Jairam Ramesh is arguably India’s best ever environment minister. His book Green Signals essentially provides records and some explanations of his own actions during his tenure at Paryavaran Bhawan.
JR, in general, laments the industry mind set on environment and says the NDA government’s attitude is dangerous. He says a grow now, pay later mindset won’t work in India. He explains that in India sustainability and ecological issues are not a luxury but a necessity, and he tries to explain what they mean in the context of economic growth. By his own confession, the author is permanently in search of a middle ground between GDP growth and environmental conservation. Whether that is a right quest or not is a different question. He has admitted recently that it is not the business of the environment minister to try to find a middle ground; an environment minister is supposed to work to protect environment as per the law of the land.
Some key questions that arise are: During his 25-month-long tenure at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), were there fewer green signals given to projects than say, during the tenure of his predecessors like Raja and Baalu or his successors like Jayanthi, Moily and Javadekar? Could he bring any systemic change in the functioning of the ministry that outlasted his tenure? Could his tenure help improve the state of the Ganga or other rivers? The answer to all these questions is same: Not really.
Does it mean JR’s tenure at MoEF was without noteworthy achievements? Of course not, there were many remarkable aspects of his tenure, but the signals from his MoEF were no less green during his tenure than those during the tenure of ministers before or after him. In that sense, the title of the book is not inappropriate! However, if the middle ground is being searched between the red and green light, his book should have been called yellow signals.
He was removed rather prematurely from MoEF, but was pushed upstairs after his tenure at Paryavaran Bhawan.
“He told me that the environment ministry had acquired a reputation for corruption and I should introduce a culture of transparency and accountability,” writes Ramesh about his first meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after taking charge.
His personal integrity is beyond question, but could he improve the image of the ministry? The answer is again the same, not really.
JR claims, “Before I took over, 99.999 per cent of the clearances were in the ‘yes’ category. I increased the population of cases in both the ‘yes, but’ and ‘no’ categories.” While he did say no to a handful of high-profile cases, ‘yes, but’ is not particularly path-breaking. Most clearances have always been ‘yes, but’, but he could not improve MoEF’s capacity to ensure compliance of what came with “but”.
However, this is not a review of JR’s tenure at MoEF, but of his book. His capacity to engage with all kinds of stakeholders, including communities, environmentalists and NGOs, his speaking orders and his forthright stand on national and international issues were certainly some of the remarkable contributions of his tenure. He is personally known to be very intelligent, open, hardworking, high profile and yet accessible. The book itself could have been slimmer, since the supporting documents could have been put up on websites and links provided.
This book, his book on the land acquisition act, and his forthcoming one and numerous columns show how prolific a writer Jairam Ramesh is.
However, while the book provides some record regarding his personal involvement in some specific cases, it does not provide a record of what he did to improve the functioning of his ministry. That is a big lacunae that most reviewers seem to have missed.
Incidentally, JR dislikes hedgehogs and loves foxes, but we need much more biodiversity than that. But this fox surely has a great future ahead. His book too is bound to remain as a reference book for future, besides providing some immediate excitement.