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
IDID 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 zig-zag 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 trailblazer 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)
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