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Tea with BS: Jairam Ramesh

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Saubhadro Chatterji  |  New Delhi 

Jairam Ramesh

While trying to revamp the environment ministry, he has ruffled more feathers with his non-stop flow of irreverent one-liners than Shashi Tharoor did with his 'holy cows' tweet.

When we meet him, Jairam Ramesh is reading the first of the 100 or so letters he gets every day. A Ms Melanie Syms from Wales has written to ‘Mr Paryavaran Bhawan, Environment and Forest Ministry’, a laboriously handwritten epistle on a piece of notepaper. This, and a sudden increase in the volume of email (they have gone up from 300 every day to around 400), is the result of a BBC documentary on India’s environment, he says. Ramesh replies to every letter and his signature colour (no pun intended) is pink, says Saubhadro Chatterji.

One of the most accessible and tech-friendly ministers on Team Manmohan (he’s a B Tech, MS and educated at IIT Bombay, Carnegie Mellon University and MIT), this Kannadiga

Rajya Sabha MP elected from Andhra Pradesh has acquired a reputation of having the ‘foot-in-the-mouth’ disease (he vies with colleague Shashi Tharoor for that honour). While the junior minister of trade (and later power) in UPA-I, on the eve of an important visit by the prime minister to Brazil, Ramesh put the foreign ministry in a spot of bother when he wondered about the utility of a trade pact with a country so far away with India. This time, it is his remarks on Bhopal. He held a handful of soil on the site of the Union Carbide plant and said: “Look, I’m holding this and I’m still alive”. “That backfired,” he concedes sheepishly, “you can’t imagine how many email I received after that, slamming me for the insensitivity of my remarks. I’ve learnt my lesson and will be more careful next time.”

He joined as the minister of state (independent charge) in the Environment and Forest Ministry with the mandate of making it accountable and transparent. Ramesh’s first step towards transparency has been removing the wooden doors and replacing them with glass. “This ministry was known as ATM. You pressed the right buttons and you got the clearance for your project. I want to make this an Accountable and Transparent Ministry.”

Ramesh doesn’t have a 100-day agenda. “But during the first 100 days, I tried to create systems that will live on even when I am not there: An institutional set up. This is a Herculean job. And in India, everyone thinks he is an environmentalist,” he says while managing calls on his two Nokia phones.

If an activity is under-funded, it’s under-managed. If an activity doesn’t get national funding, it won’t enter the national consciousness. If you can’t bring public funding to a critical level, you are not going to get managerial talent. This is what Ramesh decided to tell Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee when he met him before the general budget (Ramesh also loves to mimic Mukherjee and does it to perfection). He told the FM, “Dada, I need some money for Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and Botanical Survey of India (BSI).” “How much do you need?” Mukherjee asked “I need at least Rs 15-20 crore for each of these institutes,” Ramesh replied. “Joyraam, this is the problem. Where is the money?” Mukherjee asked.

Ramesh, who had worked with Mukherjee as his Officer on Special Duty in the Planning Commission earlier, played his trump card: “Dada, both these institutes have their headquarters in Kolkata”. All that the FM said, beaming, was: “Oh, very good, very good.”

“In this budget I got Rs 15 crore each for the ZSI and BSI. I got another Rs 15 crore for Geological Survey of India. Incidentally, its headquarters too, is in Kolkata,” Ramesh grins. The prime minister was instrumental in allocating Rs 8,400 crore for the Environment and Forest Ministry in this year’s budget, up from Rs 3,600 crore in the 2008-09 budget, he adds.

His tea — jasmine tea — lay cooling. He is too engrossed explaining the key debate in the environment ministry — growth versus environment protection. Balancing the two is Ramesh’s trickiest task. Both need delicate negotiation and are extremely important milestones for India’s rise as a global power.

“As the environment minister, my main job is to ensure that two pieces of central legislation, the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act are implemented properly. I know many people don’t like these laws. They see them as impediments and try to bypass them. But I have to strike a balance, transparently. There are some projects where I’ve put my foot down. But last week I had to clear a road project in Arunachal Pradesh, for strategic reasons. I know it will destroy a large forest area in Arunachal Pradesh but I had to settle on some safeguards,” Ramesh says.

He meets green activists regularly and even takes tips from them on critical issues: “My doors are always open to people like Sunita Narain, Ashish Kothari and Medha Patkar. I want to engage them. Pink papers like Business Standard will only think about growth. But I need to take others into confidence”.

Unlike in the case of other UPA ministers who have a picture of the prime minister and/or Sonia Gandhi, the most prominent picture in Ramesh’s room — apart from Tanjore paintings of south Indian gods and a Buddhist thangka — is one of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru involved in an intense discussion. But for Ramesh, the idol is Indira Gandhi. “Just look at what she did. Had she not been the prime minister, India’s forests would not have survived, yaar!” The key strategist of the Congress party during elections lists Indira Gandhi’s achievements: She saved Silent Valley and protected the rain forests of Kerala, ensured legislation like the Water Pollution Act, the Air Pollution Act and the Forest Conservation Act. “Even Project Tiger was her brainchild. If we have tigers left today, it is because of her,” Ramesh says.

In his quest to make the ministry more effective and transparent, Ramesh has found some inherent structural problems. “There is a fundamental dichotomy. We have laws that are made by the Centre but the implementing agencies are the states and the local administration. This makes our job more difficult. Still I’ve managed to take some steps: I’ve de-notified mining in forest areas.” This has had several state governments rushing to Delhi to intercede because important interests are involved but Ramesh is not budging.

Jairam was Shashi Tharoor’s debating partner at St Stephens College and, along with Nandan Nilekani, debated on topic as outlandish as “Why there should be a Friday”. Now, as minister, there are things he finds even more absurd: “When I raise matters with my officers, they say half of them are sub-judice; and the other half, the officers want make sub- judice as soon as possible!”

Ramesh realises the importance of reliable back-room office staff: He has a team of three young men, fresh from college. They worked with him in the party’s ‘war room’ before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to implement electoral strategies. And now they handle a part of his load.

The minister has set the next target: To revamp the ministry’s website. But this ‘techno-love’ often lands him in trouble as well, as happened when the prime minister was wondering how the details of a volatile cabinet discussion over austerity measures were leaked to the newspapers.

“M K Narayanan (National Security Advisor) went and told the PM that I had leaked the news. I asked Narayanan how he reached that conclusion. He said he saw me fiddling with my mobile in the cabinet meeting. I was actually switching off my mobile at that time,” Jairam laughs before turning to another letter.

First Published: Tue, September 22 2009. 00:55 IST