Given to im­pe­ri­ous de­ci­sions

Most of Indira Gandhi's de­ci­sions were in the right di­rec­tion, but were not swayed by peo­ple's move­ments, which are the very soul of gen­uine en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism


Icite an in­ci­dent in which I was in­volved in the early 1970s. The Na­tional In­sti­tute of Bank Man­age­ment in Bom­bay (now Mumbai) was to set up a R6-crore bankers’ train­ing in­sti­tute on the rocky fore­shore of Carter Road in the sub­urb of Ban­dra. Test-drilling had be­gun and the struc­tures were to be raised on a plat­form, with gates for the tides to flow in and out. The hos­tel was hexag­o­nal­shaped to al­low the trainees to get un­re­stricted vis­tas of the ocean.

Res­i­dents ob­jected and—led by the hon­orary sher­iff Mah­boob Nas­rul­lah and Russi Karan­jia, feisty ed­i­tor of Blitz weekly—held a meet­ing on the coast, the city’s first-ever en­vi­ron­men­tal protest. Even­tu­ally, Ashok Ad­vani, pub­lisher of Busi­ness In­dia, con­tacted the then prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi’s aide Usha Bha­gat. She in­formed the prime min­is­ter, who is­sued a dik­tat. The cam­pus was shifted to Pune and ob­servers re­ported that this was the first vic­tory for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists in the Max­i­mum City.

This gives a good in­di­ca­tion of her style of de­ci­sion-mak­ing, as Jairam Ramesh’s re­cent vo­lu­mi­nous tome, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Na­ture, con­stantly un­der­lines. While not quite the pa­tri­cian that her fa­ther was, she was very much a grandee, con­sort­ing and cor­re­spond­ing with in­flu­en­tial in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tutes at home and abroad, while gen­u­flect­ing to­wards the latter.

To re­visit her green cre­den­tials, one could ar­gue that she was given to im­pe­ri­ous de­ci­sions, most of­ten in the right di­rec­tion but with­out be­ing swayed by peo­ple’s move­ments, which are the very soul of gen­uine en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism. Two is­sues il­lus­trate this ten­dency.

The first were her give­away re­marks on the Chipko move­ment, in a long in­ter­view con­ducted by Anil Agar­wal for Na­ture in 1980. Asked to re­spond to the pop­u­lar move­ment—a full seven years af­ter it be­gan in 1973—she can­didly replied: “Well frankly, I don’t know the aims of the move­ment. But if it is that the trees should not be cut, I am all for it.” It is by no means ac­ci­den­tal that her in­ter­ac­tions on Chipko were rel­e­gated to the leader Sun­der­lal Bahuguna, who was a part-time jour­nal­ist, able to speak English, and re­ceived all the at­ten­tion in In­dia and abroad for prop­a­gat­ing a hug-thetree move­ment. Ig­nored was the grass­roots leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who founded the Da­sohli Gram Swara­jya Man­dal in Gopesh­war, Garhwal in 1964, which tried to set up a pine resin fac­tory as a way of har­vest­ing for­est pro­duce. This was a holistic ap­proach to pro­vide em­ploy­ment in the hills

and pre­vent men from mi­grat­ing to the towns for jobs. Indira Gandhi and her co­horts were in­no­cent of the fact that Chipko rep­re­sented a con­tin­uum of peas­ant re­sis­tance to colo­nial ap­pro­pri­a­tion of re­sources, as men­tioned in his­to­rian Ramachandra Guha’s 1989 book, The Un­quiet Woods.

The sec­ond was her role in stop­ping the Silent Val­ley hy­dro­elec­tric project in Ker­ala (see ‘The green cru­sader’ on p30), as I have doc­u­mented at some length in my book, Tem­ples or Tombs? In­dus­try ver­sus En­vi­ron­ment: Three Con­tro­ver­sies. She didn’t pay heed to the com­mit­ted peo­ple’s science move­ment, the Ker­ala Sasthra Sahithya Par­ishad, which, though be­ing broadly left in in­cli­na­tion, op­posed the project against the wishes of the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist) state gov­ern­ment and party-dom­i­nated Ker­ala State Elec­tric­ity Board. Indira Gandhi was in­flu­enced by nat­u­ral­ists like Salim Ali and for­eign agen­cies like the World Wildlife Fund (wwf) and In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (iucn), which passed res­o­lu­tions against the project.

wwf col­lab­o­rated with her on Project Tiger, a suc­cess­ful “top-down” ini­tia­tive, which the former prime min­is­ter de­cided on ini­ti­at­ing a day af­ter meet­ing a wwf emis­sary in 1972. In the ear­lier years of the project, and pre­sum­ably dur­ing the Emer­gency, vil­lage res­i­dents liv­ing in the core area of sanc­tu­ar­ies were forcibly evicted, which re­veals her au­thor­i­tar­ian char­ac­ter. She may have iden­ti­fied with many former princely rulers (though she abol­ished their privy purses) and Prince Bern­hard of the Nether­lands, who co­founded wwf, all of whom re­stricted their con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment to pre­serv­ing wildlife, with no thought to the plight of adi­va­sis and other marginalised peo­ple there.

She re­ceived huge praise for her oft-quoted re­mark at the first UN en­vi­ron­ment con­fer­ence in Stock­holm in 1972 that, as Ramesh re­minds us, has been slightly re­phrased as, “Poverty is the worst form of pol­lu­tion”. This is be­ing cited till to­day not only in this coun­try but also abroad as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to first raise their liv­ing stan­dards and only then worry about pre­serv­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. On the con­trary, as the ti­tle of my book makes clear, it is the op­po­site: many so­called devel­op­ment projects—Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s tem­ples of to­day—far from re­duc­ing poverty, ac­tu­ally in­crease it, as those who are be­ing displaced by the Nar­mada dam would ar­gue. En­vi­ron­ment and gen­uine devel­op­ment go hand in hand, which is why mas­sive cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive projects, like the Delhi-Mumbai In­dus­trial Cor­ri­dor and the re­cent Indo-Ja­panese plan to run a bul­let train be­tween Ma­ha­rash­tra and Gu­jarat, are seen as “de­vel­op­ing” In­dia, but ac­tu­ally di­vert re­sources that should go to meet­ing the needs of the need­i­est.

How­ever, and sur­pris­ingly, the sec­ond case in my book—the In­dian Oil re­fin­ery at Mathura, 40 km as crow flies from Agra, where the Taj Ma­hal is sit­u­ated—was a clas­sic in­stance of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism of, by and for the elite, where Indira Gandhi didn’t put her foot down to stop it (see ‘Shadow over Taj’, Down To Earth, 1-15, May, 2015). All the ini­tia­tives and in­sti­tu­tions in­volved, like the com­mit­tee headed by S Varadara­jan, former head of the In­dian Petro­chem­i­cals Cor­po­ra­tion Ltd (whose re­port on the threat to the Taj was the most com­pre­hen­sive study in the world of the im­pact of air pol­lu­tion on a mon­u­ment at that time), in­tach, In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for the Study of the Preser­va­tion & Restora­tion of Cul­tural Prop­erty in Rome, and the like, were of­fi­cials or pro­fes­sion­als, with no grass­roots move­ment to call for scrap­ping the re­fin­ery.

One would have to dis­agree with M S Swami­nathan, who headed iucn in 1983, that she was “one of the great­est en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists of our time”. She hasn’t gone down in his­tory as wor­thy of that ep­i­thet. At the same time, she was far ahead of her times as a po­lit­i­cal leader who went against the mania for eco­nomic growth at any cost. By com­par­i­son, she tow­ers over cur­rent rulers who are busy dis­man­tling the ed­i­fice of green laws, en­gag­ing in link­ing rivers and mind­lessly con­struct­ing huge in­fra­struc­ture projects with­out any thought to their en­vi­ron­men­tal reper­cus­sions.


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