FORMER ENVIRONMENT Minister Jairam Ramesh has come up with ‘Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’, a new “unconventional” biography of the former Prime Minister, in which he explores her personality only as a nature lover. Ramesh insists his book is not an attempt at “reinterpreting” or “revising” her personality but to bring out a relatively unknown side of her. He spoke to Indian Express on why this is important.
Why did you feel the need to look at Indira Gandhi through the lens of environment?
This year happens to be her birth centenary and that is a good occasion to reflect on national leaders. But more importantly, there is this large volume of evidence that point to her very strong love for nature and concern for environment. This particular side of her personality has not been explored adequately. She had such a dominating presence on the country’s politics, for a long period, that it is not surprising that her political side is what most people have been interested in. But Indira Gandhi as a nature lover is no pygmy. And, importantly, she is able to convert her love for nature into a series of policy decisions on environmental governance. The air and water pollution legislation, the forest conservation act, the Wildlife Protection Act, Project Tiger, creation of a separate Environment Ministry, the pollution control boards, are all her doing.
You call her a nature lover in your book, not really an environmentalist. What is the distinction?
A purist environmentalist would not have decided to locate a refinery in Mathura or approved the Kudramukh iron ore project which had grave consequences for the Western Ghats. She was conscious of the fact that India was a poor country, that it required fertilizer factories, it required power plants, irrigation projects. She was always trying to walk a fine balance.
In one of the files, she told an official, ‘if we make too much about conservation, we will lose the conservation battle’. But on an individual level, she was a naturalist. She loved nature, wildlife, forests, mountains. She got sucked into politics by circumstances of her birth but I suspect, based on the written evidence I have produced in the book, she would have been happy living in some mountains somewhere.
You credit her for a lot of things. Couldn’t it just have been that she was responding to the needs of the time?
I don’t think Project Tiger was the need of the time, or the forest conservation act, or air and water pollution control legislation. Yes, PMs do often get credit for things that happen through the system, but in her case, there is overwhelming evidence to show that she actively pushed for these initiatives. She had a group of conservationist friends, like Salim Ali, who had full access to her and who she respected. She was receptive to their ideas and that was the key to many of her initiatives.
Despite all those landmark initiatives of 1970s and 80s, India’s record on environment has not been great. Yes, enforcement has been pathetic. And, records show that even during her time she had been unhappy with what was going on. In the case of Mathura refinery, for example, she rejected what all she was being told, and said she herself had seen the damage it was causing.
So why didn’t she ensure enforcement?
Interestingly, the authoritarian image that she has otherwise is nowhere to be seen in instances like this. Her own chief ministers, Shyama Charan Shukla, Arjun Singh, Barkatullah Khan, Hari Deo Joshi, V P Naik could openly defy her. She wanted the central government to take over Bharatpur and Sariska national parks but both Hari Deo Joshi and Barkatullah Khan (chief ministers of Rajasthan at different times), who were her appointees, basically told her to go take a walk.
She was against backbay reclamation in Mumbai but V P Naik had his way. She was against replacement of sal plantations by pine in Bastar, but Arjun Singh (chief minister of Madhya Pradesh) did not agree. Shyamacharan Shukla (chief minister of Madhya Pradesh) consistently defied her.
But why couldn’t she put her foot down?
I think she realised there were trade-offs to be made. There were jobs at stake, local level demands, sometimes strategic interests to be taken care of. So, she was not an environmental fundamentalist in that sense.
Your book mentions about the committee she had formed to look into the demand for a national ban on cow slaughter. That committee never submitted its report and was wound up 12 years later by Morarji Desai government. Did you come across any evidence that would indicate which side she herself was leaning?
Unfortunately, there is nothing in written record that I could find. May be, there is something in the minutes of the meetings but I have not seen them. The closest that I came to knowing her mind was a letter written by Chester Bowles, then US ambassador to India, to Dillon Ripley, a US conservationist. Ripley, and some of his Indian friends, had proposed a study on India’s cattle population from the point of view of environmental management.
Ripley had directly written to Gandhi about this. After a few days, Bowles wrote to Ripley informing him about a conversation he had with P N Haksar, Indira Gandhi’s adviser, on this issue. Bowles told him that Haksar had suggested that the complexities of the cow be best left to the Indian government. So, she was clearly aware of the sensitivities attached to the cow and was not looking at it purely from the environmental angle. But there is nothing more to suggest what she might have been thinking.