A heart and head for conservation

On Indira Gandhi’s unique ecological inheritance and her invaluable contributions as a political leader committed to both development and the environment.

Published : Aug 30, 2017 12:30 IST

IN 1992, I interviewed the well-known naturalist, columnist and photographer M. Krishnan, famous equally for his straight-talking abrasiveness as for his proximity to Indira Gandhi. He spoke about the time he had brought the destruction of the forests in the present-day Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) in the Tamil Nadu Western Ghats to Indira Gandhi’s notice with photographs and requested her to have the area notified as a protected one. The Prime Minister listened to him patiently and promised him that she would leverage this request with the Tamil Nadu government at the appropriate opportunity. The notification came in 1976.

My recent efforts to corroborate Krishnan’s story with those who know the history of the ATR did not yield any result. Even though the ATR was called the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park until it was notified as a tiger reserve in 2007, it was not possible to confirm whether Indira Gandhi had personally been involved in getting the forests notified as a protected area. In all possibility, she may have used field information from Krishnan to guide the State government’s hand in getting the forests notified.

In his book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature , Jairam Ramesh talks of many occasions where Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister acted on information provided by her trusted naturalist friends, including Krishnan, and took decisions that helped protect India’s forests, wildlife and environment. For any student of modern Indian environmental history, Indira Gandhi’s role in deciding to protect the Silent Valley rainforests from being submerged under the reservoir of a hydroelectric project is well known. Ramesh, a former Environment Minister, writes about many other lesser-known examples in his book, published to coincide with Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary.

More importantly, his book looks deeply at a period before what is normally mentioned as part of modern Indian environmental history, which usually begins with the environmental movement to protect the Silent Valley forests in the late 1970s to the early 1980s. For Indira Gandhi, the decision to say no to the hydroelectric project despite a recommendation by the M.G.K. Menon committee, which according to Ramesh “was a masterpiece of equivocation”, came at the end of a lifetime dedicated to environmental causes. By writing about the period from 1966 to 1984, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister (except for a break between March 1977 and January 1980), Ramesh has stretched the boundaries of modern Indian environmental history.

A fresh portrait Ramesh states that he did 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 love for nature stemmed from the rather unique circumstances of her childhood. She studied in Switzerland, Poona, Santiniketan and England. Of these, Switzerland and Santiniketan left a deep impact on her with regard to the environment. Since her mother, Kamala Nehru, was ill with tuberculosis, she spent a lot of time in hill stations such as Mussoorie, Dehradun, Almora, Matheran, Panchagani and also Kashmir, and these stints instilled in her an everlasting love for mountains. Her mother’s brother, Kailas Nath Kaul, “a professional botanist with a fine reputation”, was another strong influence during her growing-up years.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was among the earliest heads of state to participate and lend her weight to international environmental meetings. Twenty years before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, a similar conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden, and Indira Gandhi was the only head of state to participate other than Olaf Palme, the host Prime Minister. Internationally, she had taken on a statesmanly role even at a time when the environment was not a fashionable subject for world leaders.

Chroniclers have got the famous quote by Indira Gandhi at Stockholm wrong, notes Ramesh. While “poverty is the greatest polluter” is one quote attributed to her, the other is “poverty is the worst form of pollution.” However, what Indira Gandhi really asked was a question: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” This linkage of poverty and pollution became the high point of the conference. Maurice Strong, the secretary general of the conference, wrote later that Indira Gandhi’s speech with its theme “poverty is the greatest polluter of all” was the most influential intervention of the conference.

Indications of Indira Gandhi’s understanding of the importance of international environmental meetings were evident as early as in 1966, the year she took charge as Prime Minister. That year, she asked the Inspector General of Forests to extend India’s invitation to host the Tenth General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) scheduled for 1969. Indira Gandhi inaugurated the 1969 IUCN General Assembly at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi. It was the first time such a meeting was being organised in Asia. “Her presence signalled to the world that here was a Prime Minister who, though preoccupied with huge political and economic problems, was personally committed to conservation and was ready to walk the extra mile,” notes Ramesh.

Her invitation to the IUCN was at a time when the monsoon had failed in 1965 and 1966, and there was a severe food shortage. As Prime Minister, she was dealing with the machinations of the U.S. holding India to ransom through food relief. Her determination to give food self-sufficiency to the country—and through it political and economic stability—led to the initiation of the Green Revolution. Despite these preoccupations, she knew that hosting the IUCN meeting would place India as a world leader in the environment scene.

Contacts with conservationists On issues relating to wildlife, forests and the environment, Indira Gandhi’s method of working was interesting. She used her contacts with conservationists such as Salim Ali, Anne Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, Zafar Futehally and M. Krishnan for ground-level information, to establish links with international environmental organisations and as a sounding board for her ideas. She appointed Kailash Sankhala as the first director of Project Tiger in 1973.

Salim Ali held the prime position among her advisers. The fact that Ali could introduce others to her meant that he had the ecological ear of the most powerful person in the country. For following up and implementation of projects, she had dedicated officers handling environmental affairs in her team, such as Manmohan Malhoutra, M.K. Ranjitsinh, N.D. Jayal, Samar Singh and R. Rajamani. While Ranjitsinh and Samar Singh were to gain renown later for their role with the World Widlife Fund, Rajamani went on to become the Environment Secretary.

Ramesh’s book does justice to the less-sung heroes of the environment such as Malhoutra and Jayal. Malhoutra was the District Magistrate of Uttarkashi when Indira Gandhi first met him. He was inducted into her team and worked actively behind the scenes during Indira Gandhi’s participation in the Stockholm Conference of 1972.

Jayal played an active role in the N.D. Tiwari Committee that was tasked with recommending legislative measures and administrative machinery to ensure environmental protection. The recommendations of the committee led to the establishment of the Department of Environment in 1980, which later went on to become a full-fledged Ministry. Indira Gandhi entrusted Jayal with missions that involved travelling to States and studying and recommending corrective action on the environment—Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Satkosia Gorge in Odisha and Mahabaleswar-Panchagani in Maharashtra. In 1982, Indira Gandhi sent him to study the U.K. National Trust, an idea that later developed into the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Even as she was alleged to be an institution destroyer in politics, Indira Gandhi strove to create institutions for the cause of the environment. She also initiated legislation and executive action that had far-reaching implications for the country. In 1969, Alvin Adams, a trophy hunter, wrote to inform her of the shrinking number of large animals. This led her to reconstitute the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL) with Karan Singh as its chair.

In the same year, responding to a study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) stating that the number of tigers had dropped to 1,531, she wrote to all Chief Ministers mooting the idea of a common policy for the protection of wildlife.

In July 1970, the IBWL declared a moratorium of five years on the shooting of the tiger, which was declared the national animal in April 1972. Parliament passed the Wildlife Protection Act in August 1972. Interestingly, the draft Bill had called it the Indian Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill, whereas Indira Gandhi wanted it to be more direct and renamed it the Wildlife Protection Bill. It is the Wildlife Protection Act that enables the government to notify and protect areas of importance as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. It was the legislative starting point for the protected area network that we see today.

Similarly, the Water (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act of 1974 was something that Indira Gandhi pushed as Prime Minister. It took five years for it to become a law from the time it was drafted as a Bill.

CRZ notification In 1981, Indira Gandhi wrote an impassioned letter to Chief Ministers of coastal States to preserve the coasts in their States. She wrote this after a visit to Odisha, where the condition of the coast had pained her. It was this letter that later evolved into the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 1991. This notification, which still continues to face pulls and pressures from developments on the coast, was incorporated into the Environment Protection Act of 1986.

The Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which she had instructed to be drawn up, was a direct, one-page document. It said that no State government should de-reserve a forest or use forest land for non-forest purpose without the approval of the Central government. This limited whimsical approaches towards forest management and brought about stability in the forested areas in the country.

Indira Gandhi was reluctant to visit these ecologically sensitive areas because of the damage that her security retinue could cause. Once when Manmohan Malhoutra suggested that the Prime Minister could visit the Sultanpur Jheel in Haryana, to see the visiting flamingos and pelicans, she responded: “The undersecretary seems to be innocent as far as security arrangements are concerned. I am very much afraid that the sanctuary may be ruined.”

In 1973, Indira Gandhi wrote to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi informing him that a report by the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination had stated that the proposed hydroelectric project at Mudumalai would damage the environment of the sanctuary. Despite Karunanidhi’s reluctance to withdraw the project, she could convince him to forgo it.

However, it was not as if all her interventions were in favour of the environment. In the famous Mathura refinery issue, where the idea of establishing the facility was opposed by environmentalists, who stated that the fumes would cause damage to the delicate marble of the Taj Mahal and also affect the Bharatpur sanctuary, Indira Gandhi opted to go ahead with the project. “Why she didn’t put her foot down is inexplicable,” writes Ramesh. However, after she laid the foundation stone for the project, she directed her officials to ensure that the refinery would not harm the Taj Mahal and also set up a committee for the purpose. The additional measures that were taken added 4 per cent to the project cost and extended the time of commissioning of the refinery.

Ramesh states that Indira Gandhi was a Prime Minister who gave priority to the environment, but that did not mean she had lost sight of economic development. He quotes from her speech at the BNHS centenary celebrations in 1983, where she said: “Basically, there is no conflict between conservation and economic development or between the immediate and the enduring. Indeed, in the long run neither can survive without the other. But we cannot wish away the problem.”

Indira Gandhi’s contributions to the environment were unparalleled. But they also disturbed some of the systems. For instance, her reliance on a group of well-heeled conservationists outside the government for information and advice led to an elitism in Indian environmentalism that persists even today.

Political message There certainly is a political message in Ramesh’s book on Indira Gandhi. At a time when a strong political leader is seen to be uncaring about the environment, Ramesh’s book presents the subtext that a leader can care for the environment and still be politically strong.

It was fortunate that Indira Gandhi had a heart and head for conservation, even while leading the country to development. However, environmental causes will be served best when they are decoupled from strong leadership. A country should be able to protect its environment because that is the only equitable option to protect the interests of all communities for the present and the future.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment