By Swapan Dasgupta
In Agatha Christie's celebrated ABC Murders, the plot centres on the search for a serial killer who selected his victims by the letters of the alphabet: a Mrs Ascher in Andover, a Miss Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston and a cinema goer in Doncaster. The case tested Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" until he realised that the series of apparently purposeless murders were aimed at drawing attention away from one particular killing.
Whether the Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh is an avid reader of crime fiction isn't something that is public knowledge. In recent weeks, however, the Minister has earned himself the name Minister for Non-Clearance for the alacrity with which he has put a spanner in many projects. Apart from the big No to Vedanta's plans of using its plant in the Kalahandi district of Orissa to emerge as the foremost aluminium producer in the world, Ramesh has put on hold the land acquisition for the Rs 51,000 crore POSCO steel plant in the Jagatsinhpur district of Orissa, articulated his scepticism of plans to build Mumbai's second airport in Navi Mumbai and his Ministry has made public its plans to have another 'environmental' look at the new privately-promoted, picturesque Lavasa township in Maharashtra.
On the face of it, Ramesh has opened a multiple fronts, a feat that has won him the gushing praise of international jholawalas and all those in India in search of a big stick to beat 'big money' with—and this includes the Left-leaning editorial classes. Those activists who were put out of gear when Ramesh narrowly failed to subvert the national consensus at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change have suddenly found something to cheer about. The inscrutable functionaries of the People's Republic of China haven't as yet reacted publicly to their favourite Indian minister's preening triumphalism. But considering Beijing's vested interest in what The Economist has described as "a colonial-style trade relationship that is hugely favourable to China", any measure that curtails India's own value-addition to its own mineral wealth will be viewed with satisfaction in China.
Politically speaking—although Ramesh steadfastly denies any political agenda—the Minister has chosen his targets with care and due diligence. On the face of it, he has targeted two states: one ruled by the anti-Congress Biju Janata Dal and the other by a Congress-NCP coalition. But this apparent even-handedness seems an elaborate eye-wash since it is unlikely that the Centre will compromise the future economic viability of Mumbai or risk an open confrontation with its NCP partner. Like the ABC killer, Ramesh has tried to conceal his real target through decoys.
Bearing the brunt of the Ramesh offensive is the 11-year-old Orissa government of Naveen Patnaik. Unlike most other modernisers, the soft-spoken, aesthete Chief Minister does not flaunt his commitment on his sleeve. Having aroused the hopes of a backward state that is not on the radar of the babalog elite, Patnaik has proceeded with extreme sensitivity to the delicate question of land acquisition. Despite extreme provocation from politically-inspired agitators, he has refrained from heavy-handed police tactics and put in place an extremely generous rehabilitation policy.
The owners of 1,877 betel vines in the 4,004 acres required by the POSCO plant, for example, have been promised Rs 17 lakh per acre of acre of agricultural land plus a dole of Rs 2,250 per month till a family member secured employment in the steel plant. It may be mentioned that 3,556 acres of the 4,004 to be leased to POSCO is government land. Oriya appetite has also been whetted by the state government decision to ensure that 90 per cent of the jobs created go to people from Orissa, a decision that has left the South Korean promoter dissatisfied.
The report of a sub-committee of the N.C.Saxena committee which formed the basis of Ramesh's peremptory 'stop work' order has found niggling faults with the POSCO land acquisition process. These objections, predictably, will be set aside in the coming months. But the delay is certain to give a fillip to the anti-POSCO brigade, disrupt all schedules and even raise costs. These don't concern Ramesh. He is looking to create a situation whereby public faith in Patnaik's ability to manage Orissa's development is called into question. More important, by seeking to identify Patnaik with 'big money', he is aiming to hit at the Chief Minister's credentials as a leader of unimpeachable integrity. This would explain why the inexplicable order on the POSCO project has been carefully linked to the denial of bauxite mining rights to Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills.
In his triumphalist media interactions last Tuesday, Ramesh made it seem that a pathetic Patnaik had come to him pleading for Anil Agarwal. "I merely listened, smiled, and did not say anything", he said with an air of smug superiority. The subtext was gin clear: 'who the hell is the Orissa CM?'
Ramesh's arrogance arises from two factors. First, by getting a member of the activists-dominated National Advisory Council to do his hatchet job, he has painted the war on Orissa as Sonia Gandhi's project. Secondly, he carefully timed his decisions to coincide with Rahul Gandhi's rally in Kalahandi. These are clear signals to the Prime Minister to refrain from protesting too much. Ramesh's admirers also say he has also got his own back on P.Chidambaram who once sat on Vedanta's Board of Directors.
India needs to take environmental concerns seriously and follow laws—although laws can't be applied retrospectively and goalposts can't be constantly shifted. It's also a great idea institutionalise a local stake in the region's future growth. But these causes aren't going to be served by converting the Environment Ministry into an instrument of blackmail and recrimination. Indira Gandhi used planning to settle political scores and dish out favours. Environment clearances are turning out to be the new instruments of political control in a market economy. Today it is Orissa; tomorrow it will be another non-Congress state.