As Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was as tough as nails and this persona often eclipsed her sensitive side, which cared deeply about nature. Most importantly, Gandhi used her authority to frame environmental laws that are binding even today. In his book Indira Gandhi: A Life In Nature (2017), senior Congress politician and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh reflects on a ‘Green’ Indira. An excerpt:
A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.
She was singularly responsible not just for India’s best-known wildlife conservation programme—namely, Project Tiger—but also for less highprofile initiatives for the protection of crocodiles, lions, hanguls, cranes, bustards, flamingos, deer and other endangered species.
She almost single-handedly pushed through two laws—one for the protection of wildlife and another for the conservation of forests, which continue to hold sway. Today’s laws for dealing with water and air pollution were enacted during her tenure.
Indira Gandhi was zealous about tree plantation—a fact that James Brewbaker, a professor of horticulture and genetics at the University of Hawaii, came to appreciate. When he met the prime minister in February on behalf of the Watumull Foundation—which had invited her to Honolulu later in the year—he discussed plants, specifically endorsing kubabul, a small, fast-growing tree from Hawaii. In a letter to the prime minister on 17 March, Brewbaker stated that kubabul could become one of the major fuelwood, fodder, home-building, pulpwood and green manure trees. The prime minister replied on 1 April:
Our Ministry of Agriculture has kept me in touch with the work being done with regard to this and other trees which do well in dry areas. Some time ago when I went to the drought-affected areas of Rajasthan, I took along seeds of Kubabul. It is indeed a most useful tree. We are encouraging people to plant it.
The prime minister’s firm commitment to nurturing tree-cover was evident to her ministerial colleagues and officials, as she urged them to accelerate forestry programmes. On 15 February, she wrote to Minister of Agriculture Rao Birendra Singh:
[…] We must see that the results of our efforts, particularly in social forestry, become meaningful and visible soon. I do not think enough was done last year to promote the planting of trees on a large scale, perhaps because of drought etc. But this year we should make all the preparations in advance and aim to plant trees on a really massive scale. […] We should fully utilize the early monsoon to nourish the new plantations.
The information she received was not particularly encouraging. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were expected to do well but in states where the programme was likely to be much more significant like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and West Bengal, the increase was not expected to be anything to write home about. Rajamani examined the state-level variations and sent a note to her on 29 April saying, ‘If approved, these imbalances will be brought to the notice of IG, Forests, who will be requested to review this immediately […]’ Prompt came the prime minister’s response the very same day:
This is something that must be done. It is not a question of requesting. If they default, we shall have to think of curtailing other programmes.
On 1 July, Indira Gandhi launched a massive tree plantation programme to be taken up all over the country by the Youth Congress. The decision was meant to recall the memory of Sanjay Gandhi who had included tree plantation as part of his five-point programme.
Indira Gandhi used the occasion to dwell on her favourite topic—how the merciless felling of trees had already brought about climatic change, led to pollution and caused droughts and floods. She was somewhat critical of the government-run ‘vanamahotsava’ initiative since she felt it had become a ritual without adequate care being taken to ensure the survival of the tree saplings that got planted. She wanted various kinds of trees to be planted in the name of every newborn child.
It was the first time that the Congress as an organization took up tree plantation in such a gigantic way—some half a million saplings were to be planted all over the country in seven days.
Sadly, that momentum would not last for very long, as far as political activities around afforestation was concerned.
17 November marked the first anniversary of the Department of Environment, of which Indira Gandhi herself was a minister. Since the department was still finding its feet, and was yet to achieve anything tangible—although a number of studies had been commissioned and surveys launched—Indira Gandhi decided to offer it a shot in the arm through a public message:
Three days ago we celebrated National Children’s Day. For the children’s sake we must ensure that the environment is not degraded, that natural resources are not depleted, and that there is a proper ecological balance. This needs short-term and long-term goals. Over-exploitation and pollution must be avoided […]
Among nature’s most precious gifts are forests. The greatest emphasis must be placed on afforestation and the planting of trees wherever possible. A tree is a symbol of life. Combining our love of children with their concern for trees will broaden our perspectives. A campaign such as “For every child a tree” is a process of education. A tree planted whenever a child is born and nursed to full growth will be an asset to the nation, even as that particular child grows to become a good citizen. Why not plan for a tree on every birthday?
In November last year we set up a Department of Environment. I hope the Department will persuade every parent and child to cooperate with the programmes of environmental management whether they are initiated by Government or non-officials.
A few days later, she broached a new idea before her officials and R. Rajamani, recorded a brief note and dispatched it to Samar Singh
As I mentioned over the telephone, the Prime Minister would like the need for legislation against indiscriminate cutting of trees to be examined. A note on the legal and practical aspects of this may kindly be sent on priority.
Indira Gandhi’s proposal was quite radical. Tired of the complaints she would constantly receive regarding the uprooting of trees in towns and cities, she had wondered aloud if a national law to regulate the felling of trees outside designated ‘forest areas’, would be of some use. Her officials later told her that such a law would go against the Constitution and it was best to leave such regulation to the states concerned. While the prime minister was less than happy about this, she had no option but to go along. Her eventual request was that the states be asked to pass such a law—and that is where matters stood.
Excerpted with permission from Indira Gandhi: A Life In Nature (2017) by Jairam Ramesh and published by Simon & Schuster India. You can buy the book here.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.
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