The green crusader

On the centenary of Indira Gandhi's birth, Down To Earth reveals her hitherto unknown role, that of an environmentalist

By Aditya Misra
Last Updated: Monday 12 March 2018 | 08:56:09 AM


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).

A legacy that still resonates

Indira Gandhi was a conservationist who saw the protection of India's rich natural heritage fundamental to its economic growth


I DID not set out to assess or judge Indira Gandhi. What I sought to do was paint a fresh portrait of a much-written about but little-understood personality—a leader who was complex and contradictory on the one hand, and charismatic and compelling on the other. I sought to discover and elucidate an aspect of who she was and what she did—an aspect that has not received the attention it deserves in the volumes that have been written about her.

Indira Gandhi’s institutionalized educational journey followed a zigzag route. She went to college without actually ever getting a formal degree. But she graduated with the highest distinction, summa cum laude, from the University of Nature.

Who was the real Indira Gandhi? Historians have grappled, and will continue to grapple, with this question. She has hordes of admirers, awed by her spectacular achievements. She also has a large number of critics who cannot see beyond her errors of judgement and action—some of which were of her own making, while some others forced on her by circumstances.

There were, to be sure, poignant paradoxes in her personality. But what should be beyond any doubt from this chronicle (Ramesh’s book, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature) is her commitment to the environment. Her tryst with nature inspired and refreshed her throughout turbulent personal upheavals and a tumultuous political career. Her love for all things ecological was an inheritance and a part of her disposition, which she nurtured into an abiding passion.

Critics of Indira Gandhi may well say: ‘So what, how does her concern for the environment make any difference?’ Such a reaction would be churlish. There was nothing private about her passion for nature to make it irrelevant in a balance sheet of her record in office. Her passion became a public calling, defining who she was and driving what she did as prime minister. That is why any assessment of her work must necessarily take into full account her accomplishments as an environmental advocate and leader.

Throughout her career as head of a nation, buffeted as she was by a series of crises, Indira Gandhi revealed her true self through her abiding concern for nature. This is what makes her fascinating—that she found the time to pursue environmental causes despite the numerous weighty preoccupations that asked for all her attention during some of the most difficult years of our Republic. The greater the political pressure, the more she reached out to the natural world. It was as though she considered politics ephemeral and nature the true significant constant in her life.

When with visitors or in meetings, it was well-known that she would appear distant and distracted, continue reading her files, or indulge in her favourite pastime—doodling. But this was decidedly not the case when she was with naturalists or in meetings concerning wildlife or forests or environmental conservation in general. At such points, she was intensely focused, engaged and in charge.

Today, heads of state or governments across the world wax eloquent about climate change and sustainable development. But over four decades ago, Indira Gandhi was amongst the small handful of political leaders who took environmental issues seriously and gave them the importance they deserved in matters of day-to-day governance. It needs to be recalled that apart from the host prime minister, she was the only other head of government or state to speak at the very first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. Similarly, she was among the five heads of state or government to speak at the very first United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy at Nairobi in August 1976. Compare this with the famed Rio Earth Summit Conference in 1992, where there were over a hundred heads of state or government present!

Without question, Indira Gandhi was a trail-blazer on environmental issues not just within India but on the world stage as well.

Indira Gandhi is very often portrayed as an authoritarian figure. Her life in nature shows that while she did have her say, she did not always have her way. There were undoubtedly a few occasions when she laid down clearly what ought to be done, and how. But, on the whole, her life in nature as a prime minister was an odyssey in suggestion and persuasion. This approach was guided by two facts. First, she was acutely conscious that in India paramount importance had always to be given to improving the living standards and the quality of life of people through economic development. Second, many of the actions she would have wanted taken to preserve nature and protect the environment were the primary responsibility of state governments. Had she been the bulldozer she was purported to be, she actually would have ended up accomplishing much more than she did as an environmentalist.

Equally, Indira Gandhi’s life in nature reminds us that she agonized over several of her decisions. She knew, for instance, that the Silent Valley needed to be saved from a hydel project but it took her almost three years to finally decide, allowing discussion and debate to take place in the meantime. On occasion, she allowed herself to be persuaded to take a particular decision against her own ecological convictions on account of larger economic and political considerations. Then, there were times when she sought the opinions of those she liked and trusted—Salim Ali being the most famous example within India, and Peter Scott and Peter Jackson being two examples internationally.

Indira Gandhi’s own views evolved as she grappled with new situations. While, to begin with, she was an environmental purist, over time she become convinced that without the full involvement and participation of local communities neither wildlife nor forest conservation would ever succeed on an enduring basis.

No doubt enigmatic, the essential Indira Gandhi was the committed conservationist, who saw the protection of India’s rich natural heritage, along with its diverse cultural legacy, fundamental to its economic advance. Indeed, for her, development without conservation was unsustainable, just as conservation without development was unacceptable. Further, for her, conservation, respect for biodiversity and concern for ecological balance were all derived from the India’s civilizational ethos, she often referred to the chief lesson that ‘our ancients’ taught us—to revere and live in harmony with nature.

Her environmental legacy comes with no qualifiers, no caveats. It is a legacy that continues to resonate and is really for the ages.

(Excerpted from former environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s 2017 book, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

Given to imperious decisions

Most of Indira Gandhi's decisions were in the right direction, but were not swayed by people's movements, which are the very soul of genuine environmental activism


I can cite an incident in which I was involved in the early 1970s. The National Institute of Bank Management in Bombay (now Mumbai) was to set up a Rs 6-crore bankers’ training institute on the rocky foreshore of Carter Road in the suburb of Bandra. Test-drilling had begun and the structures were to be raised on a platform, with gates for the tides to flow in and out. The hostel was hexagonal-shaped to allow the trainees to get unrestricted vistas of the ocean.

Residents objected and—led by the honorary sheriff Mahboob Nasrullah and Russi Karanjia, feisty editor of Blitz weekly—held a meeting on the coast, the city’s first-ever environmental protest. Eventually, Ashok Advani, publisher of Business India, contacted the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s aide Usha Bhagat. She informed the prime minister, who issued a diktat. The campus was shifted to Pune and observers reported that this was the first victory for environmentalists in the Maximum City.

This gives a good indication of her style of decision-making, as Jairam Ramesh’s recent voluminous tome, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature, constantly underlines. While not quite the patrician that her father was, she was very much a grandee, consorting and corresponding with influential individuals and institutes at home and abroad, while genuflecting towards the latter.

To revisit her green credentials, one could argue that she was given to imperious decisions, most often in the right direction but without being swayed by people’s movements, which are the very soul of genuine environmental activism. Two issues illustrate this tendency.

The first were her giveaway remarks on the Chipko movement, in a long interview conducted by Anil Agarwal for Nature in 1980. Asked to respond to the popular movement—a full seven years after it began in 1973—she candidly replied: “Well frankly, I don’t know the aims of the movement. But if it is that the trees should not be cut, I am all for it.” It is by no means accidental that her interactions on Chipko were relegated to the leader Sunderlal Bahuguna, who was a part-time journalist, able to speak English, and received all the attention in India and abroad for propagating a hug-the-tree movement. Ignored was the grassroots leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who founded the Dasohli Gram Swarajya Mandal in Gopeshwar, Garhwal in 1964, which tried to set up a pine resin factory as a way of harvesting forest produce. This was a holistic approach to provide employment in the hills and prevent men from migrating to the towns for jobs. Indira Gandhi and her cohorts were innocent of the fact that Chipko represented a continuum of peasant resistance to colonial appropriation of resources, as mentioned in historian Ramachandra Guha’s 1989 book, The Unquiet Woods.

The second was her role in stopping the Silent Valley hydroelectric project in Kerala (see ‘The green crusader’ on p30), as I have documented at some length in my book, Temples or Tombs? Industry versus Environment: Three Controversies. She didn’t pay heed to the committed people’s science movement, the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, which, though being broadly left in inclination, opposed the project against the wishes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) state government and party-dominated Kerala State Electricity Board. Indira Gandhi was influenced by naturalists like Salim Ali and foreign agencies like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which passed resolutions against the project.

WWF collaborated with her on Project Tiger, a successful “top-down” initiative, which the former prime minister decided on initiating a day after meeting a WWF emissary in 1972. In the earlier years of the project, and presumably during the Emergency, village residents living in the core area of sanctuaries were forcibly evicted, which reveals her authoritarian character. She may have identified with many former princely rulers (though she abolished their privy purses) and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who co-founded WWF, all of whom restricted their concern for the environment to preserving wildlife, with no thought to the plight of adivasis and other marginalised people there.

She received huge praise for her oft-quoted remark at the first UN environment conference in Stockholm in 1972 that, as Ramesh reminds us, has been slightly rephrased as, “Poverty is the worst form of pollution”. This is being cited till today not only in this country but also abroad as a justification for developing countries to first raise their living standards and only then worry about preserving the environment. On the contrary, as the title of my book makes clear, it is the opposite: many so-called development projects—Jawaharlal Nehru’s temples of today—far from reducing poverty, actually increase it, as those who are being displaced by the Narmada dam would argue. Environment and genuine development go hand in hand, which is why massive capital-intensive projects, like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and the recent Indo-Japanese plan to run a bullet train between Maharashtra and Gujarat, are seen as “developing” India, but actually divert resources that should go to meeting the needs of the neediest.

However, and surprisingly, the second case in my book—the Indian Oil refinery at Mathura, 40 km as crow flies from Agra, where the Taj Mahal is situated—was a classic instance of environmentalism of, by and for the elite, where Indira Gandhi didn’t put her foot down to stop it (see ‘Shadow over Taj’, Down To Earth, 1-15, May, 2015). All the initiatives and institutions involved, like the committee headed by S Varadarajan, former head of the Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd (whose report on the threat to the Taj was the most comprehensive study in the world of the impact of air pollution on a monument at that time), INTACH, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation & Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome, and the like, were officials or professionals, with no grassroots movement to call for scrapping the refinery.

One would have to disagree with M S Swaminathan, who headed IUCN in 1983, that she was “one of the greatest environmentalists of our time”. She hasn’t gone down in history as worthy of that epithet. At the same time, she was far ahead of her times as a political leader who went against the mania for economic growth at any cost. By comparison, she towers over current rulers who are busy dismantling the edifice of green laws, engaging in linking rivers and mindlessly constructing huge infrastructure projects without any thought to their environmental repercussions.

(The author is a senior environmental journalist based in Mumbai)

The green crusader

The 1970s under Indira Gandhi were the best thing to have happened to India's environment


Though I never had any direct contact with Indira Gandhi, I remember the time when she and I were fighting for the same goal. In the 1970s, the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), of which I was a part, was campaigning to save Silent Valley, located in the Western Ghats in the state’s Palakkad district on the border with Tamil Nadu. KSSP was protesting against the state government’s move to construct a dam on the Kuntipuzha River that flowed through the region. The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had proposed the dam in 1970. KSSP had executed a wide and far-reaching campaign among the public so that pressure could be exerted on the state government to rescind the project. Besides us, the project’s other opponents included the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Nature.

We won a victory of sorts when the Kerala High Court issued a stay order on the project. But the KSEB fought on, with illegal means. It bribed the state’s political parties, giving them S1 lakh each, to gain their acquiescence.

The whole issue was being reported in the national media. Incensed by the reports, Indira Gandhi stepped in. She contacted the leadership of the Congress Party that was ruling the state. She argued with them on the people’s objections to the project as well as the dangers of constructing the dam. Finally, the Kerala government was forced to abandon the project. Some years later, the area was declared a national park. It would be safe to say that, had she not played her part, there would have been an ugly dam at the location.

Silent Valley is just one of the feathers in the cap of Indira Gandhi, the environmentalist. But this is also a side of her that very few know about in this country. Though she was first and foremost a political figure and did not have any formal educational qualification in the discipline of environmental studies, she had inherited a love for the environment and nature from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and her uncle, Kailash Nath Kaul. Yes, Nehruvian India did not produce any green legislation (unlike Indira Gandhi’s India) despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s nature-loving streak. However, one cannot ascribe any particular reason to why this was so. In any case, I leave it to the historians.

But on Indira Gandhi and the environment, there are no doubts at all. She was an avid reader of everything about nature and as prime minister, had experts from the field as her friends, Salim Ali, for instance. She had great respect for him and considered him as a person who should be supported by the people of India so that the wildlife, rivers and forests are cared for. This is best understood by her espousal of Project Tiger. There are many voices in the wildlife sector today who grumble about the extra attention that the tiger receives at the cost of other species. But Indira Gandhi and her advisors had surely not envisioned it that way. If you want to protect the tiger, you have to protect the area where it lives. That means you have to protect the entire forest, as well as rivers and the adjoining environment. So the tiger at that time became an instrument through which the government could popularise and educate people about all these issues. It was never about the tiger alone.

Indira Gandhi never compromised on her love for nature, even at the cost of development. Yes, she did give a go-ahead to the construction of Indian Oil Corporation’s Mathura refinery despite it being a known threat to the Taj Mahal and to the Keoladeo National Park. She also started Karnataka’s Kudremukh iron ore mining project in partnership with Iran, which was termed an ecological disaster. But I would look at the flip side. Because she was knowledgeable about the environment and was a powerful person, she was able to use her influence to mitigate the impact of these projects on their respective regions.

Whatever her shortcomings, the India of the 1970s under Indira Gandhi was still the best thing to have happened to India’s environment. All the requisite conditions were there. A powerful leader with an interest in nature, her rather “dictatorial streak” as well as her brute majority in Parliament. Moreover, none of our parliamentarians or politicians were well-educated about the importance of forests or wildlife conservation at that time. Indira Gandhi’s leadership in these matters was, indeed, a blessing of sorts.

I also reject the canard that she dealt a serious blow to the nascent climate change movement with her remarks at the United Nations Conference in 1972 in Sweden. Her (in)famous line, “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” has been used by critics to say that she did not support the concept of equity in climate action and that she laid the blame of pollution and, consequently, climate change, on the doorstep of the poor. Let me state here that equity in the climate change context was non-existent at the time and only became prominent later on.

Indira Gandhi’s legacy as an environmentalist is still with us. It is a pity that the governments that succeeded her, most of them owing allegiance to her own party, did not follow her footsteps. It only goes to show that they did not truly imbibe her ideas. That is indeed the challenge facing all of us in India, not just politicians. We can only do justice to Indira Gandhi, the green crusader, by being green ourselves. On this, there are no two views.

(The author is a veteran environmentalist. The article carries his views as told to Rajat Ghai)

Not just an affair of the heart

Indira Gandhi made conservation a part of political discourse and her leadership on environment remains unparalleled globally


My introduction to former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s affinity with nature was during a trip to Rajasthan’s Bharatpur National Park a decade ago, where I met an old forester who had guided her during her visit to the park in 1976. “The fact is, Madam PM guided me,” he laughed, adding that during her one-hour walk in the park she identified no less than 90 birds. Such nuggets were to follow my journeys to other parks, and my evolution as an environment journalist and conservationist.

The bird sanctuaries I forayed into at Porbandar (Gujarat), Sultanpur (Haryana), Marine National Park in Wandoor (Andaman) and Borivali National Park in Mumbai (Maharashtra) had one thing in common—they all owed their protected status to Indira Gandhi. A visit to the remote Kolkas Forest Rest House in Melghat Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra) revealed that Indira Gandhi had spent time there as well, and old timers in Dachigam National Park (Jammu & Kashmir) fondly re-called her visits there.

Her empathy for nature was rooted in her upbringing—schooling at Santiniketan; a botanist uncle’s influence; her correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru and the books he gifted her, particularly Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds; her incarceration at the Naini jail where she whiled away the hours listening to birds; and, her nurturing of assorted animals gifted to her father, including tiger cubs!

Her passion for the wild, though, was more than an affair of the heart. She made it an integral part of the political discourse, guided by the belief that ecological balance was imperative to the welfare of the people and to India’s development. In an article in the journal Environmental Conversation, which appeared after her death, in 1995, she wrote, “Resistance to conservation in development projects ignores the permanent harm caused by deforestation and pollution to the economy and its people.”

This conviction was to translate into a legal and institutional framework for environment protection—a legacy that still endures. In the 1970s, she spearheaded framing of four laws for wildlife protection, forest conservation, and control of water and air pollution.

The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, was drafted to stem the decline in wildlife, and remains a key legal instrument for its conservation, while the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, though regularly circumvented and abused, reduced denudation. She banned tiger hunting in 1970 with a resounding, “We do need foreign exchange but not at the cost of life and liberty of some of the most beautiful inhabitants of this continent,” in response to the bitter opposition from the hunting lobby and the pressing demand for foreign exchange that shikar tourism brought.

Project Tiger in 1973 was the biggest conservation initiative of the time, globally, to save a species. But it wasn’t just the tiger; rare was the species that Indira Gandhi did not champion. Project Crocodile, initiated in 1973 revived the fortune of fast-declining crocodiles and gharials, and her call that “blackbucks require greater vigilance” spanned national parks for their protection. She also took steps to stop the slaughter of olive ridley turtles off the Odisha coast in the 1980s and engaged with the then Manipur chief minister, to turn the tide for the endemic dancing deer (sangai), whose numbers had fallen to mere 14.

Another key contribution was her placing the “Forests and Wildlife” item on the Concurrent List in 1976—giving both the Centre and state governments jurisdiction over environment. This was a strong signal, shifting perceptions of nature from a purely utilitarian viewpoint to one that valued it as national heritage, whose preservation was a national goal and the task of every citizen.

Her understanding of the nuances of conservation is equally impressive. She disdained plantations, and viewing of forests and wildlife with a purely commercial eye, as is evinced in her March 1977 letter to then Assam chief minister, Sarat Chandra Sinha, “It is no longer possible to regard forests primarily as a revenue-yielding resource. The long-term benefit to climate and water management is equally important. Monocultures do not have the same capacity to hold and regulate water supply as do primary forests which have evolved over ages.”

As a prime minister, Indira Gandhi tussled with ecological and development imperatives, taking positions that reaped little electoral pay-offs. This is especially evident in her stance on dams and hydro-electric projects. She famously saved (not without resistance from the state government) the pristine rainforests of Silent Valley from a hydel project and, at the same time, pressed for an alternative to meet the need for power for the state’s economic development. Such cases reveal her ideological difference from Jawaharlal Nehru, who perceived big dams as “the temples of modern India”.

The jarring note is the Green Revolution which was launched without adequate safeguards, particularly considering that Indira Gandhi regularly quoted from Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring, which spoke of nature and human health impaired and destroyed by pesticides. But then as prime minister, she weighed her decisions in the larger socio-economic context, and this call for Green Revolution was taken at a time when India needed to move away from its food-reliance on the US. Such few contradictions aside, Indira Gandhi leadership on environment remains unparalleled globally (the only other leader who comes close is former US President Theodore Roosevelt).

She continues to be a controversial figure—equally loved as a messiah and hated for her politics of power, and emergency atrocities. Nonetheless, her environment vision is relevant today as never before—with India facing numerous environmental crises, such as depletion of groundwater aquifers, reduction of major rivers to toxic drains, destruction of forests, and the decline in biodiversity and wildlife populations of species such as the Gangetic dolphin and the Great Indian Bustard. At the root of the problem is lack of political will, where the discourse views conservation laws as hurdles to economic growth.

Indira Gandhi’s environment legacy is being systematically shredded to suit the interest of a corporate minority, rather than serve the citizens, by the government, whether of her political heirs or of other parties. But we will do well to remember that environmental destruction affects all equally, regardless of ideology, geography, income or religion.

(The author is an independent journalist and wildlife conservationist. Her book, The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in 2017)

NOTE: The “Forests and Wildlife” item was placed on the Concurrent List in 1979, not 1976. The error has been corrected.

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