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)


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