Naturally Nehru

The death anniversary of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is a time to pause and reassess his legacy. For better or worse, he played a key role in the making of modern India and, in more than a tangential way, the world as it is. But even as his record in politics and economics is hotly debated and widely discussed, his

environmental record has been mostly viewed at the level of a morality play.
Modern environmentalists are prone to quote from is speech, delivered at the Bhakra Nangal dam, on dams as the “temples of modern India”. Just as places of worship had given solace to the spirit, these mega projects were seen as harbingers of progress.
Quite apart from the speech, a conversation Nehru reportedly had with a labourer at the Tungabhadra dam site made headlines. This construction worker told the head of government how the work was vital as it would light lamps in a thousand homes.
Forty-seven years after his passing, the dams, like so much of his legacy, have come into question. They not only displace huge numbers — 20 million in Independent India is a conservative estimate — they also disrupt riverine ecologies and submerge huge areas of forest. In most ecological accounts of our past or future, Nehru plays a prominent role; but his role is seen as malign, not benign. Yet, to see his legacy in such simple terms, appealing as it may be to a polemicist, may be wide of the mark. After all, he was only typical of his times. Dam building was seen as proof of the prowess of many rival political systems in the mid-20th century.
The Soviets harnessed the Dnieper. The Hoover dam on the river Colorado was the first of many in the Unites Stated of America. Chairman Mao Zedong wrote a poem about how he wished to build a dam on the Yangtze at the Three Gorges. The Turks named their dam on the Euphrates after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk while Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt simply named his own regime’s handiwork on the Nile, the Aswan Dam.
In fact, two of the three big dams in India as of the year 2000, were built in the post Nehru era. The reason was simple enough: India was starved of capital after the foreign exchange reserves accumulated in World War II ran out. Nehru’s India did build dams, but not as many as it might have liked to.
In any case, he was hardly alone in wanting dams. Meghnad Saha, the great physicist, saw them as a means of flood control even when he taught physics in Calcutta. At the other end of the spectrum in bone-dry Bikaner, Maharaja Ganga Singh drew up the first blueprints of what would later become the Rajasthan (now the Indira Gandhi) canal, to draw surplus waters from the Indus system to the Thar.
What is significant about Nehru is not just the fact that what he did was typical of his age. What is equally striking is where he stood out among the statesmen of his time.
This is best illustrated in the way he saw peace with nature as inseparable from peace among people. In 1949, in a message to the Shankar’s Weekly, he asked children to go to the forests and mountains without fear but with love in their hearts. The animals, he was sure, would befriend them.
The same year he was puzzled over what to do about a request from the children of Japan who wanted an elephant calf to replace the one killed in the Allied bombing of Tokyo in 1945. In return, the Japanese government promised to gift India a pair of giant salamanders.
Now, despite his encyclopaedic knowledge, neither the Prime Minister nor his staff had any idea what a salamander really was, leave alone what it looked like. For the record, the salamander is an amphibian and the giant variety is uniquely Japanese and then, as now, was a rare creature.
The female elephant calf was sent off and to this day it is ingrained in the memory of Japanese citizens. Premier Shinzo Abe referred to it in his address to the Joint Session of India’s Parliament.
A year earlier, it was his intervention that helped save the last lions of Asia in the Gir Forest. When the Nawab of Junagarh fled to Pakistan, trigger-happy landholders entered the forest hoping to bag a lion as trophy. Acting on a telegram from British naturalists, Nehru got the civil administrators, Shiveshwarakar and N.M. Buch, to ensure all shooting platforms were dismantled and no lions shot.
Yet, one of his last contributions to global peace was the Partial (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty of 1963, a major step to reducing nuclear contamination of air and water.
There is ample evidence of his sensitivity to nature and of a larger awareness of the limits of technology as a means to subdue nature. Being critical of his record is essential but mere demonising can do grave injustice to history. The children of Japan and the lions of Gir might serve as evidence for rethinking how we view Nehru and nature.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and co-editor of The Environmental History of India

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