The first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began on June 5, 1972, and it is to commemorate this historic conclave that the day is marked as World Environment Day ever since 1973. Olaf Palme was the Swedish Prime Minister then and, therefore, was obliged to be present. The only other Head of State to attend was Indira Gandhi.
It was my friend Tariq Banuri at the UN who placed Gandhi’s participation at the Stockholm summit in its larger setting. In a conversation, he said that four events have shaped the modern discourse on environment. The first was the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The second was the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb in 1968. The third was the release of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in early-1972, and the fourth was Indira Gandhi’s speech at Stockholm in which environmental issues were, for the first time, situated in their larger developmental context. Apparently, in recognition of her contribution in Stockholm, the first choice for locating the new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was New Delhi but ultimately it was headquartered in Nairobi.
My own appreciation of Gandhi’s contributions has been deepened over the last year. I knew of Silent Valley and how single-handedly she saved that rainforest. But the Valley was only one instance of her zeal. It is to her we owe a slew of legislation: the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, Project Tiger (1973), the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991. That her mind was on saving India’s natural heritage is revealed by an extraordinary event — her writing to Kedar Pande, the then Chief Minister of Bihar, in July 1972 from Shimla conveying her displeasure on how forests were being felled in that state, even as she was negotiating the Shimla Pact with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
To Gandhi, environmental preservation meant more than pollution control or saving endangered species. She had a much broader conception and that is why she set up the Delhi Urban Arts Commission. One of her directives in this regard given in 1982 is worth quoting in full: “Maharashtra Government should be asked to ensure that on the Nhava and Elephanta islands no commercial or building activity of any description is allowed and positive steps are taken to green them and if necessary convert them into parks with birds, wildlife etc.”
Only a biography will unravel the well-springs of Gandhi’s contributions in the field of environment. Perhaps this biography will draw our attention to the influence of her parents, particularly her mother who, in her own words, “used to tell me of the links between all creatures”. Perhaps, her reading habits had something to do with it. Then perhaps, her fascination with Tagore’s poetry and her stint at Shantiniketan itself moulded her thinking. Perhaps it could be her enduring love for the wondrous eco-system of Kashmir that she shared with her father that shaped her love for nature. Perhaps it was her friendship with people like Salim Ali that influenced her actions. Whatever it was, India owes her a debt of gratitude.
We are now being forced to make tough political choices in different sectors like power, mining and industry to make the inevitable trade-off between environment and development explicit. Almost three decades ago, Gandhi made one such choice in regard to Silent Valley and protected that biodiversity-rich region. This June 5, we can do no better than to resolve to use her as a talisman as we strive to sustain high economic growth not at the cost of our environment and biodiversity in its myriad forms but while protecting and regenerating them.
Jairam Ramesh is Minister of State for Environment and Forests
The views expressed by the author are personal