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In India, we pass laws and then we bypass the laws.
INTERVIEW

Modi’s approach to the environment is “grow now, pay later”

By Heather Timmons

Congress Party MP Jairam Ramesh served as the minister of rural development and the minister for the environment under former prime minister Manmohan Singh. His recently-published book Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India (Oxford University Press), combines blow-by-blow details from his time as environment minister, including a bruising fight with the coal ministry, with a call for politicians and citizens to start valuing India’s natural environment as much as they do GDP growth. He spoke to Quartz by telephone.

Quartz: First of all, why did you write this book now?

Jairam Ramesh: We lost the elections badly in May of 2014 and suddenly I had a lot of time and energy waiting to be used productively—and what better way then to start writing a book?

Secondly, the environment has become a big issue in the last five years, domestically and globally. I wanted to create a written record so people know the nature of decision-making. When it comes to the environment there are a lot of tradeoffs to be made.

India has to steer a middle ground.

And thirdly, this is a topic that needs to enter the intellectual debate in a more balanced way. You have the ecological fundamentalists on one side, and the growth fanatics on the other, and India has to steer a middle ground.

QZ: You talk a lot about “green accounting” in the book. Can you explain what it is?

JR: The way we measure GDP now, we take into account physical capital but we don’t take into account the loss of natural capital. You can also have environmental benefits—if you’re adding to your green cover and cleaning up your rivers and waterways, that will have economic benefits as well.

GDP does not give you any idea of what the environmental costs are or if there are benefits flowing into the economy. Sure, we should measure GDP by all means, but we should adjust it to reflect the loss of natural capital.

QZ: How widely accepted is this idea?

JR: Norway, Mexico and Costa Rica have started doing this, and by 2015 we expected India to be a leader in green accounting. A lot of the homework has been done but now it requires the final leap.

Internationally there is a lot of traction. The World Bank has done a lot on environmental costs and benefits, and there are a lot of academics, from Amartya Sen to Joseph Stiglitz, who have been writing on the limitations of GDP.

There are a lot of people who are adverse to this idea, because GDP numbers may be lower… but I think this is the way to go. If you don’t measure you can’t monitor, and measurement is at the heart of environment management

QZ: How well do you think the current Indian government is balancing growth and environmental protection?

JR: There are two contradictory stances being taken. On one side, the government has been very aggressive on renewable energy. They’ve set a hugely ambitious renewable target for 2022—the target is 175 gigawatts of energy from renewables, and right now we’re at 30 gigawatts.

It is a huge step. It is unlikely to materialize, but it is a good bold target, and it sets the country in the right direction.

But, on the other hand, there is a lot of loosening of domestic regulations in the interest of ease of doing business. [The government has embraced] the notion that environmental regulation is a burden.

In the next few months expect a huge political push devoted to rewriting the environmental laws, loosening forest conservation and the environmental protection act, as well as other acts related to water and air pollution. They are also loosening all the laws related to the protection of tribals.

There will be a political battle.

There will be a political battle on this.

On one side this is because of their desire to remove roadblocks to faster industrial expansion. On the other, they are lax in enforcing regulations. There is no environmental due diligence going into proposed projects.

The government is making a determined effort to weaken the entire regulatory edifice. The focus is on industrial growth—a “grow now, pay later” approach.

QZ: We have seen how “grow now, pay later” pans out in China, with a huge upswing in diseases, polluted land that can’t grow edible food and destroyed natural environments—all of which has economic cost. Is India learning from this?

JR: Increasingly, the environment is becoming a public health issue in India, which might force the government to take more environmentally-friendly positions. Chemical contamination is surfacing, and so are public health concerns.

China has reached the tipping point, and they have decided to clean up. India has already reached the tipping point as well, but that recognition has not yet dawned on the political establishment that is ruling the country. They are chasing GDP and investments.

QZ: As minister of Gujarat, Modi wrote a book several years ago on responding to climate change called Convenient Action. Do you think he’s changed his mind on the need to protect the environment?

Modi is an event manager. He will say what needs to be said.

JR: Somebody wrote a book for him on climate change. Modi is an event manager. He will say what needs to be said, he will say all the right things. But when push comes to shove, is he going to protect the forest from a coal mine? It is very clear where this government’s priorities lie, and that is growth.

QZ: What’s the one thing the Indian government could change right now that would help protect the environment most?

JR: We have the most progressive laws and standards and the one thing that I would do, and I did for years, making myself unpopular, was enforcement and compliance. In India, we pass laws and then we bypass the laws.

Enforcement and compliance require personal and political courage. You have to make choices.

The one segment of India that has been proactive [on the environment] is civil society, and today the government is hell-bent on destroying civil society. Look at the entire episode with Greenpeace—they are going after NGOs. It is a systemic effort to silence dissent, [to tell people that] agitation could lead to serious problems. That’s worrisome.

This interview has been condensed and edited. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.