Indira Gandhi: The naturalist prime minister
Jairam Ramesh's unusual biography of Indira Gandhi shows her as a committed environmentalist
Former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s new book, Indira Gandhi: A Life In Nature, comes at a time of deepening environmental crisis, when we are faced with climate change, air and water pollution, species extinction and deforestation. It’s an unusual biography of a head of government whose early brush with nature, thanks to her father, helped her play a stellar role in protecting India’s natural heritage.
In a political career spanning two decades, Indira Gandhi left an unparalleled legacy in nature conservation. And Ramesh, And Ramesh, a member of the same political party, pens the narrative by stitching together Gandhi’s unpublished letters, speeches, articles, notes and memos. He writes: “The idea is to have a biography which allows Indira Gandhi herself to do much of the talking."
Despite her commitment, environment protection was not an easy task. The nation was in crisis—the economy was in the doldrums, inflation was in double digits, there was a shortage of foreign exchange, and industrial growth was stagnating. But in the midst of economic and political upheavals, Ramesh says Gandhi—an avid birder and silviculturist—not only kept in touch with nature conservationists but responded swiftly when necessary.
Long before climate change became a hot topic, Gandhi raised the issue in an address to Parliament in 1975: “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. Unfortunately you do not see the results of such vandalism immediately; when you do realize, it is too late.... The same goes for wildlife...the elimination of any species has a bad effect on the general ecological balance and thereby also affects the human species."
If a development project was seen to be harming forest ecosystems, she would voice her concern to chief ministers . Her timely interventions saved the national parks of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Silent Valley from being submerged by hydropower projects.
Gandhi is probably best remembered among conservationists for the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and for her leadership of Project Tiger, the premier conservation programme. But she was equally concerned about other species, be it the endangered hangul, the sangai or the crocodile. In a note to chief ministers in 1973, she wrote, “Despite the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, enforcement at the field level leaves much to be desired. I continue to receive reports of even endangered animals listed in Schedule I of the Act being killed illegally. The tiger and leopard have received considerable publicity in this connection. The black buck merits similar vigilance."
Gandhi was also far-sighted about the country’s pollution levels, pointing out that “our limited resources will be totally inadequate to deal with this problem if we neglect it now and allow it to grow".
This book has an important message for policymakers: The “grow now, pay later" model will not work. Indira Gandhi: A Life In Nature, by Jairam Ramesh, published by Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, Rs799.