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CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
- Why the PM has to take more interest in the environment ministry

Between several important bilateral summit meetings and difficult foreign and security policy decisions, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must find time in the coming months to devote to an issue which has attracted very little public attention in India. Yet, it is an issue that is fundamental to India's future and that of its future generations. It is the issue of climate change, over which more than 150 nations wrangled for a fortnight in Montreal from the end of last month.

Nothing underlines the urgency of dealing with global warming more than a study by the International Commission for Snow and Ice ' recently renamed the International Union of Geology and Geophysics ' which concluded that unless the problem is tackled expeditiously, most glaciers in India would melt by 2035. Already, the Pindari glacier is melting 130 metres every year, the Gangotri glacier is dwarfed by 18 metres annually and the Chota Shigri glacier is losing six metres of its height every 12 months. The idea of India without its glaciers is beyond comprehension. It is a potential environmental disaster which ought to be highlighted in the public consciousness with the same urgency with which terrorism is being projected as a cancer that is invading contemporary society.

Making a highly controversial appearance on the final day of the conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal, former president of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, said: 'There is no longer any serious doubt that climate change is real, accelerating, and caused by human activities.' He also summed up the mood at the conference, attended by more than 10,000 delegates from all over the world, when he pointed out that the earth was 'literally a biological miracle...it is crazy for us to play games with our children's future.'

India's challenge is to reconcile Clinton's profound warning with what Atal Bihari Vajpayee said three years ago as prime minister, when he hosted the eighth session of Conference of Parties to the UNFCC in New Delhi. 'India's contribution ' indeed, the contribution of all the developing countries ' to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is very little, compared to that of the industrialized countries. This will be the case for several decades to come. Tragically, however, developing countries will bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse impacts of climate change.'

At the just-concluded Montreal conference, one Indian literally lost sleep trying to reconcile these competing, even contradictory factors, both of which affect India's interests. He is Prodipto Ghosh, India's secretary in the ministry of environment and forests. On the penultimate day of the conference, which opened on November 28, Ghosh returned to his hotel from the thick of the climate change negotiations at 4.30 am. On the final day of the marathon UNFCC dialogue, he was up all night, wrangling with competing interests within the UNFCC: he hit the bed at 6.30 am.

It is a tribute to the commendable struggle by the prime minister's office to recognize merit over political and partisan considerations that it has let Ghosh, who was appointed environment secretary by the Vajpayee government in 2003, to continue in his post. That decision is doubly remarkable because Ghosh was inducted into the PMO by Vajpayee and he presided over a decision-making process in the PMO that was the preserve of the high-profile N.K. Singh, until he was unceremoniously moved out to the Planning Commission in a spring-cleaning drive by the National Democratic Alliance government. Ghosh's continuance is a refreshing change from the early months of the United Progressive Alliance government, the time when Singh and his aides were settling down. Then, at least three officials in the PMO had to literally flee and race to their new overseas assignments because of very real fears that those postings would be cancelled, simply because these officers happened to serve in sensitive posts in the NDA administration.

Ghosh's case deserves special mention because, although an IAS officer, he is widely acknowledged as a technocrat rather than a bureaucrat. In 1991, he received his PhD in economics and policy analysis from the Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School in the US. Environment became his passion and Ghosh was seconded to the Tata Energy Research Institute and later to the Asian Development Bank, where he was an environment specialist. He has authored over 40 publications, including books and academic papers.

Ghosh's appointment in the environment ministry represents a commendable trend in the government, where technocrats are appointed to head the civil service in ministries which demand specialization from its officers. The trend had its tenuous beginning more than a decade ago when Montek Singh Ahluwalia was made finance secretary, and gained greater foothold when R.V. Sahi, another technocrat, was made power secretary. Ghosh's choice to head the bureaucracy in the environment ministry helped elevate that trend from that of exceptions.

It is necessary to dwell on Ghosh's role at the climate change talks in Montreal at some length because the key, hard-nosed negotiators from countries like Britain and Canada were their ministers, who have a track record of working for the environment and a firm commitment to that cause. In marked contrast, the chief Indian delegate, the environment minister, A. Raja, appeared confused and clueless about the weighty issues at the conference. True, he dutifully delivered the briefs prepared for him, but the primary concern of the DMK minister was to ensure that his name had the appropriate Tamil prefix 'Thiru', and not 'Mr', and certainly not the north Indian salutation of 'Shri'. As a result, it was quite amusing to see Western journalists at the conference, uninitiated in the Indian ways, assume that 'Thiru' was Raja's first name and referred to him as such in their dispatches.

Which is why the prime minister will have to take more than a passing interest in the environment ministry in the coming months as the implications of Montreal begin to sink not only in India, but across the world. Ghosh, it must be said, worked hard and managed to hold on to India's gains, which were won at the time the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases was originally negotiated. India, like China, is exempt from binding emission-reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. As Ghosh put it bluntly to the delegates in Montreal, 'You must remember: India has 17 per cent of the world's population but just 3 per cent of the world's emissions. And that fundamental proposition is not going to change for a very long time.'

But India's challenge will be to ensure that, like Australia, it is not seen as America's paw in efforts to derail universal joint action against global warming. The Americans suffered unprecedented isolation in Montreal and agreed to further non-binding talks on the Kyoto Protocol only after their walk-out failed to have any effect on the resolve by the rest of the world to deal with climate change with or without the US.

It is here that Clinton's appearance, much to the annoyance of the Bush administration, helped. It underlined the reality that despite the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, were lining up behind Clinton's policy and acting to deal with global warming on their own. As many as 191 mayors from US cities, representing 40 million Americans, have pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7 per cent from 1990 levels. They come from 25 of America's 50 most populous cities. This is what India will have to bear in mind as Washington pressurizes New Delhi in the coming months to go along with it and abandon any global consensus on climate change.

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