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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2009  |  Volume : 7  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 299-312

Striving for a balance: Nature, power, science and India's Indira Gandhi, 1917-1984

Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Mahesh Rangarajan
Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.65175

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Indira Gandhi's life (1917-1984) spanned much of the twentieth century. She was Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy for two spells that totaled fifteen years. To this day, her environmental legacy remains one that divides critics from admirers. One sees it as a defense against ecological impoverishment, especially in her initiation of wildlife preservation and environmental conservation. The other views these as thin legitimization for an authoritarian style of functioning. The two are not antithetical, but neither does justice to the subject nor indeed to her times. Drawing on her decades of letter writing to and from her father Jawaharlal Nehru and her speeches, the article also looks in some detail at her executive actions as Prime Minister. Issues of nature can hardly be separated from the political problems that bedeviled India in the late 1960s. Serious food shortages led to increased reliance on US food aid, but the Indian bid for autonomy led to inevitable strains over the issue. The Green Revolution reduced reliance on the West. It was paralleled by a sustained engagement with conservation issues that continued beyond the 1971 war with Pakistan. Here, the Indira period is divided into two broad parts, with a leftward tilt, especially around 1969, and a shift to a more pro-business attitude after 1980. These changes were also evident vis a vis forests and wildlife. Ecological patriotism requires careful attention for saving nature, although statist intervention was a concomitant of India's unique place in the Cold War later. As US contacts thawed; the opening was complemented by shifts in the political economy. Similarly, arbitrary slum demolition and forcible family planning were part of a larger shift to coercive polices during the 18-month long Emergency period. The article ends by asking how to study contemporary politics to better comprehend our ecological dilemmas. Even as ecological processes and economic exchanges unify the world, divisions between and within nation states are central to most issues. By looking at a key figure of the latter half of the twentieth century, the article hopes to shed fresh light on how to look at the relations of nature, science, and power.

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