In the largest cabinet reshuffle in seven years of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed 12 ministers the door on Wednesday. One of them is Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister whose two-year long tenure was marked by controversies over faster clearances to industrial projects, legislations that critics said diluted India’s environmental regulations, and rising friction with the youth climate change movements.

His exit came as a surprise to many observers, who believed his decisions reflected the priorities set by the Prime Minister’s Office.

What caused further stir in environmental circles was the choice of his successor: Bhupender Yadav, a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan, a lawyer who is known to be well-versed in environmental matters.

Yadav has co-authored a book titled Super Court on Forest Conservation with Ritwick Dutta, one of the most prominent environmental lawyers in the country. Published in 2011, the book examines how the Supreme Court handled matters related to India’s forest governance regime.

On the prickly issue of encroachments within National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, Yadav and Dutta note: “Lack of political will…has been identified by almost all the states as one of the important reasons for the inability of the states to take effective steps for the removal of encroachments. Influential persons with political affiliations not only promote encroachments but also abet the entire process.”

A record of active engagement

Many environmental activists and lawyers welcomed Yadav’s appointment.

“This is a very welcome move and the important thing is that there is a change in the person heading the ministry,” said Manoj Mishra, the founder of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a non-profit organisation working on water and river related issues in the country.

Ritwick Dutta, who has helmed high-profile public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, including the challenge to Madhya Pradesh’s Ken-Betwa river linking project, said: “You can’t have a more thorough person in the environment ministry.”

Dutta described Yadav as down to earth and empathetic. He pointed out the vast array of environmental matters that Yadav had engaged with, from compensatory afforestation to wetland development, genetically modified crops, and amendments made to India’s mining law.

Yadav served on the parliamentary committee that reviewed the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Amendment Act, 2015. The committee pointed out that the mining industry violates environmental laws with impunity, and stressed the need to allow mining only with an approved mining plan and mining closure plan.

In Parliament, Yadav has raised questions on a diverse range of topics from welfare schemes for female farmers to the illegal elephant tusk trade. He has presented three private member bills: The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Amendment) Bill, 2016, The Vexatious Litigation (Prevention) Bill, 2016 and The High Courts (Use of Official Languages) Bill, 2016. All of them are pending.

“His knowledge about the law is unparalleled,” Dutta said. “For the first time we have a minister in the environment ministry who will take his job seriously and read files.”

Comparisons to Jairam Ramesh

In a recent opinion piece he wrote for the Indian Express on challenges posed by Covid-19, Yadav quotes thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari and James C Scott:

“Human history shows us that some of the most seemingly insignificant things have ushered in some of the most significant changes in the world. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes how wheat production changed the course of human evolution. Harari says, ‘We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.’ In Against the Grain, political scientist-anthropologist James C Scott said that wheat cultivation is responsible for the arrival of what we now understand as state power, and with it, bureaucracy and inequality.”

Parallels are already being drawn between Yadav and Jairam Ramesh, the Congress leader who served as environment minister in the United Progressive Alliance government and is a prolific writer.

Mishra said although both leaders are similar in terms of their knowledge about environmental issues and law, there are stark differences too. “Jairam Ramesh was many things, but he was not a political animal,” he said. “Bhupender Yadav, who has made his way to the top through his work, may seem similar to Jairam Ramesh, profile wise, but in the end he is a very different person.”

Ramamurty Sreedhar of the non-profit Environics Trust, who worked with the Yadav on the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Amendment Act, was cautiously optimistic about his appointment.

“I don’t think we will see a drastic change in the working of the government and a lot will depend on how the new minister will deal with pressure,” he said. “But one thing we can definitely expect is due diligence from him.”