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Indira Gandhi: Linking forests to welfare

Jairam Ramesh’s meticulously-researched book reveals Indira Gandhi’s love for nature, her anguish at its destruction, and her efforts to conserve it. It is a sound testimony of Gandhi’s globally unparalleled environment leadership

books Updated: Aug 04, 2017 20:04 IST
Prerna Singh Bindra
Indira Gandhi picking seashells in the Andamans.
Indira Gandhi picking seashells in the Andamans.(Joginder Chawla/HT Photo)

A few years ago, while interviewing Jairam Ramesh, who had just been appointed minister for environment, he told me that former Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was his talisman in environment and wildlife matters. For most who thought they knew all there was to know about Mrs Gandhi — there is no dearth of biographies on her — Jairam’s statement may seem puzzling. History highlights Gandhi’s excesses during the Emergency, applauds her for the Bangladesh Liberation War, and debates her foreign policy. Missing from the narrative is another enduring legacy without which India would be poorer, and decidedly uglier: A healthier environment and a wealth of forests, and wildlife. It is a glaring gap that Jairam Ramesh’s meticulously-researched book fills admirably. This unusual, focused biography reveals the ‘Iron Lady’s softer, vulnerable self, disclosing in her own words — through speeches, notes, memos, official correspondence and private letters — her love for nature, her anguish at its destruction, and her efforts to conserve it.

Gandhi’s empathy with nature was rooted in her upbringing — her schooling, particularly in Santiniketan, and the influence of her botanist uncle whose penchant to keep snakes everywhere in the house “made me friends with snakes and animals”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous correspondence with his daughter, and the books he gifted her were also an abiding influence.

When incarcerated at Naini jail in 1943, she wrote of her fellow inmates like ‘Minto & Morley the Musk Rats’ (both leading UK politicians of the day!). In later years, she wrote of the three tiger cubs in the Prime Minister’s house in Teen Murti: “Bhim’ was exceedingly ill, and I sat up nights to give him the prescribed treatment. On the third day, he lifted his head and from then we were good friends.”

It is easy but churlish to assume, as it often is, that Gandhi’s conservationist leanings were the indulgence of a powerful woman. She was guided by the firm belief that it was short sighted, and not in the interest of the people to whittle away at the forest cover. In that she was a woman ahead of her time, raising the issue of Climate Change long before it entered the political lexicon. Addressing the parliament in 1975 she said, “Honourable Members are very anxious to have paper mills and industries, and I am for them too... But we must not denude our mountainside and our countryside of their forests. This is having an adverse effect on our rainfall and climate.” She was to reiterate this message of ecological balance throughout her career, linking the denudation of forests to the welfare of the people.

She had a love for wildlife, a naturalist’s curiosity, the commitment of a conservationist, a manager’s sound knowledge, the skill of a diplomat, and the authority of a prime minister, which she used to formulate a strong institutional and legal framework for conservation. Her initiative in launching India’s celebrated Project Tiger is well known. Equally successful was Project Crocodile that reversed the drastic decline of crocodiles and gharials. Rare was the wild animal that Gandhi did not champion: she revived the endemic dancing deer (sangai) by engaging with the chief minister of Manipur, while taking immediate steps to stop the horrific slaughter of olive ridley turtles off the Odisha coast, including pressing the Coast Guard into the service of protecting them. She was to help create and save many Protected Areas such as the Borivali National Park, which today serves as Mumbai’s lungs and is known for its metropolitan leopards. Another famous save was the Silent Valley in Kerala, a long and difficult battle to protect the last of India’s pristine rainforests from a hydel project. This, and a few other cases cited reveal that Gandhi differed from her father’s perception of big dams always being ‘the temples of modern India’. The daughter had her misgivings not only because of the “destruction of the ecosystem, but also the large areas of very fertile land being submerged and the massive displacement they caused at times without any commensurate gains”. Such contentious issues continue to surround such projects.

Read more: Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh | Excerpt

A Life in Nature is a sound testimony of Gandhi’s globally unparalleled environment leadership. The only other world leader who comes close is former US President Theodore Roosevelt. The book captures her zeal, best reflected in the last two letters she sent before resigning as prime minister after the 1977 election debacle. One was to the Petroleum minister to caution about the impact of oil prospecting in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, while the other was a detailed note to the Assam Chief Minister about replacing primary forests with commercially profitable monocultures, which do not provide long term benefit to climate and water management!

The book is well-crafted with a narrative context to each year in what is essentially a chronological environment diary of the former PM. Significantly, it fills a vacuum by powerfully presenting a little-known facet of a much-studied Prime Minister so much so that ‘the idea of Indira’ may need some redefining. Public perception has so far broad brushed her love for nature. We now know that as quintessential Indira. Her politics will continue to be controversial and heavily critiqued, but there is no doubting that her vision for a natural India was rare and inspirational.

This is an important book not least because it cautions that the ‘grow now and pay later’ development model is self-defeating. Gandhi strove for that elusive balance between ecology and development believing that “there is no conflict between the immediate and the enduring. In the long run, neither can survive without the other.”

Watch: FB Live chat with Jairam Ramesh about his book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature

As a Congressman, and a Gandhi-family loyalist, Ramesh does eulogize the former PM. Blessedly, though, he stops short of fawning prose and even critiques a few of her not-so-green decisions. His trademark humour is evident in this classic: “I was unable to get some of her (Gandhi’s) letters to her younger son Sanjay - his widow told me that ‘deemaks’ (termites) have eaten them away over the years.”

This biography comes at an opportune time with India’s wildlife in dire straits, and an environment basket case. Gandhi’s stewardship is as endangered in the political arena today as the species she championed, and at no time in history has the need for it been so acute. One wishes, though, that Jairam Ramesh had also addressed the question of why his party - whether in power or in the opposition – has shed the environmental legacy of its most powerful, charismatic leader.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She is the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis.