DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This Raavan is welcome

Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment & Forests, while addressing the media said the other day in Bhopal that he was generally called “Vikaas ka Raavan” (a destructive daemon in so far as development was concerned). He did not mention any names. It could, however, be inferred that he meant his colleagues in the government.

Raavan was the ten-headed mythical daemon king of Lanka, now Sri Lanka, portrayed negatively in the Hindu epic Ramayana basically for infamously kidnapping Sita, the revered wife of Lord Ram. Raavan was also a great scholar, a maestro of Indian musical instrument Veena and was profoundly devoted to Lord Shiva. Ramesh, apparently used the simile taking the negative aspects of Raavan as, many a time, for reasons of conservation of the country’s environment, he has had to take positions against proposals seeking to further the process of development (vikaas).

Many of us who are concerned about our deteriorating environment dread the word “development” and its Hindi equivalent “vikaas”. In the name of development, progress and economic growth forests are being plundered, land rendered barren, rivers polluted and the air is being fouled up. The benefit of all these go to only the big business and their political supporters who make money on the side while cutting deals on behalf of businessmen/industrialists with the government. Other beneficiaries are the bureaucrats and the engineers who, regardless of the damage that construction projects cause to the environment, are all for them as these allow them to make tons of money, if the project is in the public sector, by short-changing the government. A vast majority are, however, left out in the cold without any benefit. In fact, they get the rawest of deals as it is they who are put to all kinds of trouble. Not only they do not get anything out of such projects, they also have to make the ultimate sacrifice by moving their hearths and homes from their ancestral lands for compensations that are, at best, puny and are seldom paid timely or in full and on many occasions with promises of rehabilitation that generally remain unfulfilled.

This is precisely what has been happening in projects of big or small dams, mining projects, setting up of steel or aluminium plants, power plants or whatever. The word “development” may have connotations of progress and prosperity, but it also suggests ruination of the environment and misery to the faceless and, now not-so-mute, poor. No wonder all the environmentally vital areas of the country, endowed with dense forests and rich ecosystems in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, have become conflict zones – conflicts of the poor who own or are settled on the lands or in the forests with the sponsors of projects. This has also provoked conflicts within the government. After all, there are ministries having development as their raison d’ĂȘtre and, hence, for their own perpetuation they have to push for more development. When proposals emanating from such ministries are shot down by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), its helmsman, Jairam Ramesh, gets a mouthful and is called all kinds of names, one of which is “Vikaas ka Raavan”.

Before Jairam Ramesh arrived on the scene the MoEF, perhaps, had a quieter time. The ministers, who held charge of the Ministry in the governments of United Progressive Alliance I (UPA I) and, before that, in National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were perhaps not very much interested in conservation of environment. From all evidences, it was for them, kind of, another job. No wonder very large tracts of forests and lands as also numerous rivers were degraded or polluted because of lack of alacrity on the part of the Ministry. The proponents of developmental projects had little difficulty in having their proposals seen through the Ministry. All kinds of stratagems – fair or foul – were used, occasionally even invoking the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In fact, the PMO is reported to have issued directives that no hindrances could be placed before any developmental project, which would have to be cleared as quickly as possible. After all, the government of UPA I, too, was chasing that elusive double-digit GDP growth-rate. The MoEF, therefore, during UPA I often came to be reviled as a “rubber stamp”.

That’s precisely what the Ministry has ceased to be with the advent of Ramesh at its helm. He has infused a tremendous lot of vigour into it and has made the Ministry what it should have been all these years – a vital cog in the process of effective governance for balanced economic development that takes into account all the environmental considerations in order to pass on to posterity a country where future generations, apart from availing of the plentiful fruits of development, could, inter alia, also breathe air that is fresh, drink water that is uncontaminated and watch in its native habitat that majestic animal that we call tiger. Projects for development are now being critically examined by several rejuvenated re-constituted bodies with a view to scrutinising their impact on the environment – forests, wildlife, rivers, air and what have you. Unused to this kind of resistance the development-oriented ministries find MoEF as a roadblock and, therefore, let out shrill, often abusive, cries.

Given to committing faux pas, Ramesh avoidably landed himself in trouble on several occasions. His pot shots on the Home Ministry taken from China about paranoia in regard to Chinese workers in India were eminently avoidable. So was his act of holding a piece of rock at the Union Carbide factory at Bhopal and claiming it was not contaminated was a gaffe of the first order. Nonetheless, he has brought environmental issues on the front pages of newspapers and has saved many a forest from being decimated. Two recent instances readily come to mind. Adani Industry’s application for mining coal in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for setting up a 1980 MW power plant at Gondia was rejected for the reason that coal-mining would destroy rich forests and tiger habitat in the area. Likewise, Ramesh’s Ministry rejected the proposal to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification to eliminate a massive mangrove zone to accommodate the second airport for Mumbai. The promoters were asked to look for an alternative site.

Many an environmentalist heaved a sigh of relief when Ramesh was once again accommodated in the Upper House of the Parliament. Regardless of his several indiscretions India and its environment need him. Many of us, therefore, would like this Raavan to be around for quite some time.
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