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Cabinet reshuffle: Jairam Ramesh shifted but raises the green bar for Jayanthi

Jayanthi Natarajan is now the new environment minister, replacing Jairam Ramesh, who has been moved to rural development. The industry will be on tenterhooks while following her approach.

Anusha Subramanian | July 27, 2011 | Updated 14:16 IST

Jairam Ramesh, the minister of state for environment and forests (MoEF), who had become controversial because of his tough stand on environmental clearances, has been moved to rural development with a promotion to Cabinet rank. Ramesh, who dramatically increased the ministry's use of its powers, is one of the high-profile new appointments in Tuesday's Cabinet reshuffle.

Ramesh took over from outgoing minister A Raja in May 2009 and quickly became industry's worst enemy.  He rejected or put on hold several large industrial projects, citing faulty environment assessments. He also played an active role in shaping India's energy and climate policies on the global stage, at a time of increasing concern over global warming and climate change.

His tenure as environment minister was marked by extreme public controversies.

In October 2009, he earned the ire of key Indian bureaucrats when he suggested, in a private letter to the Prime Minister, that India change its long-standing policy on carbon emissions.  When the letter was leaked to the press, senior Indian negotiators threatened to withdraw from international talks on climate change.

He challenged industry players and the Indian scientific establishment in February 2010, when he put a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal until public hearings on the subject could be completed.  Several Indian scientific agencies had already said Bt brinjal was safe to grow and consume.

In August 2010, he created a controversy by cancelling the forest clearance given to the bauxite mine project of Vedanta Aluminium in Orissa's Niyamgiri hills. When his ministry's review arm, the Environment Appraisal Committee, recommended the project despite his objections, Ramesh overrode his committee and cancelled the clearance. Since last year, he has taken a hard stand on mining in Maharashtra's verdant Sindhudurg region, and put on hold 49 leases given by the state government during Ashok Chavan's reign as Chief Minister.

His decision to cancel mining clearances in Orissa drew charges of favoritism.  Despite his policy of uploading all key decision documents online immediately after decisions were made - he was the first environment minister to do so - many industry players said decisions remained discretionary and opaque.  Ramesh had allowed similar projects in Andhra Pradesh, which is his Rajya Sabha constituency.

Ramesh remained largely unapologetic about his thorny relationship with industry and his many critics.  In a meeting last October, he termed the development vs. environment debate a "bogus debate," saying the primary problem seemed to be that many businessmen felt it was all right for them to violate laws passed by the parliament. He told the audience that the environment laws they objected to were passed by the parliament, and MoEF's job was merely that of an enforcer.

Prior to his elevation, Ramesh was about to begin reworking the concept of EIAs, or Environment Impact Assessments, which form the bedrock of any clearance by the MoEF. He had said recently that the environment ministry should commission EIAs of mining, power and port projects that fall in designated ecologically fragile areas, such as wetlands or forests.  Under the current system, companies that perform projects must commission these assessments themselves, which creates opportunities for fudging data. The new policy would have been announced within the next two to three months, he said.

Jayanthi Natarajan, another Congress loyalist, now takes the helm at Ramesh's old ministry.  Green lobbyists and industry will be on tenterhooks to see if she continues the practices of her famous predecessor, or opts for a more moderate approach.

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