Interview/Jairam Ramesh, Environment And Forests Minister
By Soni Mishra
While 2009 saw climate change making headlines on a regular basis, lost in the clamour was the alarming decline in the number of tigers in the Indian wild. Setting the agenda for 2010, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh underlined the importance of focusing on the national animal, noting that 2009 had been extremely bad for the big cat.
Refuting the allegations against the government over the Copenhagen accord, Ramesh said India had its way in the summit on 75 per cent of its demands. Excerpts from an interview:
If 2009 was about climate change and the Copenhagen meeting, what does 2010 have in store?
Internationally, in 2010, the post-Copenhagen talks will continue. It will be Mexico-oriented, where the next Conference of Parties to pick up the pieces from Copenhagen will take place. Also, 2010 will be the Year of Biodiversity. We will have the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, to negotiate a protocol to the CBD on access and benefit sharing. But we have also a very extensive domestic agenda that includes cleaning of the Ganga and tiger conservation programmes.
There has been a lot of criticism about the Copenhagen accord.
The opposition to the Copenhagen accord was not so much to its contents as to the way it was reached. And for that, only Denmark is to blame. The singular lack of proactive leadership on the part of Denmark resulted in a lot of suspicion and apprehension in the minds of many developing countries on how this accord was arrived at. But substantively, the accord is good for India. We played a very important role in fashioning the accord along with China, Brazil and South Africa.
Is there any fear that the Copenhagen accord would provide a window to the developed countries to do away with Kyoto Protocol?
The risk is always there because the developed world wants to abandon Kyoto. It is in intensive care. And efforts are being made to take it off the ventilator. There will also be pressure on countries like China and India to take on legally binding commitments.
I think one good thing about Copenhagen is that for the first time Indians were not seen as being negative or obstructionist. And there is widespread recognition of the constructive role that we played. We were not sanctimonious as we normally are. We were not argumentative as we usually are. We have to protect our national interest, but we have to do so in a dignified manner.
But US President Barack Obama was critical of China and India.
He was never critical of India. Obama’s problem was more with China. And ultimately, he ended up negotiating with the heads of state of the BASIC countries, which I think was a remarkable turnaround from 7 p.m. on December 18  to 8 p.m. And people don’t realise that Obama had to compromise a lot in that meeting. It is a 75 per cent victory for the BASIC countries. Obama came with three issues and we got our way in two-and-a-half.
2010 is the Year of the Tiger in China. Does it spell doom for the Indian tiger?
It will put pressure on the Indian tiger. We had an abnormal rate of mortality in 2009, 20-25 per cent higher than normal. In 2010, due to the Year of the Tiger, there will be increased demand for tiger parts through smuggling across the Indo-Nepal border and the Indo-Myanmar border. I raised this issue when I was in China in September . The Chinese have announced a series of steps to control poaching. It is a welcome step. But we cannot lower our guard and will have to be extraordinarily vigilant.
Despite Project Tiger, the tiger population in the country has dipped by 60 per cent over the last decade. What are the reasons for this?
I wouldn’t vouch for any numbers till we have the new census, which will be completed by the end of this year. All previous numbers on tigers are largely bogus. People were saying there were 200 tigers in Simlipal and 250 in Sunderbans. These are the same pugmarks being counted 20 times. Based on a more scientific assessment, we can say today that the tiger population in India is between 1,100 and 1,400. And we also had Sariska and Panna where the tiger population became completely extinct. Out of the 37 tiger reserves, there are 17 where the situation is precarious and Sariska or Panna type situations can happen.
The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is being beefed up. We are coming up with comprehensive amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act in order to make punishment very stringent so that future Sansar Chands will be deterred. I am hoping to introduce these amendments in the Budget Session of Parliament.
Why did you shelve your plan to take funds from the World Bank for tiger conservation programmes?
There was a lot of opposition from our tiger experts. They felt that our experience with the World Bank on eco-development has not been very positive. I was very disappointed because I felt it was a good opportunity for us. But I respect the views of our civil society organisations and I did not want to do anything that would have caused a controversy within the National Tiger Conservation Authority. So for the time being I have put it in cold storage and I hope that over a period of time I will be able to convince them.
Are the plans to bring the cheetah to India still on?
Yes, they are very much on. We have asked the Wildlife Institute of India to prepare a roadmap. We had given them three months, which will expire end of February. So the project is very much on.
Rs 950 crore have literally gone down the drain, but the Ganga continues to be extremely polluted. How will you address this issue?
Stretches of the Ganga have in fact become cleaner, particularly in West Bengal. The critical stretch is from Kannauj to Varanasi. That is a 500km stretch in a 2,500km main stem of the Ganga, where the situation is really bad. About 75 per cent of the pollution in the Ganga is caused by municipal sewage and about 25 per cent comes from industrial effluents.
We have a Mission 2020, which is to ensure that no municipal sewage or industrial effluent will go into the Ganga without treatment. This entire mission is expected to cost Rs 15,000 crore and we have already got the promise of a $1 billion assistance from the World Bank to begin with.