Jairam is Playing green to the gallery

INDIAN EXPRESS
15 October 2009

Jairam is Playing green to the gallery
The UPA's minister of state for environment and forests has created hope;now it is time for him to deliver

Jay Mazoomdaar
A lot has changed in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in the last four months. A Congress minister has taken charge — a minister who looks confident, talks smooth, means business and loves attention. And he has unleashed his doctrine of pop conservation. 

Of course, the new MoEF has taken a few sound decisions. For example, it has introduced tripartite MoUs among the Centre, respective states and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). It has started setting up tiger protection forces with young recruits and rigorous training. It has also decided to absorb youth from forest communities as guards on contract. 

All these proposals, however, were in the pipeline for months — thanks to NTCA’s consistent attempts at reforms. To Jairam Ramesh’s credit, he implemented them quickly.There are a number of similarly sound proposals waiting for the new minister’s attention. A separate wildlife secretariat and a specialised sub-cadre, reforms to build scientific capacity, relocation of villages from critical forest areas, restoration of vital forest corridors — the list is long. Unfortunately, Ramesh has been a little too busy for all these. 

Within weeks of taking charge, the new minister sought credit for unlocking the Rs 11,000-crore Compulsory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) booty. Now the states will receive Rs 1,000 crore every year for afforestation — a big boost as the cumulative green budget of all states stands at just Rs 800 crore.

But our governments have a notorious past when it comes to utilisation of funds. To cite just one example, records from 16 tiger reserves show that in 2008-’09 alone, Rs 21 crore out of a total central allotment of Rs 93 crore remained unspent. Most government agencies fare worse even after they try to rush expenditure in useless, ad hoc projects towards the end of every fiscal cycle.The CAMPA funds will achieve little without scientific planning and professional monitoring. For example, the money could be utilised to restore some of India’s most critical forest corridors. But why take the trouble when Rs 11,000 crore anyway makes for good headlines?

During his first official visit to Corbett Tiger Reserve in June, Ramesh spoke a lot of sense before dropping a bombshell. Micro-light aircraft will be acquired, he announced, to help monitoring and surveillance. After all, they use these fancy flying machines in Africa.

The Corbett staff was left confounded. They slowly gathered courage to point out that the honourable minister’s idea was not quite practical. Surely the Corbett staff needed better equipment, vehicles and manpower. But micro-lights, they pointed out, fit the bill for monitoring open African savannas, not dense canopies that make much of India’s forests visually impenetrable from the sky.

Moreover, only five tiger reserves in India are big enough to spread over 2,000 sq km each. While it would be tough to manoeuvre a micro-light over such small forest patches, effective ground monitoring of such limited stretches is always possible (except perhaps in Sunderbans and Namdapha). Then, of course, there are other tricky issues of felling trees to clear space for runways, etc. Hopefully, bureaucrats at MoEF will be able to convince their minister to stay grounded. 

But Jairam Ramesh has already moved on to newer stunts. His recent exclamation in Bhopal on how holding toxic waste did not make him cough or his eager handling of a python for the camera at a national park can be dismissed as naiveté, But it gets a little serious when he attempts to deflect attention from real issues in Parliament by announcing plans to reintroduce cheetahs.

The biggest argument for reintroduction is that the cheetah will become the mascot of our neglected grasslands and help its protection. Incidentally, the same grasslands are also home to the amazing still-not-extinct great Indian bustards. If we show a fraction of the enthusiasm we have for the cheetah, we can still bring back this majestic bird from the brink of extinction.

Even if the cheetah project doesn’t demand government funds, it will require vast tracts of land that only the government can facilitate. The few dozens of surviving bustards need only small undisturbed corners of fields to hatch their eggs. If Ramesh cannot offer incentives to encourage a few farmers to leave small portions of fields uncultivated for bustard nesting, his ministry has no business discussing thousands of hectares for some exotic experiment.

Then, there is also the question of accountability. Ramesh has been talking tough on environmental clearances but his ministry is silent about the fiasco over clearing Mayawati’s memorial park project on a green expanse in Noida. While the minister was in China last month, the MoEF reversed the stand earlier taken by its own regional office at Lucknow and gave a clean chit to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

Following the mass outrage, the ministry swung into damage control mode and again changed its stand. But till date, no one has been held responsible for trying to destroy the case against the Uttar Pradesh government. If Mayawati is eventually let off in the case, the appointment of the next chief secretary at Lucknow will perhaps throw some light on the mystery. 

It will be indeed a tragedy if the great green expectation triggered by Ramesh’s appointment fizzles out too soon. To be fair, nobody expected Ramesh to turn any wheel in his first 100 days in office, but many believed it was time enough for him to at least get a firm grip. 

Better late than never.

(The author is a journalist and filmmaker. E-mail: mazoomdaar@gmail.com)
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