June 25, 2011: Is India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh a smooth, cunning and crafty fox? That’s what he claimed to be at a journalism school convocation in Chennai on May 3, 2011. Invoking philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s spin on an ancient parable called The fox and the hedgehog, the minister used the metaphors to explain his stance on the environment-growth debate.
No other environment minister has spent time or thought on this dilemma, leave alone articulate it. But that is not the only reason why Ramesh’s thoughts are important. Ramesh’s flourishes to the decade-old neoliberal reformation of the environment ministry, triggered by the 2002 report of the Govindarajan Committee on investment reforms, will probably have the deepest and farthest reaching effects. In a sense, it really matters that we know whether Ramesh is a fox or a hedgehog. Will the Ramesh tantra really reconcile the imperatives of environmental sustainability and enduring growth? Or will it come in the business-as-usual package of hurting the environment and less privileged communities?
According to the fable, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin’s version eulogises the fox to argue for pluralist views over hedgehoggy monism, where the one big story overwhelms and overrides all others. The growth fetishists and conservation-at-all-costs fetishists are growth hedgehogs and conservation hedgehogs, according to Ramesh’s narrative. There are no shades of gray in this scheme of things. That would muddy this crystal clear analysis. The hedgehog, he claims, ‘is an ideological crusader supremely convinced of the righteousness of the cause’. Unreasonable and intransigent, these problematic people – depending on whether they are growth or conservation hedgehogs – are dangerous for the environment or social upliftment, he maintains. The answer, Ramesh suggests, is to be a smooth fox – like him. Sometimes this, sometimes that. Ready to compromise, receptive to debate and discussion and dialogue.
Ramesh’s love affair with the fox has to be seen in light of his disastrous and legally questionable forest clearance given to Posco a day before the convocation speech. That decision was taken overruling the recommendations of two committees set up by him, and in violation of the Forest Rights Act. More broadly, it has to be seen in the context of the ever-relaxing regulatory hold on the environmental fallout of industrial and commercial activities.
Going by Ramesh’s description, being a fox must be easy. You don’t owe allegiance to anything, anybody, any value. You change according to the balance of power. The goalposts can be constantly shifted. Consistency in governance can be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Where Isaiah Berlin uses the fox as a metaphor, Ramesh prefers to use it as disguise. Jairam Ramesh is a growth hedgehog, not a fox. His self-professed skills as a tightrope walker don’t stand up to scrutiny. Read the full report here.
Source: Nityanand Jayaraman, Tehleka.