[Interview] Jairam Ramesh: India cannot phase out fossil fuels but can phase them down

EXCLUSIVE Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India India and climate change India's outspoken and learned environment minister Jairam Ramesh is an outdoor's man, seen here studying effects of climate change in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Credit and copyright: Pallava Bagla

  • Jairam Ramesh was India’s environment minister for 26 months from 2009 to 2011. During this period he could attract attention to himself and his ministry with his public engagements and speaking orders.
  • In this interview under ‘Mongabay Sessions’, Ramesh talks about his days as the minister, the tricky political decisions that he had to take, his fascination for Indira Gandhi’s environmental decision making, and options for India’s future energy policy.
  • To be an internationally-respected environment leader India has to take the right domestic policy decisions, states Ramesh.
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Mongabay: Welcome to Mongabay sessions. I have with me, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, India’s former Environment Minister and currently a Member of Parliament. Mr. Ramesh is an engineer and an economist and worked with the then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh. Later when Dr. Singh became the Prime Minister, Mr. Ramesh was the Environment Minister from 2009 to 2011. He is currently the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Science, Technology, and Environment. A prolific writer, Mr. Ramesh authors a book almost every year. And currently, the latest one is called the Light of Asia. He has done two books on the environment. One is memoirs from the Ministry of Environment and Forests called Green Signals and the other one called Life in Nature, an environmental biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Welcome to Mongabay sessions, Mr. Ramesh. It’s a pleasure to have you with us.

Mr. Ramesh, I don’t know whether you would remember. Nearly 30 years ago, in 1993, when the Hindu Business Line newspaper was starting, you had a session for the young journalists who had been recruited for the newspaper, which included me. You were talking to us about economic reforms, you were gung-ho about economic reforms, and you hardly talked about environment at that time. So, what happened? Was it a change of heart or as an economist you saw the economic value of conserving environment?

Jairam Ramesh: It was a complete accident. It was as, you know, hand of destiny, in 2009, when I was made Environment Minister. I became an MP in 2004. In early 2006, I became the Minister of State for Commerce, then I was given additional responsibility for Power in 2008. So that was my career trajectory – economics, infrastructure. And when the Congress Party came back to power in 2009, I expected one of the economic ministries, which is what I had been working on for 25-30 years. So, it was completely out of the blue that the Prime Minister and the chairperson of the UPA, Mrs. Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, offered me the ministership of Environment and Forests. And initially, I was taken aback. Initially, I was a bit reluctant. I told the Prime Minister, “Sir, this is not my cup of tea, I mean, I’m not an environmentalist. And I’m not known to be an environmentalist and since the mid-80s, I’ve been working on economic issues. I’ve worked on international trade, I’ve worked on industry. I’ve worked on energy mostly.” The Prime Minister laughed, and he said, “No, no, no, you must go. Because climate change negotiations are going to be very crucial for India. And you have a background in the economy, you have a background in energy. And I’m sure that you will establish yourself in the environment ministry.”

Initially [for a] couple of days, I was a little, like a fish out of water. I had environmentalist friends, I was part of the network. I knew a lot of people. I was closely associated, for example, with the Center for Science and Environment and various other organisations. But to be Minister of Environment and Forests was a completely different proposition. So, the first few days, I was feeling my way around. But very soon I settled down. I’ve held other portfolios after that, but even today, in 2021, when I go to different parts of India, I am introduced, some people still mistake me as the continuing Minister for Environment. And I am always introduced as former Minister of Environment, although I’ve done other things in my life, rural development, drinking water, the other economic ministries. And even abroad, I mean, whenever I go, people just refer to me as India’s former Minister for Environment. So, this is a post-2009 phenomenon, this avatar, I look upon it as an avatar. I did not have this ‘eco avatar’ before 2009. This avatar came only after 2009. And long after I left the environment ministry, people would continue to write to me, call me to speak. And, of course, two years ago, I became Chairman of the Standing Committee on Environment and Forests and Climate Change. And even in Parliament, whenever the issue of environment or climate comes up, even if I have not given my name, the Chairman asks me to speak. I’ve got branded so to speak.

Mongabay: Actually, you were the environment minister only for 25 months, which is a rather small period. There have been Ministers who have had far longer stints, but you managed to attract attention to yourself, and also to the Ministry while you were there.

Jairam Ramesh: Twenty-six, to be precise, because every month counted in that ministry, so to speak. Twenty-six months.

Mongabay: I stand corrected. And it was actually a very interesting period at that time, 2009 to 2011. That’s the time when India was going through some kind of an economic renaissance. Globally, there was a recession, but we sort of came out of it in good shape. And also, that’s the time when the big climate change meeting was happening in Copenhagen. The world had so much faith in Copenhagen. So do you feel that you were, maybe reluctant, but you were the right person at the right time, during the Ministry?

Jairam Ramesh: Well, there were two dimensions to this job. One was the international dimension, which was the repositioning of India, in global climate change negotiations. And the other one was the domestic dimension, which was the enforcement of laws, and to make sure that the laws and the regulations that we have for the protection of the environment are enforced. When I met the Prime Minister before I took over formally, I called on him, and this was on the 31st of May 2009. The first thing he told me was, as I mentioned to you, that India needs to be a much more constructive and much more proactive player in global climate change negotiations, number one. And number two, he said, “Look, we need to pay far greater attention to the environment, in industry, in transport, various other sectors.” I mean, that’s all he told me. So, I saw these as two interlinked priorities, the international dimension, which is repositioning India, in the global climate change negotiating forums, and the second of course was the domestic dimension, which is to enforce the laws. Now, I became controversial in both, but I believe that they were closely interrelated. You cannot claim leadership in international forums if your domestic record does not speak for itself. For example, one of the criticisms I have of the current government is that they speak in international forums, the language of environmental responsibility, but domestically, the actions are not giving the signal of environmental responsibility in any way.

So, I think I didn’t come as a complete stranger to environment. I was aware of the environmental issues. I had been associated with people in the environmental field. As I mentioned, Centre for Science and Environment, Ashok Khosla, I knew very well, Dr. Pachauri was somebody whom I had worked with for almost 15 years in the energy field. Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, I knew. Madhav Gadgil was another person whom I had been in touch with, long before I became a Minister. So I knew these people. I knew the nature community, I knew the conservation community, but I didn’t see myself as a conservationist or as a champion of nature. I was a champion of economic reforms. I was, at that time, the champion of opening up the economy, the champion of science, technology, but environment was very, very far away, very far away. In fact, my wife was a greater environmentalist than me. She was far more sensitive to environmental issues, and my children are far more sensitive to environmental issues, particularly my older son. So, I came onto this pretty late. I’m a latecomer.

But I saw this as an opportunity of doing the right thing. I mean, as Minister for Environment, my job is not to be the Minister of environmental clearances or the Minister of environmental approvals. My job is to protect the environment. I still remember in 1983, I still recall, this was, I think, December of 1983, when I was working in the energy sector, and I went with my Minister, Mr. K.C. Pant, to Kerala, and we met the Electricity Minister at that point of time. That was Mr. R. Balakrishna Pillai. Mr. Pillai was very, very angry. He was very angry that Indira Gandhi had stopped the Silent Valley Project. She had stopped it in October of 1983. And, Mr. Pillai, was so angry that he turned to Mr. Pant, and he said, “What Mr. Pant, this Prime Minister, she likes monkeys more than she likes Malayalis!” I still remember that phrase.

So I knew about Silent Valley. M.P. Parameswaran, was a very close friend of mine. We had worked on other issues, education issues. So I knew what Silent Valley was. I knew about the Chipko Movement. But coming to the Ministry and becoming a Minister was a completely different proposition.

Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests from May 2009 to July 2011, delivering the inaugural address at Stakeholders Consultation on the Convention on Biological Diversity, in New Delhi on May 23, 2011. Photo from Ministry of Environment and Forests/Wikimedia Commons.
Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests from May 2009 to July 2011, delivering the inaugural address at Stakeholders Consultation on the Convention on Biological Diversity, in New Delhi on May 23, 2011. Photo from Ministry of Environment and Forests/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: Politically, how did you find space for yourself? Because the UPA was itself a bit of a yin and yang. You had the Prime Minister, focusing on economic growth and the Congress President, focusing more on equity-led legislation. So how did you find political space? Or you had no problem?

Jairam Ramesh: It was very, very difficult. Every day was a battle. I was fighting my own Ministerial colleagues. I was fighting my own chief ministers very often. Yeah, it was difficult, but you had to stand up for what you believe is right. And my defense was that I’m doing nothing but enforcing the laws of the land. I mean, we have the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. We have the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974. We have the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. We have the Air Pollution Control Act of 1981. We have the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. And then finally, we had the Forest Rights Act of 2006. So my stand was, look, please tell me where I’m going beyond these six laws. Whatever is in the law books, I’m enforcing that, that’s all. That’s all I’m doing. I’m not inventing a new law. I am not adding to any new law. I’m not amending any law. Here are the laws passed by Parliament and I am going by the book.

Now, many people were upset with this, because you see, environment in India, environmental approvals in India even today, are matters of fait accompli. They put up a project and they will come to government and say, “Oh, we forgot to get this clearance, but we have already invested 5,000 crores. We are already employing 1000 people and 800 people. So give us the clearance.” So this was the mentality over a period of time.  This “Baad me dekha jaayega!” (“We will see to it later” in Hindi), this was the approach to environmental approvals. And remember, there are two approvals: there is an environmental approval under the Environment Protection Act. And there is a forest approval under the Forest Conservation Act. It’s not one consolidated approval, you need to get both. So, people would get environmental approval and start the project without forest approval. And then they will say we will set up a plant.

There’s a very famous case, the Ruias, a joint venture between the Ruias and Kumar Mangalam Birla – the Mahan project. They set up a project, they put up a power plant. But they didn’t have a coal linkage, they had not got the clearance. Now, how can you do this? So I put a stop to it. There was a famous Lavasa project, which, built a whole Hill City, never got any clearances. There was a Vedanta project, which got a clearance for 1 million tonne and put up 6 million tonnes. Obviously pollution load from a 6 million tonne alumina refinery is going to be significantly different from a 1 million tonne alumina refinery. So the attitude of industry was, “Baadh me dekha jaayega! We’ll handle it when it comes.” It was fait accompli, so I said, “No fait accompli!” Whoever has done, whatever has happened – public sector, private sector, Congress government, BJP government, makes no difference. A law will be enforced, penalties will be imposed. And, if a project doesn’t have forest clearance, it will not start. As simple as that.

Now, big business was upset, corporate India was upset. I remember the new international airport in Navi Mumbai. It involved loss of hundreds of acres of mangrove forests. It involved blasting a hill, it involved diversion of a river. And I said no environmental clearance unless these issues are addressed. And the project ultimately got redesigned. But Mr. Sharad Pawar was very upset with me. He was the Agriculture Minister. Mr. Praful Patel was the Civil Aviation Minister. They are very close friends of mine, they’re colleagues of mine and respect them, I work with them, I like them. But what to do? I was given a job, I have to do it. My job was not to clear it. My job was to ensure that the international airport subscribed to all the environmental rules and regulations. So, it was a daily fight.

I left home every day at 8.15, I was in my office at 8.20. It’s a five-minute drive from my house. Every day at 8.15 I would leave, 8.20 maximum 8.25 I would reach my office. I would leave the office sharp, at 8 pm. So it was a 12-hour day. And I can tell you in that 12-hour day, it was 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sunday was the only day I never went to work but I worked out of the house. But 75 to 80% of the time was political negotiations; creating this political space. And for every bouquet I got, I would get a brickbat. And the same people who would give me bouquets in the morning, would give me brickbats in the evening. I’ll give you an example. When I issued some show cause notice to some hydel projects, which had not fulfilled their environmental conditions, Medha Patkar, and Sunita Narain, and all the great environmentalists hailed me [and] welcomed my decision. But that same evening or a day later, I gave the environmental clearance, a conditional environmental clearance to the Jaitapur nuclear power plant. And the same environmentalists went after me saying that,  “How can you give the environmental clearance?” See, the point I’m making is that the environmentalists were not happy that I was not progressive enough, bold enough. The industrialists and the economists were very unhappy that I was enforcing the law. So the net result at the end of 26 months was that I pleased nobody.

Take the Mullaiperiyar issue, for example, the issue; all I did was to give, the clearance for, environment and forest survey and my effigies were burned in Tamil Nadu, when I landed in Chennai airport, to see my in-laws, I saw my effigies burning and the TV channels were going after me. Or during Athirapally. I remember Mr. A.K. Balan, who was then the Power Minister of Kerala, he came to meet me and I said, “No, Mr. Balan. This is not on, I’m not going to do it.” And I explained to him and then the entire CPM guys came down on me. They protested to Mrs. Gandhi. Technically they were not part of UPA because, you know, the CPM was not part of UPA 2. But still they supported. I mean, they were good friends. It was not like UPA 1. But, the point is that, in this job, the Minister of Environment, who ends up having friends, has not done his job. Because it isn’t the nature of the Minister of Environment, to create enemies for himself. And in my book, I have described this as, this is a phrase that Henry Kissinger once used in the context of the Balkans. When there were international efforts to bring peace into erstwhile Yugoslavia, Henry Kissinger said that the solution can only achieve balanced dissatisfaction. It cannot achieve balanced satisfaction. So, Environment Minister will be successful if you achieve balanced dissatisfaction.

I decided that the only way to meet this situation was to be completely transparent.

Mongabay: And that’s what people sort of recognise you for.

Jairam Ramesh: That’s the only weapon I have. It’s the only weapon I have. I don’t have a great political base. I’m not a mass leader. I am not a Lok Sabha MP or a Rajya Sabha MP. So, the only instrument I have is transparency. So I had glass doors, all my file notings were made public. All my decisions, speaking orders were made public. Any meetings I had, it was open. I never, never held anything back, right. I really believe that the instrument that I had was transparency. And there were people who criticised me. Fine, there were decisions that were taken. The National Green Tribunal, for example, long after I left, was critical of my decision to give clearance to some coal mines in Chhattisgarh. But they base their criticism on a speaking order that I had issued, which is put into the public domain, all the file notings and I told my officers, “Look, you don’t second guess me. You don’t second guess me, please put down what you believe.” So there are many places in the files where I agreed with the officials. There are many places where I disagreed. And where I disagreed, I was open. I said, “Look, this is why I disagreed.” And I think that’s the speaking orders, over 20 speaking orders. A large number of speaking orders. All the files were in the public domain. Nothing was held back. So ultimately I think if I survived those 26 months, it was because of transparency. Nothing else.

Mongabay: I think people on both sides and people who, who criticised you and people who, who praised you and criticised and praised at the same time. I mean, they all sort of appreciate you for the fact that you brought discussions on these issues, these decisions were not taken, abruptly or pushed down people’s throats. But I wanted to ask you about one very specific speaking order on GM brinjal. The GM discussion, GM controversy had started in the mid-1990s. And it had sort of been there. And then it came to you. You came through the court order, but then at one level, you had a moratorium. And at the other level, you said, research should go on. I mean, which itself was a bit difficult, because of the moratorium, research was unlikely to go on. But more than that, weren’t you trying to push the ball, pass the buck? The decision had come to you. You were the last person to have taken the decision – the decision, still, is not there.

Jairam Ramesh: My decision was made public. If I remember on the 10th of February 2010. Eleven years have passed by, but that decision has not been reversed. Eleven years have gone, successive governments have come and there have been many Environment Ministers. But nobody has revoked the decision. Now, what was my decision? My decision was that there should be a temporary moratorium. I didn’t use the word temporary. I use the word moratorium because a moratorium by its very nature is temporary. It’s not a ban. And my view was that you see, Mr. Warrier, I was a great supporter of Bt cotton. I wrote publicly in favour of Bt cotton, I publicly supported Bt cotton long before I became Environment Minister. But when the Bt brinjal issue came up, remember, it was a food crop. It was the first time we were called upon to decide on the food crop. So that was something that was at the back of my mind. And I found that no public consultation process had gone through. This was between the GEAC, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, and the developers, Mahyco. Hardly any public debate and hardly any public consultation. So I consulted a large number of scientists.  I went to Chennai and spent four hours with Dr. Swaminathan – the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian agricultural research. And I learned a lot from him. I wrote to 50 scientists across the world, including in India. I got responses from them. I found that state governments had not been consulted, and I wrote to all the state governments for their views. I didn’t kick the ball. I’m sorry, I slightly disagree with you. I didn’t kick the ball. I just realised that the Europeans have a prohibitory approach on GM food crops, the Americans have a permissive approach. And India, the land of Buddha should always adopt the middle path. So neither permissive nor prohibitory, but precautionary. So, my approach was precautionary.

What did I say? I said, let’s have a moratorium. The moratorium would get lifted, subject to three conditions. One, there is a consensus in the scientific community on what type of test protocol for safety, for efficacy, for health effects. And so number one, toxicity. Number two, state governments are brought on board. And number three, we set up an independent regulatory, professional regulatory body. And not this internal GEAC type of mechanism. Scientists talking amongst themselves. Now, and I expected that those three conditions would get fulfilled in a five-year time span, but eleven years have passed by. Incidentally, I must tell you the greatest supporters of my moratorium on Bt brinjal has been the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. They are the ones who were delighted. And they continue to be delighted by the fact that there was this moratorium. My moratorium was only on Bt brinjal. It was not a moratorium, it was not a ban on genetic engineering. And I said, trans-genetics, this transgene is only one form of biotechnology. And now of course, as you know, this transgene is becoming a thing of the past. You have things like CRISPR (a technology for editing genes), you have genetic editing and so on. It’s a completely different game altogether.

In fact, I met, I mean, I have not mentioned it in my speaking order, because it was not right. But the Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, at that time was a great scientist called Dr. M. K. Bhan. You know Maharaj Bhan, unfortunately he passed away a few months ago. And I asked him to come and meet me, and please educate me. And he spoke to me for almost two hours. At the end of it, he said, “Sir, what you have done is the right thing. I can’t say it publicly, but you’ve done the right thing.” I said, “Please, I will, I will not utter a word on what you have told me…because I want to respect your position. But this is what he told me.” In fact, Dr. Swaminathan’s letter is reproduced in my speaking order,  the reasons why we should be careful. And one of the reasons that he gives is, India as a centre for genetic biodiversity, and you don’t get into GM, for crops in which you are the centre for biodiversity.

Representational image of a eucalyptus plantations. Jairam Ramesh: "I was against this whole idea of compensatory afforestation... The idea that a monoculture plantation can give you the same ecological value as a multi-species, natural forest, is a bogus idea." Photo by
Representational image of eucalyptus plantations. Jairam Ramesh: “I was against this whole idea of compensatory afforestation… The idea that a monoculture plantation can give you the same ecological value as a multi-species, natural forest, is a bogus idea.” Photo by Anand.osuri/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: Another initiative you were recognised for was, was the CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) order, the transfer of CAMPA funds to the states. Right now, we have 530 billion rupees in that fund, but there are always complains about inadequate utilisation or problems with FRA (Forest Rights Act). Why do you think it’s happened? Is it is the design or is it the way it is implemented?

Jairam Ramesh: I was against this whole idea of compensatory afforestation. And I said so to the Supreme Court. The idea that a monoculture plantation can give you the same ecological value as a multi-species, natural forest, is a bogus idea. We satisfy our conscience for the loss of forest cover, natural forest cover, by saying we will have compensatory afforestation. I have never believed in this compensatory afforestation. I said so to the Supreme Court. But I was a voice in the wilderness. So as long as there was this whole idea of compensatory afforestation, net present value and some forest areas had to be diverted for essential infrastructure. And that’s how this CAMPA, this whole compensatory afforestation management issue came up. And money got accumulated in the accounts. Money was not flowing back to the states. And it took me some time. I went to meet the Chief Justice and the (Late) Justice Kapadia; I explained to him and we were able to work out a solution and the first funds started flowing. But I was very clear in my mind that the gram sabhas have to play a very important role. That, it’s not a free ride, it’s not a free for all, for the foresters. Unfortunately, the way Parliament passed the CAMPA now in 2016, and the rules that got formulated thereafter, left a lot to be desired and many CAMPA projects are being implemented to the detriment of local communities, where the local communities are not involved. They are not involved in the process. They’re not involved in the choice. But fundamentally, I’m opposed to this idea of compensatory afforestation. But if the CAMPA funds are inevitable, and if they have to be used, I made it a point of saying that they must be used only for regeneration of natural forests. Because the survival rates in the afforestation program are very low. This has been our experience. It has also been our experience that when we have compensatory afforestation, we end up having Acacia afforestation or, Prosopis, or Eucalyptus, whatever. It’s not fine. We’re losing forest cover, Indian forest cover, we are not losing just the ground biomass, we are also losing soil, which is also a very important carbon sink. So ecologically, the two can never be equated. Unfortunately, we’ve equated the two and I think we are paying a price for it. Sooner we get out of the idea of compensatory afforestation, the better off we are frankly.

Mongabay: I really enjoyed your second book on the environment, the ecological biography of Indira Gandhi. And actually, people like me, who are students… trying to understand modern environment history, we usually start our discussions from the Chipko Movement and then build beyond that, but you moved the front date to the mid-60s with that book. What motivated you to write that book?

Jairam Ramesh: Well, before the Chipko Movement, the movement for protecting the Taj was very important. And that led incidentally, to the Air Pollution Control Laws of ’81. And before the Taj, there was the pollution in the river Ganga, chemical pollution in the river Ganga. Just about the time that Mrs. Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, became Prime Minister. It became a big issue in ’67 and ’68, particularly in Bihar. Well, I was long fascinated with Indira Gandhi. There are two images of Indira Gandhi in India. One is the Durga image, she is all-powerful, the only ‘man’ in her cabinet… the Durga, you know, who took the vested interests on and liberated Bangladesh, for example, stood up to Nixon, there was the Durga image. The other image, of course, is that she was the architect of the Emergency, that she imposed draconian laws which completely destroyed civil liberties. She went against Nehru’s very concept of party democracy, open democracy. But these are two images that we have of Indira Gandhi. But I found, this is part of my reading of political history, long before I became Environment Minister, I had been aware of the fact that she was extraordinarily sensitive to issues of nature.

Salim Ali, for example, had a great influence on her since the early 50s. She got into environment through birdwatching. Nehru himself was a great naturalist. But when it came to the crunch, he would rather build a big dam rather than protect a national forest area. Indira was willing to put a halt to big dams. Nehru was not. Although Nehru was very sensitive to environmental issues himself. And a large part of Indira’s own sensitivity to nature and environment came from Nehru. But I don’t think that was the predominant influence. When push comes to shove and the choice has to be made, Nehru was very clear – we need these big large projects.

So Indira, because of the Salim Ali influence, because of her spending a year at Shantiniketan, a very important influence on her life and thinking, Rabindranath Tagore and her friendship circle – her uncle, mother’s brother, he was a botanist, one of India’s leading botanists, called Kailash Nath Kaul, a herpetologist who kept pythons in his house as pets – this is how she grew up. Indira probably spent more time with him than her father, because her father was in and out of jail. And Indira also spent, I would say, a good part of her childhood and her youth in hill stations, because her mother was a patient of tuberculosis. She herself was a patient of pleurisy. So, she was in Almora, Nainital, Mussoorie, Ranikhet and finally Switzerland. So she was drawn to mountains, she was drawn to nature. And so she was a great environmentalist, a great naturalist.

Of course, in 1972, next year, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first UN conference on the environment, where… she was the only leader other than Olof Palme, who had to be there because he was the host. The only visiting head of government to speak at the first UN conference in the environment was Indira Gandhi. And see what happened in Paris, in 2015. There were 90 Prime Ministers and presidents, more than 90, whereas the first time you had this conference in Stockholm, the only visiting Prime Minister you had was Indira Gandhi. Sure, her speech, even today, is considered to be a milestone in global environmental discussions.

I had some time I had access to the Salim Ali papers, I had access to some other papers internationally. So I wrote this biography to bring out a dimension of a political personality. The preparations are going on for the war with Pakistan in 1971. And she’s having meetings with Salim Ali, Billy Arjan Singh, Zafar Futehally and others on the Wildlife Protection Act. She was having meetings on how to protect India’s wildlife, when, at the same time, preparations were going on for the war with Pakistan, which happened in December of ’71.

And, of course, there were all the big national conservation programmes, the Project Lion, Project Tiger, Project Crocodile, the Project Gharial. These were all conservation programmes that had been started during her time. Olive ridley turtles, the movement to protect the olive ridley turtles off the coast of Odisha, for example. In India, there is no population of whales around India, but India became a member of the International Whaling Commission. Mrs. Gandhi was very concerned about the whole issue of whales. The Japanese were quite unhappy with her for India becoming a member of the International Whaling Commission because as you know Japan has always been against any form of control on the killing of whales. So, she was a remarkable personality, she made it a political issue. As I mentioned, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Air Pollution Control Act, the four acts, the Central Pollution Control Board, and of course, the Ministry of Environment, she set it up in November of 1980. And she was the first Minister for Environment, she was Minister of Environment until the day she was assassinated on the 31st of October 1984. So she walked the talk. I think that’s, she was, in a way, my role model when I was Environment Minister.

In my view, she was India’s first and India’s last Prime Minister, to walk the talk. Every Prime Minister talks but she is the only one who walked the talk. And she had the courage of conviction. Silent Valley was a political decision. [State Congress] leader Karunakaran wanted the project. The CPM, Mr. Nayanar, wanted the project, the local MP who belonged to the Congress Party, V.S. Vijayaraghavan was a supporter of the project. But Mrs. Gandhi said no.

Read more: Silent Valley – A controversy that focused global attention on a rainforest 40 years ago.

On Tehri, for example, she took a very principled stand. She took a very principled stand on the Lalpur project in Gujarat. And she took a stand on wildlife issues, knowing full well that some of our own political colleagues, were running shikar (hunting) companies. The Shukla Brothers were running a tiger shikar company, as late as 1970-71. Tiger shooting is banned only after 1972. There is a moratorium in 1970. But it gets banned only in 1972.

A coal mine in Jharkhand. Jairam Ramesh: "In my view, phasing out fossil fuels is simply infeasible. And in my view, undesirable also in the Indian context, it has to be a phase down, and it has to be an accelerated phase down." Photo by Rakesh Ranjan.
A coal mine in Jharkhand. Jairam Ramesh: “In my view, phasing out fossil fuels is simply infeasible. And in my view, undesirable also in the Indian context, it has to be a phase down, and it has to be an accelerated phase down.” Photo by Rakesh Ranjan.

Mongabay: I’ll end with one last question, on your position as the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee. India is under pressure on net zero and energy transition, fossil fuel to renewable energy. What is the practical position on that – political positions are one rhetorical positions are another – but what do you think is the practical position on net zero?

Jairam Ramesh: Net zero is really, in fact, in my view, is a misleading slogan. What does net zero mean? You’re putting in as much as you’re taking out, and we do not have the technologies for taking out today, physically. And India cannot phase out fossil fuels in the immediate future, India can phase down fossil fuels, but it cannot phase out with today’s energy storage technologies. We still need baseload electricity generating capacity. And that will come either from coal or from nuclear. Both have their limitations.

It’s very easy to say that India will do this in the year 2050, you won’t be there, I won’t be there. The Prime Minister will not be there, nobody will be there. But we can say in 2050 we’ll do this. All these G7 Ministers, Presidents and Prime Ministers, none of them will be there in 2050. But they’re making commitments for 2050. So we can feel good. We’ve also made a commitment. The Chinese have made a commitment for 2060. Xi Jinping is now going to be around in 2060. So we can also make a commitment. But I think, it’s more responsible to say what are we going to do by 2025? What are we going to do by 2030? I mean, a 10 to the 15-year roadmap, is what we should be aiming at. And in my view, phase out fossil fuels is simply infeasible. And in my view, undesirable also in the Indian context, it has to be a phase down, and it has to be an accelerated phase down. And we will still need coal, we will still need nuclear, barring a major revolution in energy storage, the type, the revolution that we’ve had in mobile telephone, which has completely transformed the telephone industry, telecom industry. Hopefully, there’ll be some new energy storage device.

But there may well be sectors where we may be completely fossil fuel-free. I mean, I can see a situation, I mean, I would welcome a situation where the Government of India announces that after the year 2035, no petrol or diesel driven vehicles will be manufactured or used. If that’s possible, you can have all-electric vehicles, by 2035, it’s a 15-year time horizon, but you still need the electricity for the all-electric vehicles. And that electricity cannot come only from solar, cannot come only from wind, it has to come from a basket of sources, which will include coal, which will include nuclear.

In fact, I would argue that we need a much more aggressive nuclear programme. Right now, nuclear capacity, nuclear supply, nuclear sources account for only about three and a half percent of our electricity supply. I am saying that nuclear should account for at least 10%. But even if nuclear accounts for 5% or 6%, it will be a great achievement. But when I say something about nuclear, all the great environmentalists who are my great admirers, begin criticising me. Nuclear is, as I’ve often described, nuclear power is red drag to the green bull. If you are a green, you see red when you go nuclear, but I believe, from a carbon dioxide point of view, if you want net zero, you have to have investment in nuclear.

Mongabay: But the nuclear sector has been growing very, very slowly, isn’t it?

Jairam Ramesh: Very slowly. As I said, three and a half percent, it’s only about three and a half percent of supply. And even if we reach 5%, by the year 2035, that itself will be a stupendous achievement. And that’s what we should be doing.

Mongabay: Last quick question, is there any other book on the environment in the pipeline?

Jairam Ramesh: Not on the environment. I’ve just finished this book on the Buddha. That was a completely different book. Right now, I’m thinking of writing a biography of something to do with Indian science. [I am] working on a biography of Obaid Siddiqi, who was, in many ways, the founder of molecular biology in India. He set up the TIFR Institute for Molecular Biology. Then the NCBS, the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. So, I’m working something on science, but on the environment, no, not yet.


Banner image: Jairam Ramesh in the Andaman islands. Photo from Jairam Ramesh.

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