“India has not caused the problem of global warming. But try and make sure that India is part of the solution. Be constructive; be proactive” – prime minister Manmohan Singh to Jairam Ramesh, May 29, 2009
The debate in India about what to propose at the Copenhagen climate change conference has become a battleground about how open and go-ahead India should or should not be as it grows into an internationally significant economy.
On one side are economic policy reformers who want India to adopt a positive leadership role, driving reforms that are good for both the country and for its stance in international negotiations. At Copenhagen, this means voluintarily making positive proposals to reduce damaging emissions, while refusing to accept legally binding targets or inspections.
On the other side are officials (some retired) from the external affairs, environment and other ministries who want India to remain, old-style, on the fringes of international debate, irritatingly complaining about the the developed world’s faults while looking for hand-outs from anyone who happens to pass by. Primarily they fear that US policies are aimed at impeding India’s economic growth. At Copenhagen, that would mean telling the developed world to put its climate change house in order before asking for much from developing countries, while also demanding substantial financial aid for climate change technologies.
Leading for the reformers, with strong backing from Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi who leads the ruling Congress Party, is a new figure in India’s ministerial ranks. He is Jairam Ramesh (left), India’s first committed environment minister in a decade who, after spending most of the past 20 years or so as a government adviser, has suddenly emerged as one of the main drivers of policy in India’s new government. In terms of energy and application he ranks alongside Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, and Kapil Sibal, the human resources minister.
Most of Ramesh’s ministerial predecessors over the past ten years or so have seen the Ministry of Environment and Forests as a cash cow to be milked for their own and their political party’s coffers, and have had scant interest in developing or implementing policy.
Ecology before Development
Ramesh has changed that in just seven months, strictly applying environmental regulations to industrial and other projects instead of issuing approvals for the highest kickbacks, and trying to improve wildlife conservation and the ministry’s work in other areas.
Speaking at a wildlife conference in Delhi this morning, he announced that he has rejected a coal mining project than would have damaged a wildlife sanctuary and said: “We are not going to compromise ecological security in the name of development”.
On climate change, he relies on the support of Montek Singh Alhuwalia, a veteran government economics adviser who runs the Planning Commission, as well as the prime minister.
In parliament last Thursday, Ramesh said: “On the international arena, when I took over as minister for environment and forests on the 29th of May, the prime minister’s instructions to me were: ‘India has not caused the problem of global warming. But try and make sure that India is part of the solution. Be constructive; be proactive’.”
The speech, which is well worth reading, has become a focal point in the debate between the progressives and the rest.
Ramesh began by stressing that it is in India’s own interest to tackle climate change, irrespective of Copenhagen, because of the country’s primary economic dependence on monsoons and massive potential damage from shrinking Himalayan glaciers and other factors.
He then said that the Planning Commission had concluded that, since India’s emission intensity had declined by 17.06% between 1990 and 2005, it could do a 20-25% reduction between 2005 and 2020. He then hardened the 20-25% into a proposal, declaring: “My personal belief is that India must negotiate from a position of strength; that India must negotiate from a position of leadership.”
That generated a stream of criticism, especially from retired senior government officials who act as negotiators in India’s Copenhagen team – there appears to be a generational divide on this issue with, for example, younger MPs backing Ramesh.
Claiming they had not been consulted, two of the negotiators refused to fly to Copenhagen, and made sure that got into the newspapers, till they had received assurances from Ramesh that, among other points, the 20-25% was not to be binding. (A foreign diplomat said to me over the weekend that in the west they would have been removed from the team for breaking ranks!). There were allegations that Ramesh, who is reputed to be “pro America”, was doing what the US government wanted by bringing India into line.
Consequently, India’s position at the Copenhagen is now in a muddle, which may not be cleared up until the prime minister arrives at the summit at the end of next week.
Ramesh clearly does not have the respect of the officials, who presumably assume that his views – and maybe he himself – can be swept aside, as he has been before. This is the first time in a career of 20 years in the corridors of power, focused mostly on economic policy, that Ramesh has had the opportunity himself to deliver – and the problem with being an adviser for so long is that one is always seen in that role.
I have always regarded Ramesh as an economic reformer with nationalist edges. I first met him in the mid-late 1980s when he was advising Abid Hussain, a member of the Planning Commission that was then being run by Manmohan Singh. In 1991 Ramesh was an adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office of Narasimha Rao as India’s economic reforms were unleashed. In 1996 he was in the Finance Ministry with the then finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, acting as his adviser and office gate-keeper.
After that, his jobs included representing foreign companies investing in India, and then heading the economic policy unit of the Congress Party and advising Sonia Gandhi. He held junior and not very influential ministerial posts for commerce and power in the 2004-09 Congress-led government.
Ramesh has suffered till now from neither being a member of India’s civil service nor having a political base, so he has been a soft target when his abilities, high personal visibility, ebullience, and sometimes arrogant lack of tact have eclipsed and annoyed older more staid players. That led him to be ousted from the PMO in 1991, and into many skirmishes since then, which continued in the 2004-09 government.
Now, aged 55, Ramesh has come into his own, and the intellect and commitment that impressed Husain in the 1980s, and others in the 1990s, are coming to the aid of India’s environment.
Ramesh watchers and critics are however waiting for him to trip himself up, as he did briefly when he visited the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak site (right) in September and picked up some potentially toxic waste, saying “I’m still alive and not coughing”.
In his parliamentary speech last week, he gently advised some young MPs: “Do not be too bold at such a young age. It will create many problems for you. Go with the grain of conventional thinking before you become too much of an out-of-the-box thinker. Thinking out of the box in our country does not pay in the long run. You have to be in the box and occasionally get out of the box and come back into the box.”
That seems to be a lesson he has yet fully to learn himself, so let’s see whether he finishes inside the box or out of it by the end of next week.
One thing is certain however. India will benefit enormously if he emerges from Copenhagen with the enhanced political strength that he needs to tackle India’s wider environmental problems – work that will upset far more powerful people and interests than a few semi-retired official negotiators.