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Cover Story

Forest gumption

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People are sipping tea and munching delicious little biscuits just before a talk on wildlife conservation begins in a not so-swank seminar hall in Delhi. Animated discussions between people gathered in small sets of familiarity create a beehive buzz in the atmosphere. In one group of six, a question is thrown up for friendly sparring.

"So, is Jairam really that good, eh? What do you say? Don't you think he has made a difference?" It's more a statement, but the person - a conservationist used to the power corridors of Delhi - posits it like a question. "He has turned the ministry around. " "It's not just him;environmental consciousness has risen in India."

"It's really not just him. Sonia Gandhi is backing these ideas. He alone couldn't have taken on these big guns. The party has to back him. Do you think Manmohan is with him or against him?" "But you need a solid person there to get it done, you know. He has made enemies out of so many of his colleagues."

"The good thing is he takes advice from experts." "But will he do something lasting, you think? What if he gets promoted in a cabinet reshuffle, then are we back to the good old days?" "Nahin yaar, things can't be the same anymore. Environment is on the political agenda now." The conversation, as all conversations over a quick cup of tea go, has quickly sorted issues and slotted people, leaving little room for the grey, before the buzz tapers off and people are ushered in for the talk.

Environment is on the political agenda now. The phrase is stuck in my head. I put a disclaimer in my mind though: environmentalists come in varied hues. Most of those in conversation are familiar props of the Delhi durbar.

Is environment as a concern embedded in the political agenda of UPA 2 or has environment become a legitimate tool in the hands of the political class to play its daily games? Then again, whose environmental concerns are we talking about?

Jairam Ramesh, the Union environment and forests minister, has become the iconic face of the debates that rage in seminar halls and drawing rooms of the rich and powerful. Till he took over independent charge of the ministry (some would like to add: reluctantly), Paryavaran Bhawan was not part of those high profile 'sarkari' buildings that exude an aura of power and influence belying their decrepit appearance. A couple of days after Jairam shut down bauxite mining in Niyamgiri for Vedanta's aluminium refinery, a clerk at the complex that houses the ministry exclaimed, "Jab se yeh aaye hain, TV camera wale to regular ho gaye hain (Since he has become minister, electronic media correspondents come here regularly ). " He couldn't have put it better.

But in a self-infatuated circle of media hogs, politicians and bureaucrats, migratory swarms of TV crews and hurried journalists present only a partial picture. The real story of the rising clout of the colour green lies elsewhere in the Union government.

Consider these developments. The Planning Commission is beginning work on the 12th Five Year Plan and environment and equitable sharing of natural resources are now prominent concerns. A committee under the panel is envisaging a climate-friendly economic growth model for the country and yet another set of people is thinking hard about forestry reforms.

The power ministry has officials to deal with climate change on a daily basis. They are busy wondering how they can keep coal plants running and yet promote renewable energy. There is an autonomous body of the ministry whose full-time job is to reduce energy consumption of industries. Another set within the ministry is debating how to carry on with large hydropower projects in the wake of environmental protests.

In the agricultural ministry, plans for climate-resilient cropping cycles are being worked out. In the Panchayati Raj ministry, officials are busy working out how to give village councils more power over water resources and forests. In the urban development ministry, questions crop up on how to convince, cajole and coerce municipalities to shift to systems that consume less energy. The new and renewable energy ministry is inching towards putting on ground solar power plants.

Finance ministry mandarins discuss green finance and their all powerful minister, Pranab Mukherjee, flies out to lecture global powers on India's rightful demand for atmospheric space, and then comes back to sort out environment versus dams debates. The tribal affairs ministry is dealing with the implementation of a law that hands back forests to the people who traditionally lived in these green patches. The home ministry, which would normally deal only with 'hard issues', is holding meetings to step up reforms in forestry as a key step towards reducing alienation in tribal belts. The PMO is holding meetings to figure out how to get auto manufacturers to sell more fuel efficient cars. It's actually discussing everything - from climate change negotiations in far away countries to prices of forest products.

The external affairs ministry is engaging with concerns of water and climate across borders. The rural development ministry's MNREGA programme is pushing for afforestation and development of water bodies. The mines ministry is working out a formula to share profits from natural resources with people who reside in mining belts. Even the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General is drawing up plans to monitor and audit green activities. The biotechnology department of the science and technology ministry is pushing a bill to regulate (some say promote ) the kind of Genetically Modified (GM) crops that can be grown in the country without impacting environment.

And this is just a small slice of the pie. It leaves no doubt that environmental concerns have been mainstreamed in the decision-making apparatus of the Union government. So, if everyone is busy making their turf a tad more 'environment friendly', why has Jairam become the green icon of UPA?

At a time of such frenzy on the green agenda, Jairam sits atop the ministry that automatically becomes central to all these discussions. But more than that, he sits atop a system created during the License Raj era that continues to wield immense power even though other regulatory arms of the central government have turned into 'facilitating arms' of development. UPA 2 has given him the license to wield government power like it hasn't been used since the reforms process began in 1991.

Look at the potential power at the disposal of the environment ministry. It can declare an area an eco-sensitive zone and lock any change in land use patterns for an entire city. Almost every development project has to seek its approval - from setting up power plants to airports, from widening of roads to mining, from setting up a mall in the city to turning a hill into a ski resort, from setting up a primary school and drawing water pipelines across forests to laying fibre optic lines and oil pipelines under lands. Jairam's ministry and its loosely controlled arms - the state pollution control boards and the state forest departments - are expected to monitor all these projects to ensure they are not falling foul of green laws such as the Environment Protection Act, the Wildlife Conservation Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Forest Rights Act, the Air and Water Act and a host of rules and guidelines that make them operational.

But the ministry's operations are not as draconian as the potential power it holds. Almost 95 per cent of the projects that come before it do get cleared and the rate of approval hasn't changed much even after Jairam occupied the hot seat. For instance, a slew of wildlife patches have been partially diverted for projects and the number in Jairam's 15-month tenure is more than in the past decade. There is minimal staff on the ground to really monitor whether the projects are following the preconditions with which the green clearances came. And there is enough corruption and collusion at the field level to allow projects to skirt rules. Hundreds of mines in Orissa continue to operate illegally even today and the environment ministry is fully aware of this.

Jairam has done what politicians do best. He has picked up high-profile cases and turned them into exemplary icons of 'green interventions'. A Navi Mumbai airport in Maharashtra, a Vedanta in Orissa, a Jindal power plant in Chhatisgarh, three big dams out of hundreds in Uttarakhand, one GM food crop (yes, just one out of a dozen), a garden in Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh - these are some of the prominent cases in which Ramesh has intervened to make a point.

So, is environmental consciousness really growing in India? The answer depends on who the question is put to. Ask environmentalists and most will gloat about the rise of environmentalism in India, peppering their talk with the above-mentioned examples. The media, too, is running wild with them. Sit with politicians (oh those cynics!) and they have a different take. They will give detailed theories on the competing interests in which each project is mired, how one group within a political set or the business world gains and another doesn't when a project is approved or scrapped, how political rivalries can be played on these green strings.

Sit with lawyers and they tell you stories about business groups using environment laws to block projects of rivals. Sit with activists and they whisper about their increasing engagement with different political parties and individuals to get tribals and poor farmers their rights. Or they will talk about their hunt for sympathetic leaders who also gain from espousing the cause of environmental justice. Sip tea with wildlife-wallahs and one of them might reveal how he wielded influence 'at the top' to stop some project or start another or even get one for himself. Yet another might tell you how he managed to influence Jairam to alter rules on a subject he or she espouses most passionately.

Hundreds are filing petitions in courts across the country on the environment ministry's decisions. The Supreme Court itself has dealt with thousands in the past decade. It has two separate benches that deal with green cases on a weekly basis. It has several committees to deal with green concerns - urban and rural. In each of the big three political groupings - the Left, Congress and the BJP - there are leaders who are trying to make environment their niche in the hope that it will give them an image makeover that perhaps appeals to young urban Indians and the media today.

Perhaps this is the true mark of the mainstreaming of a subject in India, when it becomes the idiom of competing elements and groups in a democracy as they lobby for their respective interests. As rapid economic growth tightens the resource crunch in India, environment is no longer about protecting wildlife or merely keeping forests intact. The era of Indira Gandhi is over, when a few members of the elite Delhi durbar would decide to pickle-preserve a patch of wildlife for its sheer beauty, whatever the cost, usually at the expense of the poorest.

Environment, as the middle class knows it now, is the green fig leaf for a grimy and dirty (and increasingly violent and ugly) battle over who owns the resources - the mineral wealth, the water bodies, the forest produce, road space in the metros. It's about the battles being fought on city streets between car owners and bus commuters. It's about the villager petitioning the Supreme Court with the help of some activists to stop the mining mafia from turning his hearth black with soot. It's about the tribal, armed with bows, arrows, sticks and stones, blocking a project developer from entering his land. It's about left-wing insurgency turning these stories of conflict into gun battles and the poor into cadre. It's about business lobbies celebrating when a rival's project gets stuck in these skirmishes.

These battles are not new. They have been fought for decades, but in a less organised fashion. The longest running people's fight against a dam - Koel-karo in what's now Jharkhand - bears witness. It started in 1974 and continues even today. But as India's rapidly growing economy plunders natural resources, the intensity and volume of these battles are soaring.

The Congress realises, perhaps more than its government does at the moment, that these scuffles and struggles can leave scars that the accumulation of wealth or its trickledown effect won't heal. The clashes between Jairam and his cabinet colleagues are really the argument between those who stand for quick growth and those who advocate a more balanced approach. And if Jairam is winning most of these arguments, it is easy to guess where the Congress leadership stands.

Jairam wakes up early in the morning every day and works closely with his trusted young adjutants, Varad Pandey and Muhammad Khan, to discuss ideas and ferret out cases that can be developed into political symbols for what seems to be turning into a big Congress agenda. Pandey is an ideas and operations manager of sorts and Khan a lawyer by training. The rest of the bureaucracy in the ministry deals with the daily grind and provides fodder for team Jairam's interventions.

The ministry has changed character completely from the days when it was in the hands of the DMK. A Raja, the controversial telecom minister, spent a long tenure as environment minister in UPA 1 giving clearances to all kinds of projects. When the DMK decided it didn't want the ministry any more, Manmohan Singh took charge. The PM's office ran it from a distance with unfettered growth being the over-arching mantra.

Jairam has altered its desultory functioning with his hyperbole and hyperactive interventions. He has also managed to build a squeaky clean image for himself, which allows him to take the moral high ground on contentious issues. Having realised the potential power of his seat and sensing that the political winds are favourable today, Jairam is arming himself with an overload of green data as he promises to bring in some high profile institutional changes, like changing the clearance giving and monitoring mechanism, operationalising green benches, separating the ministry into two departments of forestry and environment, and bringing in a change in regulations that govern 7, 500 kilometres of India's shoreline.

The ministry itself is besieged. Unlike in most other places where only the powerful find access, here, NGOs, civil society groups and activists do get heard at times. But Jairam plays a deft game with all, aligning himself with some and blocking some. He even plays one against the other if need be and does not hesitate to cater to the whims of the well-heeled and the well-connected, when required, if only to prevent them from becoming a nuisance.

One of the six at the wildlife lecture perhaps posed the million dollar question when he asked, "But will he do something lasting, you think? What if he gets promoted in the cabinet reshuffle, then are we back to the good old days?" In other words, can Jairam institutionalise environmental concerns in the system? Or rather, can Congress do it through him? Only the end of his tenure will yield the answers.

nitin. sethi@timesgroup. com

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