Will promote enviroment, growth: Natrajan
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate in a special interview with the new Environment Minister. How does she see her job and how will she face up to the challenges she has to contend with? This is the key issue I shall explore today with Jayanthi Natrajan. Mrs Natrajan, congratulations on becoming the Environment Minister. It took the media by surprise, was it a surprise for you as well?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Well I wouldn't call it a surprise, in the sense that oh my God, I am a minister, but I think I was extremely emotional and a little overwhelmed by the responsibility given to me and by the faith, a little emotional about the faith that the party had shown in me.
Karan Thapar: Now there is a question that you must have asked yourself frequently, you were a minister last time round in 1998, why do you think it took them 13 years to pick you and make you a minister again?
Jayanthi Natrajan: You know, Karan, I don't think about it in that way at all. On one hand I feel my loyalty to my leader and my party is absolute and I work very hard as best as I can. But on the other hand, I feel extraordinarily privileged in many ways. Many responsibilities have been given to me, so I never think why I haven't been made a minister before. I think very important responsibilities have been given to me.
Karan Thapar: But there must have been times when either the government was being constituted or reshuffles happening, when you said to yourself why haven't they found a place for me?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Yes ofcourse, to be perfectly honest, in 2009 when the government came back with such a spectacular victory, UPA 2, and I didn't find a place in the council of ministers, I was disappointed. But at no time was I angry or was I frustrated because I always felt that my party had given me great opportunities. I was very disappointed and I did wonder why. But the answer seems to be very obvious to me, which is, that Tamil Nadu had an overwhelming presence. Because our coalition partner was from the state and so I just went on to do my work.
Karan Thapar: But it must have been difficult to accept it?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No, you accept it in politics, there is always another day.
Karan Thapar: Now you got a ministry where you step into Jai Ram Ramesh's shoes. He not only left with a very high profile, he was the minister who was not just highly acclaimed by NGO's but several other sections of society. Is it daunting to have to follow after him?
Jayanthi Natrajan: I'm my own person and I am very confident of my own capacity to work hard and to do my best. It is not daunting. But I want to place on record that my predecessor Jai Ram did an absolutely spectacular job in main streaming environmental concerns. And certainly as India's Environment Minister I will strive every nerve to make sure that environment is the main concern.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this, Jai Ram Ramesh was both - a much loved minister but also a much hated minister. And the problem that he faced was that corporate India saw him as the road block on the way to development. Many people believed that they petitioned that the Prime Minster remove him and that's why you got the job.
Jayanthi Natrajan: No I don't believe that, you know, I believe these issues are sometimes blown out of context. Let me tell you how I see it. I have only been here for two days, Karan. I mean I am only taking to you because I know your concern for both the subject and the political impact is great. But the point, even after two days in the ministry, I feel this is really a mythical and non-existent dichotomy. There is no dichotomy between development and environment. Both have to go hand in hand. And I believe that sometimes it is blown out of proposition.
Karan Thapar: You know, that's what you said, but there is a wide spread perception that the Prime Minister in removing Jai Ram Ramesh even if in the process he also promoted him, he gave in to expediency and compulsion and sacrificed principal and conviction and you are the result. Does that perception embarrass you?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Not in the least, my actions will show that there can be no compromise on either issue that I will always act for the best welfare of the country. I will act according to the conscience of an Environment Minister and how it should be. And I think it is very unfair to say that the Prime Minister gave into compulsion.
Karan Thapar: But there is a wide spread perception that he didn't stand by convection, he actually came on to pressure from corporate India.
Jayanthi Natrajan: I don't think that the Prime Minister's compulsion and convection depends upon one person or one ministry. I think he looks at a much larger canvas.
Karan Thapar: That I accept, but you said a moment ago that you will do the best for the welfare of India. The problem is that different people interpret the welfare of India very differently. Now corporate India is hoping that on all the projects where Jai Ram Ramesh either stalled or slowed down. Projects like POSCO, Vedanta and Nirvana you will expedite matters, you will free up the process. Is that expectation going to be pressure for you? Because they are looking and they are waiting to see this happen.
Jayanthi Natrajan: Well here is the way I look at it. - I think as I said that I don't see any essential dichotomy at all, I think that there is no such thing as a road block and that there is no such thing, as an adversarial position. So I will look at each issue, it's not a question of corporate India verses the Environment because neither can exist with out the other. And I feel it's all the same, we are all on the same track. And I will look at the issue at the merits of that issue.
Karan Thapar: No doubt, but the problem is this, that if you don't free up, the projects that Jai Ram Ramesh has slowed down you would incur and very quickly incur the wrath of corporate India. On the other hand, if you do free up those projects and you do expedite the projects you will incur that wrath of the very NGOs and those section of civil society that supported Jai Ram Ramesh. You are caught in a dilemma.
Jayanthi Natrajan: But may I question that way you put it. The fact that people see it, your viewers, you, corporate India, anybody and NGOs, see it either freeing up or giving up and giving in. Well I would restate that position to say that every issue, you know, it is a fact that the environment is something that is absolute vital, critical, important, we can't, you know, there is no way that we can lose out and give up on the environment.
Karan Thapar: But POSCO, Vedanta, Narvasa are also critical and important.
Jayanthi Natrajan: However, development is equally critical and therefore, I will look at every issue on the merits of it.
Karan Thapar: No doubt you will look at the issues on its merits, but this is the problem. You are dammed if you do and you are dammed if you don't. You can't escape one way or the other from serious criticism from one way or the other.
Jayanthi Natrajan: That doesn't bother me, I would have satisfied my conscience.
Karan Thapar: It really doesn't bother you?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No it doesn't bother me because I don't see it, you can't lump POSCO, Vedanta and say somebody is against the corporate. And you can't lump something else and say somebody is against the environment. It simply doesn't work like that. Except from the fact that Environment Minister protects the environment and says hear is an area where you can't locate a plant. Here is a kind of coal that you can't use; it's simply not a question of being against a corporation.
Karan Thapar: Except for that fact that when you come to those critical subjects, that are so much in the public, like POSCO, Nirvana, like Vedanta. You are going to know that one side or the other is going to descend upon you like a ton of bricks of anger because you have taken a decision that they don't like. No doubt the other said will support you but 50 per cent will be against you. Doesn't that worry you that you are caught in the middle of a binary where one way or the other you would be dammed?
Jayanthi Natrajan: You know governance, politics all these, I think, this is an occupational hazard. What would give me sleepless nights and what will cause immense anxiety is that I should make that right decision. Is the line I'm drawing the right balance. Am I drawing the line between development, am I denying someone a livelihood, am I stopping half a per cent growth or am I saving the environment, that would give me sleepless nights and not what people might say about me.
Karan Thapar: So what you are saying in effect is that if my conscience is clear that I have taken the right decision, I don't mind unpopularity even it comes through large groups?
Jayanthi Natrajan: You have put it better than I did.
Karan Thapar: But you are accepting that?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Yes.
Karan Thapar: The problem again and let me take Jai Ram Ramesh as an example, is that many times in the period that he spend here has a minister, he took positions, he took decisions, which on the force of circumstances or political pressure he was forced to reverse them. Can you give an assurance that when you take position or you make a decision, you won't similarly oscillate or simply compromise?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No I will simply and certainly make every effort, I will not take a position unless I'm reasonably sure, both on merits and by my conscience that it is the best.
Karan Thapar: Can you stand by it?
Jayanthi Natrajan: I will stand by it. However I will be guided by the circumstances that are a part of as a whole.
Karan Thapar: So you will stand by it but will be guided by other circumstances?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No, I do not operate in a vacuum. I operate in an environment where I work with colleagues; we need to listen and talk to each other. That does not mean its weakness that does not mean it's giving up, that does not mean its reversal.
Karan Thapar: But it does mean you have to take acknowledgment of the reality where decision you have taken or position you have taken may have to be changed altered or reversed, if circumstances required.
Jayanthi Natrajan: No, but this is a hypothetical question ofcourse, but I am very conscious that I don't operate in a vacuum.
Karan Thapar: Pride won't be a problem?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Pride won't be a problem.
Karan Thapar: You know, as I hear you talk and as I analyze the sought of dilemmas, I call it a hall of dilemmas that you are placed between. I get the feeling that the Environment Ministry is a bit of a poisoned chalice, do you have wished that the Prime Minister had given you another portfolio?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No I'm very great full to the Prime Minister because it is am incredibly white canvas and it has got incredibly important issues. I feel absolutely honoured to be able to contribute. And I mean it from my heart. That you know, the wet lands of the nation, the water ways of this country, the bio diversity, the incredible canvas that he has given me to work in.
Karan Thapar: So the excitement of the challenge is greater than the apprehension of the pit folds that lie ahead?
Jayanthi Natrajan: And the absolute privilege I feel is being able to contribute.
Karan Thapar: Mrs Natrajan lets come to a subject that you have hinted at right through the start and what many believe is the essential dilemma of conundrum that lies in the heart of your ministry. The struggle between the need to protect the environment and the need to secure growth, no one would deny that protecting the environment is important, but the problem is that the India is crying out for growth, the poor need it more than anything else and the growth involves cost. America and Britain faced those cost in the 19th and the 20th century, China is facing them today. How are you going to respond to that essential duality, that binary opposition between the two?
Jayanthi Natrajan: I don't see any opposition at all, there should not be and as it is my privilege to be the Environment Minister, I will make a serious effort to convince all my colleagues, you and everybody that there cannot be a question of sustainable development unless the environment is a cornerstone. This is not a cliché.
Karan Thapar: That I totally accept but what about when ministers impose no go areas for mining, where the richest coal and the richest iron ore is to be found, what happens where essential projects cannot take place because certain communities regards hills as precious and sacred? There is real dilemma between protecting the forest or protecting some ones cultural rights and progress which brings jobs to millions and at the end of the day those jobs are necessary. What will you do?
Jayanthi Natrajan: You know I have actually two things to say, one is not directly related to the question and I will come back to that later. To directly address to what you have said, yes, where the question of no go area or go area comes, I in one day, not even two days at this ministry, have found that this is something that has been very much hyped. For example, if you say coal production has fallen because there are no environmental clearances, that might not be strictly true, it many be because coal production might have fallen, I'm saying it as an example, it might not be true.
Karan Thapar: The press has either misconveyed the message or the popular impression is wrong?
Jayanthi Natrajan: I'm not saying the press, I'm saying that the popular impression and the perception that for example, I'm not saying it has fallen. If coal production has fallen, people tend to blame the environment ministry. You know to say there was a no go area we couldn't do as everything has fallen, there was no energy. Whereas when you look at it, when I look at my papers, for example, if you give a coal miner a license to start it takes three years to get operationalised. So, you cannot possibly attribute to the fact that there was no permission if there is a fall from one year to the other. So, my point is that sometimes the environment ministry becomes the fall guy for other issues.
Karan Thapar: That no doubt is true, often environment ministry is blamed unnecessarily but equally important, it is blamed rightly, when you have clearances being given in one month suspended in the next month and then re-given in the third months later. It has happened with POSCO, Vedanta and people are left with the impression that there isn't a clear cut road to progress. It puts off Indian investors, it worries foreign investors and as a result growth doesn't happen, jobs don't happen and people remain grinding in poverty.
Jayanthi Natrajan: Well there should be certainly one window clearance and no, I think there should be complete clarity.
Karan Thapar: Will you ensure that?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Will you also ensure that once the clarity is given it is not revoked, suspended?
Jayanthi Natrajan: That will be my major agenda but having said that will happen in the future. As far as I'm concerned, I will make sure that there will be no confusion and complete clarity but having said that, in the past perhaps there was something that came up later that necessitated a change. The past is over and I will ensure that complete clarity on these issues exist.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this, there are major land marks, test mark projects like POSCO and Vedanta largely because they attracted attention both home and abroad, can you ensure speedy resolution one way or the other so that the suspension and the uncertainty which puts off investors is removed?
Jayanthi Natrajan: Well certainly, while I will insist that at all cost the environment should be protected in all it's dimension, the easy way to do it by a speedy decision, that I can facilitate and I will.
Karan Thapar: There is another saying that the corporate India has, they say that they think India, given the point of its historic development is paying far too much attention to environment concerns at the cost of growth. They point out that America and Britain, when they were developing in the 18th and the 19th century didn't worry much about the environment, no doubt we live in a different world and need to pay more attention but are we overdoing it at the cost of jobs, investment, because at the end of the day those jobs are going to lift people out of poverty?
Jayanthi Natrajan: You see the damage that has been caused to the environment and this an issue I wish influential people, opinion makers like you, would pay more attention to. It is like climate change what has happened is going to swirl around for 150 years. Therefore that compensation, that problem is in our heads.
Karan Thapar: But does it have to be environment before growth?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No, I think there is no real growth unless the environment is taken in consideration.
Karan Thapar: What is the point of having a beautiful environment if the people are living in poverty?
Jayanthi Natrajan: No, it is not a point of having a beautiful environment. I'm talking about destroying a habitat; I'm not talking about picture book issues. I'm talking about, if you get low grade coal and ruin your environment, if you ruin your forest you are not going to get rain next year. I'm talking about bread and butter environment.
Karan Thapar: Can you send a message to corporate India to say that once I'm determined to protect the environment for the good of everyone, I'm determined not to slow down the growth. I will not be the cause of India's growth or investors put off.
Jayanthi Natrajan: I can send a message to corporate India that environment was never the reason why there was a slow down and will not also in the future.
Karan Thapar: Will you do everything possible to facilitate growth because at the end of the day it is growth that will lift India's poverty and people out of the life they live?
Jayanthi Natrajan: I will do everything I can to protect the environment and facilitate growth.
Karan Thapar: Mrs Natrajan, a pleasure talking to you.
Jayanthi Natrajan: My pleasure.