1917 – 1984
About Indira Gandhi
When Indira Gandhi came to power as India’s Prime Minister in the year 1966, wildlife was 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 being born, natural habitats were completely destroyed to make way for mines, dams, real estate, infrastructure, and industrial projects. Wild animals were being ruthless- a sitting target for anyone with a gun. Tigers were the prized trophy, with big game hunting safaris organized for “dollar” tourists. Trade-in tiger skin was rampant, including in Delhi’s Chanakya market. Wild India was doomed and the tiger was vanishing from its forest.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Indira Gandhi was slowly becoming a noted conservationist and a wildlife savior. Indira Gandhi was a visionary when it came to environmental issues, and laid the foundation of much legal and policy framework that protects India’s forests and wild creatures. The first landmark was the first-ever IUCN (International Conservation Union) that India hosted in the year 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.
Indira Gandhi 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 the 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 Ranthambore, which were set aside for the tiger.
Indira Gandhi also spearheaded the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which prohibited commercial activities in forests. There is little doubt that her commitment to forests was born of personal passion. Indira Gandhi started young, as a teenager, she was a member of the Delhi Bird Club. Indira Gandhi 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 realize how much I have been missing.”
Some of India’s environmental 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.