The green cru­sader



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

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).

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