big commerce? Why should it be clearing projects to pander to US-India ties or Indo-Korean diplomacy?

Jairam doesn't let on. But he too believes that he knows one big thing – that high GDP growth is the way to go, that GDP doesn't grow without investments, that investments don't come without infrastructure and energy, and that all those – including Germany and Switzerland – who believe that renewable energy is actually a viable option are deluded romanticists. That may seem like a lot of small things. But they are all actually sub-things of the one big thing of GDP growth and the market mantra that Ramesh subscribes to.

The concessions that this growth-wallah makes for the environment too are rooted firmly in neo-liberal monist traditions. One such is the emissions trading scheme (ETS) introduced in March. Designed along the lines of the dubious carbon trading racket, the ETS is aimed to tickle polluters, and lull victims of pollution into a false sense of security.

The market-based mechanism aims to put a price on emission of pollutants to disincentivise polluters and push them towards cleaner practices. Currently, State Pollution Control Boards set emission levels for polluting facilities. Under the proposed scheme, the Boards will merely set an overall limit for emissions of different toxins. Industries are expected to self-regulate to ensure compliance with these overall limits. According to the Minister, ETS represents a small step towards “regulating without regulators.” The market will be left to do the job. If things go wrong, you can sue the market.

The ETS will be piloted in Tamil Nadu. An RTI response from 2006 revealed that just in Chennai and Kanchipuram districts of Tamil Nadu, more than 2000 units, including dangerous red category units, were operating without a valid environmental license. Self-regulation? Yeah, right. Even if it works, residents of a pollution hotspot may not see their air quality improve if their friendly neighbourhood polluters decide to purchase pollution permits in the market instead of cleaning up.

A second scheme that the Minister believes will help us develop sustainably is the “setting up of an expert group to develop a roadmap for India to be able to report “green” national accounts by 2015.” Such numbers are expected to inform us “objectively” of the costs to environment and depletion of natural capital caused by our GDP growth trajectory. Sir Partha Dasgupta, an eminent environmental economist from Cambridge University, is expected to lead this effort.

The very notion of objective valuation of the environment in a diverse society like India is absurd. How can it be expected a member of the Dongria Kondh who reveres the bauxite mountain as god will place the same value on bauxite as Sir Dasgupta, a knighted person of Indian origin from the hallowed halls of Cambridge?

Isaiah Berlin's fox accommodates, not ignores, plurality. Paraphrasing Berlin, David Crowder, a noted commentator on the scholar's works, writes: “. . .the reality of hard choices in politics continues to be denied both by the wishful utopianism of some on the left. . .and the narrow cost-benefit analysis of their counterparts on the Right, who suppose that all human goods can be commensurated with a calculator.”

If Berlin were alive today, he would have dismissed Jairam Ramesh's claims to foxiness.

I'm a compulsive pluralist. But I guess I would also qualify as an environmental hedgehog under Ramesh's scheme of things. I do think, though, that I know one big thing – that the Laws of Nature are inviolable. The laws of man can be broken. I can steal, murder, rape, run away with your grandmother's term deposit, poison an entire city as Union Carbide did. But I can still get away with it if I can bribe, threaten, lobby the right people, or hide in the United States. You can't bribe nature. If you jump off a building, you are subject to the law of gravity. You will fall, accelerating at the rate of 9.8 metres per second per second (9.8 m/s2) till the eventful touchdown.

Evidence of the certainty of nature's retribution is all around us. More than 1.1 billion people don't have access to clean water. 1.8 million people die due to waterborne diseases. Marine fisheries have collapsed or are at a point of collapse in most seas of the world. The beauty of our economic system is that those who break nature's laws are not necessarily those who pay for the violations. Some of us, the most egregious law-breakers, can buy our way of most ecological crises.

Let me put it right. Nature is not under threat. We are. The very notion of growth and wealth creation may need to be re-visited.

In one version of the parable, the character of a hedgehog is replaced by a cat. Unlike the fox that knows a hundred different feints and dodges to confuse the hounds, the cat knows only one move. One day, when the fox and the cat are discussing their respective skills, the hounds arrive. The cat promptly climbs a tree – the only thing it knows to do. The fox exhausts itself and its hundred tricks, and is torn apart by the hounds.

Forget Jairam's advice. If you want humankind to survive, teach humanity one trick – how to live without transgressing the laws of nature.

Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Financial World.



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