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Environment Day: Insights from Odisha's History and Revisiting Indira Gandhi's Contributions

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 05, Jun 2020, 21:36 pm IST | UPDATED: 06, Oct 2020, 11:25 am IST

Environment Day: Insights from Odisha's History and Revisiting Indira Gandhi's Contributions

Have we asked the question as to why Environment Day is being celebrated on 5th June? To get an answer we need to peep into history and understand that the first ever UN Conference on Human Environment was organised in Stockholm during 5th and 7th June 1972. A year later i.e. in 1973 the UN decided to commemorate 5th June as Environment Day and from that day of that yea  Environment Day is being celebrated every year to make people conscious of the importance of environment and the fundamental need to preserve it.

It is instructive to note that India made huge contributions for  the success of the first UN Conference on Human Environment. It was made possible because of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was the only head of the Government to attend that Conference and who changed the perspectives of the developed world to look at environmental issues from the perspectives of poverty and underdevelopment. 

Indira Gandhi and Environmental Issues

Indira Gandhi became the first Prime Minister to include the issue of environment in the Planning Commission document. She did it by including the issue of environment in fourth five year plan in 1970 by introducing a chapter "Long Term Perspective."She became  the first Prime Minister to have given environmental perspective to the planning and development process in the post independence period. In doing so she made India a global leader in taking up the issue of environment much before the issue was taken up at the global level in 1987 through the Bruntland Report titled "World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future".

More than that Indira Gandhi would be remembered for ever for her lasting contributions in looking at environmental issues from the perspective of poor and developing countries. When Maurice Strong, the Chairman of the first UN Conference on Environment, came to India in 1971 to invite Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to participate in the said UN Conference in 1972 being organized in Stockholm, he sent his request through Indian External Affairs Ministry to get an appointment with her. He got 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 scheduled meeting supposed to be over within half an hour lasted for two hours.

After the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi Mr. Strong wrote a piece 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.

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 of the 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 environment, I was asked by Mr. K.R.Narayanan, then Vice President of India, to do research on Maurice Strong for drafting a speech for him. I got more than ten of his speeches and writings from Canada where he stays and read all those line by line. That was how I got familiarized with Maurice Strong's writings including the one he wrote paying tribute to Indira Gandhi in which he gave her the exalted status of a PLANETARY CITIZEN.

Leaders from Odisha took up the issue of Environment right from beginning of 20th century

However, we should be mindful of the fact that  in Odisha its leaders while fighting  for unification of the State raised the issue of Environment right since the beginning of the first decade of twentieth century. The Utkal Sammilani  formed by Utkala Gaurab Madhusudan Das in 1903 became the nucleus  of the movement for formation of separate State of Odisha. It is educative to note that the forum of the Sammilani  was used by some its leaders to take up the causes which are now central to environmental movement and quest for sustainable development. As an example one can cite the  speech of Chandra Chudamani Harichandan Jagdeb who was princely ruler of Surangi located in Ganjam district of Odisha. He  was the President of fifth session of the Sammilani held in Puri in 1908. He while dwelling on the issue of agricultural development of Odisha underlined that clearance of jungle would be required to get land for agriculture. But at the same time he cautioned that while clearance of jungle would take a few days creation of jungle would require more time and so he stressed on preserving forests and jungles of Odisha. His stress in 1908 for creation of jungle is now getting manifested in the public policies concerning  afforestation. His stress on preservation of jungles in 1908 has become a credo for sustainable development to protect planet earth from global warming and climate change. In this sense Utkala Sammilani not only became a movement as for formation of separate State of Odisha as for espousing the cause of afforestation and protection of forests.

Utkalmani Gopabandhu and Protection of Environment

It is instructive to note that Utkalmani Gopba-ndhu wrote a piece on environment in the Samaja, the Odia daily, on May 6, 1928, two months before his sad demise. The title of that article was Prakrutira Patha Loda (Path of Nature is Necessary). In that thought-provoking and illuminating piece he prophetically stated that science must come to the aid of human beings to charter a course which would be in harmony with nature. His articulations in 1928 that science should be used by humanity to harmonise development with nature assumes enormous significance for the twentyfirst century world grappling with the spectre of global warming and climate change which threaten the very existence of our planet.

First Ever Petition on Environment to Petition Committee of Rajya Sabha Came from Odisha

The survey of literature reveals that the first ever petition to the Parliament of India on the issue of environmental justice was submitted by the people of Ganjam Panchayat of Odisha in 1977. The petition submitted to the Petition Committee of Rajya Sabha flagged the activities of Jayashree Chemicals because of which air, water and land got contaminated. Instead of demanding the closure of the industry petitioners wanted remedial measures so that they could have a clean environment and breath clean air and drink pure water. It is educative to note that one of the demands of the people of Ganjam was that the Parliament of India should enact a legislation to protect air from pollution in the pattern the legislation enacted to protect water. The Petition Committee of Rajya sabha in its report recommended that the people"s demand for enactment of legislation to protect air from pollution should be accepted by the Government and suitable legislation be introduced. All those initiatives and demands put forward by people of Ganjam Panchayat in 1977 preceded the institutionalized efforts at the global level best represented by the Brundtland Commission report of 1987 titled "Our Common Future." In the context of gathering crises caused by air pollution worldwide the initiatives of people of Odisha demanding legislation for protecting air from pollution assume planetary significance.

These insights  from the pages of Odisha's history and recent history of India need to be revisited to fortify our approach to understand the movement for sustainable development from the perspectives of Odisha and India and not just the western perspectives.

#The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.