In a short time after taking over as union environment minister, the debonair Jairam Ramesh became a darling of the media and has stayed put. The past six months in particular saw him take on two to three big projects and suddenly he was all over the papers, talking of cleaning up the environment and the country and looking as though he meant it.
The media hyped him up big time. It took every word uttered by him seriously – actually the first word because, each time he shamelessly went back on his word, the media kept its blinkers on and refused to pull him down from the exalted pedestal it had happily perched him on.
Ramesh first sniffed at the Navi Mumbai International Airport. He declared that what was till then considered to be a minor point about the airport affecting two rivers and a hill nearby was a major issue and could not be condoned. “Diversion of the rivers is the most serious issue. We all know what happened to Mithi. In case of a flooding or monsoon, what will happen to Panvel town?” said the concerned minister.
The airport fell into a limbo even as Ramesh was on air and in the papers giving back-to-back interviews. He was showered with rosy epithets that variously called him feisty, gutsy, sincere, serious, etc.
Enter aviation minister Praful Patel and after some days of grandstanding, Ramesh capitulated completely. He let the hill be leveled and a water body be re-coursed, not to mention the all-important mangroves be razed. Some 32 conditions, which amounted to precious little, were invented to save face. In a note written by him, he said the Navi Mumbai location was a fait accompli and he had “decided to accept the fait accompli in good faith”. Not a single newspaper questioned why he had gone back on his statement, let alone ask if building an airport was just a matter of a minister’s faith and whim. Even after he accepted everything in toto, newspapers defended him as “straight-talking” and argued that he’d tried his “best”.
Next came Lavasa. This one followed identical protocol, with the minister making extreme announcements before the media and doing an about-turn in a matter of days after a rising crescendo of anticipation. In November last year, the environment ministry threatened to close down Lavasa, a multi-crore project of Ajit Gulabchand’s Hindustan Construction Company, for violating green rules. Newspaper grimly predicted doomsday for the project.
Nothing of the sort happened. After a much-publicised court intervention which upheld the stop-work notice issued by him, Ramesh strangely cottoned on to a “negotiated solution” as Lavasa called it. This was dutifully reported by newspapers none of which saw it fit to remind him of his own assertion that the project was illegal.
By February, Lavasa had applied “afresh” for a green clearance and from all appearances, all’s well with the world. Even if Lavasa does not get the go-ahead eventually, there is something amiss in a situation where the minister gives a war cry and then inexplicably furls his tail. Throughout the controversy, no one asked the righteous Mr Ramesh why he did not see it coming in the first place? On what basis had he jumped the gun to declare the project illegal when there was a way out? Nah. The whiteness of his halo stayed intact.
In the latest episode, it appears from a DNA report on March 18 that Ramesh has now cleared a six-million ton Jindal Steel and Power project in Orissa which too had received the environment ministry’s notice along with Lavasa and which too was part of Ramesh’s supposedly strident pitch against large projects.
Congress MP Naveen Jindal is the executive vice-chairman and MD of the company though that need not be important. In this case, Ramesh may have gone a bit far if the report is true, as it said the ministry issued a circular merely to bail out the project and then withdrew it in two weeks. Work on the project had begun before forest clearance which violated the Forest Act guidelines and had attracted the show-cause notice. The circular however softened the stipulation by saying it was merely "advisable" not to start work before the clearance. Soon enough, the notice was withdrawn and a week later, the circular itself was conveniently scrapped.
Jindal's was the only project that benefitted from the short life of the circular, a fact admitted by Ramesh in Parliament. "It remains to be seen it this one dents Ramesh’s well-cultivated public image. For years, he was the Congress face on national news channels. As minister, he has widened that access a lot. He is constantly photographed and written about. Even a brief visit to the BNHS in Mumbai gets him a prominent picture and report in the papers. His high visibility notwithstanding, many newspapers and channels call him, by some obtuse twist of logic, “low-profile”.
Only a couple of scattered business papers have made some uncharitable noises about him but those were for his perceived “anti-development” actions and not for his contradictory (and too many) assertions. Unfortunately, that perception too – that he was refusing permission to a large number of projects on environmental grounds - may be misleading, if one goes by a report from the IBN website. It cites records obtained under RTI to show Ramesh cleared the same number of projects as his predecessor A Raja.
On the other hand, we have Suresh Kalmadi, a man who can do no right. Sure, he deserves the whiplash. But in the hysterical anxiety to project him as a no-gooder, we have lost balance. The overwhelming attention focused on him eclipses the role of everyone else in the Commonwealth Games scam.
Having appropriated for itself the role of public custodian of right and wrong, the media has made it a habit to pick a suspect, declare him a convict and hang him. Kalmadi is its prey of the moment. And Ramesh is its invincible mascot, at least till now.
It’s nobody’s case that Ramesh is not clean and has acted irresponsibly. We dont know. But it's our job to ask uncomfortable questions that are not being asked. Why does the media not do its job in a level-headed way? Why does it always overdo or under do?
In a greater concern, why is the media always willing to be played? The abject dearth of heroes cannot be reason enough for the instant glorification of anyone who claims to be one. This kind of naivette is appalling particularly in the notorious times we live in, even when we overlook the primary necessity for journalists to be cynical human beings.