Reviewed by Jon P. Dorschner
Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India by Jairam Ramesh, Oxford University Press (India), New Delhi, 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-945752-6, 604 pp., $32.85 (Hardcover).
I am extremely concerned about the impact of environmental factors on India. In my estimation, environmental deterioration could potentially destroy India’s hopes of emerging from poverty. Not only that, India could serve as a poster child for environmental disaster. I was thus delighted when I learned that Jairam Ramesh had written a book advocating that India adopt a strong environmental position. I met Jairam Ramesh a number of times when I was in charge of the Domestic Politics Unit in the U.S. Embassy in India. He is a leading Congress Party luminary and has served several times as a Cabinet Minister. Green Signals deals with his stint as Minister of State (Independent Charge) at the Ministry of Environment and Forests from May 2009 until July 2011.
The Embassy took a dim view of Jairam Ramesh. An economist by profession, Ramesh was considered a member of the “left wing” of the Congress Party. As such, he was deemed to be too critical of the American economic agenda for India and far too close to India’s Left wing parties. I did not subscribe to this viewpoint. I found Jairam Ramesh to be a personable and intelligent interlocutor who made perfect sense. This was because I did not share the same ideological orientation as the Embassy leadership and was quite comfortable with Ramesh’s ideological stances.
A friend of mine who is an official of the Green Party of Canada told me that Jairam Ramesh had just published a book and provided me with an initial write up. It touted the book as a wake up call for the Indian political and economic leadership that took the stance that India could not afford to subordinate the environment to economic growth. In my view, the book was a step in the right direction, but did not go far enough.
While the Indian press intensively criticized Jairam Ramesh as a “radical environmentalist,” I found him to be nothing of the kind. He himself states repeatedly in the book that he wants India to seek a “middle path,” avoiding the fundamentalism of the ‘grow now, pay later’ variety as also the fundamentalism of a large number of civil society activists who were instinctively hostile to the idea of high GDP growth rates.”1
Ramesh believes India can only alleviate its poverty through high economic growth. He accepts that India’s economic development is tied to energy access and that the vast majority of India’s energy will come from Indian coal with its high ash content. He states that India should not leave that coal in the ground and should continue to mine and burn it until it is exhausted (in approximately 35 years). He dismisses the possibility that India could replace fossil fuels with renewables (including nuclear). Ramesh also has no problems adopting the Indian position on global warming, which has brought widespread condemnation and derision to India. Ramesh believes India should get a free ride when it comes to combatting climate change and that the burden of amelioration must be borne by the “developed states.” Ramesh is adamant that India will never participate in any international accord to combat global climate change that sets limits on Indian CO2 emissions.
These stances are not those of a radical environmentalist, so why has Ramesh been so harshly condemned in India? This is because he is the first Indian political leader to make it absolutely clear that India can no longer ignore the destruction of its environment in its relentless pursuit of economic growth and poverty alleviation. He states,
“I still believe in growth, but I no longer equate it solely with rising GDP. I believe that we should focus on increasing wealth. I still believe growth is absolutely essential but it is equally important to sustain growth, ensure that the benefits of growth accrue tangibly to all, and to pursue that rapid growth in a manner that is more mindful of its environmental impact and consequences.”2
This is it. There is no call to take to the barricades and take on evil polluting industries. This is no critique of India’s destructive economic agenda. This is the standard liberal plaint that we can have it both ways, that we can have untrammeled economic growth while assuaging our consciences by taking some steps to preserve the environment. His approach is largely bureaucratic. He wants to give real teeth to India’s Environmental Ministry. He laments the fact that India passes some of the best environmental legislation in the world, but fails to abide by it. Ramesh describes several instances in which Indian industrial concerns build massive projects with enormous environmental consequences without even bothering to apply for permits or make any effort to follow environmental laws. He also observes that this takes place because the Environmental Ministry has deliberately been deprived of power. This has been done intentionally, so that Indian industrialists can have a free hand. It reflects the reality that in India, the environment is a low priority and environmental regulations are “obstacles to development.”
Ramesh is very intelligent and very knowledgeable. He is fully read up on the issues. He knows that climate change is taking place and that India is not in a good position. He points out that India is dependent on agriculture and that Indian agriculture is dependent on the monsoons. He is aware that climate change could disrupt the monsoon pattern with disastrous consequences for India. Ramesh points out that India’s Gangetic Plain is dependent on water from Himalayan glaciers. He knows that these glaciers are receding and that climate change could be responsible. He points out that India is a peninsula with long coastlines and that a large segment of the Indian population lives on these coastlines. He is aware that a rise in sea levels will be an enormous disaster for these people. He is aware that India does not have its own fossil fuel resources except for coal. If India intends to develop, he asserts, it will have to mine its coal. He points out that much of India’s coal lies beneath its most pristine forests and that mining it will eradicate many of the trees that soak up CO2 and combat climate change.
This is all common knowledge among India’s economic and political elites. Unlike the United States, there are no climate change deniers in India. Everyone in the country accepts that climate change is a fact and that it is exacerbated if not directly caused by human activity. Where Ramesh parts company with the Indian consensus is his insistence that India cannot simply claim poverty, ignore the problem and expect the “developed countries” to make the necessary sacrifices while India continues to spew massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. While not willing to accept mandated limits on Indian CO2 emissions, Ramesh is a strong proponent of Indian measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ramesh strongly supports auto emission standards, and mandatory mileage standards. He strongly supports legally mandated energy efficiency and building standards to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. He wants India to adopt its own non-binding emission targets. This, apparently, is far too radical for most Indians.
Ramesh is not a strong believer in the need for new environmental legislation. He states that India should first enforce legislation already on the books. He wants to ensure that Indian industrial projects first obtain environmental permits before starting construction, and he is not averse to denying these permits to projects beyond redemption.
But this does not go far enough. This will not be enough to ensure that India will take the steps necessary to make its fair contribution to combat global warming. These steps are only incremental and will not stop the unrelenting pace of environmental despoliation in India. Ramesh, and by extension, the Congress Party, are not willing to take the necessary steps.
In Green Signals Ramesh expresses great admiration for Germany and its role as the world leader in environmentalism. He points out that other countries in Europe and around the world are following Germany’s lead and adopting many of Germany’s environmental policies. He points out that Germany plays a strong role in UN climate change negotiations and is willing to put its money where its mouth is. He notes that Germans have expressed strong public support for the phase out of fossil fuels and their replacement with renewables. Germans do this willingly because they state they want to do their part to save the environment and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
Having said this, Ramesh then advocates a totally different course for India. He falls back on the tired Indian arguments that India is a developing country and should therefore be an exception. He argues that India did not contribute to climate change and should not be expected to sacrifice to control it. He supports the Indian argument that its CO2 emissions should not be measured on a countrywide basis, but rather on a per capita basis. With 1.2 billion people, it is easy for India to come up with a low per capita figure and use this as an excuse not to take action.
Ramesh is considered an environmental radical in the Indian establishment. His Congress Party is now out of power. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government takes an unremitting anti-environment stance. It has refused to participate in international efforts to combat global warming, while choosing to emphasize a “clean India” (swach Bharat) program instead of an environmental program. The BJP is intent on ensuring that Indian industrialists have a free hand. It has embraced the “growth at all costs” agenda that guarantees that the Indian environment will not survive.
India is a parliamentary democracy. It is not a two party system. Indians are not restricted to the environmental polices of the Congress Party and the BJP. Jairam Ramesh and his supporters in the Congress Party have taken some admirable first steps, but the Congress is not willing to do what it takes. This is why India needs its own Green Party that will unrelentingly pursue a Green agenda. An Indian Green Party could act as the national conscience. It could keep India’s politicians honest. It could work with progressives like Jairam Ramesh to make sure that India’s environmental priorities are not forgotten.
Reader, be advised. This is not an easy read. The book is long. It consists of essays by Jairam Ramesh, some of his published articles, and many of the policy statements and addresses that he made as Environment Minister. The language can be stilted. India is famous for its complex bureaucracy and this is reflected in the stilted language of many of the pieces. There is an abundance of acronyms throughout the book that the reader may find irritating. Also be aware that this book is published in India. This means that although the publisher is Oxford University, the proofreading leaves much to be desired. There are plenty of typos throughout the work and times when words disappear from sentences leaving them unintelligible. The book is written in Indian English. It has different grammatical and linguistic conventions from books in American English. An American reader may find it difficult to comprehend in spots.
Please do not let this deter you. This book is worth reading. It is a primer on the current state of affairs regarding Indian environmentalism. If you take the patience and the time to read it thoroughly you will be well equipped to understand India’s environmental issues and problems and the steps that India is taking to address these issues. This is something that the world at large should be aware of. India’s enormous population is on the brink. If it, and the world at large do not take the proper steps, hundreds of millions of Indians could die.