tall tax

How Ignorant Can a Minister Get?

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There’s really no limit, if you go by Jairam Ramesh’s latest brainwave to tax tourists who visit the Himalayas

It’s tough being Jairam Ramesh. No matter what he says or does, he just can’t seem to break on to the front page. He travelled all the way to Bhopal, stood outside the Union Carbide plant, lifted a fistful of toxic earth and said the first thing that popped into his head, “I have the waste in my hand and I am still alive.” His effigy burnt, he was called ‘ignorant’ of slow-acting poisons and of belittling the sufferings of 25,000 people. The route to the front page was set—he would be called by the High Command, asked to explain his actions, Barkha Dutt would do a show on him, things would be good again. Then the unthinkable happened—the very next day a Junior Minister did a stupid tweet about ‘cattle class’ and walked away with all that he had worked so hard for. Shashi Tharoor got that round, plus, as someone said, he even had better hair. Nevertheless, Ramesh has soldiered on.

Last week, he had the Tamil Nadu Congress calling him ‘ignorant’ for giving permission to the Kerala government for a survey to build a new dam on the Mullaperiyar when the matter was in court. ‘Ignorant’ seems to be fast becoming a tag word for Ramesh. Earlier NGOs had called him ignorant for not backing paper bags and a complete ban on plastic. Ramesh had argued that paper bags would result in the cutting of more trees. NGOs retorted that he was ‘ignorant’ about paper bags being recyclable.

When even that didn’t work, Ramesh decided to put a sock in it again. At the launch of a report ‘Governance for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem’ last week, he came up with a sure-shot idea to protect the Himalayas—impose a tax on tourists visiting the hills because, according to him, tourists had the biggest hand in ruining the Himalayan ecosystem by littering it with polythene and garbage. It reaffirmed his ‘ignorance’ of the Indian masses.

The question really is whether denying the poor the one honeymoon spot they can afford will somehow miraculously clean up the hills. Ramesh also plans to increase entry fee into tiger reserves from Rs 90 to Rs 900. The poor can always see them in a movie, he reckons. But do we really not have enough class barriers to erect another one—the ones who can see hills and tigers and the ones who cannot. And this from one of the architects of the Congress’s Aam Aadmi campaign.

If Ramesh is so distraught about the impact of tourists, surely the thought of imposing a quota for the Himalayas must have crossed his mind. Like the sort that exists for Gangotri, where only 150 tourists are allowed a day. Or, he could always float a proposal for a hill passport for everyone in India to keep track of the number of days they spend in the hills. Spend a day extra and you can count on being deported and your passport burnt. Would that be bad for the environment? Depends on whether it’s taxed or not.