Jairam Ramesh profiles Indira Gandhi as a naturalist

[First published in The Hindu dated May 21, 2017]

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

– William Shakespeare

Cover of the book. Picture credit: Amazon.in

While reading the “unconventional” biography of Indira Gandhi — Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature — one cannot help but wonder if the mantle of her father and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was thrust upon her after all. For, in more than one instance, the author of the book, Congress leader and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh presents private correspondences of Mrs. Gandhi with her friends to show how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.

“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to her friend American photographer Dorothy Norman in 1958. In 1959, when she became Congress President, she is quoted as writing to a friend: “This heavy responsibility and hard work has descended on me just when I was planning for a quiet and peaceful year…”

Ramesh defends his decision to singularly portray the environmentalist in Indira Gandhi in his book: “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.”

Political redemption

The year 2017 marks the centenary of Mrs. Gandhi’s birth (November 19, 1917). It also marks 40 years since the Emergency was lifted in India (March 21, 1977), two years after the Congress government under Mrs. Gandhi imposed it on June 25, 1975. To have chosen this year, thus, to release a book on the former Prime Minister’s environmental legacy comes across as an effort to redeem her image from that of a “dictator” who trampled upon the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of Indians. And Ramesh does that convincingly, quoting amply from private correspondences, public speeches and forewords to books that she wrote. The author sources several of his references from the recently declassified files available at the National Archives, New Delhi. He also blames Mrs. Gandhi’s nemesis Jayaprakash Narayan for provoking her to impose the Emergency by urging the army and the police to disregard orders of her ‘illegal government’.

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests itself is housed in a building called the ‘Indira Paryavaran Bhavan’ — an energy efficient structure that was inaugurated in 2014 — the construction for which began when Ramesh held the Environment and Forests Minister portfolio in 2011. During the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate summit, Ramesh had emphasised that India couldn’t continue on the path of unfettered economic growth ignoring environmental concerns, taking inspiration from Mrs. Gandhi on the matter. It is only fitting then that he executed the biography documenting Mrs. Gandhi’s love for nature and the key decisions she took during her time paving the way for environmental governance in India. The book contains rare images showing her communing with nature.

Green legacy

The Rajya Sabha member documents how Mrs. Gandhi was the only head of government, other than the host prime minister, to speak at the first-ever United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. The date on which the conference had opened — June 5 — was marked to be celebrated every year as World Environment Day.

The author also notes how she was singularly responsible not only for the tiger conservation programme —Project Tiger— but also for less high-profile initiatives for the protection of crocodiles, lions, hanguls, cranes, Bustards, flamingos, deer and other endangered species. He also acknowledges how she pushed through two laws — Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The laws for dealing with water and air pollution — The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 — were also enacted during her tenure. Mrs. Gandhi used her political authority to protect ecologically sensitive areas such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the entire Northeast and the rainforests in the Western Ghats.

She was also the patron of the Bombay Natural History Society, being a close friend of its associate and ornithologist Salim Ali, and helped found the Delhi Bird Watching Society. The ban on hunting tigers was imposed four years after Mrs. Gandhi became PM. She also opposed diplomats and royal family members violating the game laws imposing a ban of hunting of wild animals.

Omissions; objectivity

Most biographies of political leaders when written by party affiliates have a tendency to become hagiographical. Ramesh tries not to succumb to that impulse by objectively surveying the limitations imposed by the nature of her office on Mrs. Gandhi’s ability to govern on environmental matters, especially when it clashed with matters economic. For instance, he points to how Mrs. Gandhi gave a go-ahead for the Indian Oil Corporation’s Mathura refinery to be constructed despite its known threats to the Taj Mahal and the Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

However, Ramesh broad brushes controversies that some of her statements on environment evoked. In her 1972 Stockholm speech, Mrs. Gandhi had said: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”. Ramesh makes note of Karl Mathiesen’s 2014 article in The Guardian which problematises this statement – as a way to blame poor countries and their populations for climate change – but doesn’t engage with the matter.

In the 1960s, the dominant view in the global environmental discourse was that ecological imbalances were caused by the population explosion in developing countries. “The number of sterilizations [during Mrs. Gandhi’s regime] went up almost three-fold in 1976-77 — from a previous peak of 3.1 million to almost 8.3 million,” Ramesh notes. He admits that this contributed heavily to her 1977 electoral debacle.

But a redeeming factor for Mrs. Gandhi could well be how she called into question work on some big dams, which could have caused environmental destruction and widespread displacement of adivasi people, unlike her father Nehru who famously held big dams to be the “temples of modern India”. Her intervention helped stall further work in the Tehri Dam area during her time; in 1983 she abandoned the hydroelectric project planned in the Silent Valley forests and declared it as a National Park. In the end, history might have judged Indira Gandhi harshly for her political errors, but as her own words reveal, she may well not have bothered:

We have a peepul in our yard, a tree which, had it depended on human praise and approbation, would have withered away long since.”

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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