Title: Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature
Author: Jairam Ramesh
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: Rs 799
We think of Indira Gandhi’s years in the wilderness as the period in the Opposition, 1977-1980, but setting apart the figure of speech, Jairam Ramesh’s book reminds us that she had a very real, lifelong relationship with the wild, which informed the ecological policies established under her rule. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, whom he plied with books on natural history and wildlife (apart from those famous letters), were perhaps the only Indian prime ministers who could tell a blue-fronted redstart from a red-vented bulbul. And if the father is remembered for promoting big dams and heavy industry, the daughter was alive to the environmental cost of development. In the Sixties and Seventies, she framed these concerns precisely as we do now, 50 years later.
A vocal member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, which publishes the books of Salim Ali, who was a mentor to Gandhi), she was also a founding member of the Delhi Birdwatching Society. Her tenure as prime minister coincided with the rise of the global environmental movement (by way of reference, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in 1962, and Gandhi took office four years later), and the founding principles of India’s conservation movement were set under her rule. With a wealth of detail culled from the archives, Ramesh establishes that she was the right person in the right place at the right time. Her personal interest in conservation steered India’s green policy, created institutions like the Indian Forest Service (constituted in 1966, the year she became PM) and ensured the environmental security of havens like Chilka Lake and the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur.
Ramesh begs to differ with Ramachandra Guha, who had attributed Indira Gandhi’s interest in birds to the American pacifist and ornithologist Horace Alexander, Mahatma Gandhi’s friend and founder of the Delhi Birdwatching Society, who had done fieldwork in what is now Nagaland with Sidney Dillon Ripley (who would later win acclaim as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution). Ramesh traces Gandhi’s ornithological interests back to 1942, when she was an inmate at Naini Central Prison, Allahabad.
In 1941, Salim Ali had met Nehru in Dehra Dun, where he was jailed, and gave him an autographed copy of his new work, The Book of Indian Birds. Decades later, Gandhi alluded to the influence of the classic and Stanley Henry Prater’s Book of Indian Animals in her speech at the BNHS’s centenary celebrations, adding, “But I did not know much about birds until the high walls of Naini prison shut us off from them and for the first time, I paid attention to bird songs. I noted the sounds and later on after my release, my father sent me Dr Salim Ali’s book and I was able to identify the birds.”
Gandhi’s approach to conservation was graduated. In 1958, before she became PM, she wrote an article in the Sunday Statesman about a trip to Manali, urging against reckless modernisation. She suggested that the Kullu valley could be reserved for trekkers and nature lovers, while city slickers should go to pukka hill stations like Simla and Mussoorie.
She seems to have rejected the government versus activist model which now polarises the issue. Apart from naturalists, she was sympathetic to grassroots activists like Sundarlal Bahuguna. In 1981, she sent him a taped public statement backing his padayatra from Kashmir to Kohima, warning of the dangers of denuding the hills.
Quite often, in acting on an environmental issue, Gandhi was guided by the reports and appeals of foreign agencies, activists and researchers, who are now regarded with instinctive suspicion by the government. Indeed, when Western researchers found it impossible to get visas for geopolitical reasons, the norms were relaxed for environmental and conservation projects.
Project Tiger was proposed by the British conservationist Guy Mountfort’s World Wildlife Fund. He understood that it would not fly without the PM’s backing, and sought an audience. He was pleasantly surprised to find a task force constituted the very next morning, and a meeting scheduled within 48 hours.
According to Ramesh’s research, Ashok Khosla, the physicist behind the concept of sustainable development, joined the fledgeling Department of Science and Technology on the recommendation of his professor at Harvard, the celebrated Roger Revelle. He standardised the environmental impact assessment of projects, nurtured NGOs and established Development Alternatives.
After the debacle of 1977, two of Gandhi’s last communications before demitting office concerned the environment. One was to the petroleum minister, concerning oil prospecting in the Sunderbans and warning of the damage that a spill would cause to Project Tiger. The other reminded the chief minister of Assam, who proposed to clear forests and institute the monoculture of commercially profitable species, of the implications for water management and climate change across borders.
While the Indian conservation movement is the sum total of the work of thousands of people, from maharajas who put down the hunting rifle in favour of the camera, to farmers and foresters who saw the implications of environmental damage at first hand, Jairam Ramesh suggests that it was accelerated and given intelligent direction by Indira Gandhi. She was guided by a direct, immediate connection with the outdoors, which she shared with her father. She had travelled widely in the wild and at home in Teen Murti House, she had helped maintain Nehru’s menagerie, which at one time included three tiger cubs and Sanjay Gandhi’s baby crocodile (do all headstrong leaders encounter crocodiles in their impressionable years?).
The family’s travel preferences, recounted by Jagat Mehta, illustrate their love for the outdoors. In 1958, father and daughter, aged 67 and 41, led a diplomatic mission to Bhutan via Tibet, trekking 105 km in five days from the Nathu La pass to Paro, at altitudes of around 15,000 feet. If contemporary leaders who attribute all the ills of India to the Nehru-Gandhis attempted such feats in their international travels, it would improve their figures, their temper and their world view.