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Meet Jairam Ramesh

Meet Jairam Ramesh

Formerly the Minister for Industry and Power, Jairam Ramesh seems comfortable in his new skin as the defender of India’s natural world. He says that his sensitivity towards and appreciation of environmental and forest related issues have greatly increased. Photo: Manoj Kumar, Government of India.

In a recent interview to Tehelka, Jairam Ramesh, an economist by profession, said that India’s Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 was sacrosanct. That saving tigers saves forests, saving snow leopards saves Himalayan ecosystems and saving river dolphins saves rivers. Bittu Sahgal met him in his office in New Delhi to ask how he hopes to win the support of hawkish cabinet colleagues and bring them around to his way of thinking.

You were born in Chikmagalur, right next to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve! Tell us a bit about your early years, before the world discovered you.

Well, I studied in Roorkee, Ranchi and Mumbai. Guess I belong to that endangered species ‘Homo Indianians’. Then I was in the U.S. for four and a half years.

That is probably the most telegraphic life journey I have heard! Surely there’s more.

Probably. But much of it is on the net, so why go on and on.

I actually did look up some of that. I found out you love reading and music, that you have studied China closely and that your India Today columns were published as a book, Kautilya Today, that dealt with India and globalisation! Let’s switch tracks. Were the tigers you encountered during your recent trip to the Corbett Tiger Reserve the first you ever saw?

Out of captivity, yes. I saw ‘one-and-a-half’ tigers including a delightful cub at Corbett and then saw another very beautiful tigress during my recent visit to Sariska. But I must say they are elusive creatures. On my first visit to the Bhadra National Park, I was denied a singular view of a tiger (having to settle instead for a laconic monitor lizard and some deer that seemed to be enjoying the absence of the tigers as well). My previous visits to Ranthambhore and Sariska had also drawn blanks.

Member, Public Accounts Committee, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, then Power, and now Environment and Forests! Are you comfortable with your new portfolio?

It does mark a shift from the portfolios I was previously assigned, but there were environmental aspects that involved getting clearances and approvals, which formed a regular part of my work in those ministries as well. However, I would say my sensitivity towards and appreciation of environmental and forest related issues have greatly increased. I have also received a comprehensive education in ‘green’ economics over the last two and a half months. This is a ministry that has a vital bearing on the future of our country and the role India will come to play in the global scenario will be defined in large measure by the work accomplished on the front of environmental protection in combating climate change.

Jairam Ramesh in conversation with Dr. Y.V. Jhala, WII, in Sariska, where he travelled to meet with forest officials. The Minister has since stated publicly that India’s forests are the nation's defence against climate change and are integral to national development. Photo: Prerna Singh Bindra.

Something like 25 per cent of India’s greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation and ecosystem destruction.  Is your ministry going to be India’s solutions provider for climate change?

Climate change requires a joint and concerted effort on the parts of all major contributors to the problem. This includes government, private industries, civil society groups as well as individuals. We have, however, made what I believe shall be a meaningful start, having obtained the release of the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Agency (CAMPA) funds. This has ensured the release of 5,000 crore rupees over the next five years (in tranches of Rs. 1,000 crores a year) solely for the purpose of regenerating the country’s existing natural forests. In addition to the above, we have gone ahead and evolved our own version of REDD, which we call ‘REDD Plus’. This envisages more specific and better defined goals for using forests to sequester carbon. I would also urge Sanctuary readers to have a look at the report of the Ministry titled ‘India’s Forest and Tree Cover (Contribution as a Carbon Sink)’ which is available on our website (www.envfornic.in). Your readers will be interested to find that this is an area that we take very seriously.

Should the National Action Plan for Climate be housed within the Ministry of Environment and Forests?

I don’t think that is either plausible or even necessary. A plan that envisages as dynamic a set of goals by interlinking Ministries and harnessing their collective expertise is too big to be ‘housed’ in one Ministry. The National Action Plan for Climate has been devised keeping in mind the need for cooperation between various ministries. The MoEF has been made the ‘Coordination Unit for Implementation’ but that by no means should be construed as a concentration of authority in the MoEF.

Participants of the Bengal Tiger Consultation process were delighted to hear your views on natural regeneration and carbon sequestration. But there are still demands being made from different sectors for CAMPA funds to be applied for monoculture plantations. I trust you will not let this happen?

Count on it. It was at my insistence that the revised CAMPA guidelines placed overriding emphasis on restoration and regeneration of natural forests and on biodiversity conservation. “No plantations” has been my battle cry from day one.

Wildlife conservation has received a series of set backs since the 1980s. Will your party and government help restore the ecological purpose and drive that were the hallmarks of Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s government?

Mrs. Gandhi’s government took what we now regard unanimously as steps that were visionary by virtue of their foresight. Her decision on Silent Valley reflects a unique sensitivity towards the environment that very few leaders of that age possessed or possess today. In fact, my office is in the process of researching and preparing a compendium on environmental speeches and interventions in Parliament during Mrs. Gandhi’s tenure. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in Mrs. Gandhi’s approach that is of particular relevance in today’s day and age. It is important to celebrate that and to remind our citizens of the overarching importance of environmental preservation. This is why we have asked Sanctuary to help us design a commemorative stamp representing Mrs. Gandhi’s dedication to the environment and our forests.

Mr. Jairam Ramesh, a man with a mission, has requested for a review of several destructive projects. He has also introduced steps that will have a direct bearing on the future of India's wildlife and forests. Photo: Sunayan Sharma.

Vedanta and Lanjigarh. Lower Subansiri Dam and Himalayan forests. Kudremukh and Western Ghats forests. Gir and limestone mining. Pench and national highways. Dhamra Port and turtles. Sethu Samudram and the Gulf of Mannar Marine Park. The list is long. How do you intend to deal with the industrial hawks in government and industry?

I am aware of the issues mentioned by you and am currently in touch with relevant officials and individuals to arrive at amicable solutions to all the above problems. Some require the intervention of the state government and I have written to the Chief Ministers soliciting their support. It must be understood that we cannot club these areas under the single silo of ‘industry’. Each of these problems has a varied interface requiring a specific approach. However, as most of these matters are currently subjudice as they are being considered by the Supreme Count and the Central Empowered Committee, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.

Ecologists predict that the Forest Rights Act (FRA), as drafted, will encourage traditional tribal and forest communities to capitalise their real estate by selling to the highest bidder. How do you hope to deal with this?

I disagree. The principle function of the Forest Rights Act is to protect the rights of tribals vis-à-vis the forests which for them are their homes as well as their principle source of livelihood. In point of fact, the Ministry has issued an advisory to all states requiring full compliance with the provisions of the act failing which any request for diversion will stand rejected. This advisory is also available on our website. Local communities could become the foot soldiers in the forest regeneration movement if the FRA is used creatively in conjunction with the FCA 1980.

I certainly hope you are right. At another level, do you think that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) will ever receive the kind of political support that Project Tiger received in the 1970s?

I think the NTCA currently enjoys a level of support from the Ministry that is at least at par if not greater than any patronage received at any point of time during its tenure. Dr. Rajesh Gopal, the Director, is in touch directly with me on strengthening the NTCA on a daily basis. Apart from political support, he would also need trained and motivated manpower. We are currently in the process of recruiting newer individuals into the NTCA to think outside the box and come up with unconventional (but workable!) solutions in the area of tiger conservation. Towards this end Bittu, I advise your readers to get in touch with Rajesh Gopal directly. He is very approachable and if they feel they have the expertise and passion to contribute to the cause, they will be conscripted.

The fate of the tiger depends largely on whether the Ministry of Environment and Forests is able to convince other ministries, including Power, Mining, Surface Transport, Agriculture and Tribal Welfare that unless forest ecosystems survive, no other economic or social ambitions for the country can be met. Photo: Jayanth Sharma.

I have to say that you have been able to thread the needle pretty effectively so far, though everyone is waiting to see whether you (and President Obama!) can stay the course! Would you give us your three key priorities so we can monitor your path?

1. Significantly improve India’s natural forest cover. 2. Establish an effective environmental grievance redressal regime that is effective, speedy and fair. 3. Chalk out an effective climate change agenda that is both pragmatic and self-sustaining.

How would you like to be remembered at the end of your five-year-term as India’s Environment and Forests Minister?

Five years! Let me survive the first one Bittu. It’s not an easy job I’ve been assigned… saving the planet… That and dealing with eco-fundamentalists and growth fundamentalists...

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIX No. 5, October 2009.


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