New Delhi: Until a few months ago, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was hogging the headlines by halting some of the biggest projects for violation of green norms. He`s back in the limelight, but this time for controversial clearances and candidly revealing that he has been "forced to compromise", a shift that industry has hailed as the "middle path".
From being a green crusader to a "helpless" minister, as some activists now call him, the tide began turning early this year with his ministry giving conditional nods to South Korean major Posco`s $12 billion integrated steel project in Orissa Jan 31.
According to ministry officials, the order to clear Posco - the largest foreign investment project in the country - came following pressure from the Prime Minister`s Office (PMO).
While industry has welcomed the move, the 57-year-old minister, who brought India to the forefront of international climate change talks, has been criticised by the greens for "buckling under pressure".
"We have to say that he is violating statutory conditions on dictation from above. It is shocking and shameful and is an open comment on the crony nature of current governance in India," said Medha Patkar of the Narmda Bachao Andolan (NBA).
Calling him helpless, Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribal and forest dwellers` organisations, said: "There is no legal institution and no effort is being made to address the problem on the ground."
"There is a lot of image politics and symbolic action, but nothing has changed as far as the underlying procedure is concerned," Gopalakrishnan said.
On Wednesday, nearly 30 graduating students of the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai boycotted their annual convocation ceremony where the minister was the chief guest to protest against him over proposed nuclear power projects in various parts of the country.
The image of the maverick minister suffered another blow May 6 when he cleared the 400 MW Maheshwar hydroelectric power project on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh despite non-compliance of conditions given at the time of green clearance.
Ramesh said he had no choice but to agree to lifting the order in view of the decisions taken at various meetings convened by the PMO.
"I am totally against regularising illegality. Unfortunately, many times I am forced to regularise. There are some occasions when I have not compromised. On some occasions, I had to compromise," he added.
However, some environmentalists are not ready to buy that argument.
"I think it is the collective responsibility of the council of ministers of which Jairam Ramesh is a part and he can`t put everything on the PMO. He is trying to behave like he is the only good guy and the rest are bad," said an environmentalist on condition of anonymity.
Chander Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said: "The problem is we don`t have an institutional mechanism to address such problems. I don`t understand why the PMO has to intervene in all major projects and why we can`t set a mechanism which will simplify the problem."
Ramesh did stop Vedanta`s bauxite mining project in Orissa last year.
Bhushan said Ramesh has brought some energy to the ministry which had been almost dead for the past 10 years. But there hasn`t been any significant change in the procedure used to accord green clearance to projects, he said.
Industry has of course welcomed the recent clearances by Ramesh`s ministry.
"We welcome the decisions to clear prominent infrastructure projects like Posco, Jindal Steel Plant. The ministry has, of course, taken the decision by balancing the growth aspect and environment imperatives," Seema Arora, head of environment desk, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), said.
"It is a forward move as the government is looking at the middle path so that we don`t compromise on growth," she said.
Data collected under the Right to Information Act by environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta shows that during Ramesh`s tenure, projects were actually getting cleared much faster and fewer projects were rejected compared to his predecessor A Raja.
Environmental clearance for just six projects was rejected during August 2009-July 2010, compared to 14 projects rejected during 2006-07 to 2007-08. All in all, 769 projects were received and 535 were approved. The rest are pending.
"Ramesh has stopped only some high-profile projects like Lavasa, Posco, Vedanta and Adarsh... what about the rest which have been cleared and can do more damage to environment?" Bhushan asked.