He hogged the limelight for clashes with corporate interests and for outspoken statements

There will soon be a new set of glass doors at Krishi Bhavan. The newly elevated Cabinet Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh plans to bring the doors — a signature element of his interior décor right from his early days at the Commerce Ministry — to his new office. Over the last two tumultuous years at the Environment Ministry, those doors have symbolised the transparency and accessibility he claims that he tried to bring into his job.

While Mr. Ramesh hogged the limelight for clashes with corporate interests and for outspoken statements, he says his most important innovations were a matter of style: the public consultations which preceded some of his biggest decisions and the speaking orders that attempted to explain the reasoning of those decisions.

The road trip consultations that he opened to the public on Bt Brinjal, coastal zone norms and the Green India Mission were the first of their kind by a Union Minister and may have contributed to the demand for that style of public input in governance demanded by Lokpal activists.

The speaking orders to explain decisions on Posco, Vedanta, Adarsh, Lavasa, Jaitapur, and Navi Mumbai — the controversial projects which propelled him to the headlines on a regular basis — put the rationale behind his decisions in the public domain for critical analysis.

Mr. Ramesh's record has certainly been analysed and debated vigorously by a wide range of people, from the industrialists who vilified him as an anti-growth obstructionist to the activists who initially hailed him as a green saviour and later crucified him for succumbing to pressures from within his own government. Critics point out that for each of the high-profile projects he rejected, hundreds more were approved at almost the same rate as his predecessors.

‘The tigers will miss you'

Without a strong institutional backing, his one-off decisions on a few high-profile cases could not be consolidated into long-term safeguards for the environment. On the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, strongly opposed by his own Forest Department, Mr. Ramesh was a one-man force, and activists fear his efforts may peter out once he leaves. “The tigers will miss you,” said the National Tiger Conservation Authority's Rajesh Gopal.

“Mr. Jairam raised the stakes and profile of the Environment Ministry like no one before him,” says the Centre for Science and Environment's Sunita Narain. “It will be up to his successor Jayanthi Natarajan to strengthen the institutional base…It cannot be just the Minister who bats for environment, it has to be the institutions.” Part of Mr. Ramesh's legacy will be the initial steps he took on this path — the National Green Tribunal which started work this month, and the Cabinet note being circulated to establish a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority.

Despite the number of big names he took on, the rejection of Vedanta's refinery project in Orissa may be one of the few battles he decisively won. In fact, one of his final acts as Environment Minister was to say ‘no' to environment clearance for Vedanta in reiteration of rejection of the forest clearance.

In other cases, such as the Posco's integrated steel project, the nuclear reactor at Jaitapur or the airport at Navi Mumbai, Mr. Ramesh's initial rejection was followed by later compromises. While the Minister believes he struck the middle path of balance in these decisions, sceptics point to domestic and international political compulsions that pushed him off the straight and narrow road of environmental protection.

Sources within the Ministry say that his attempt to stand up to the political forces backing the Lavasa Lake City project was his ultimate downfall. Others point to his fight for a “no-go” zone to prevent coal mining in heavily forested areas as being the last straw that forced the Prime Minister to change his portfolio even while elevating him to Cabinet Minister status.

Land Acquisition Bill

On top of Mr. Ramesh's agenda at his new Ministry is the proposed Land Acquisition Bill. He brings the expertise gained from dealing with environment protests — many of which were really land acquisition protests at grassroots level — as well as his personal relationships with the members of the National Advisory Council, to which he once belonged, who have given their own recommendations on the issue. His willingness to face tough foes could also be an advantage in bringing out a law that will take on the powerful real estate lobby.

With a Rs. 77,000 crore annual budget — in comparison to the measly Rs. 2,000 crore for Environment — the Rural Development Ministry offers a hefty challenge for Mr. Ramesh. But he says the first job for his staff is to clean up the Ministry's website. He wants to introduce the streamlined, user-friendly, real-time information sharing found on the Environment Ministry's website – the virtual representation of those glass doors.

More In: National | News