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.
SHE MAY HAVE IDENTIFIED WITH FORMER PRINCELY RULERS AND PRINCE BERNHARD OF THE NETHERLANDS, WHO CO-FOUNDED WWF, ALL OF WHOM RESTRICTED THEIR CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT TO PRESERVING WILDLIFE, WITH NO THOUGHT TO THE PLIGHT OF ADIVASIS