Environmental governance at centre stage

Indira Gandhi’s insights have shaped global institutional response to climate change

June 14, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 11:41 am IST

Indira Gandhi giving her address at Stockholm on June 14, 1972.

Indira Gandhi giving her address at Stockholm on June 14, 1972. | Photo Credit: United Nations

It was the noted Pakistani economist, Tariq Banuri, who, in the run-up to the ill-fated Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change in December 2009, first pointed to me that the global environmental discourse has been shaped by four events. The first three were the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968, and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in early 1972. The fourth was Indira Gandhi’s speech at the first-ever United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm 50 years ago today. She was the only head of government to speak at that conclave (other than the host, Olof Palme). Her address, which looked at environmental issues from a development perspective and at developmental challenges from an ecological standpoint, has gone into history as a milestone.

A naturalist

Indira Gandhi had already established her credentials as a naturalist when she spoke at Stockholm. She had reactivated the Indian Board of Wildlife in July 1969 and had hosted the Tenth General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature five months later. She had started paying attention to protecting sanctuaries and in 1971, had deputed the famed ornithologist Salim Ali to Ramsar, the Caspian Sea site in Iran where the convention to protect wetlands was finalised. The National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination had been established under the stewardship of the redoubtable Pitambar Pant. She had launched India’s first species conservation programme at Gir for the Asiatic Lion in January 1972 and had started preparations for Project Tiger, which came into being in April 1973. The Wildlife Protection Bill was ready to be enacted by Parliament and it became law in September 1972. Discussions with States to bring legislation to deal with water pollution had been initiated and this would materialise two years later when pollution control boards would also come into being.

A speech for all times

One line in that historic speech — perhaps her greatest and most quoted — continues to get attention. One version has her saying “Poverty is the greatest polluter”. In another version, she is recalled as declaring “Poverty is the worst form of pollution”. Actually, she said no such thing. The line in her speech added at the last minute reads, “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” She said this to bring home to the West that developing countries like India have their own pressing challenges to raise the standard of living of millions of their citizens. She underscored the injustice and inequity in the fact that countries with a small fraction of the world’s population consumed the bulk of the natural resources causing far greater environmental degradation than what countries like India were doing. Her speech was wide-ranging and dealt with the environmental effects of war as well, the ongoing conflict in Vietnam being uppermost in people’s minds especially with the use of horrific chemical weapons. Quoting from the Atharva Veda, she ended by drawing attention to how ancient Indians had recognised the need for ecological balance: What of thee I dig out/Let that quickly grow over/Let me not hit thy vitals/Or thy heart.

The many themes covered in Indira Gandhi’s speech, including the need for international cooperation, became very much part of the Stockholm Declaration issued two days later. They were also to provide intellectual ammunition for developing countries during the discussions and negotiations at the famed Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that resulted in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Thus, while many speeches of political leaders are of the times in which they live and work, Indira Gandhi’s Stockholm speech has continued to resonate across the globe. For instance, it was widely commented upon in the months prior to the Paris Summit of December 2015.

Immediately following her speech, Indira Gandhi and Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Laureate and widely considered to be the scientific guru of the Green Revolution, exchanged letters. Borlaug applauded the speech and her firm emphasis on developmental needs, especially the rapid increase in the production of foodgrains. But he wanted her to raise her voice against what he called “eco-maniacs” who were against the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and against the use of modern science. Indira Gandhi, who knew and admired Borlaug, acknowledged that the Green Revolution in India depended crucially on expanding the application of “fertilisers, insecticides and weed-killers”. But she also expressed concern on the “adverse side effects and the long-term disadvantages of the indiscriminate use of some of these chemicals”’. She advised Borlaug (and this was 50 years ago) that “the scientific community, of which you are a leader, [should] develop integrated methods combining biological and agronomic controls with the judicious use of chemicals to raise crop yields and fight insect and pest menaces with minimum damage to nature’s balance… with the aim to maintain a higher environmental quality along with a decent material standard of living”.

Had Indira Gandhi shown any interest, the UN Environment Programme that was established following the Stockholm Conference may well have been headquartered in New Delhi. The momentum generated by her speech would have ensured that. The choice was, in fact, between New Delhi and Nairobi. India did not press its case; Kenya did. Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta was a good friend of India’s Prime Minister and had been a classmate of her top aide P.N. Haksar at the London School of Economics. In early November 1972, India gracefully withdrew citing its fraternal links with Kenya. Nine years later, Indira Gandhi was in Nairobi as one of the five heads of government to address the first UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Her speech there brought renewables into the mainstream of the environmental debate.

A sense of discomfort

Over the last half a century since the Stockholm speech, India has put in place laws, regulations and standards, established institutions and announced numerous polices, programmes and projects to ensure ecological balance as it pursues high economic growth. Nothing can and should remain frozen. Even so, while the rhetoric in international forums has stressed India’s environmental commitment and while dramatic declines in costs have enabled a huge expansion in renewable energy capacity, a sense of discomfort on the current regime’s actions at home will not be unjustified. In the name of ease of doing business, the regulatory edifice is under systematic assault and enforcement, always weak, has further slackened. When Indira Gandhi spoke at Stockholm, the public health consequences of environmental (mis)governance did not occupy centre stage. They do today. It is because of this that the domestic walk of the Narendra Modi government and not its global talk should be cause for anguish and worry.

Jairam Ramesh, MP, is Chairman of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change

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