Jairam Ramesh states he did not “set out to assess or judge Indira Gandhi” but in the process of depicting the former prime minister’s love for nature and the environment, he has produced a superb book. He has told us all we need to know — and considerably more — about Indira Gandhi’s interest since early childhood in trees, birds, animals and ecological balance. “Although I was born on one of the flattest plains of the world, I have always regarded myself as a child of the mountains,” she writes wistfully.
In fact, such is the measure of Ramesh’s research that this work could well be described as “the Collected Works of Indira Gandhi on Trees, Birds, Animals and Reptiles”. Indira drew greatly from her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s interest in natural history; his influence was seminal. So also was her uncle Kailas Nath Kaul’s, a botanist and collector of snakes. Indira was a naturalist and considered herself as one.
“I have always loved trees, trees more than flowers. And animals” she wrote, “Bird watching is one of the most absorbing and rewarding activities.” She is credited with several legislative interventions and personal initiatives to protect wildlife, forests and the environment. She saw “nature and culture as two sides of the same coin,” and her aim was to strike a balance between ecology and economic growth. Her interest holistically embraced town planning, conservation of old monuments and architecture.
Ramesh is a fine and persuasive writer, with only occasional instances of overwriting. He gives us some unexpected facts, such as the inclusion of a famous ornithologist in the US team that came to India to condole Indira’s death, and “the cheetah was, and still is, the only mammal to have become extinct in India.” Indira’s network of international wildlife enthusiasts was vast and each finds a mention in this book. So do the many institutions in India and abroad she either set up or supported. Herein lies the rub. If one dares carp at what is obviously an emotional enterprise on the author’s part, it is that he overburdens the reader with excessive detail.
An equally telling but much shorter book could have been produced with strict editing; the enumerations of species protected — lion, tiger, rhino, crocodile, deer, fish, black buck — and their habitats — Bharatpur, Sariska, Kanha, Gir, Corbett, Guindy, Chilka, Dudhwa, Sultanpur — are repetitious and wearying, and the multiple quotations from correspondence become tiresome as the book progresses to its 400-page plus conclusion. So too are the various institutions with which Indira was associated, with their initials — IBWL, UNEP, BNHS, ISCON, IUCN, NCEPC et al — strewn among the pages without the benefit of a table of abbreviations.
Not surprisingly, the cast of characters is also vast; some of the heroes are Karan Singh, Salim Ali, Pitambar Pant, even the egregious Bansi Lal; together with some of Indira’s staff such as Malhoutra, Haidar and Rajamani. It is unusual for a former minister such as Ramesh to give any credit to civil servants who propose but never dispose, and perhaps he exaggerates their contribution. The villains are the usual suspects; some chief ministers, members of parliament and the military, who did little to appreciate or support the prime minister.
This is a well-produced book that gives considerable satisfaction in its appearance, its original jacket cover, and its excellent photos. Some excerpts of correspondence are so personal that it makes the reader feel as uneasy as a voyeur. The prime minister’s political career is well moulded into the text without detracting from the author’s main theme.
Ramesh stresses more than once the frustrations of implementing measures in a federal structure, and takes pains to show that Indira’s reputation as autocratic was unjustified, at least as far as this aspect of her interest and activities were concerned, “Environmentalists worry about a single objective.
Political leaders have to balance competing demands and choose, if not the most desirable, then at least the least undesirable option…” In fact more of the author’s own reflections and obiter dicta would have been all to the good. “The bustard,” he writes, “already endangered, faced near extinction, till the bird came to Indira Gandhi’sattention …” This aspect might have been worth further attention —does it reveal the Indian’s propensity to do nothing unless a directive comes from above, or the inclination to refer all matters, however obvious, to the highest possible level — or both?
Ramesh’s considerable achievement, apart from filling a gap in the knowledge of Indira Gandhi with a well-merited account of her dedication to nature, is to make his readers like and respect Indira Gandhi more than they did before they started this book.
A short chapter indicating to what extent Indira’s successors carried forward her ideas on ecological balance would have rounded the story off. And what a shame Indira did not get round to tackling sound pollution with vigour! No population in the world is as afflicted with it as grievously or as consistently as us unfortunate Indians.
(The reviewer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)