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Green fundamentalism will not work, says Jairam Ramesh

This interview with Jairam Ramesh was conducted on 24 May 2011, his second anniversary as Minister for Environment and Forests. Hailed by many as the best environment minister India has ever had, his insightful analysis of the forest department, the conservationists, and the pressures and strains of balancing growth and conservation outline the challenges facing his successor, Jayanthi Natarajan. Ramesh was made the Minister of Rural Development early last week. Excerpts:

You talked of foxes and hedgehogs recently (based on an ancient Greek poet, Archilochus’s quote, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing” and developed further by the liberal philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, in his essay, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’). So how do you see yourself?

I’m certainly not a hedgehog, that’s for sure. Hedgehogs have certitude and I don’t deal with certitudes. I have to deal with ambiguities; I have to deal with shades of grey. If the choice is between being a fox and a hedgehog, I have to be a fox but without turning into a chameleon.

(File) Jairam Ramesh taking over the charge of the office of Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in New Delhi on 29 May 2009. PIB Photo

If it wasn’t a choice between just a fox and hedgehog, which animal would you identify yourself with?

I don’t know if there is one animal that can encompass all the requirements of this job (the environment minister’s). You need the ferocity of a tiger, gregariousness of lions, the tenacity of an elephant and the cunning of the fox. You need multiple characteristics.

What was the first wildlife book you remember reading?

I was 10 years old when I read EP Gee’s ‘Wildlife of India’. It was beautifully illustrated on very nice paper. I still remember the foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru. The one picture that still lingers in mind is the wild ass of the Rann of Kutch. Subsequently, of course, I read ‘Jungle Book’ and very much later ‘Watership Down.’ One can’t forget ‘Animal Farm’, of course. But EP Gee was the first book I read.

Do you remember how it impacted you?

Just in terms of being aware of India’s wildlife and that’s about it.

You didn’t visit forests, zoos…

Oh, that way. No, not really. I used to spend three-four months a year in Chikmagalur. At that time at least, it was heavily forested. I still have memories of sandalwood forests. But no, I didn’t go to any particular forest area for a holiday. At that time we didn’t have any Ranthambores and Corbetts. This was the late 60s and early 70s.

My first visit to a National Park I think was to Sariska in 1984. I didn’t see anything except a boar, chital…and I saw a pugmark. I remember being excited. Those were the pugmark days. (laughs)

You studied at IIT and MIT. How do you see science and technology play a role in today’s wildlife and environment challenges?

Well, clearly technology is a very important factor in dealing with environmental consequences of industrial growth, whether it’s in terms of pollution control, or managing the after-effects of industrialisation. So technology is clearly a game changer in many of these places. With the introduction of new technology, introduction of technological solutions mid-course, even after an investment has been made, you will go a long way in reconciling both objectives.

Where there are inherent contradictions such as a coal mine in the middle of an elephant corridor or a coal mine next to a tiger reserve, technology is not going to be of much help. But there are choices that one can make. For example, the choice between underground mining and open cast mining has profound consequences for forests. I think the new generation of investments is using environmentally-friendly technology, whether it is paper, steel, refineries, fertilisers.

The Forest Department

You are the head of a vast bureaucracy, the Forest Department, that doesn’t seem to trust science or technology.

It’s a huge bureaucracy. It’s a mind-set change that has to come about in the bureaucracy. At the top level, it is about 3,000 strong. But that is only a small part of it. After all, the entire structure goes down to the forest guard level. We tend to look at it only in terms of the elite Indian Forest Service (IFS). But the Forest Department is more than the Forest Service; 6% of the total forest establishment is the Forest Service, in terms of numbers.

There is a structural problem; there is no lateral entry into the Forest Service. That is a serious problem. You give an exam and depending on how you do in that exam, for the next 35-40 years you just sail through. That’s true not only of the IFS but also the IAS and the other services as well.

It’s easier to reform laws and procedures and hope that would create a new mind-set in these people rather than try for a structural change. For example, only people with a science degree can write the Forest Service exam. I think it’s silly. Why should that be? Some of the best and most sensitive people on forest management that I have met don’t have a science degree. They don’t have any degrees at all. That’s one change I’ve been talking about but it’s being resisted. They think that just because they have a science degree they are superior people.

Secondly, it is one of the very few exams that is written only in English. Other competitive exams are written in other languages as well. Why? What’s the big idea? Just knowing some few Latin names, is that what forest management is all about? Panthera pardus…even I can pick that up. We should encourage more and more people to enter the forest service at different levels through different channels. I think we need to re-think the whole Forest Service but that’s a large long-term project. I’ve not opened that Pandora’s box yet. I’ve been trying to chip away at the procedures, the administrative regulations, and the laws hoping that would create the pressure for people to change their minds.

You have been visiting a lot of forests. What do you see are the systemic problems? What needs to be done?

We manage our forests top-down, by command and control. We keep people out, keep cattle out, keep reality out. It worked during the British times; it’s not going to work during our times. It’s not going to work when the demographic and development pressure is that much more. We need to sensitise people, particularly the forest bureaucracy, to the larger realities around them.

Growth and environment

What kind of perspective does an economist bring to environment conservation?

No, no, no. Listen, I’m not bringing any great professional skills of engineering or economics. I’m looking at it purely from, as I said, choices that have to be made. What are the trade-offs that have to be made? Make those trade-offs explicit. How do we ensure that the choices that do get made try to reconcile different objectives? I think in this game, the choice is not between good and evil. The choice is between competing goods.

I’m not pitching it in that traditional sense. The economic model of how the world functions is quite different from how environmentalists see it.

Ultimately, we have to give primacy to economic factors, people’s aspirations. You have to feed people, clothe people, house people, and you have to give them jobs. That’s not going to come from environmental protection alone. It has to come from the process of economic development. I think environmental conservationists are very comfortable in their own luxury. We are now talking of spreading the benefits of growth among people. That’s the real issue. You have to accept the inevitability of growth, but we have environmental and ecological concerns too. So how best do we reconcile these two objectives?

Now that you have been a Minister for Environment for two years, do you see any change in the way you look at economics?

I suppose if I were to go to a growth ministry now, if I was to become the Minister of Coal, I’d think twice about opening a coal mine near a tiger reserve. Yeah, it’s true. To that extent, this is not a passing fancy. Many people think I’m here today doing this, tomorrow I’ll go to some other Ministry and take on a completely different avatar. These are not ephemeral issues; these are not positions you take depending on where you are sitting but these are issues that begin to affect you. I have not looked upon this as a ministerial job but as a mission. I’ve tried to bring zeal without being a zealot.

What’s your understanding of the economics of wildlife trade, as an economist.

All I know is that there is a demand for tiger parts and the supply is made from India and we have to check this demand for tiger parts.

How do you do that? There’s clearly a huge demand, the supply is kinked.

We try to control the supply through better intelligence on our borders, deterrent laws which deter the future Sansar Chands from carrying out poaching acts. You control the supply by involving the local communities and giving them a stake in the management of the reserves.

You’ve worked in energy, industry, power. How does the combined experience of working in these extractive industries affect the way you function here?

It makes the dilemma that much harder because I understand the compulsions of energy, for example. I understand the absolute imperative of increasing our energy production. It has to come from coal. You can’t say, “I’m not going to produce more coal because that is going to destroy forests. I’m not going to have nuclear energy because it’s risky. I’m not going to have hydel because of people (rehabilitation).”

This is what the environmentalists are saying… if you look at some of these internet groups, they take these crazy positions in their comfort, in their luxury. They believe we can be a nation of one billion solar cookers. Or one billion windmills. It’s the height of romantic delusion and a dangerous one at that. As I said, it makes the dilemma that much more painful because you know where the development shoe is pinching.

The corporate private sector has been the driver of growth in the last seven to eight years. Governments can provide the fuel but can no longer be the locomotive of growth.

Who are your allies? Industry says you are soft on environment, the RBI says you are driving foreign direct investment away, the conservationists are saying you are soft on industry. So who are your allies? Who is really on your side?

God! I have to do what I have to do. People don’t like what I do, fine. I do my work in a completely transparent and open manner. Whatever decisions I have arrived at, the factors that have gone into making those decisions are available in the public domain for people to see, to read, to analyse, to criticise. I don’t expect people to agree with me. If I start bothering about what people are going to say, I’ll never take a decision because somebody or the other is going to get hurt.

What are your goals for the MoEF? For your work here?

When it comes to science, getting the scientific institutions off the ground, giving them the autonomy they should have, attracting young people. Streamlining the decision-making process. This is not a ministry where at the end of the day I can say that I put 10,000 mw of generating capacity, I have started 300 trains, or I opened 60 new mines. It’s basically a regulatory institution. To that extent unidirectional goals are very difficult.

Is the rejection rate of projects a good way to assess your work?

No, that’s not a good way to assess. For example, a project comes, and we reject it. It comes back re-done, then we accept it. So should it be classified as a rejection or an acceptance? It gets classified as acceptance. Let’s take Navi Mumbai airport as an example. It was originally a rejection. We set a series of conditions which were not met for one year. So it remained a rejection. Then we tried to work out a compromise. About 80% of the compromise got done, so it became an acceptance. So what was originally a rejection ended up becoming an acceptance.

What is a good way to evaluate how good or bad you’ve been as a minister?

Ah. That’s not for me to say.

If people are going by the rejection rate and that is not a good way to measure…

No, it’s not a good measure at all. The circumstances of rejection never get known.

With this personal history that begins when you were 10 years old, how come there is little mention of the wildlife or environment in the Congress Party’s Common Minimum Programme of 2004. (Ramesh is viewed as the chief author of this document)

Our second manifesto of 2009 has references to climate change, to environmental conservation and so on. But the manifesto of 2004…yeah…wildlife doesn’t win you votes.

So what do conservationists need to do to make wildlife win votes?

Learn to work with people. Learn not to treat people who have a different point of view as being anti-wildlife. Given the cultural ethos we have I don’t think anybody can be anti-wildlife in our country, frankly. But by being fundamentalist in their approach, conservationists shoot themselves in the foot, commit hara-kiri. They can win a battle here, they can win a battle there. But if it is a question of winning the war, I’m afraid they are going to lose it.