By Swapan Dasgupta
By common consensus of the English-language media, Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh is one of the best Ministers in Manmohan Singh’s Government. Erudite, articulate and witty, Ramesh corresponds to the mental image of ‘modern’ India and represents a departure from the insular, fuddy-duddy Ministers that have hitherto epitomised public life. More to the point, unlike many of his predecessors in the Ministry of Environment, Ramesh has taken a keen interest in his responsibilities. At least he cannot be said to have misused his responsibilities to practice what can best be called blackmail environmentalism. Even his worst detractors will not charge him with privately auctioning ‘green’ clearances.
Yet, like most clever people who are conscious of their own cleverness, Ramesh has proceeded on a curious assumption: That he is clever while rest of us are fools.
It may be a tenable working hypothesis as far as Ramesh is concerned but his apparent conceit hasn’t gone unnoticed. Beginning from last October when he wrote his infamous letter to the Prime Minister, Ramesh has done more flip-flops than Shibu Soren. In his private letter to the PM, he suggested that India junk the Kyoto Protocol, delink from G-77 and undertake carbon emission reduction targets without any expectation of technological and financial assistance. Predictably, this created a furore and Ramesh was quick to retreat and assure everyone that he would toe the national consensus and be a good boy. But even before the Copenhagen Summit got underway, there was a revolt in the Indian negotiating team. Ramesh was charged with systematically subverting India’s negotiating strategy: He had questioned the “per capita” principle which is at the heart of the Indian position on climate change. The revolt ended when the Cabinet on December 10 instructed Ramesh to not cross the ‘red lines’ — the equivalent of the Lakshman Rekha — in Copenhagen. Once again Ramesh promised to be a good boy and not play truant.
On returning from Copenhagen, Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha that at the fractious summit “our national interest has not only been protected but enhanced”. When challenged by the clever lawyers and the socially adept Communists in the Opposition, Ramesh was forced to concede that India had indeed breached the “red lines”. On the final day of the past year, Ramesh went a step further and admitted the Copenhagen accord has “inbuilt hazards” and there was a real danger to the very architecture of the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time, he added that the Kyoto agreement was “economically unsustainable” — a coded way of saying that a recession-hit West could not be expected to do prayashcitta for its cumulative assault on Mother Earth.
A casual comparison between the agenda Ramesh spelt out in his private letter to the PM in October and the situation that prevails today will show that he has substantially got his way: the Kyoto agreement is endangered; India has broken from the G-77; it has unilaterally announced 25 per cut emission cuts which will now be subject to a form of international scrutiny; and the West has escaped all liabilities for its dirty growth patterns. In short, Ramesh has cocked a snook at both Parliament and the Cabinet. He promised to be a good boy but ended up breaking all rules and yet being awarded the Harry Flashman Good Conduct Prize.
At one level we can admire Ramesh’s cleverness and his sense of loyalty to an America where he was educated and a China which cultivated him when he was just a freelance busybody in Delhi. However, it would be a mistake to single him out for a place in the rogue’s gallery. Was the Minister acting unilaterally or was he following a script prepared by the Prime Minister? This is a question that I have dreamt of; it is being asked by many officials, Ministers, politicians and environmental activists.
This is not to suggest that India’s position on Climate Change should be written on stone and be forever non-negotiable. Dogmatic adherence to many silly formulations conjured up by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in their time did the country incalculable harm. India has traditionally had a very weak environmental movement and the “green” business has been needlessly over-bureaucratised. It is also a fact that politicians have tended to be environmentally illiterate and State Governments — with the exception of Gujarat — have been remarkably eco-unfriendly. The pre-Commonwealth Games assault on the environment of Delhi is an example of what can happen when public consciousness is insufficient.
Yet, these national shortcomings cannot justify change through subterfuge. The belief that policy is too complex to be a subject of democratic debate and transparency is also premised on the assumption that only a privileged few possess wisdom. Consequently, it is felt that public discourse should be insulated from meaningful deliberations and be replete with homilies and slogans. It was this underlying intellectual dishonesty that was responsible for a bureaucratised socialism to be replaced by a bureaucratised market economy — remember the time the Congress packaged liberalisation as the highest stage of Nehruvian socialism. Such brazen disingenuity may explain why India's passage away from the licence-permit-quota regime has been imperfect.
The same distortions now threaten to jeopardise the Climate Change debate.
Ironically, the same subterfuge now threatens to overwhelm the debate over autonomy for Jammu & Kashmir. If the Government feels that the State should revert to its pre-1953 status and Kashmir given a permanent “special status”, it should offer the proposals for wider discussion. Pretending that these proposals are the brainchild of some spurious committee which hasn’t met for years doesn’t enhance public confidence in the democratic process.
Manmohan Singh is said to be intellectually astute and he won a clear mandate in the general election. If he wishes to change India, he should do it explicitly and not by stealth. India is over 60 and quite capable of deciding what is in its self-interest.