NEW DELHI – India's environment minister has blocked the construction of mines, power plants and dams. He's held up a new airport and describes diesel cars as criminal. He's even taken Harry Potter to task for promoting threatened owls as pets.
Just a year and a half into the job, Jairam Ramesh has turned a once-marginal Environment Ministry into a powerful gatekeeper on India's road to prosperity. He's been called an eco-crusader, a "Dr. No" of development and even a buffoon, angering so many investors and politicians that there are constant rumors of his impending dismissal.
But his tenacity has fuelled an environmental debate that many say is long overdue.
After two decades of unbridled development, India risks becoming a victim of its own success. It is now the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, with rivers the World Bank has described as fetid sewers and cities listed among the world's most polluted.
"Many people in India, particularly the elitist classes, still think 'Grow now, clean later.' We cannot repeat the mistakes of other countries," Ramesh told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I'm no eco-evangelist, but are we serious about implementing our environmental laws or not?"
The U.S.-educated technocrat-turned-politician insisted his job, adversarial by nature, is to help correct India's development course by enforcing long-ignored environmental laws. He takes Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian independence leader and advocate of sustainable living, as his touchstone.
"A country whose father of the nation is Mahatma Gandhi cannot but be an exemplar to the world on environmental matters. I find it hypocritical for us to chant and pay obeisance to him like we do and forget the essence of what he stood for," the 56-year-old minister said.
His readiness to upset investors may reflect a wider shift in government priorities that would explain how he is tolerated under a prime minister who prizes development.
In a speech last month, Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress Party, quoted her late husband, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: "Whenever the environment is damaged, a bit of India dies."
When Ramesh was appointed environment minister in May 2009, India was seen as petulant and stubborn in global climate change negotiations. He has since promoted India as a mediator during U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, and was credited with helping to break a U.S.-China deadlock over how emissions cuts might be measured and verified.
Ramesh suggested this week that India might commit to cutting emissions, saying all developing countries should consider doing so.
The comment, like so many by Ramesh, triggered a media storm in India, with the opposition accusing him of unilaterally changing India's policy of refusing to limit growth while digging out of poverty.
In a country where success is defined by bald numbers — nearly 9 percent economic growth, $274.7 billion in reserves and an income per capita that has risen to $3,200 last year — many consider Ramesh anathema to progress. While economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty, hundreds of millions remain mired in the poorest conditions. A rising economy is crucial for small-time entrepreneurs and slum-dwellers alike.
"Growth to fight poverty is perhaps the highest priority," said Amit Mitra, secretary-general Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce Industry. "If you create an atmosphere where you hold up hundreds of projects, and solutions are not found, that is not the healthiest outcome."
Business analysts say it looks bad, even chaotic, that Ramesh has overturned Environment Ministry permits allotted before he took charge. His motives look even murkier amid allegations that the government may be using the environment to settle political scores in opposition-run states, which Ramesh vehemently denies.
"There has been a little bit of excess zeal that is not warranted," said Surit Bhalla, managing director of Oxus Research and Investments. "It's good news that we are discussing the environment like never before. But why can't we go about doing it in a fair fashion?"
Often dressed in a traditional white kurta with his two-toned hair swept back, Ramesh has become a media darling with his ready soundbites and sharp criticism of the Western way of life. Despite his education at Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, he blasted the American lifestyle last month as the world's most unsustainable.
Already there is nervous speculation about whether he will decide this month to revoke clearance for a $12 billion steel plant by South Korea's Posco — India's biggest-ever foreign investment project.
But Ramesh, a former minister of power and commerce and adviser to the finance and industry ministries, dismisses the idea that his tactics are scaring away investors.
"If anything, I think investor sentiment will be driven by an idea that laws are being implemented. The genuine long-term investors should welcome a law-oriented society," he says, noting that most projects do get approval, and those that don't just need an eco-friendly redesign. For example, his objections to a second airport in Mumbai were lifted last month after the site was shifted away from a stand of mangrove trees.
Ramesh and his bosses in the Congress Party are keenly aware of the political currency to be won by protecting forests, coastlines and fresh water sources.
Some 250 million people live off India's forests covering 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) — an area larger than Texas or France. Another 7 million coastal families subsist on fishing, while a full 70 percent of the country survives on agriculture.
In October, the Environment Ministry blocked London-based Vedanta Resources' plan to expand an aluminum refinery and power plant in the eastern state of Orissa after finding construction had started without environmental clearance. The next day, Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, was on the ground in Orissa, shaking hands and taking credit for securing the land.
In another case, Ramesh halted construction of a dam in the Himalayan region of Sikkim after a local tribal group complained it would submerge an ancient Buddhist site. "Should I ignore them because they're just a few thousand people?" he said. "Should I be party to the destruction of a holy site for the sake of 100 megawatts?"
Ramesh has also launched an environmental tribunal to spring some 5,000 green cases from the country's backlogged court system, and secured payment from Pepsi Co. for coastal fishermen in exchange for harvesting seaweed.
"There's no question it's partly about getting votes, but that's not entirely a bad thing," said Mahesh Rangarajan, an environmental historian at the University of Delhi who has advised the ministry on forest and elephant preservation. "Enforcing India's forest laws has helped the underclass to have some defense against what was a very arbitrary bureaucracy."
A few weeks ago, the ministry shut down a planned lakeside community about 125 miles (200 kilometers) outside of Mumbai — a project in which the agriculture minister's daughter once held a stake. The website for the Lavasa project shows drawings of families frolicking near lavish homes.
The ministry said the construction lacked environmental permits and was higher than the 3,000 feet (900 meters) above sea level allowed. Lavasa, which had been weeks away from a public offering, insists it had clearance.
"This is shocking," Lavasa said in a written response, accusing Ramesh of bias and "ulterior motives" in appeasing activists.
Ramesh said his critics are overreacting and missing the key message — that eco-friendly solutions are possible, even preferable.
"What pains me most is the attempt being made to paint me as an obstructionist," he said, adding that he was among the first politicians to argue for the economic liberalization that unleashed India's economic growth in the 1990s.
"To be honest, this is a thankless job," he said.
As he said it, he was laughing.