India reshuffles its reformist Environment Minister

John Elliott

Jairam Ramesh 3 300x224 India reshuffles its reformist Environment MinisterTwo years of radical reforms aimed at protecting India’s depleted environment and changing the balance between rampant economic growth and sustainable development came to an end today when Jairam Ramesh (right), Minister for Environment and Forests since May 2009, was moved to another ministry in a government reshuffle.

This is a victory for businessmen and other government ministries that have objected to Ramesh’s often brash, but nevertheless well-intentioned, blocking of mining, infrastructure and other projects that breached hitherto largely ignored regulations.

He has put the environment firmly on India’s political agenda and has begun to clean up a previously highly corrupt ministry , setting up new environmental and conservation institutions, and transforming India’s impact on international climate change negotiations. In recent weeks, he has compromised on environmental approvals, particularly over coal mining projects, but that does not seem to have been enough to save him, with his often-provocative manner, from being moved.

His successor at environment and forests is Jayanthi Natarajan, who is an able Congress Party spokesperson. Though sometimes combative in television debates, she is expected be far less confrontational and more pragmatic than Ramesh. She will probably be less reform minded and will have to strike a balance between the often-conflicting demands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s desire for projects that boost economic growth, and the more environment-oriented Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and the coalition.

Ramesh has been appointed Minister for Rural Development and has been compensated for the move by being promoted to the cabinet – previously he was a minister of state. He can also console himself with the thought that he said when he first took the job that he would want to move on after two years.

Rural development is not usually a high profile post, but it is a high priority for Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Gandhi dynasty and who is seen as a future prime minister, as well as for his mother, Sonia Gandhi. Ramesh is thought to be close to them and can be expected to adopt a high profile and energetic approach to the needs of the rural poor. That includes reforming often-wasteful and hugely expensive job and financial aid schemes – his ministry has a Rs87,800 crore ($19.5bn – £12.2bn)) budget this year.

Today’s otherwise rather lacklustre reshuffle follows an earlier one in January. It has come at a time when the government seems to have lost its way amid a series of corruption scandals and poor administration. As I wrote last week, India’s reputation for relatively good top political leadership and governance, together with gradual economic reforms and sustained economic growth, has taken a beating under the dual leadership of the rarely-seen Sonia Gandhi and the reticent Manmohan Singh.

The media has been preoccupied over the past few days about whether what it calls the “top four” in the government would be changed. There was however virtually no prospect of any move for Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is the government’s leading political manager, nor Defence Minister A.K.Antony, nor Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram who, though controversial, has transformed his ministry. Gaffe-prone foreign minister S.M.Krishna also looked safe, even if mainly because it would be difficult to find a senior-enough replacement who would bow to the wishes of Manmohan Singh in the one area where the prime minister can make a personal mark.

But this focus on the “big four” ignores the point that they are part of a “big six” and the government’s real top-level problems stem from the other two, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

When Gandhi refused the prime ministership after the 2004 general election and put Singh in the job while retaining the leadership of the Congress Party and the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, it looked as if a good balance had been struck between dynasty and administration.

Now the double act is no longer working well. Singh is taking the flak for presiding over a corrupt government with many poor-performing ministers. He is however severely limited in what he can do both by the constraints of Sonia Gandhi being in overall charge and by the demands of coalition parties that have little concern for national policies. He has little direct authority over ministers, especially those from coalition partners – a railways minister of state from the Trinamool Congress refused his instruction to visit one of the two crash sites.

The prime minister is also limited in what he can say publicly because of how it might be misconstrued by Gandhi and her courtiers, and in any case, he is not a good public performer.

Sonia Gandhi should therefore logically step forward and become the public front of the government, defending its policies and providing national leadership. But she is not willing to do this and remains, for the most part, hidden behind the walls of her central Delhi house. Her son and heir, Rahul Gandhi, makes forays into the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are crucial assembly polls early next year, but has not developed a sustained public profile.

Arguably, therefore, the government’s image will not improve overall until either Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh move on, and there is no prospect of that happening.

A slightly longer version of this article is on John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog –

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  • stufftheindianmedialiesabout

    Rural development is a BIG priority in India, and businessmen will NOT be rejoicing this decision. Mr. Ramesh will be working to pass the Land Acquisition Act soon, and this will be a MAJOR impediment for businessmen and women in India, as it strongly favours poor farmers and land owners. 

  • V

    India is mess due to Congress Party – Congress Party stand for Corruption. Gandhi family is curse to India sooner they disappear from India political scene better for India. Two down and one to go. The Gandhi family is stifling the political scene. Rahul Gandhi absolute moron for saying the main threat to India is from Hindu fundamentals – terrorist acts committed in India by Pakistani with support from Indian Muslim.

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