Where did Indira Gandhi first learn bird-watching? It wasn’t the sylvan lawns of Teen Murti; or a family excursion; or a prime ministerial inspection.
It was in the Naini Central Prison, Allahabad.
From September 1942 onwards, she would listen to (rather than see) birds while in jail, punctuating her days with letters to her father. Perhaps in the British satirical tradition – but to their cost – the young inmate described animals in the jail, giving them unloved British names.
“Often we have visitors in the night. Bartholomew bat is the one I dislike most. Among our nightly visitors are Minto and Morley Musk-rat (their predecessor Montague was killed by Mehitabel the cat)… Marmaduke is an errant coward and most unbeautiful.”
This unusual biography of Indira starts with an image of an iconic Peepal tree, the tops of Mahua trees barely visible over the jail wall, Redstart birds, centipedes named Cuthbert, and birds known and unknown.
Describing jail time in pre-independence India, or stories from newly independent India – with the buffer of elapsed time and the prism of patriotism, can be a skewed or sentimentalised narrative. It is to the credit of author Jairam Ramesh, who is a political and environmental mind in his own right that the narrative does not slide in to lazy romanticism.
Ramesh, a Congress leader and member of parliament, presents a biography that describes Indira’s emergence as an environmental advocate. At the heart of it, this is an environmental memoir; and it presents in great detail Indira’s love for the environment. But the book also presents a narrative on decision-making in high offices, the challenges of federalism, and the eternal battle between economic development and environmental and ecological decision making. Ramesh anchors the book not only as a Congress loyalist, but as someone who has seen and known decision-making. This is an important perspective and it elevates the book from being a collection of correspondences (which Ramesh’s earlier book ‘Green Signals: Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India’ tended to be) to a well-thought out tome on enviro-political decision-making.
Letters, both official and personal, form most of the source material of the book. In a sense, the portrait is at once deeply personal and political. There is material in the book which draws a personal portrait, and Ramesh argues the environment is always close to her private persona. About her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira wrote to bureaucrat P.N. Haksar in 1971, “He is so much like I was at his age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.” In 1980 Sanjay died in a plane crash. His bereaved mother wrote in a letter to ornithologist and Bombay Natural History Society scientist Salim Ali, “Sanjay was so full of fun and so vibrantly alive it is difficult to realise that he isn’t there any more.” But she was still taken with issues of the environment, and in the same letter, Indira tells Ali she will come to him for advice on all matters of ecology. While her life was full of upheaval and political rivalries, Indira seemed to care deeply on matters of environment, and more specifically, wildlife.
This is all the more interesting because while Indira is credited as a wildlife lover, she is not really seen as an environmentalist. Several infamous projects, seen to be environmentally destructive, commenced during her time as Prime Minister (though construction started before she took office). These include the Tehri dam and the Sardar Sarovar Dam (ironically, the latter was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with great fanfare and pujas on his birthday this year). She created the wildlife protection act but the same time has been criticised by environmental historians as perpetuating conservation which was unfair and exclusionary to tribals and forest peoples. Most importantly, Indira, who addressed a United Nations gathering in Stockholm in 1972 was seen to be a policy-maker who viewed the poor as a source of pollution (she said: “poverty is the greatest polluter”). This could be seen as arguing for India’s Carbon space, and in another sense, a classic example of environmental injustice and tone-deafness within a developing country.
For the latter point, Ramesh offers a lengthy defence. What Indira actually said, he stresses, was a question rather than a statement:
“Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”
Whether question or statement, the Conference, and Indira’s speech were a success, leading to the subsequent identification of 26 principles for the environment.
As a young nation India had its developmental and environmental challenges, and the newly created federal structure was difficult to negotiate. The book details Indira’s focus on protecting the Bharatpur wetland in Rajasthan (advised by Salim Ali). She wanted to make it not just a sanctuary from a game reserve, but also a National Park under the Central Government. The erstwhile Maharaja of Bharatpur was interested in birds shot rather than birds in the bush, and continued to shoot birds though Gandhi had called for protection. She abolished the royal privy-purse and kept up regular correspondence on Bharatpur, but it was years before it could be protected.
Also read: Poverty Is the Greatest Polluter: Remembering Indira Gandhi’s Stirring Speech in Stockholm
It is a peculiarity surrounding environmental resources and natural areas that they are often perceived as owned only by local authorities or those who use them. This is an interesting parallel to what is happening in India today. While the conservation of many big wetlands is funded by the Central government, wetland legislation has been changed in 2017 to accommodate more states in taking decisions on wetlands. This is hailed as federalism, but may also be driven by a wish to ease restrictions on business. This has been recently done by changing environmental appraisal processes, bringing more sectors under state, not central, appraisal.
Sadly though, it seems the success she had in many environmental (and specifically wildlife) issues seemed powered by that inexplicable X factor – personal interest and charisma. Indian democracy was too young to have well-oiled environmental justice and environmental conservation systems. A significant start was made under Indira, but after her the Congress party didn’t carry the work of creating systems forward with similar zeal. In the Opposition today there are hardly distinguished as loud voices on environmental dissent.
We approach public figures with a beauty bias or availability heuristic – that is, we read biographies or memoirs to confirm our own stereotypes on the figure. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is an example. And then, do we view abiding passions of public figures as more relevant than that of the normal person? That Indira, like her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an animal lover is well known. But what is not well known is the extent of her interest in environment which led her to take decisions other prime ministers may not have taken, Ramesh argues. “She continues to inspire awe and admiration, draw hostility and criticism… A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was,” he writes. This precisely, is what should interest us as readers. The fact that Gandhi thought she was a naturalist or environmental citizen led her to take decisions that in Ramesh’s words, “had no immediate electoral payoffs.”
Indira’s decisions on the environment included those which seem to extend for inter-generational equity rather than mere personal interest—like safeguarding Western Ghat rainforest, instituting Project Lion and Project Tiger, renewing the Indian Board for Wildlife, and creating decisive environmental legislation in the face of other problems. Here then, is a way for environmental decision-making—personal interest is just one path towards the end. Reading a biography like this can show not just why ‘non-mainstream’ decisions are taken, but also how. They show that the inexplicable or unpopular is possible.
I had to ask Ramesh, who was himself a colourful and vocal environment minister in the UPA regime, if his tenure was inspired by Indira. This is what he told me, “When I was environment minister May 2009-July 2011, I was not fully aware of her ecological commitment as I am now. I knew broadly about Project Tiger and forest conservation act and contributions like that. The full extent of her involvement and the range of her concerns was not known to me. Also, the times were different. I won’t say I consciously followed her. She was in the background but I developed my own approach like public consultations, speaking orders, complete transparency, go/no go forest areas, etc.”
It may be a sign of a modern age – or a doomsayer’s prophecy – that there have been several attempts by the current government to change the very environmental laws that Indira had instituted, primarily under the mantle of ease of doing business and for faster environmental clearances. These moves have been criticised for being more pro-business than pro-environment. A reason to read a biography like this one may also be to ask, how Indira would have reacted to the sad state of the environment – plagued both by policy change as well as climate change – today.
Perhaps only Ramesh can answer that question.
He told The Wire, “She would have been appalled at the insensitivity in terms of actions at the decision-making levels in government. She would have definitely been opposed to dilution of laws and regulations in the name of ease of doing business or decentralisation.”
This book then should be read not just to understand an important time-period in India’s history, but also because the battle to conserve the environment is harder than ever.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.