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Indira Gandhi: A Nature's champion !

Author Abhilash Khandekar Last Updated: Saturday, 20 January 2018 (15:38 IST)
Gandhi: A life in Nature
Author: Jairam Ramesh
Publishers: Simon & Schuster
Pages :438
Price: Rs 799/-

The year 2017 marked birth centenary year of Indira Gandhi. With that began the year long celebrations in the country, of a PM who was considered by most as powerful head of a developing in times of Cold War years. She is easily one of the most prominent prime ministers of the country had. She was born on 19th November, 1917 and became India's third after the sudden death of Lal Bahudar Shastri, in January 1966.

Indira was a gifted leader who was well-read, well-bred, but had her share of controversies too during her nearly 16 year long stint as PM. She matured into a towering global leader in those times when we did not much have TV sets not to talk of Internet or mobile phones. It's thus natural that books about her life and times abound the market all over again celebrating the remarkable politician. During her lifetime and soon after her tragic death in October, 1984 many interesting books by Indian and foreign authors hit the stands.

After a brief break stretched over a few decades, she is back in the literary circles. And with a new identity. Yes, as a votary of nature conservation !

Jairam Ramesh, a former Union Minister in the UPA Government, has come out with a hugely readable biography of the Congress leader which is--for a change--less on politics and high on her solid contributions to the nature and wildlife. Of late, Ramesh seems competing with his own identities--that of a politician and a seasoned author ! After 2014 when the UPA lost power to NDA in Delhi, he has already authored four very interesting books in the past three years. This writer has often seen Jairam Ramesh in the Parliament library, sitting alone in a corner, deeply immersed in books strewn all over his table. Indeed a rare specimen among present-day politicians !

Well, I am introducing the readers the that projects, very rightly, the greener side of Mrs Gandhi not too well known to the present generation of readers or even politicians of her own party. Environmentalists did know of her crucial role in tiger conservation in India, but this book chronicles many such details which were buried deep inside different archives of the world and have been dig up by the diligent author. The more you read it to more you feel you did not know about the history of environment and wildlife in during that period. It is such a gripping book, I must say.

Ramesh tells us through his well researched biographical sketch how first tackled the food security issue, then addressed population problem to some extent and then focussed on nature conservation in the late sixties and early seventies. The author approaches the vast subject very methodically and in the initial few pages he answers the question that a reader might ask himself how Mrs Gandhi grew up to care for nature and what are now called the environmental issues.

Where did she get her empathy for nature from ? Who and what influenced her ? Clearly, her father and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a lasting influence on her in that he would often go on treks to Bhutan or to jungles in Gujarat to see Asiatic lions at Gir, with daughter in toe. She was not only fond of lions but also of rhinos, among other wildlife animals. She had also read many wildlife related books, including Book of Indian Birds, by Salim Ali with whom she was fairly close and was influenced by his knowledge.

Much before she became the PM, she had been to Kaziranga Sanctuary twice in 1956 and in one of her letters to her son Rajiv, she described the rhino behaviour. She wrote : " ...we saw 15 rhinos which included some baby ones which are called calves. When almost any animal is running the mother leads the way and the baby follows, but the rhinos do the opposite.

Here the baby leads and mother follows. The rhino lives  and about 100 years and really looks like an old, prehistoric monster. If there is only one elephant they may attack but we were 5 or 6 and so they did not dare do anything except stop and snort and try to frighten us that way !

This was, as the author Ramesh puts it, a future prime minister educating her son and a future prime minister himself on the behaviour of rhinos.

After she became the PM, she used her experience, love, empathy and of course, the power to do a lot for the nature. From birds to tress and saving animals to helping creating sanctuaries and national parks, she did a lot during her two stints as India's top political executive. Her record of what she did to preserve nature remains unparalleled even today. No PM came anywhere close to what she genuinely did for India's natural wealth.

For instance, while the Indian Board for Wild Life (IBWL) was formed in 1952 (under Maharaja of Mysore) was not functioning well and had not met for four years prior to 1969. The IBWL had also not bothered to stop hunting of tiger. It was again Indira Gandhi who, in 1970, initiated ban on shooting tigers,four years into her Prime Ministership. And she also replaced the ailing Mysore Maharaja with Karan Singh, the union tourism minister, as the chairman of the IBWL to energise the board.

At one place Ramesh underlines her genuine love for tiger. And it's touching ! He quotes from another letter to son Rajiv in which she says: " We have received a huge tiger's skin. The tiger was shot by Maharaja of Rewa only two months ago. The skin is lying in the ball room. Every time I pass it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in jungle. Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful ...".

At another place, author gives an example how she was equally concerned about birds and their privacy. She was herself a keen bird watcher and member Delhi Bird Watching Society. Peter Jackson, a former Reuters journalist had later joined the WWF and he had described the Sultanpur Jheel in Gurgaon as one spot Indira Gandhi to visit for bird watching. There were flamingoes and Pelicans though Ducks had started to migrate in April 1970.

But sensing that her security arrangements would ruin the sanctuary, she instead, sent her secretary Moni Malhoutra to visit Sultanpur and brief her. After receiving his report, she instructed Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal who swung into action to convert that Jheel and areas around into a bird sanctuary which was inaugurated in 1972. In a similar manner, she had written to MP Chief Minister SC Shukla to expand the boundaries of Kanha National Park which she termed as the finest national park of the country.  She had also pulled up Shukla for issuing 29 shooting permits which had " made her disturbed and unhappy".

There is also a significant mention in the book that when the WWF had donated Rs 20 lakh to the project tiger, Karan Singh tried to buy a small aircraft from the funds, as the head of project tiger. Indira Gandhi got the wind of that and she got livid. She categorically told Singh to use the funds for parks and animals on the ground and not for the aircraft.

The book gives detailed accounts of IUCN meeting that was held in Delhi at her behest, of the famous Stockholm Conference on Human Environment in 1972 hosted by the UN and the effective roles she played at home and abroad for protecting environment.

Towards the end, the author writes that she was agonised over several of her decisions...she knew for instance that the Silent Valley needed to be saved from a hydel project but it took her almost three years to finally decide. On occasions, Ramesh says, she allowed herself, to be persuaded to take a particular decision against he own ecological convictions on account of larger economic and political considerations.

Reading Indira Gandhi's well-worded, crisp yet informative letters and her official notes to ministers and many chief ministers, provides a rare delight for a reader who would like to know what all happened to wildlife, nature and the jungles during her long tenure as the able prime minister.

Today, when many environmentalists are heard complaining that nature conservation and wildlife is generally not getting priority it deserves with population pressures growing, and development becoming a political promise to be delivered at any cost, this book opens up a window on the beautiful past.

(The writer is a veteran political journalist based in Delhi who also writes on the environment, urban affairs and books.)
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