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Maverick minister is Delhi's poster boy

Ramesh presenting a cheque to Anita Narre in March as reward for her "bold" decision to leave her marital home days after her wedding to protest against the lack of a toilet in the household. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)

Publication Date : 09-10-2012


When Jairam Ramesh took over as rural development minister in July last year, his first order was to replace the wooden door in his office with a glass one.

It was a statement, which he has made in every ministry he has headed, to show that he promotes transparency in office.

Obviously,  Ramesh is not a run-of-the-mill Indian politician. He frequently breaks out of the mould, flusters his own colleagues with his straight talk and is feared by the industry.

But he is the government's poster boy when it comes to getting on with the work at hand and an important behind- the-scenes manager in the Congress party, often drafting Congress president Sonia Gandhi's speeches.

None of that has stopped people, who include his own colleagues, from calling him anti- growth, obstructionist, anti-industry and Dr No - tags that least bother the 58-year-old politician.

"Let us face it, there is a blind worship of economic growth... We have raised high GDP growth to the status of god," Ramesh told The Straits Times at a time when his government is unfurling big-ticket reforms to push sluggish growth.

Sitting in a sparse office filled with bamboo furniture, he was listening to classical Indian music. A black-and-white picture of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with Mahatma Gandhi, hangs behind his desk.

"We need to temper obsession on economic growth with certain social realities..." he said. "Are you going to displace people and destroy forests and livelihood in the process?"

The former environment minister is currently under fire from the industry and his colleagues, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath, for draft legislation updating colonial era land acquisition rules.

He is trying to give higher compensation and greater leverage to poor landowners, but the industry says that would drive up project costs and further complicate land acquisition.

Ramesh admits to being "pilloried" by his colleagues in a Planning Commission meeting once because he said he preferred 7 per cent growth over 9 per cent if it meant protecting the country's environment and natural resources.

Indeed, some of his off-the-cuff remarks have raised more than a few eyebrows.

In 2010, he called India's attitude towards Chinese investment, mainly the import of telecom equipment, "paranoid" because India has had security concerns; labelled SUVs, which are becoming popular, as socially useless vehicles; and said India should get a Nobel Prize for filth.

Ramesh found himself under attack over the weekend for saying there are more temples than toilets in India, a comparison that outraged far-right groups that staged a small protest outside his house on Sunday.

He has thrived in a party where politicians are usually very measured with their words and is known to be one of the government's sharpest minds and a shrewd politician who knows where the red lines begin and end on the issues he champions.

For instance, on land acquisition, he has signalled he is ready to change the draft legislation.

With his trademark coiffed grey hair and white kurta pajamas, Ramesh - the author of "Making Sense Of Chindia", about the economic growth of the two countries - could not be further from where he started as an advocate of growth.

A product of the Indian Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and MIT, Ramesh was adviser to then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 and was a part of the dream team of Dr Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram who put the country on the path to liberalisation.

"I don't need a certificate for commitment to reforms. There are so many johnnys-come-lately to the reform process... since 1991 I have become more sensitive and aware of different issues," he said.

A rising star of the Congress-led government, he first made his mark in the 2004 elections as a key strategist for the Congress and has gone on to serve as junior minister in the power and commerce ministries.

But it was as the country's environment minister from 2009 to 2011 that he really exploded on the scene.

Ramesh took a dusty ministry and converted it into the most-talked-about portfolio.

Ending the ministry's reputation as a rubber stamper, he suspended environment clearances of major projects, including a plan to mine bauxite in a tribal area and a multi-billion-rupee township near Pune, and pushed for strict adherence to environmental rules.

His opposition to big-ticket projects is seen to have been a factor in PM Singh shifting him to rural development in July last year. Even that was seen as an elevation as it deals with social issues and programmes close to the hearts of the powerful Gandhis.

His latest crusade is to ensure that every Indian house has a toilet in 10 years' time. "Generally, I am referred to as minister for toilets," he said laughing.

But he doesn't mind it.


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