Jairam Ramesh has given teeth to the environment ministry as T N Seshan had done to the Election Commission. Nobody used to take the environment ministry seriously earlier. Projects used to go on without environmental clearances or conditional clearances which were never honoured. It was believed by the development enthusiasts, especially promoters of big projects which had an environment cost, that this ministry was essentially an obstacle which was not insurmountable.
Jairam Ramesh initially attracted attention by junking the much trumpeted idea of the interlinking of rivers. To come out openly against a project which had advocates like the technologist-President A P J Abdul Kalam and the Supreme Court itself required some courage. Interestingly, it was only after Jairam spoke against the project that Rahul Gandhi also became critical of this.
He stunned even his own Cabinet and party colleagues by deciding to go around the country to conduct public consultations on the issue of the introduction of bt-brinjal in India. In a country where decisions are normally taken behind closed doors; even after an RTI Act is in place most departments and ministries would prefer not to disclose their decision making process.
It was a refreshingly bold exercise undertaken by Jairam Ramesh, which is the only manner in which decisions should be taken in a democracy. He faced adverse criticism from colleagues, corporate houses and even some motivated media but decided to stick to his guns.
He pulled up the Orissa government for violating the Bauxite mining guidelines. Vedanta, a private company which plans Bauxite mining on a large scale, has been able to influence the Orissa government to ignore the environmental stipulations in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts, part of which also falls in Niyamgiri forests.
Jairam Ramesh has not hesitated from correcting his stand with evolving understanding. For example, he once he served on the board of advisors on environment matters of Coca Cola. When he realised that the company was a threat to the environment and was causing water scarcity he resigned from this board.
When he went to Bhopal in September 2009 he made light of the threat due to the toxic waste lying there as a result of the Union Carbide gas leak in 1984. After realising that he had hurt the sensibilities of the victims of the gas leak he announced the setting up of the first National Green Tribunal in Bhopal in April 2010.
On the crucial question of global warming Jairam Ramesh has finally risen above sectarian nationalist interest and agreed to the only reasonable position any globally thinking human being would take, that of committing himself to reducing India's carbon emission in the years to come.
Another proof of his conviction was on display on April 2, 2010, when he removed his convocation gown at the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal terming it as 'colonial relic.' Normally a person in his position would not take a risk like this. His action could not be dismissed as a publicity stunt; he also did not attract reprimand of the party bosses because his stands are based on sound reasoning and deep understanding.
Now he has suspended the work of the Maheshwar dam on the river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh as the conditions of statutory environmental clearance were not complied with and the resettlement and rehabilitation of the project-affected families was less than satisfactory. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and the dam builder S Kumars are livid. They are putting pressure on the prime minister to allow the resumption of work.
However, it is going to be very difficult for the Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Limited or the MP government to respond to the clearcut specific objections raised in the letter from the ministry of environment and forests as examples of non-compliance of conditions of environmental clearance issued in 2001.
Out of 22 submergence villages relief and rehabilitation has taken place in only one -- Jalud. No agricultural land has been identified for rehabilitation. The backwater level calculation report due in December 2009 has not been submitted. No work has been done towards the creation of two wildlife sanctuaries.
The main complaint of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, under whose banner the displaced families have united, was that the relief and rehabilitation of the Maheshwar dam-affected people which should have taken place pari passu with the dam construction was completed only to the extent of 5 per cent while the dam was 80 per cent complete.
The builders and the MP government chose to ignore the stipulated conditions for nine years and brazenly continued to build the dam. This exhibits the attitude most people in the system have towards the environmental ministry.
It is hoped that the prime minister would not give in to the pressure of the corporate lobby and forces of vested interests and will allow Jairam Ramesh a free hand to take decisions in the interest of the people and the environment.
He is truly India's first independent thinking environment minister and it is also probably for the first time that an environmentalist has become a minister. He is taking positions which are normally taken by activists and their organisations. But he is not somebody who can be merely dismissed as one moved by passion alone.
After all, he has been an important member of the team of experts which put into place the new economic policy of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation since its very beginning. What he is doing is based on sound logic and in the context of the changing realities of the world.
From being one of the architects of the new economic policy now he is almost single handedly bringing about a paradigm shift within the government about how to view progress and development.
Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey is a social activist.