'A Matter of Survival' Says Youthful Legislator

She is India's first Green Minister. To her goes the credit of making environment a major issue for millions of people of this land. Her critics call her "a Yuppie environmentalist" mouthing platitudes merely because it is a hot issue of our times, as do some American advocates who are neither impacted by the environmental problems, nor doing much about them. Neither praise nor criticism affects her as she continues to dedicatedly work for the cause she holds so dear to her heart. She is Maneka Gandhi, a young and charming person, but often taciturn and reserved.

She was rarely taken notice of up to a couple of years ago. Her husband (Mrs. Indira Gandhi's oldest son, the late Sanjay Gandhi) brought a lot of misery and suffering to thousands of people during the emergency of 1975-77. She shot into fame only when she walked out of her mother-in-law's house a few years after the 1980 death of her husband. In the full glare of the press photographers she drove out of India's White House one day with her infant son, Varun.

Maneka began trying to build a political career for herself. She set up an organization named after her husband, Sanjay Vichar Manch, and launched a campaign against the ruling party, the Congress. She challenged the candidates of her mother-in-law's party in the state of Uttar Pradesh and successfully won a number of seats in the assembly. But she still could not get the recognition she deserved. She was considered an unwanted intruder in politics.

It was her love for animals and birds and programs that she organized for their protection that brought her to the attention of the people she had least expected would support her. Her forays into politics aroused the suspicion of many that she was trying to create a place for herself to continue with her husband's detested policies – such as forced sterilization. But when her interest in ecology began to be known, her critics slowly changed their opinion about her. When she found that the Sanjay Vichar Manch was not making the desired impact, she began giving more time attending to programs for the welfare of wildlife. She wrote extensively for various newspapers and magazines.

Asked about Maneka's changed image during a visit to HINDUISM TODAY'S editorial office, Swami Paramananda Bharati of Sringeri Mutt in South India commented, "I think she is sincere, she is doing something. My image of her has improved." Swami was one of the eight Hindu representatives to the 1990 Moscow Global Forum on the Environment.

Maneka's father was a Sikh, but she is not. Educated abroad, she is not involved in religion as such and doesn't believe in going to temples to worship. Still, her thinking has roots in Hindu philosophy which explains her interest in protecting animals. In a 1990 interview with New York's India Abroad, Maneka said, "I see myself as a kind of mother. It sometimes strikes me that I am the defender standing with shield and sword. And by the time I am finished everybody would be standing with shield and sword."

Maneka has held a ministerial position in the government since November 1989 and has been an important member of the ruling parties. There is hardly a political party which can refuse her entry or an honorable position. She has no group or organization to support her in her work. But alone she has become a force to reckon with. There are many influential persons in the government and outside who simply do not like her, but they cannot do a thing to check her activities. She has even taken some of them and made them look guilty in the public eye. Often harsh in her dealings, she still commands respect because of the zeal and fervor with which she has kept herself engaged in her work.

The reason for her impact lies in the sheer magnitude of India's environmental problems. Maneka said in her interview with India Abroad, "There are over six million in this country who are environmental refugees – the slum people in cities. They have left their lands because it is not sustainable any more. This is because they have cut trees. We are generally turning into a nation of environmental refugees." A 1990 United Nations report stated 40,000 square miles of forest were lost in India just between 1975 and 1982. The rate of deforestation in India since 1982 was 7,722 square miles a year, leaving the country with just 96,500 square miles of forest in 1990. Even the most hardened exploiters cannot ignore this reality. "This is not a fad," warns Maneka, "It is survival. You cut down the trees and it means drought, water logging, floods, change of weather and no ground water, no food, no topsoil; you can die and die a harrowing death."

The opportunity for Maneka Gandhi to make a full-fledged entry into public life came when she joined the Janata Dal in 1988. This party came into existence to challenge the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, elder brother of Maneka's Husband. She disliked Rajiv and sometimes gave the impression of even hating him. When Rajiv's close confidant, V.P. Singh, broke away from him and set up the Janata Dal to defeat him in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Maneka sought to join it. She got the support of eminent persons like Ram Krishna Hegde and Chandra Shekhar in the Dal, and she was finally given entry. When the 1989 parliamentary poll was held, she contested the election from Pilibhit, a town in U.P., and won with a thumping majority. She had so endeared herself to the people of Pilibhit and neighboring towns that when Dal formed a government in Delhi a berth in it was reserved for her – she was made Environment Minister.

No sooner had she been sworn in as minister that she began taking steps for the protection of environment at a speed that came to be described as "scorching." She was able to make Prime Minister V.P. Singh to agree that all development projects of the government should be taken up for implementation only after they had been "cleared" by her ministry. This made even her colleagues uncomfortable as she would not allow such projects that threatened the environment in any way. These colleagues even complained against her to the Prime Minister but he did not dare interfere in her work. She even made him give up wearing a his trademark fur cap!

There are some persons who do not feel happy about the way she has gone about doing her work. She not only steps on the toes of her colleagues but also irritates other well-known environmentalists by her excessive zeal in her work. For example she got an order issued a few days ago asking the owners and managers of the circus companies not to use animals in their shows as it amounts to torturing them. Earlier she conveyed to the film producers in Bombay that her ministry would take serious objection to animals being used in films in a manner hurtful to them. It is for these reasons that Maneka has earned the title of "Yuppie Environmentalist" and Kutta and Billi (Dog and Cat) Minister. She rejects all charges against her and says: "If my concerns were superficial I would not be sticking my neck out the way I am doing." She is not at all worried about the efforts often made by her detractors to dislodge her from the position she holds. She is more interested in her work. Says she: "I do not think about how long I am going to last in this ministry or in politics now. As long as I do last I want to bring about as many changes as I can."

The Delhites are thankful to her for forcing the motorists to obtain pollution control certificates for their vehicles so that Delhi, the third-most polluted city in the world, is saved from an environmental disaster. She made it mandatory for all hazardous chemical industries in India to get themselves insured so that their workers get relief in case of death or injury. At her insistence, television and radio is soon going to launch an environmental awareness campaign. She has finalized schemes like environmental courts, compulsory environment impact assessment for all industries, stricter punishment for committing cruelty to animals and violation of environment. She has fought, though unsuccessfully so far, against construction of big dams like Narmada and Tehri, and achieved creditable adjustments in the Montreal Protocol on substances depleting the ozone layer. She has a solar energy program too – "Solar power is still considered to be on the lunatic fringe, but I think it is an answer to future energy problems. Solar power is my strategy for decentralized power system. Instead of dismissing it as something silly – you know, burn the bra and save the whale kind of stuff – I have decided to use it as an answer to the energy crisis."

Maneka hopes to continue with her work if she is back in the ministry after the parliamentary elections due in May. If she fails, even then she will continue with her work as a public figure.

Article copyright Himalayan Academy.