India's Environmental Minister, Jairam Ramesh, is considered the global "rock star" of climate change. In this Newsweek profile, Jeremy Kahn discovers if his policy proposals are good for India.
If you had to name a most valuable player of December's climate summit in Cancún, hands down the award would go to Jairam Ramesh. His Mexican hosts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and ministers from small island-nations such as the Maldives and Kiribati all hailed India's 56-year-old environmental minister for salvaging the entire endeavor. Ramesh brought the West and developing countries together by pointing at ways to ease access to green technology and suggesting an agreeable way to monitor progress in tamping down emissions. In Cancún Ramesh proved himself an international power broker, a star among the world's climate warriors.
But then Ramesh returned home. Awaiting him was the pending approval of a $12 billion steel plant. The deal—the largest single foreign direct investment in India, and clearly a boon to the country's economy—would also vanquish a track of pristine forest along India's eastern coast. The project, proposed by the South Korean steel conglomerate Posco, had actually already been approved by his ministry. But local tribal groups were protesting, complaining that the deal endangered their livelihoods, which depend on the forest, and that they were not being fairly compensated for their land. Ramesh heeded their call and temporarily halted the project while two expert panels looked at the issue. Both found Posco in the wrong. But for months, Ramesh let Posco sweat. When he stepped off his flight from Mexico, however, rumors had begun to circulate that Posco was threatening to pull out entirely. Suddenly, Ramesh faced perhaps the biggest decision of his 18-month tenure.
“I am not an environmentalist,” Ramesh told NEWSWEEK last month, sitting in his wood-paneled office in New Delhi. Newspapers were neatly arranged on his desk, and he punched away at a small laptop. The mood was affable, strikingly lacking the usual retinue of assistants and handlers who typically hover around a government minister. “Environmentalism is the environment at all costs,” he said, but India must maintain its breakneck economic growth and do so without devastating the environment.