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Indira, Naturally

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Indira, Naturally

Jairam Ramesh's meticulously researched monograph on the former Prime Minister's deep commitment to protecting India's environment and wildlife, masterfully etches a lesser known facet of India's ‘Iron Lady’, writes CHANDAN MITRA

Indira Gandhi: The name immediately conjures up the vision of a stern, even ruthless, authoritarian politician, who ruled India with an iron hand. Since the ugly shadow of the Emergency continues to cloud her visage, no objective assessment of her nearly 15-year rule as Prime Minister has yet been attempted. Her political persona was unapologetically divisive; while many fawned over her, others despised her intensely. A loner in real life and in politics, many have wondered if she ever loved anybody or anything apart from her immediate family, with any degree of passion.

Jairam Ramesh’s meticulously researched book, however, proves otherwise. Indira Gandhi was a passionate lover of nature: Of the hills, forests, birds and bees and all living beings (perhaps apart from some humans)! Much of what remains of India’s once resplendent wildlife, its hill stations, its rainforests, its mangroves, is undoubtedly largely due to her dedication to Mother Nature.

Ramesh has eloquently crafted an ode to Indira Gandhi’s lesser known facet, and done it with the finesse of a zardoshi artist or a Kashmiri shawl weaver. He hardly hides his adulation for her, unsurprising as he is a Congress MP and was a Minister in the last UPA Government. But this is a book about Indira Gandhi, the naturalist and silviculturist. So there is hardly any scope for controversy.

Although the former Prime Minister is often, and rightly, credited with conceiving Project Tiger to save the most precious jewel in India’s wildlife crown, it is hardly known that she also mothered Project Crocodile to save the endangered gharial, mugger and other riverine creatures such as Gangetic dolphins. She championed the cause of Olive Ridley turtles, which have been exterminated in Mexico, and chose the Bay of Bengal near Chilika Lake as their last mass nesting ground.

Ramesh informs us about her concern for India’s great rivers, especially the Ganga whose degeneration caused her immense pain. Perhaps it was her anguish for the Ganga that prompted her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi to launch the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, a project enthusiastically taken up by the Narendra Modi dispensation many years later.

Perhaps the most endearing aspects of Indira Gandhi come through from her letters to her father, particularly during her own incarceration in Naini Jail between September 1942 and May 1943. Her bonding with birds and animals is vividly expressed in a letter of April 6, 1943, that Ramesh quotes extensively and merits reproduction at some length:

“I have given names to all the animals and insects and lots of other things besides, which come here. Among our nightly visitors are Minto and Morley musk rat (their predecessor Montague was killed by Mehitabel the cat) and Marmaduke, who is the husband of Mehitabel. Marmaduke is an errant coward and most unbeautiful... On the other hand, Mehitabel is very pretty and is our constant companion as also her kittens Kanhaiya, Moti and Parvati.

“We have a peepul in our yard, a tree which, had it depended on human praise and approbation, would have withered away long since. However, it ignored our derision and went on its lordly way. And now that phagun is come again, the few remaining shreds of last year’s garment, yellow with age, are being shed off and its bare limbs are being clothed in glorious sunset pink. It looks as if a deep blush were spreading along the branches, which gives it a rather coy look. Amazingly beautiful it is. Over the walls we have glimpses of the tops of some mahua trees — a balm for sore eyes.”

Such was her keen sense of observation and eye for detail that she wrote to her father from Allahabad on the eve of his release from prison in October 1943: “The winter birds are coming in. I saw a redstart yesterday. Rather an amusing little fellow, the way he shivers his tail all the time. His call is exactly like the squeak of an unoiled bicycle wheel. There is even a slight pause between one squeak and the next, just enough for one revolution of the wheel!”

Ramesh skillfully brings out the bonding between father and daughter centred around nature. In the post script to another letter as Nehru was being transported from Ahmednagar Fort to Bareilly Central Jail via Naini prison, Indira Gandhi was allowed to meet him briefly at the prison gates. Soon, she wrote an emotional letter which ended with a paragraph on the local birds: “Did you notice the moonlit Jumna last evening? Our peepul tree has been invaded by crowds of interesting mynas. The Bark Myna, the Brahmini Myna and the Pied Myna, which is the most elegant of the lot. What a noise these little things can make!”

In the letter she referred to Rosy Pastors, a migratory bird species, wondering if they were on their way to Central Asia, their native home. Ramesh suggests her concern for saving the elusive and dwindling number of Siberian Cranes was rooted in her deep affection for birds, with whom she seemed to share a special bond.

Besides establishing her affection for birds and animals, her letters to Nehru clearly demonstrated Indira’s knowledge of nature, articulation and literary skill. Evidently, her writing ability was better than the spoken, which probably explains why she was a mediocre public speaker but a fine writer at all times.

Ramesh explores in considerable detail the building blocks of Indira Gandhi, the naturalist. She loved animals and looked after a veritable zoo once she moved into Teen Murti Bhawan, the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru when he became the Prime Minister of India. Writing about the household in Teen Murti, she wrote: “We always had dogs, the good kind with long pedigrees and others rescued off the streets that were just as devoted — also parrots, pigeons, squirrels and practically every small creature common to the Indian scene... Then in Assam we were presented with a baby cat-bear (or Himalayan Red Panda), although we did not know what it was until we reached Agartala... Two years ago, we received our first tiger cubs — there were three named Bhim, Bhairav, and Hidamba.” (Two were later sent to the Lucknow Zoo and one gifted to Marshal Tito, the ruler of Yugoslavia, at his request.)

Indira Gandhi was also a founding member of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, set up in early 1950. Meanwhile, both her father and she took great interest in the Keoladeo (Ghana) Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur and took up the issue of its disappearing herons due to diversion of water from the marshes (a problem that persists even now). Ornithologist Salim Ali was her close friend and under his guidance she took up the cause of protection of birds devotedly once she became the Prime Minister.

Ramesh also brings out her fondness for mountains, especially Kashmir which she visited at least once a year. She became fond of Kullu-Manali too and pleaded that this pristine area should not be developed like any other hill station. In an article for The Sunday Statesman, she wrote: “For those who want urban comforts, tarred roads and organised entertainment, there are many hill stations to go to — Shimla, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Ootacamund, and Mahabaleshwar... Let the Kullu Valley attract a different type — those who are young at heart and eager for adventure...”

Serious mountaineering adventure came her way shortly afterwards when Nehru (soon to be 69) and she (41) trekked to Bhutan across the Nathu La Pass in September 1958. Ramesh uses this 10-day journey across the Himalayas — on foot and the back of yaks — to underline three things Indira inherited from her father: Love of adventure, engagement with the mountains, and passion for nature. Significantly, father and daughter, occasionally accompanied by his grandsons, visited most major National Parks that existed then, such as Corbett, Gir, and Kaziranga, to name a few. Another characteristic Indira Gandhi inherited from Nehru was the urge to chronicle all that she saw and heard on these visits, thereby leaving detailed accounts for the biographers.

One significant omission in Ramesh’s account is that of shikari-turned-conservationist, Jim Corbett. There is a reference to Indira Gandhi having read his books which helped her develop a commitment to protecting tigers in the wild, but we do not know if she met or conversed with the famous conservationist who stayed back in India for some years after the British left at Nehru’s behest and helped set up the National Park and Tiger Reserve that came to bear his name.

Be that as it may, Indira Gandhi worked untiringly to preserve India’s magnificent tiger population, whose shooting incidentally was not banned till as late as 1970. She was always horrified by the practice which had led to the killing of hundreds of these magnificent beasts during shikars organised for the enjoyment of princes and princelings. Not only did she take the initiative to prohibit tiger killings within a few years of coming to power, but it is the tiger whose preservation will remain one of her major achievements. Incidentally, just over six months after she became the Prime Minister, the Indian Forest Service was launched — another signal contribution for preserving India’s nature and wildlife.

In the midst of intense political preoccupations, such as the brewing split in the Indian National Congress between her supporters and the old guard, Indira Gandhi found time to attend a meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL) for which she chose a new chief, Dr Karan Singh, who enthusiastically took on his new responsibility. The first meeting of the Board under his leadership took place, Ramesh informs us, just 11 days before her momentous decision to nationalise 14 major banks, a move that became a turning point in India’s socio-economic history and probably paved the road to her continued stint in power. That meeting of the IBWL decided to bring the various, often conflicting, laws on nature and wildlife preservation among States, under a uniform structure. This was a major step forward in coordinating hitherto haphazard efforts at the conservation of nature and wildlife.

Ramesh tells us that her passion for wildlife conservation led to a great deal of information reaching her from private sources, information that Government files ignored or deliberately suppressed. She was horrified by the continued existence of antiquated laws that allowed a motorist to kill or capture three blackbucks per year, while the Haryana Government put out newspaper advertisements proclaiming that it was legitimate to shoot one peafowl per day! In a letter to a Cabinet Minister, she pointed out both were protected species and wanton killing of such animals had to be stopped. Her concern extended to marine creatures to the extent that she wrote to the same Minister that the proposed Kalagarh Dam on the Ramganga, one of the best habitats of the mahaseer, did not provide for fish ladders aimed at enabling fish to spawn on the other side and not be easily trapped. No other senior politician, leave alone a Prime Minister, has ever shown such compassion for all living beings — a fact that emerges eloquently from Ramesh’s deep-seated study of Indira Gandhi, the naturalist.

From the year Indira Gandhi first assumed office as the Prime Minister, Ramesh follows a chronological-year format to outline her involvement with and actions she took for the environment despite mounting political and economic challenges. Although this structure ensures that nothing significant about her life as a naturalist is left out, including her speeches at various international conferences, the style of writing here onwards lacks the easy charm demonstrated by Ramesh in the earlier chapters. It would seem he was writing more for researchers than lay readers from this point on.

But that does not mean that Ramesh’s passion disappears altogether. He ably describes Indira Gandhi’s long-drawn battle with leaders of her own party, compelling them to act and legislate effectively for wildlife conservation. Her brushes with then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shyama Charan Shukla (elder brother of her Cabinet colleague Vidya Charan Shukla) is recounted in considerable detail to show she would not take a ‘No’ from anyone when it came to protection of tigers. Impressed with the concentration of the majestic beast in the Kanha Sanctuary, she battled the Chief Minister to first curtail and eventually stop all licenses issued to foreigners to shoot and export the skins of tigers and panthers. She was similarly appalled by a clause in the Accession Treaty of the princely State of Bharatpur with India which enabled the Maharaja and his guests to shoot birds in the State’s wetlands. This unusual “privilege” granted at the time of Independence was finally revoked when Privy Purses and other princely privileges were abolished by her in 1971.

Ramesh lists the number of natural animal, bird and marine life habitats that got protection on account of Indira Gandhi’s commitment. Be it Dachigam in Kashmir, home to the rare hangul deer or the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan or Chilika (from where a Naval Boys’ Training Establishment or BTE was moved to Paradeep) to protect migratory birds, she responded almost each time such matters were brought to her notice even by ordinary visitors or letter writers.

Similarly, her concern for denudation of forests to make way for human habitation took primacy in her worldview on development. The degradation of the Doon Valley (which both Nehru and she deeply loved) and the reckless felling of trees to make way for concrete blocks in the foothills pained her immensely. But as Ramesh points out, the limits of India’s federal structure forced her to work through State Governments and Chief Ministers albeit most were from her own party. While paying lip service to her concerns, they were reluctant to disempower the increasingly powerful contractor lobby. Admittedly, Ramesh concedes, she was a pragmatist and sometimes gave way to demands for urban expansion and pressures of industrial development, howsoever reluctantly, because as she declared at the Stockholm Conference on environment (which led to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP), that “poverty is the greatest polluter”.

However, protection of tigers, whose numbers had reportedly dwindled to a pathetic 600 by the late 1960s, remained her first priority. Thus, Project Tiger was formally launched at the Corbett National Park on April 1, 1973. Now that their numbers have crossed the 2,500-mark, it is easy to see how Indira Gandhi’s passion has borne fruit. Her message on the launch of the project bears recall: “Forestry practices, designed to squeeze the last rupee out of our jungles must be radically reoriented at least within our National Parks and Sanctuaries and pre-eminently in the Tiger Reserves. The narrow outlook of the accountant must give way to a wider vision of the recreational, educational and ecological value of totally undisturbed areas of wilderness.”

In pursuit of this aim, she pressured State Governments to declare more reserved forests to protect the increasingly endangered blackbuck among other species. It is unlikely that, but for her insistence, the Wildlife (Protection) Act would have been passed by Parliament in 1972. The Act has been amended and strengthened over time, but it was Indira Gandhi who conceptualised an all-embracing piece of legislation for the first time.

Regardless of a reader’s political opinion of Indira Gandhi, it is impossible not to admire her commitment to nature. In retrospect, it can be asked: What did she achieve after all? The Silent Valley Project came up despite worldwide protest; as did the Tehri Hydel project. Many a time, as Ramesh admits in all fairness, she had to bow before the demands of Chief Ministers and other powerful politicians and act against her own better judgment.

The question of her achievement, however, probably needs to be put the other way. What would India have been like had she not stood like a rock against venal contractors and destroyers of the environment? How many tigers would have roamed India’s diminishing forests? Would the magnificent Asiatic lion survive encroachments in Gir? Would crocodiles have survived the unequal battle against those gunning for their skin? Maybe the Olive Ridleys would have been extinct from the world by now. The Gangetic dolphin, already endangered critically, would have been fished out of our rivers (as would have been the remarkable mahaseer). Bird sanctuaries, such as Keoladeo, would have been reduced to dusty, barren semi-deserts. Migratory birds would have disappeared from Chilika too. And even the blackbuck would have been hunted down in hordes by celebrity pleasure-seekers. These are only some of the species in whose survival she took a personal interest and ensured they thrived in India’s forests, hills, rivers, and lakes.

Most importantly, Indira Gandhi inculcated a sense of passion and compassion among Indians towards the environment and wildlife conservation, long before it became fashionable. Despite her passion for trees and forests, she may not have succeeded in stopping the venality of loggers and contractors, but definitely helped slow down the pace of destruction of our green treasures.

Ramesh’s voluminous tribute to Indira Gandhi’s resolute commitment to nature and all creatures inhabiting the planet is remarkably well-researched and written with affection and an evidently shared commitment to preserving India’s natural heritage. While admirers of Indira Gandhi would obviously love the book’s content tone and tenor, even her ardent critics would benefit from reading it carefully.

Here was a Prime Minister who set a benchmark in conserving India’s environment and wildlife. Her shoes in this regard may be too big for any one individual to fit, but she will forever remain a role model for her successors. Ramesh clearly establishes that despite her political ruthlessness, Indira Gandhi was a loving and caring person after all. Anyone so committed to flora and fauna cannot be evil at the end of the day.




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