The question was part of a 1980 interview of Indira Gandhi by Anil Agarwal, founder-editor of Down To Earth, published in the journal Nature. Indira Gandhi’s reply typified her simple, humane approach towards nature. Her views were a result of her genuine amazement at the natural world (as is chronicled by several contemporary and later writers) , which is why her conservation initiatives were protectionist, and somewhat patronising. But she was India’s first and, most say, the most environmentally aware prime minister.
While people mostly associate her with “Save the Tiger” campaign—photo of Indira Gandhi cuddling a tiger cub is etched in public memory—her engagement with nature was much deeper and comprehensive. She created national parks, prevented setting up of ecologically harmful dams and spoke about the importance of protecting the environment at international fora at a time when the link between human activities and climate change was a matter for academics to debate.
This is not to say that she did not have her failings. Her decision to allow the Mathura oil refinery despite knowing its impact on the Taj Mahal, or the execution of the Green Revolution without knowing its impact on the environment, open her to criticism. There are also valid questions about the effect of her tiger protection drive on forests dwellers, who suddenly found themselves evicted from their homes. Her statement, “The environmental problems of developing countries are not the side effects of excessive industrialisation but reflect the inadequacy of development,” blames the poor for damaging the environment and is now known to be untrue.
But the rawness of her thoughts and actions has to be seen in the context of her time. Analysing Indira Gandhi using concepts of equity in climate pledges, historical responsibility and sustainable development would be fallacious. These ideas were not part of the mainstream political discourse of her time.
Globally, Indira Gandhi stood ahead of her peers because she talked about nature and wildlife conservation when prominent world leaders were squabbling for global supremacy—often with catastrophic results for the environment. Her decisions become more notable when seen in the light of India, a developing country with millions living in severe poverty.
Irrespective of where one falls on the issue of her contribution to environmental protection, one cannot disagree with the need to take stock of her legacy on her birth centenary. This is what we seek to do by putting together four perspectives: that of a biographer and admirer (Jairam Ramesh); a senior journalist (Darryl D’Monte); a veteran activist (M K Prasad); and, a wildlife conservationist (Prerna Singh Bindra).
(Illustrations: Tarique Aziz)
(This story appeared in the November 1-15 issue of Down to Earth).