Indian environmental official fuels debate about the cost of economic growth

Shankaranarayanan Akkithiripadu teaches his 8-year old grandson, Shankar, to memorize and chant thousands of verses of Sanskrit rhythmic incantations from the ancient holy Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, in the same manner that it has been taught for over three millennia.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 6:59 PM

NEW DELHI - Every time Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says no to a project, his critics give him a new label: Green fundamentalist, anti-business, anti-growth, obstructionist, Luddite and Dr. No.

The job has rarely attracted so much attention, but Ramesh has turned a sleepy and apathetic ministry into a controversial one in recent months.

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."

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