Published: 30th January 2018
Environment ministry only gives out approvals, no sign of due process: Jairam Ramesh
Jairam Ramesh says that the current government talks a lot about environment conservation but all of their actions go against their rhetoric
Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh made headlines last year when he said that the Congress was facing an 'existential crisis'. In this interview, he clears the air about the controversial statement, gives his take on the current government's actions (or lack thereof) with regards to environmental protection, and tells us that he has a lot of hope for the younger generation.
Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. How do you think India is faring in regards to environmental protection and climate change?
This government is all about rhetoric and their actions go completely against the rhetoric. The government is loosening all environmental laws. It is loosening the Forest Conservation Act, Forest Rights Act, diluting the Environmental Protection Act and has virtually destroyed the National Green Tribunal. The Ministry of Environment has become the ministry of environmental approvals, not ministry of environmental regulation. But one area that we have moved ahead in is solar power. In the last three years, there has been a dramatic decline in the costs of solar power. And since the costs have fallen, we have added to our solar capacity. We can be considered ‘world leaders’ in solar energy, but with everything else, whether it is forest, tribals, environmental clearances, I'm afraid this government has proven to be anti-environmental. The mantra of this government is the 'ease of doing business'.
During your term, you had stalled some projects because of environmental concerns. Do you think environmental policies affect developmental activity?
No projects were stalled. They only underwent a process of due diligence. I'm all for faster economic growth, but not at the cost of the environment. Natural resources should be protected and regenerated. I believe we need rapid growth, inclusive growth and sustainable growth. These are the three trishuls of growth.
What do you think about the 'Rally for Rivers' campaign and its growing popularity despite criticism from prominent environmentalists?
The same government allows the Art of Living community to destroy the Yamuna floodplain; these are double standards. It is true that rivers have become sewers. Seventy percent of the Ganga is filled with waste produced by humans and thirty percent is industrial waste. But the same government that is claiming to protect rivers is indiscriminately building dams. As far as rivers are concerned, we don't just need clean flow, but we need uninterrupted flow too. We cannot have one without the other, both are important. With regards to Sadhguru, I don't know him, so I have nothing to say.
"I'm all for faster economic growth, but not at the cost of the environment. Natural resources should be protected and regenerated. I believe we need rapid growth, inclusive growth and sustainable growth." - Jairam Ramesh
There is a lot of talk about climate change, but do you think our schools are doing enough to educate our future generations about it?
When I was the minister, we started eco clubs in schools across the country. I think the younger generation is a lot more conscious and active when it comes to the environment. At least in comparison to my time. There is a lot of hope for the younger generation. It is the government that I think has to better its policies and take some action instead of just talking about it.
What do you think about the growing discontentment of students in universities like JNU?
There is a determined attempt to take over universities. I happened to be on the JNU court; all the appointments are basically RSS sympathisers. We have moved from the tyranny of the left to the tyranny of the right. At least there were scholarships in the left. All you have to do is mention the name of Vivekananda and it's your passport to success. There absolutely is no academic scholarship. When I spoke at the last meeting in the JNU court, I told them that the only yardstick should be scholarship and academic quality. I don't care what the political leanings are, but in an educational institution, the priority should be on academic scholarship.
The government has also cut off funding for various social science courses in prominent universities. What is your take on this?
TISS is a progressive institution and they're cutting funds there too. This is part of the overall policy which is to muzzle dissent; we are becoming an 'ill liberal' democracy. If you criticise bullet trains, Modi will say that you are asking for bullock carts. No criticism is possible; no informed criticism, dissent or alternative points of view are allowed. It is unfortunate.
A few months ago, you said that the Congress is having an existential crisis. Do you still stand by that view?
We've done very well in Gujarat. We should have won, but Modi's last-minute divisive, polarising campaign led them to victory. But we did give the BJP a scare. I'm 100 percent sure we'll win in Karnataka. Of course, we won't win in Punjab. But we are up against ruthless guys who have a killer instinct. Congress will rebound, but the challenges are different now. That was the idea behind the statement; the nature of the challenges are different when compared to 15 years ago.
The economist - environmentalist: Jairam Ramesh striking a pose at the ThinkEdu Conclave in Chennai earlier this month
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature and why you decided to write it?
It's an environmental biography on Indira Gandhi. She was always passionate about nature, environment, wildlife and forests. All the laws we have today — Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Air and Water Pollution Control Act — were created by her. The Pollution Control Boards and the Ministry of Environment were created by her. She was the only Prime Minister to attend the UN's environment conference in Stockholm in 1972. In Paris, prime ministers from around the world attended, but in Stockholm, she was the only one. She was a pioneer and the first and last prime minister to take the environment seriously, not in terms of talk, but action and governance.
Any other books in the offing?
In June, I have a book coming out. It's a biography of P N Haksar, arguably India's most powerful civil servant. He was Indira Gandhi’s counsellor and confidant from 1967 to 1977.
How do you think 2019 will be for Congress?
2019 will be a big challenge. Well, no one expected us to win in 2004; even people within the party didn't think we would win. So, I always think about 2004. I don't want to underestimate or minimise the challenge this time. But there is a growing disenchantment, disappointment and disillusion with Modi and his government because of the systematic assault on democratic institutions such as the media, judiciary and bureaucracy. So, let's just wait and see.