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I have zero friends in government: Jairam

Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh  

Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has cast himself as a lonely crusader for the environmental cause within the government, with no support from any quarter except the Prime Minister and the UPA chairperson.

In an interaction with journalists on Wednesday, hours before a meeting called by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to iron out differences within the Cabinet over Bt brinjal, Mr. Ramesh said he had “zero” friends in the government.

“I have no friends, only the Prime Minister supports me in the Cabinet… At times I feel I am fighting a lonely battle. The odds are tremendous against anyone trying to do anything right and rational when it comes to the environment and forests,” he said, using the words ‘thankless’ and ‘friendless’ to describe his job.

Mr. Ramesh has come under fire for a number of issues during his nine-month tenure. Most recently, his controversial decision to slap a moratorium on Bt brinjal, and speculation that his differences with the Prime Minister’s special envoy for climate change, Shyam Saran, caused the latter to quit.

Ministry of ‘No’

“If you take this job seriously, controversy is bound to follow you. This Ministry is a Ministry of ‘No.’ You have to say ‘no’ at some point of time… If the Minister for Environment is popular, he’s not doing his job,” Mr. Ramesh said, alleging that he was being shunned for taking hard decisions rather than delaying them or lobbing it to a group of Ministers or the courts.

Asked whether the moratorium was actually a way of delaying a decision, he said it was a hard “political decision.” As Environment Minister, he had to take on those within and outside his own party, he added.

However, Mr. Ramesh stressed that he had the support of Dr. Singh and the party high command.

“Nobody in the current UPA is willing to take a stand on issues relating to the environment and forests except the UPA chairperson,” he said.

On Bt brinjal, he quoted from Dr. Singh’s speech on biotechnology, adding that he was “only implementing what the Prime Minister said…I have not deviated from the middle path he set.”

On climate change, Mr. Ramesh conceded that he had some differences with Mr. Saran, but insisted he had nothing to do with Mr. Saran’s decision to quit. However, he made it clear that he would take responsibility for climate change policies, not Mr. Saran, as he was the one answerable to Parliament.

“It is my job to set the policy. Bureaucracy cannot dictate policies. We consult them, they are partners,” Mr. Ramesh said, adding, “I am not a rubber stamp for the bureaucracy.”

He is, however, nominating the senior-most bureaucrat from his Ministry to take over the top spot at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Environment Secretary Vijai Sharma’s name has been proposed, and while China has already expressed formal support, the other BASIC countries are expected to follow suit.

Mr. Ramesh urged the revival of the National Advisory Council (NAC), which he called “the conscience of UPA I” from which all the flagship schemes of the government emanated.

“There is a crying need to revive NAC II, with similar leadership,” he said.

The Minister has no intention of shying away from controversy. The next thorny issue on his agenda: the hydel projects on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, which threaten the flow of the Ganga.

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