By Swapan Dasgupta
Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar is, arguably, one of the most resourceful figures of contemporary India with interests that range from politics and business to cricket. To admirers he is the very personification of business-friendly pragmatism, carrying with him the reputation for getting things done. To sceptics, however, Pawar is synonymous with amoral deal-cutting and calculated expediency—the epitome of the go-getting ruthlessness that has come to define both Mumbai and Indian capitalism.
Pawar's colleague in the UPA Government Jairam Ramesh sets a very different trend. A wordsmith with a penchant for witty one-liners, he has won admiration in a remarkably short time for his ability to grasp issues and challenge conventional thinking. A far cry from the fuddy-duddy politician, Ramesh is the bridge linking Indira Gandhi's vengeful populism with the Sonia Gandhi's more calibrated, but no less self-serving, paternalism.
Since assuming charge as Environment Minister, Ramesh has consciously kept himself in the news. On the plus side he has energised wildlife protection and sought to put some order into India's neglected National Parks and animal sanctuaries. But these have been overshadowed by the controversies over his attempt to close the gap between India's environment policies and the path being advocated by the West, notably the European Union. His unilateral declaration, just prior to last year's Copenhagen summit on Climate Change, of reducing carbon gas emission by 20 per cent by 2020, was been attacked by many as "lacking due diligence". There are now fears that at Cancun he may commit India to an international inspection regime without securing anything tangible in return—apart, possibly, from a career in the global seminar circuit when he ceases to be minister.
The charge of playing to the activists' gallery has, ironically, spurred Ramesh to don the Al Gore mantle more energetically. In the past few months, Indian business and state governments have been devastated by the single-mindedness with which he has used his discretionary powers to stop big-ticket projects. He has been particularly savage in using the Green veto against Orissa. But he was more accommodating with state governments in which Congress has a stake, prompting charges that environmental laws are being used as a variant of the license-permit-quota raj.
A clash between the forces that Pawwar relates to and those who play cheerleaders for Ramesh was imminent. Pawar has reposed faith in a market-driven growth that, it must be said, also suffer from familiar distortions; Ramesh, on his part, champions an interventionist state, apparently committed to checking the distortions resulting from rapid growth.
Ideally, the clash should have come a few months earlier when Ramesh put a spanner in the works of Vedanta and POSCO in Orissa, one of India's most backward states. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik decided that quiet lobbying, the good sense of the PM and the judicial process were better alternatives to a direct clash with the Centre. The Orissa challenge would have triggered an overdue debate on the conflict between growth and Green fundamentalism, and the right of the Centre to dictate to the states. Tragically, the opportunity was missed.
Pawar's protest against the stay on all work and the restoration of status quo ante in the Lavasa hill station located in the Baramati parliamentary constituency has been seen in a narrow political light: as a constituency compulsion and a defence of its promoter Ajit Gulabchand of the Hindustan Construction Company. Indeed, Pawar has readily conceded that he conceived the spectacular township after a trip to the English Lake district. Additionally, his daughter was among the original promoters, till she sold her stake in 2004.
Equally, the sub-text of Ramesh's stay order has been read as a bid to 'fix' Pawar and ingratiate himself with the likes of Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare—activists who are to the Sonia Congress what Left intellectuals were to the Indira Congress. In short, the battle is widely perceived to be political and not really centred on the protection of the environment.
It is for, example, revealing that Ramesh's ex-parte order is based on Lavasa not getting certain clearances from the Centre. In its reply, Lavasa Corporation, apart from listing the 25 different clearances from different authorities it has already secured, says that it has secured the necessary permission from the Maharashtra Government. It claims that as per law it does not need a clearance from Delhi. Ramesh's ministry has thought otherwise and peremptorily imposed a stay without even a hearing. The stay was carefully timed to disrupt Lavasa's Rs 20 billion IPO scheduled for this month.
Whether Ramesh is personally culpable for his draconian order that demands the demolition of an entire town, the unemployment of 8,000 workers and the dispossession of 1,600 house owners, is for the courts to decide. What is important to note is the potential havoc an Environment Minister can wreak with his apparent discretionary powers. And it was done on the strength of a dispute over the jurisdiction of the state and central government—a babu problem, not a Green issue.
Indian environmentalism under Ramesh is fast turning into state oppression. Too many people have tolerated his flights of whimsy silently. Maybe it needed Pawar's buccaneering endorsement to create the confidence to challenge a minister who has convinced everyone that he is just a proxy for the heir apparent.