November 7, 1966 had seen a most unusual attack on Parliament. Thousands of sadhus – many clad in saffron robes, others naked – staged an assault demanding a national law to ban cow slaughter immediately. Police had to resort to firing and a few of the protesters were killed. Indira Gandhi quickly secured the resignation of Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda, who was widely seen to be sympathetic to the agitationists.

On 29 June, she set up a high power committee to examine the entire issue of a national law to ban cow slaughter. It was headed by AK Sarkar, a former chief justice of India, and had, as its members, chief ministers, political leaders, religious figures, cow protection activists, animal husbandry experts like Dr V Kurien, and the then chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, Ashok Mitra. The high-power committee was given six months to submit its report.

Meanwhile, conservationists got involved in the debate and, at the behest of Zafar Futehally [secretary of the WWF-India], Dillon Ripley [secretary of the USA’s Smithsonian Institution] wrote to Indira Gandhi on 3 October suggesting a study be conducted by the BNHS [Bombay Natural History Society] and the Smithsonian Institution on India’s cattle issue from the point of view environmental management. He wrote:

I personally believe that one of the most important studies that might be undertaken today is an ecological approach to the age-old problem of the impact of cattle on lands in India.

I write at this time with some sense of urgency because of the recent developments which have led, I am informed, to the appointment of a committee which will report to your Government on the issue of imposing a ban on the slaughter of cows throughout India.

To ensure that his letter got the prime minister’s personal attention, Ripley added a postscript:

I hope to come to Delhi soon and have a chance to speak once more to the Delhi Bird Watching Society. Salim Ali took me along with him to Bhutan this spring. Peter Jackson joined us. We had a marvellous time and had wonderful birding.

The letter was acknowledged a week later by an official in the prime minister’s secretariat. But the next month, on November 7, India’s US Ambassador Chester Bowles reprimanded Dillon Ripley:

At my request, my deputy Mr Greene, found an opportunity the other day to sound out Mrs. Gandhi’s right-hand man, PN Haksar, about your letter. Haksar readily confirmed that it had been received [...] and as much said he thought it better to leave the complexities of the cow problem to the Government of India. Mr Greene asked whether the Prime Minister had replied to your letter and was told that she had not; we infer that she probably will not.

[...] It would help to get acceptance of projects in which you are interested if you would forward them to us for comment and/or discussion with the Government of India, rather than directly.

From then on, Ripley was to make sure that Salim Ali approved all his letters to Indira Gandhi. As for the study, it never did take off and the cow protection committee itself was to keep meeting for twelve years till it was disbanded in 1979 by Indira Gandhi’s successor. It never submitted its report...

Lutyens’ Delhi

It goes without saying that Indira Gandhi considered urban design an essential element of environmental planning. This is further evident in her response to an 18 December proposal from KP Singh, director of DLF, a private real estate company, who wished to build a 400-room luxury hotel in collaboration with Sheraton International, in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, at 14–16 Aurangzeb Road, with all its broad roads and lush greenery. Indira Gandhi directed:

[...] an over-all view should be taken of the planned re-development not only of Connaught Place Complex, but the remaining parts of Lutyens’ New Delhi also [...] No multistoried buildings should be sanctioned in the Bungalow area of New Delhi without such an over-all view being rst taken.

It was clear that she believed then that the DLF hotel plan would jeopardise, in the words of Moni Malhoutra, “the whole future and character of Lutyens’ New Delhi”. But she was to change her mind five years later. On March 31, 1976, the Tata-owned Indian Hotels Company Limited submitted a proposal to the NDMC [New Delhi Municipal Council] for a five-star hotel on a four-acre plot just down the road from DLF’s own site. Two days later, the NDMC accepted the proposal with unusual alacrity and then signed a formal agreement on December 18, 1976. The hotel opened in October 1978.

There is nothing in the written records to explain the reversal in Indira Gandhi’s stance, although there have been speculations that Sanjay Gandhi had caused this change after meeting with the chief executive of Indian Hotels, Ajit Kerkar. All that can be definitely said is that by August 1975 itself, she had approved the lifting of the ban on high-rise structures in the NDMC area and in the rest of the city as well. One clue to her thinking could well be her observation on a file which her aide Salman Haidar had put up to her, raising some questions on the floor area ratio being allowed to be 4 in some cases as opposed to the normal 2.5. She noted on 29 August 1976:

[...] the choice is between going skywards or occupying more agricultural land. The proposal [for enhanced floor area ratio] should be accepted. 

The Narmada controversy

At the height of her political power, on July 22, 1972, Indira Gandhi had called four chief ministers, all from her party, from the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, to try and arrive at a political settlement to the dispute over sharing of the water of the Narmada river. But the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, PC Sethi, stood his ground firmly and the only point of consensus was that “the various viewpoints with regard to the height of the Navagam Dam [in Gujarat] would be gone into and a suitable height may also be fixed by the Prime Minister of India”. The ball had now landed fairly and squarely in Indira Gandhi’s court. But no easy compromise that would satisfy both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh could be found.

On July 12, 1974, the prime minister had again called the four chief ministers. By this time, Gujarat had come under President’s Rule and was therefore, represented by the adviser to the governor, who happened to be none else than Indira Gandhi’s mountaineering friend HC Sarin. But this meeting, too, proved unproductive and all that could be achieved was an agreement that “the height of the Navagam Dam [was] to be fixed by the Tribunal after taking into consideration various contentions and submissions of the parties hereto”.

Obviously, there were limits to Indira Gandhi’s power. There were also limits beyond which she was reluctant to use her authority – especially when issues proved to be politically contentious. Besides, the prime minister had come to realise that the safest route would be to refer the matter back to the judicial tribunal which had been set up in October 1969. Fortunately, she got the parties concerned to agree that the tribunal would decide how the costs and bene ts of the Navagam Dam could be shared among the four states.

In 1975, the prime minister made a final effort to resolve the Narmada issue, but this time she did not intervene directly. She asked Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Jagjivan Ram to liaise with the three chief ministers and the Gujarat governor’s adviser on March 8 and see whether a compromise was possible. That very day, she was informed by her aide V Ramachandran that while no agreement could be reached because of the firm stand of the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh had agreed that four smaller projects in each state – and eight in all – could go ahead. is, she was told, was “another small step forward”.

The tribunal, on its part, worked painstakingly and submitted its report on August 16, 1978 but its recommendations were soon challenged by the states concerned. The tribunal then examined these challenges and handed in its final report about four months later. It was the award of the tribunal that formed the basis of the construction of dams on the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Before any new controversy could arise, Indira Gandhi got the Narmada Control Authority up and running from December 23, 1980 to implement the tribunal’s decisions.

But this did not provide any respite. The decision to go ahead with the dams proved hugely contentious and led to the emergence of one of India’s most well-known ecological movements – the Narmada Bachao Andolan. While most of the major agitations would unfold after Indira Gandhi’s death, by the early 1980s, it had become amply clear that large forest areas in Madhya Pradesh would be submerged and thousands of families in both Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat would get displaced on account of the dams. Sardar Sarovar, the name given to the Navagam dam complex to honour Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was to get a final environmental clearance on April 13, 1987 at a meeting presided over by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi – ironically on the same day that he was to speak at a function on conservation organised by Salim Ali.

Excerpted with permission from Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature, Jairam Ramesh, Simon & Schuster India