Remarkable Opportunity for Environmental Progress for India

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to India later this month for the strategic dialogue, she’s likely to get a friendlier reception than she did almost two years ago when she first met with then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.  Since that initial meeting, U.S. and Indian cooperation on climate change and clean energy have made significant progress – in key part because of Minister Jairam Ramesh. This week, Jayanti Natarajan replaced Minister Ramesh as the new environment minister.  Minister Natarajan is now left with an immense opportunity to advance progress on critical issues in India’s rapid economic development – environment and climate change – catalyzed by Minister Ramesh.

Minister Ramesh redefined climate change and environmental policy both domestically in India and internationally. Central to the shift was India’s 2009 announcement of intensity targets prior to the Copenhagen discussions, allowing India to be, in Minister Ramesh’s word a “deal-maker, not a deal-breaker.”  Minister Ramesh was also instrumental in India’s emergence as an environmental leader, including the formation of the BASIC group with Brazil, South Africa, India and China. At Cancun, India bridged developed and developing nations towards agreement on greater transparency surrounding their emissions and actions to address global warming.

Minister Ramesh also leaves a legacy of making environmental protection a major part of India’s development dialogue.  For example, considering farmers and science, Minister Ramesh led the Ministry of Environment and Forests to deny cart-blanch to for genetically-modified seed experimentation to major international conglomerates like Monsanto in early 2010.  Ramesh designated “Go-No-Go” zones for coal mining.  Again in a bold move, Minister Ramesh stopped Vedanta’s massive mining project in Niyamgiri.  While clearly much more needs to be done to protect India’s air, water, and forests, Ramesh took environmental review to a new level by halting 64 major projects and re-reviewing 469 projects. Ramesh also established the National Green Tribunal to further involve stakeholder discussions in environmental development.  He also focused on science at the Ministry by creating an Indian Network for Comprehensive Climate Change Assessment with over 120 research institutes that publish regular reports on the climate change.

We’re all eager to see how Minister Natarajan advances the progress made by Minister Ramesh and how she reshapes the Ministry.  She is a former member of the upper house of Parliament from Tamil Nadu and former spokeswoman for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party.  Trained as a lawyer, Ms. Natarajan practiced in the Madras High court while undertaking pro bono work in environment, legal aid to the poor, and women’s rights. She participated in the All India Women’s Conference and the Environmental Society.  From 1994-1997, she was a member of the Committee of both Houses on Environment and Forests.

Like Minister Ramesh when he first took office, Minister Natarajan has limited climate negotiations or environmental experience.  However, her background as a Congress Party spokes-person could serve India well in making environmental progress and bridging diplomatic ties both domestically and internationally. Several projects and negotiations are awaiting Minister Natarajan’s attention, including the development of an environment monitoring mechanism and reform of India’s environment clearances process.  On the international front,  Secretary Clinton’s visit is major opportunity to advance discussion on the phase-down of dangerous HFCs and U.S.-India cooperation on climate and energy, as well as, progress on international climate negotiations and the Earth Summit 2012.  As she begins her appointment, hopefully, Minister Natarajan will continue the environmental progress made by Minster Ramesh and further develop India’s emergence as an global environmental leader.

Co-authored by Neha Mathew, NRDC India Intern

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