The year 2017 marks birth centenary year of Indira Gandhi, easily one of the most prominent prime ministers of the country. Jairam Ramesh, a former Union Minister from her party, has come out with a hugely readable biography of Indira Gandhi which is less on politics and high on her contribution to nature and wildlife. Of late, Ramesh is vying with his own identities--that of a politician and a prolific author! After demitting office in 2014 when the UPA lost power to NDA in Delhi, he has already authored four very absorbing books in the past three years. This writer has often found him in the Parliament library, sitting alone in a corner, deeply immersed in books. A rare specimen among present-day politicians!
Well, I am introducing you to the book that projects, very legitimately, the greener side of Indira Gandhi not too well known to the present generation of readers or even politicians of her own party.
Ramesh tells us through his extremely well-researched biographical sketch how Indira Gandhi first tackled the food security issue, then addressed population 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 did Indira Gandhi grow up to care for nature, what is now called the environmental issues.
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 the 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 wildliferelated books, including the 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 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 for about a 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, power to conserve India’s natural landscape and its fauna. From birds to tress and saving animals to helping create 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.
At one place the author underlines her genuine love for tigers. 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 the 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 the jungle. Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful....
There is also an important mention in the book that when the WWF had donated Rs 20 lakh to the Project Tiger, Karan Singh, WLBI chief, tried to buy a small aircraft from the funds, as the head of Project Tiger. Indira Gandhi got 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 author gives an example of how she was equally concerned about birds and their privacy. 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. Today, when many environmentalists are heard complaining that nature conservation and is generally not getting priority, this book opens up a window on the beautiful past.