Jairam Ramesh on Indira, the Conservationist & Modi, the PR Guru

Jairam Ramesh speaks to The Quint about his book and PM Modi’s environment record.

7 min read
Jairam Ramesh on Indira, the Conservationist & Modi, the PR Guru

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What triggered the idea for this book?

Well, much has been written about Indira Gandhi and much continues to be written. But they have focused on the political persona, her political achievements, her political errors of judgement and action. Who the real Indira Gandhi was, and who Indira Gandhi thought she was, has not really been explored in the public domain. And today, everybody is talking about the environment, nature, conservation and climate change, so it’s a very topical subject. Here was Indira Gandhi in the 70s and the 80s, long before the environment became a fashionable topic domestically and internationally. She made this her driving passion.

She was a political leader. She was Prime Minister for 16 years. She grappled with crisis, you know – Bangladesh, the split in the Congress Party, high inflation, later on the Emergency. I mean, she had political crisis all the time.

(Graphic: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)
And throughout the 16 years that she was Prime Minister, and even before, you could see her driving passion for nature in its various forms.

So, I thought as it is her birth centenary, it is time to reflect and recall her achievements. But what aspects of her life do we not know about? What are the unexplored dimensions of her personality and her achievements? I felt that her life as a nature lover, not as a uni-dimensional environmentalist but somebody who cared for the natural heritage as well as, of course, the cultural heritage, this is something that we needed to bring out.


The book appears to be very research-intensive and reproduces several archival material. Where did you source these letters and documents from?

No oral interviews, no anecdotes, no myth making – everything in this book is based on primary material. Documented material – available in the archives, both in India and abroad – letters, notes, file notings, memorandums, speeches, you know some of which were not very well known. That’s how I wanted it to be. It’s Indira Gandhi speaking. It’s not me putting words into her mouth. Indira Gandhi unplugged so to speak, as far as the environment is concerned.

So I’ve included primary documentation, primary archival material. It took me about 5-6 months to collect it from various archives both in India and abroad, from some private collections, individuals who are still around, who worked with her, and whom I’ve met. But I didn’t meet them to get their recollections necessarily because any recollections of theirs which I have used in the book is backed by written material, either a letter or a note. Because you know, as a country, we are an oral culture. We don’t value the written word too much.

But I have been critical about many of her decisions on the environment. For example, the location of the Mathura oil refinery near the Taj Mahal, the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Project, which started with the assistance of Iran, which had long term effects on the Western Ghats. There were some decisions which were clearly troublesome and I have not been shy of taking them on and I have shown the multiple u-turns that Indira Gandhi took in arriving at these decisions. And these u-turns were because she was conscious of the fact that India needed economic growth, fertiliser factories, power plants, they needed refineries steel mills.

(Graphic: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)
So the four laws that we have even today – the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Water Pollution Control Act, 1974, the Air Pollution Control Act 1981, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 – it is because she pushed the bureaucracy. She created the Ministry of Environment and prioritised nature and environmental conservation.

And I will give you one simple example – On 14 July 1972, she went to Stockholm for the first UN Conference on Environment. She was the only Prime Minister present, besides the host, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme.

Twenty years later, when the famous Earth Summit took place at Rio, there were over a hundred Presidents and Prime Ministers present. So today, every Prime Minister and President talks about the environment. They talk about nature, and about climate change. But in the 70s, with the economic crisis particularly in India, to talk the way Indira Gandhi did, and to act in the manner she did for the environment, required a lot of political courage.


Do you think that the resistance towards environmental friendly policies has reduced from the time when she was Prime Minister?

Yes. I think more and more people are concerned about the environment today. There are more popular movements for the protection of the environment, which means protection of forests, water, mountains, cleaning of rivers, protection of livelihoods.

People are worried about clean air now, because it has public health consequences. Water pollution has always been a source of worry, particularly in the post-Bhopal era. So yes, today there is greater public consciousness.

(Graphic: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)
Frankly, without Indira Gandhi, Project Tiger and Project Crocodile wouldn’t have come about, and neither would the Forest Conservation Act.

She would keep meeting Salim Ali, Billy Arjun Singh, Sundarlal Babuna, Dilip Mathai, all sorts of people. She would continue to meet all these people even though she was immersed in political and economic crisis.

But today, the media is more conscious, the younger generation is more conscious, internationally there is a great consciousness on the environment. By the way, if you talk to anybody who is taking part in international discussions on the environment, they will all tell you that one of the crucial milestones in the environmental discourse was Indira Gandhi’s speech on 14 June 1972, where she gave a development dimension to the environmental issue.


What will it take to make the environment a politically expedient issue in India?

It is not an election issue. I think one of the reasons is that we have to look at it as a public health issue. We have to look at environmental issues as livelihood issues. It is then that they become electoral issues. Environmental issues do not have political traction, per se. Most politicians will say we need jobs, we need factories, we need industry – but what that does to livelihoods, water and air, and how that impacts our public health becomes an electoral issue. That is very important.

We have a long way to go to clean up our rivers and water sources. We have serious problems of arsenic concentration in the Indo-Gangetic belt. We have other problems with water quality. We’ve a long way to go to improve the quality of our forests. Only 24 percent of india’s area is under forest cover right now, and only 40 percent of that is good forest cover. We have a long way to go before we clean up our cities in terms of air pollution. So, the agenda is heavy.

On one hand, we need to create 8 percent growth – 10 million jobs because of the youth. On the other hand, we have to pay equal attention to issues of the environment. These are no longer a middle-class environmental elitist pastime but are issues of public health, issues of livelihoods, issues of access to land, water, forests and so on. They are peoples’ issues.

So do you agree that initiatives like Swachh Bharat and Namami Gange are a step in the right direction?

I announced the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan when I was the environment minister. When Mr Modi became the Prime Minister, he announced the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. He converted Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan to Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. So I congratulate him for repackaging it. I congratulate him for the better branding, and for becoming a political champion.

But when I started this in 2012, I came under great criticism when I made the statement that India requires more toilets than temples. Mr Modi’s own political colleagues came outside my house and protested with black flags. But when Mr Modi said: “pehle shochalaya baad mein devalaya,” everybody applauded him as a great champion of sanitation.

I used to get a lot of hate mails for the slogans I gave when I was environment minister. One such was “shauchalaya nahi to dulhan nahi”. I would travel and meet women’s self-help groups. In fact, one woman, Anta Anare, from Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, went back home after marriage when she realised there was no toilet in her sasuraal. I got then-President Pratibha Patil to give Anta a special award for her effort.

(Graphic: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)

One final thing, I said the objective of Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan is to make India open-defecation free. I used the word open-defecation, not Swachh Bharat.

We got Vidya Balan on board as the brand ambassador. One of her films had a nice line: “jahan soch hai, wahan shauch nahi”. Now of course, Mr Modi is claiming her to be his brand ambassador. Good, good, atleast there is continuity in this.


Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature
Price: Rs 799
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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