Saturday, 26 June 2010

Right Minister, Wrong Ministry

Performing Ministers are a rare breed. They are like an oasis in the middle of a desert. When you find water in a desert, you would be a fool to throw it away.

Back in the days prior to independence, politicians were looked up at and considered worthy role models. The politicians who fought for our independence were an educated lot. Not only did they have a clean image, but also the people’s admiration. But after nearly six decades of sleaze, their image has been damaged completely. So much so that unlike our judicial system where a person is innocent until proven guilty, our politicians are considered corrupt until proven honest. That is, if you enter politics you are labelled dishonest by default. APJ Abdul Kalam was asking a rhetorical question when he said, “Indian parents want their children to be doctors and engineers but not politicians. Why?”

This is why when you know you have got a performing minister in the cabinet, you ought to make the most of that person for the country’s development. And this is precisely what has not happened in the case of Jairam Ramesh.

IIT, Carnegie Melon and MIT educated, our Minister for Environment and Forests has attracted controversy like a flower attracts bees ever since he took office. Earlier, nobody used to take the Environment Ministry seriously. Since he has taken over he has added teeth to the ministry. But I say he has added more teeth than was necessary.

He started his tenure by rejecting the idea of the interlinking of rivers citing environmental noncompliance. This could have been a valid reason except for one little aberration – that Gujarat has already interlinked its rivers. Not only that, but it is also reaping the benefits without any facing any environmental catastrophe that Jairam Ramesh would have predicted. It is no coincidence that cotton farmers in Gujarat are competing with the Chinese products in the international market whereas just 400 kilometres down south, the cotton farmers in Vidarbha, Maharashtra are committing suicide.

Jairam Ramesh’s ministry has also issued an order suspending the ongoing work on the Maheshwar Dam on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. Again the reason given was environmental damage and rehabilitation inconsistencies. Not that these issues are unimportant, they are not – but the benefits of the project far outweigh the drawbacks. The MP Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan says, “Stoppage of the project at this juncture will result in loss of 7.2 lakhs units of power per day starting in 2010 “ This is something a power deficient state like MP can ill afford to do – if it is to progress and eliminate poverty.

Perhaps the most hearbreaking case is of the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company also known as Mahyco.  Having produced hybrids of cotton, sorghum, sunflower and wheat, it is currently researching improvements to more than 30 crops. The development of genetically modified eggplant, known locally as BtBrinjal, was the latest in this string of innovations. Mahyco's scientists toiled for years to figure out how to kill the pest, Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer, which wipes out 30% to 40% of India's annual crop. Mahyco conducted 25 environmental bio safety studies supervised by independent and government agencies to ensure that its product had the same nutritional value and is compositionally identical to regular eggplant; finally, it did rigorous field trials in collaboration with two Indian agricultural universities.

Yet on Feb. 9, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh stopped the seed's introduction – again privileging environmental concerns and ignoring the government's own regulatory process, the committee of scientists who had approved Bt Brinjal after nine years of intensive trials.

Where Jairam Ramesh should have acted with toughness, he chose to be soft. On his only trip to Bhopal as minister, Ramesh uttered this quote on the situation in Bhopal, a remark that defies any limits on its sheer insensitivity, “I held the toxic waste in my hand. I am still alive and not coughing. It’s 25 years after the gas tragedy. Let us move ahead.” To say such a thing for a tragedy killing nearly 20,000 and maiming over a 100,000 more, the  repercussion of which are still felt by the people living in those slums is at best entirely inappropriate and at worst downright condescending.

There is also news coming in that Ramesh has rejected the coal ministry’s demand — backed by the PMO — to increase mining areas by 30 per cent, saying only five per cent is possible. Most of India’s power need are met by coal and till the time alternatives are found, India would need to produce as much power as it can from coal – and while India is the 3rd biggest producer of coal, it is also the 3rd biggest importer of coal – such is the demand supply gap.

While environmental concerns should be given a top priority, India cannot afford to lag behind in the Energy race. In a global scenario where the developed countries are the ones responsible for Global Warming and are failing to take complete responsibility (USA has still not signed the Kyoto Protocol), Jairam Ramesh’s headstrong leadership in the Environment Ministry can prove to be a handicap to India’s progress.

When a performing minister in a non performing government performs so well that a country’s progress suffers, you have an irony of ironies. Which is why Jairam Ramesh is the right minister in the wrong ministry.