India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose birth anniversary is celebrated today, on November 19, is most remembered for the emergency — a dark blot that endangered the democracy she had sworn to uphold as its premier. But the late Prime Minister has another enduring legacy, rarely spotlighted and largely ignored by biographers — her seminal contribution to environment and wildlife.
When Mrs Gandhi came to power in 1966, wildlife was a in a crisis. Post-independence, swathes of prime forests had been cleared — to settle Partition refugees in the Terai, and other regions. As a new India was born, natural habitats were destroyed to make way for mines, dams, real estate, infrastructure and industrial projects.
Wild animals were being hunting ruthlessly — a sitting target for anyone with a gun (freely available) and pursued relentlessly in vehicles in hitherto inaccessible jungles. Tigers were the prized trophy, with big game hunting safaris organised for "dollar" tourists. Trade in tiger skins was rampant and an exposé by a forest officer (Kailash Sankhala who was to lead Project Tiger) along with a woman journalist showed how snow leopard, tiger, leopard pelts were being sold openly, and in great numbers in bazaars — including in Delhi’s Chankaya market.
Wild India was doomed. And the tiger was vanishing from its forests.
It would be no exaggeration to say — especially from one who has many bones to pick over her politics — that Indira Gandhi was to become, as noted conservationist Valmik Thapar writes, “wildlife’s saviour”.
She was a visionary when it came to environment issues, and laid the foundation of much of legal and policy framework that protects India’s forests and wild creatures.
The first landmark was the first IUCN (International Conservation Union) that India hosted in 1969, where the crisis of the tiger was brought to the fore. What followed was an immediate ban on tiger shooting, in spite of the immense pressure by the shikar safari lobby who protested the loss of precious foreign exchange — and their business. Indira responded with a resounding, “We do need foreign exchange but not at the cost of life and liberty of some of the most beautiful inhabitants of this continent.”
Soon after, a task force was created to draft the Wildlife Protection Act, piloted through Parliament in 1972. It facilitated the creation of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, strictly restricted and regulated activities in them, besides banning hunting of wildlife.
Meanwhile, a census of tigers revealed that India had barely 1,800 tigers left, and the prime minister spearheaded the establishment of Project Tiger in 1973, the biggest conservation initiative of the time to save a species. Nine tiger reserves were carved out in varied ecosystems — from the mangroves of the Sundarbans to the dry forests of Ranthambhore, which were set aside for the tiger. There can be much criticism of Project Tiger — most of it valid, but there can be no doubt that the Project coupled with strict legislation, and backed by strong political lobby, gave India’s wild tigers a second lease of life.
She also spearheaded the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which prohibited commercial activities in forests. Despite the fact that it has been abused and clearances given freely, it has still slowed the process of destruction of forests.
She put to a stop to hunting houbara bustards by the Arabs, and secured the pristine forests of the Silent Valley by refusing a hydel power plant in response to a people’s movement that had built up in Kerala. When student groups petitioned the destruction of the Delhi Ridge, the last outcrop of the ancient Aravalli hills, she initiated steps to protect the city forest.
There is little doubt that her commitment to forests was born of personal passion. She started young, as a teenager she was a member of the Delhi Bird Club. She said, “Like most Indians, I took birds for granted until my father sent me the (late) Salim Ali’s book (on Indian Birds) from Dehradun jail and opened my eyes to an entirely new world. Only then did I realise how much I have been missing.”
Her fondness for birds was to manifest itself in various ways. When the then Reuters Chief Correspondent in India, Peter Jackson told her about the Sultan jheel (Haryana) which hosted a diversity of birds, she had it protected as a national park. Indira Gandhi personally monitored the arrival of the increasingly rare (and now extinct) Siberian Crane, a migrant to Bharatpur (Rajasthan), and put her weight behind reviving the falling fortunes of the Great Indian Bustard. In one of my earlier trips to Bharatpur, I met up with one of the old timers who had guided the prime minister on her visit here. “She guided me,” he laughed, adding that in her one-hour walk in the wetland she identified no less than 90 birds.
That her commitment ran deep is evident from a letter she wrote to a Bihar chief minister in response to a plea legislature about the release of the rich Madanpur forests for some development project. She asks the then chief minister to halt the diversion of the forest. The letter is dated July 1972, when she was at the hill station having historic talks with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfikar Ali Bhutto post the Bangladesh war.
Yet, it merits reminding, at a time when we are set to overhaul and dilute environment laws, that these were not the result of a personal passion of an authoritarian leader. Some of India’s environment laws have been enacted after Supreme Court judgments, bitter struggles or major disasters such as the Bhopal gas tragedy (which was to lead to the Environment Protection Act, 1986). Some, like the Wildlife Protection Act, were drafted as a means to stem the alarming decline in wildlife.
If the foundation — the legal framework that secures forests and wildlife is weakened — there is little hope for tigers, and other wildlife.
Unfortunately, this green legacy was laid to waste by even the earlier government — the political heirs of the late prime minister — which rubber stamped most projects without a thought to environmental, wildlife or social impacts. A clean environment was increasingly viewed as a hurdle to development, an idea which is being aggressively pursued in the current regime.
As India positions itself as a top investment destination, posed for double digit growth, it needs to pause and think whether such growth is ecologically or even economically: for instance, the World Bank in 2013 estimated that environmental degradation in India costs the nation 5.7 per cent of its GDP each year.
Conserving some legacies, it may do well to remember, makes sense, regardless of political affiliations.