Monday, July 31, 2017



Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh
Published by Simon & Schuster ; Pages: 437; Price: Rs 799/-


The “Ifs “ of History are intriguing. 

If  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had not been assassinated there would have been no World War One.

 If Hitler had not killed six million Jews there would have been no Israel and the Arabs could have lived free of fear.

If Indira Gandhi had not embraced Politics, according to Jairam Ramesh “Then she’d have been a botanist or a conservationist” – Jairam is convinced beyond a doubt.

According to Former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh   “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanisation and industrialisation.”

The book  under review  leaves us in no doubt that the country’s lone woman prime minister was not only a great lover of Nature, but also personally responsible for laying the foundation of the environment and renewable energy policies of the government. She personally spearheaded the four laws for wildlife protection, forest conservation, control of water pollution and control of air pollution.

This new book is  a Centenary tribute and is singularly well-timed. We are in the throes of a devastating  environmental crisis  confronting climate change, air and water pollution, species extinction and deforestation.

 Indira Gandhi’s speech at the Copenhagen UN Climate Summit reverberated down the decades.The date on which the she spoke — June 5  1972— is  celebrated every year as World Environment Day.

 Jairam has delved into Indira  Gandhi’s unpublished letters, speeches, articles, notes and memos. According to him : “The idea is to have a biography which allows Indira Gandhi herself to do much of the talking.”

Despite a monumental crisis  Indira Gandhi was in close contact  with nature conservationists and took speedy action when called for and  responded swiftly when necessary.

Jairam takes the reader through the different stages of Indira Gandhi’s life, looking at each stage through the prism of her love for Nature.

As early  as 1975 she declared in Parliament  “Honourable Members are very anxious to have paper mills and industries, and I am for them too.... But we must not denude our mountainside and our countryside of their forests. This is having an adverse effect on our rainfall and climate. Unfortunately you do not see the results of such vandalism immediately; when you do realise, it is too late.... The same goes for wildlife...the elimination of any species has a bad effect on the general ecological balance and thereby also affects the human species.”

She  saved the national parks of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Silent Valley from being submerged by hydropower projects.She  is best remembered among conservationists for the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and for her leadership of Project Tiger, the premier conservation programme. She was equally concerned about other species, be it the endangered hangul, the sangai or the crocodile.

Smt.Gandhi was also far-sighted about the country’s pollution levels, pointing out that “our limited resources will be totally inadequate to deal with this problem if we neglect it now and allow it to grow”.

 Jairam’s book  reiterates how  she had a very real, lifelong relationship with the wild, which informed the ecological policies established under her rule.  She was an active   member of the Bombay Natural History Society . Also  a founding member of the Delhi Birdwatching Society. Her personal interest in conservation steered India’s green policy, created institutions like the Indian Forest Service and ensured the environmental security of havens like Chilka Lake and the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur.

Indira’s Gandhi’s ornithological passion go  back to 1942, when she was in  Naini Central Prison, Allahabad.  In 1941, Salim Ali met Nehru in Dehra Dun, where he was jailed, and gave him an autographed copy of his new work,  “The Book of Indian Birds”. Decades later, Gandhi alluded to the influence of this classic and Stanley Henry Prater’s " Book of Indian Animals " in her speech at the BNHS’s centenary celebrations.

 Project Tiger was proposed by the British conservationist Guy Mountfort’s World Wildlife Fund. He understood that it would not fly without the PM’s backing, and sought an audience. He was pleasantly surprised to find a task force constituted the very next morning, and a meeting scheduled within 48 hours.

Jairam  presents evidence of  how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.
“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to  Dorothy Norman in 1958.

 There is a hilarious exchange between Indira and  Nehru, where she writes to him describing a bird she got a glimpse of as one that has “a bit of beige, a bright tail in two dazzling shades of blue, a long dull red curved beak” and asks her father to name it for her. The country’s first Prime Minister replies to his daughter: “You give me a vague description of a new bird you saw and want me to name it from here! This faith in my extensive knowledge is very touching but it has not justification.”

 Jairam  provides  the background to a number of controversial projects, such as the Mathura refinery, Silent Valley, or the Tehri dam, and how Indira  fussed about these ceaselessly  and not always having it her way. She did "Save"  the Guindy deer park in Chennai and the Borivali National Park in Mumbai.

The book is also a cornucopia of interesting nuggets. From that we know that Salim Ali, the famous ornithologist and a close associate of Indira Gandhi, who helped shape environmental legislation, was against the peacock being named India’s national bird ; he wanted it to be the Great Indian Bustard.

Indira Gandhi, the naturalist  used her instincts and beliefs to draft landmark policies and laws on wildlife and forests and shape institutions that have endured.

 The book contains rare images showing Indira Gandhi  communing with nature. 

This is a truly outstanding book--a labour of love for Nature and admiration for Smt.Indira Gandhi.


1.Indira Gandhi's private library  throws light on the books she grew up reading - such as, " The Book of Baby Birds " by E.J. Detmold - with a handwritten inscription on the opening page: Indira Nehru, Calcutta, 5/1/29.
Correspondence between daughter and father further suggests what Indira voraciously pored over in 1932. There were some sixty books, both in English and French, that included several classics such as  " What Dare I Think " by Julian Huxley, spanning both biology and religion; " The Life of a Butterfly " by Friedrich Schnack, examining the life cycle of the peacock butterfly; the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, which engaged with children camping, fishing and exploring; and "Far Away and Long Ago " by William Henry Hudson - an autobiography of a well-known naturalist of those times who spent the first eighteen years of his life in the Argentinian Pampas.

 The books Nehru  gifted her when she was very young included     " The Life of the Bee " by Maurice Maeterlinck-- the well known Belgian writer on entomological subjects who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.(Page 13-14).

2.Kamala Nehru’s youngest brother Kailash Nath Kaul influenced the young Indira. He was a student of botany and zoology and was trained in the Royal Kew Gardens in  U K. Kaul’s room was unusual. “Anything  you opened out popped a snake. He kept two pythons as pets in his garden” (Page 15-16)


30 / 07 / 2017

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