His pronouncements have stopped projects worth billions of dollars, creating powerful enemies in industry and business. His political colleagues have also turned against him, saying he has rejected proposals that would eradicate poverty.
But Ramesh says he is not not against industrial expansion and that he is enforcing laws. “We cannot afford to pollute our way to prosperity,” he said in an interview.
In the latest flare-up, the coal ministry sought the government’s permission last week to mine 203 coal fields to generate 660 million tons of coal. But Ramesh rejected the plan, declaring the heavily forested areas where the fields are located “no-go” zones.
“We are not allergic to the no-go concept of environment,” said Sriprakash Jaiswal, India’s coal minister. “But the government has to decide: Do we want to pursue economic growth or not? We need electricity.”
About 70 percent of India’s power supply comes from coal, and new nuclear power plants will take more than a decade to build.
Jaiswal pledged that trees would be planted in the coal fields in 20 years, after the mining is done. But Ramesh said he would not jeopardize the 4.3 million acres of dense forest left in India.
“Protecting the last bastion of good quality forests in India is more important than generating power from coal,” he said. “This is an absolute no.”
An engineer by training, Ramesh, 56, was one of India’s earliest advocates of privatization and economic reform and helped shape several pro-business policies.
“There is no conflict between economic growth and environment protection. It is a question of adhering to the existing environment laws,” said Ramesh, who was appointed 19 months ago. “We Indians delight in passing new laws and then bypassing them. That has to stop.”
He has denounced profligate consumption and the emerging suburban SUV-driving lifestyle. But he loves electronic gizmos, and his colleagues privately call him “PowerPoint politician.”
He is known for his one-liners and sarcasm. He recently called India’s attitude toward China “paranoid” and said India should get a Nobel Prize for filth. In October, the steel minister, Virbhadra Singh, advised him to be “pragmatic” instead of “dogmatic.” Ramesh replied in a letter that the problem arises because everybody expects the environment ministry to be “automatic.”
In recent months, he has set up special environment courts to expedite cases. He is also forming an independent environment monitoring and assessment agency and will soon launch an emissions trading scheme among Indian states to manage air pollution.
At the Copenhagen and Cancun climate talks, Ramesh offered to allow international inspection of India’s measures to mitigate climate change. But back home, he was accused of selling out India’s national interest to Western nations without getting anything in return.