This year we are celebrating 100 years of the birth of India’s first woman Prime Minister and the iron-lady of India – Ms Indira Gandhi – who was one of the most popular Prime Ministers India ever had. Despite her own political party being in doldrums and the Bhartiya Janta Party’s relentless efforts to undermine the legacy of the Congress stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, it seems very hard to forget the contribution of Ms Gandhi in our nation-building – particularly her initiatives in protecting the environment.
People may well remember and judge her according to their own interpretations- some may recall her as one of the strongest leaders who played the central role in the formation of Bangladesh, some may recall her as the leader who ruthlessly imposed emergency; forcefully sterilizing thousands of youths and sending her critics and opposition leaders behind bars. Well – one may like her or dislike her, but cannot ignore her.
Jairam Ramesh, former Environment Minister and senior leader of the Congress party, this year, launched his book- “Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature”- which in his own words is an “unconventional biography” of the leader because it focuses majorly on her life as an Environmentalist.
In his book, Ramesh writes about how Indira Gandhi was one of the few world leaders in the 1970s talking about climate change when it was not considered as important an issue as it is today. Going through the letters written to and by her and recalling the vital legislation and laws passed in the 1970s and 80s to protect nature, Ramesh through his book succeeds in his attempt to make the readers know about this “soft-side” of the Iron-lady, who, most of the times, is remembered and seen as an authoritarian leader who had blotted the nation’s by and large democratic trajectory post-1947.
Indira Gandhi was the only head of the state apart from the host Prime Minister who spoke at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in 1972 in Stockholm. In the 1970s, climate change and the proposition to save the environment were largely viewed by the under-developed and developing countries as a ploy by the Western countries to deprive them of development. Countries like China, India and other Latin-American countries like Brazil felt that the European countries and the United States, having exploited the environment and natural resources, climbed the ladder of development and were now talking about the environment to deprive other nations of development.
India, at that point in time, was also grappling with poverty, inflation, unemployment and lack of industries. In such an atmosphere, it was very surprising and unusual for Ms Gandhi to talk about climate change. Hence, Ms Gandhi’s speech at the conference was a watershed moment in the history of climate change, when developing countries also started looking at climate change as a profound challenge. Her speech established her credentials as a visionary leader who could envisage the co-operation needed between the oriental and occidental countries to save the planet. What she had envisaged is now being manifested in the form of the Kyoto Protocol deal and the Paris Climate Deal, among the developed as well as developing nations.
Ms Gandhi, out of her personal conviction towards the cause of the environment, led from the front when it came to legislation and laws passed during her regime. Project Tiger, which was instrumental in giving a new lease on life to the big cats, was also Ms Gandhi’s pet project. It played an indispensable role in saving the tigers. The hunting of tigers, lions and other wild animals was also banned during her regime, which made diplomats and other elites unhappy as it deprived them of their favourite pastime. Legislations like Wildlife Protection Act (1972), Forest Conservation Act (1980), Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution act 1974) and Air (Prevention and control of Pollution act 1981) were passed during her regime. Indian Forest Services and Environment Ministry as a portfolio were also established during her regime.
It would be pertinent to analyse the dilemma Ms Gandhi faced while steering these legislations, as the country was facing acute poverty, inflation and unemployment. She must have felt tempted to exploit the natural resources exhaustively in order to uplift the nation, but unlike her father and first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who saw dams as “temple(s) of modern India”, many a times she supported the environmental organizations in their fights against dams and other sensitive projects like Tehri dams or Silent Valley dam. Often she would go against her own party members and Chief Ministers of her own party.
However, Ramesh in his book recalls how, as the head of the state, she succumbed, though seldom, to the needs of the society and nation and put the issues of the environment on the back-burner. He cites an example when Ms Gandhi gave the go-ahead to start Mathura Refinery knowing fully well that it could affect the Taj Mahal and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary.
Apart from her administration and government initiatives, Ramesh in his book also tells about some anecdotes and personal moments of Ms Gandhi. He recalls that Ms Gandhi, in her childhood, would often climb up trees and sit there for hours reading books. He recalls how her childhood was full of solitude and loneliness as Panditji at that point in time was in jail for 10 years, while she was taking care of her ailing mother. Ms Gandhi, to overcome her solitude, found refuge in the realms of nature and wildlife.
As India tops the list of countries having the most polluted cities in the world, it would be pertinent for the current regime and dispensations to come in the future to take a lesson or two from Ms Gandhi’s rich and vibrant advocacy for the environment.