Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature
Simon & Schuster India, 2017
Pg 437, Rs 799
Most people would easily recall Indira Gandhi’s pivotal role in establishing Project Tiger and saving Silent Valley in Kerala. However, her initiatives to protect India’s environment went far beyond these two projects. In his book, Congress MP and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh throws light on her deep and abiding interest in the environment and her great concern for the fate of creatures big and small. This led her to help set up many national parks and sanctuaries and also attempt to incorporate environmental concerns into policy making. In all this she was ahead of her times.
Ramesh’s book is fascinating reading for its meticulous research using primary material and the wealth of detail that results thereof. Though in most matters she grew up under the intellectual shadow of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, in this one respect it seems she was ahead of him. The author points out that the circumstances of Indira Gandhi’s early life and her travels, in fact, deepened her understanding of the environment and this comes out in the many letters the father and daughter exchanged between them. The hurly burly of politics did not diminish her interest in the environment and she brought it to bear on the many environmental concerns of the day. While her politics was controversial, there can be no doubt that India today has much to be thankful to her for her efforts in this field as without it our forests, rivers and mountains would have been much worse off.
As Ramesh describes, Indira Gandhi was instrumental in setting up some of India’s best know national parks and sanctuaries - Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan, Gir Lion Sanctuary in Gujarat and Dachigam Sanctuary in the Kashmir Valley - as well as scripting policies to protect the Andaman & Nicobar Islands from commercial development and exploitation. She was concerned about the fate of various creatures that inhabit this country including blackbucks, crocodiles, rhinos and Siberian cranes. This brought her into contact with people like the ‘birdman’ Salim Ali, conservationist Billy Arjan Singh and American naturalist Dillon Ripley and with all of whom she corresponded regularly on matters environment. She also took an interest in the goings-on at the venerable Bombay Natural History Society. The Indian Forest Service was, in fact, launched in July 1966 only six months after Indira Gandhi first became prime minister.
The UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972 was possibly Indira Gandhi’s finest moment in the environment limelight. She had declared that poverty was the greatest polluter and had spoken for the rights of developing countries. Apart from the host country’s prime minister, she was the only other head of government to be present and her speech grabbed the headlines and was quoted often thereafter. This at a time when environmental concerns were not mainstream and it took till 1992 for it to grab the attention of the world’s powerful; only in the wake of climate change. Renowned American architect Buckminster Fuller was to later hail Indira Gandhi as a “clear headed planetary housekeeper of humanity.”
Such was Indira Gandhi’s interest in the environment that even during the turbulence of 1971, when hectic diplomacy was going on and war with Pakistan seemed imminent, she had time to write a note to her under secretary Mouni Malhotra - “Do we have Purple Martins (birds) in India? It seems they consume large numbers of mosquitoes and are therefore very useful?”
Ramesh is at pains to make it clear that in spite of the authority she wielded she did not always get her way and was, in fact, stalled and undermined while vested interests prevaricated on various issues. In one instance, however, the bureaucracy acted with rare alacrity and banned the export of skins of tigers, leopards and panthers.
Indira Gandhi was acutely aware of the problems posed by a growing population and rampant urbanisation. While her government’s efforts at controlling the population backfired, she did what she could to draw the attention of urban planners to environmental concerns. But, alas, her efforts were not built upon by her successors and the burgeoning problems of today are the result. Nevertheless, it doesn’t diminish Indira Gandhi’s contribution to the environment and she remains as a beacon to political leaders in the efforts she made during her terms in office as Prime Minister of India.
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