When Indira Gandhi described poverty as the worst polluter

Among her many contributions to the country, the least acknowledged are her contributions to the environment

Getty Images
Getty Images

SN Sahu

Indira Gandhi became the first Prime Minister to include the issue of environment in the five-year plan document. She did it in the 4th Five Year Plan document of the Planning Commission of which she was the Chairman.  In doing so she became the first Prime Minister to have given environmental perspective to the planning and development process in the post-independence period, her initiative coming long before it was taken up at the global level in 1987 through the famous Brundtland Commission Report. on "Our Common Future".

Indira Gandhi will also be remembered for her lasting contributions in looking at environmental issues from the perspective of the poor and developing countries. When Maurice Strong, Chairman of the first UN Conference on Environment, came to India in November 1971 for  inviting  Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to participate in the said UN Conference in 1972 being organised in Stockholm, he sent his request through Indian External Affairs Ministry to get an appointment with her.

He received a reply that the Prime Minister of India who was busy in handling the rising tension between India and Pakistan had no time to discuss "peripheral issues like environment". Not happy with such a reply from our Foreign Office Mr. Strong approached Indira Gandhi through his friends in Delhi for an appointment. Immediately Indira Gandhi agreed to see him for fifteen minutes. However, the meeting lasted for two hours.

After the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi Mr. Strong wrote an article to pay tribute to her. In that piece he glowingly acknowledged that it was because of that meeting with Indira Gandhi in 1971 in Delhi that he decided to change the agenda of the first ever UN Conference on Environment by incorporating the perspectives of developing countries on environment.

It may be mentioned that Indira Gandhi was the only Head of the Government who attended that UN Conference and famously stated that poverty is the worst source of pollution. Maurice Strong stated that the formulation of Indira Gandhi that ‘Poverty is the Worst Source of Pollution’ became part of the folklore of environmental movement in the world.

He went on to candidly admit that it was Indira Gandhi who changed his notion of pollution by looking at it beyond high levels of industrialization and the resultant toxic emission contaminating air and water. It is she who educated him for the first time to look at the problem of environment and pollution from the angle of poverty which she considered as worst source of pollution. Therefore, Maurice Strong credited Indira Gandhi with a vision which enabled the UN Conference on Environment to look at pollution from the perspective of poor and suffering millions in developing countries.

In that brilliant article Maurice Strong vey elaborately outlined her contributions to environment and hailed her as a Planetary Citizen of the World. When Maurice Strong was conferred with Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1996 for his seminal contributions to protect the environment, I was asked by Mr. K. R. Narayanan, then Vice President of India, to prepare inputs on Maurice Strong for his speech. It was during the research that I stumbled on his tributes to Indira Gandhi.

In the 1960s it was famously said that India lived from ship to mouth and on generous supply of wheat from the United States. But under Mrs Gandhi’s leadership, the country soon became self-sufficient in food. The feat was described by Professor M. S. Swaminathan as even more remarkable than man walking on the moon.

Her courageous decision to conduct a peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974 in Pokhran heralded the new brave nuclear era for our country. The first satellite Aryabhatta was launched during her regime by our space scientists. After her tragic assassination in 1984 she was described by the editors of the internationally famous science journal The Nature as the heroine of Indian Science. 

It was during her tenure as the Prime Minister that women's issues were placed in a separate category by taking them from the broad category of welfare. For the first time in the history of our planning she introduced a separate chapter entitled Women and Development in the sixth Five Year Plan Document and thereby outlining their distinctive role and contributions in building our nation.


(S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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