Don't take that call from the PMO, Mr Ramesh!

The environment minister's position on certain issues may ruffle the Union Cabinet's feathers but they show rare principle


Prasanna Mohanty | July 10, 2010

It is not at all common or usual for a minister to take a principled stand; or having taken it, to stick his or her neck out to defend that position. In that sense, environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh’s position on a few contentious issues is admirable.

His refusal to bow to pressure from his cabinet colleagues in the aviation, power and surface transport ministries has sent a strong signal that environmental clearance is neither a matter or routine nor right. That there will be rules and rules will be followed.

In showing that he is no pushover, Ramesh has rubbed many a minister the wrong way. Any place else he would have been feted for his independent stand on issues, but here there are already murmurs of Ramesh losing his portfolio in the soon-expected reshuffle. These ministers want a more pliable colleague in the green ministry and that includes even the prime minister, who ordered that Ramesh take a relook at the classification of "go" and "no-go" areas for mining in such a manner as to dramatically increase the latter area substantially.

Alas, Ramesh caved in yesterday. He has now reduced, in one fell stroke, the "no-go" areas by ten percent. And much as we must appreciate his commitment to the cause, we cannot overlook the fact that by succumbing to this demand from the highest quarter he has shown himself as unreliable. Either Ramesh had then taken a whimsical decision to declare such substantial areas (where projects had already been announced) as "no-go" zones or he has now taken an equally whimsical decision to roll back that area by 10 percent. So what are we to believe, that in a matter of two weeks, 10 per cent of the forests have disappeared into thin air because the Prime Minister said swoosh?!

This is sad not just because he has given in on the "no-go" areas. You can bet your carbon credits that this will not be the last time that the prime minister will call Ramesh. Already Praful Patel is making noises about Ramesh obstructing the Navi Mumbai airport project. Ramesh has steadfastly maintained that serious environmental issues are involved and he would not budge without a proper environment impact assessment (EIA) study—something that is beyond Patel’s comprehension. For his benefit and the benefit of others, Ramesh listed out these concerns: the airport expansion entails destruction of 400 acre of mangroves; diversion of two rivers and blasting of a 80-ft island!

So far Ramesh has also taken a tough stand on not allowing private helipads in Mumbai, which is bound to rub many the wrong ways. Talking to reporters on Tuesday in New Delhi, he spelt out his stand. He said: "Private helipad is a complete no-no. All helipads should be owned by the government and should be used for public service - medical emergency and strategic need."

His stand is based on a recent study by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board which shows noise pollution at the time of take-off and landing of helicopters stands at 100-120 decibel—which is twice the permissible level in residential areas. Mukesh Ambani has been allowed three helipads on his 27-storey residential complex. Ramesh said those too violated noise pollution rules and his ministry would look into it. In both these cases, Ramesh, as you can see, will ruffle a lot of feathers in high places once again. The prime minister might be tempted to call Ramesh once again with friendly advice on how important all this is for 10 percent growth.

This time round, just don't take that call from the PMO, Mr Ramesh!



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