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Interview: Maneka Gandhi

manekagandhi1Indian politician Maneka Gandhi (former Prime Minister Indira's daughter-in-law) is an outspoken advocate for the marginalised, and for the protection of the environment. She spoke with Katrina Fox.

What prompted you to enter politics in the 1980s?

I did not decide to 'enter politics'. It was a choice forced on me in very unhappy circumstances. I had fought alongside my husband, Sanjay  and mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, when they were being targetted by political rivals. When my husband died in an accident, his followers felt orphaned. Although I was pretty much lost myself, being just 23 at the time, it needed someone to step into the breach and I could not let them or him down. 

I founded a new political party, the Sanjay Vichar Manch that won all of the five seats it contested in its very first election. Some years later I merged the party with a larger political organisation and became India's youngest Minister.

My first portfolio was the Ministry of Environment and Forests which when I took it over was a sleepy, disused organisation that even had the word 'environment ' misspelled on its own stationery! Since then I have served as Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Minister of Culture and Minister of Programme Implementation .

You're known for being one of India's most prominent environmental campaigners. How did you come to work in this field? 

I see politics as a job. In order to be elected, you must have something of value to offer to the country.  I therefore set out to learn about an area that I believed to be crucial to India. At that point, in the early 80s, environmental concern was considered an elitist hobby rather than a practical imperative. Environmental protection was regarded as a sort of 'spoilsport' in the way of 'development'. Having understood the irreversible consequences of environmental profligacy, I wanted to bring about an awareness among policy makers of the need for holistic planning. I realized we had little time.

As Environment Minister I was able to galvanize the Ministry into action . We introduced vehicular pollution standards and checks, the coastal regulation zone (CRZ)  prohibiting construction within a certain distance of the coastline (subsequently relaxed by succeeding administrations resulting in the awful destruction during the psunami), protection of heritage monuments, a complete ban on hunting, setting up of environment tribunals, a  ban on mobile zoos and the introduction of a zoo regulatory authority, a corporate sponsored tree plantation programme, reforestation of the Aravalli Hills , the need for Environment Impact Assessments for projects in eco-sensitive areas. I have an even longer to-do list still waiting to get done.

What are the key environmental issues facing India at the moment?

A large and growing population places enormous pressure on our natural resources. Increasing water scarcity is already leading to political and often violent conflict between neighbouring states.

'Development' is mistakenly seen as just construction and more construction, all of it unplanned. Our forest cover has shrunk alarmingly with everyone from developers to hoteliers to miners to tribals swallowing up huge tracts of reserved land.  Increasing deforestation has resulted in unpredictable monsoons causing droughts and floods. Increasing air pollution is showing up as increased respiratory diisease. Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is poisoning our soil and waterbodies.

Frenzied  consumerism is leading to complete environmental chaos. The lack of technical environmental expertise and any political will is what is truly terrifying.  Our refusal to understand that we are the biggest creators of methane which is as problematic as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and our refusal to do anything about it , is very alarming.

And the world as a whole?

I am appalled at the lack of urgency in implementing any real and meaningful environmental protection measures even when we find ourselves already experiencing the effects of climate change. As summit after summit dickers over emission control levels and why we shouldn't do it unless someone else does more of it and so on, our glaciers continue to melt threatening to engulf island nations which will create billions of environmental refugees and greater political conflict. 

What achievements or positive steps have been made in India (including by you) in regards to protecting the environment?

The Indian government  has done very little by way of environmental protection and I am disappointed by the way it has continued to thwart international protocols on emission control.

As India's Minister for Environment, it was I who had first introduced the notion of 'Polluter Pays' at the Montreal summit. But it was intended to be a way forward to encourage the transfer to and adoption of clean technologies by developing nations and not a self-serving technique to block consensus on emission control standards.

As an agricultural country, we are particularly vulnerable to climate change and must be proactive in combating it. Within the country too, I find a frightening lack of tehnical expertise and political will with regard to environmental protection. 

For example, to combat the melting of the Gangetic glacier, all that the Government has thought to do is to restrict the number of tourists visiting the area! On the other hand, we are recklessly pillaging our forests and poisoning our air, soil and  water.

The only development is that environmental protection is now seen as ' fashionable' so we have groups singing about it , artists painting about it and  children dancing about it,  in fact everyone talking about it without doing anything useful about it. Even if we put brakes on our population we might do something useful but that is not even discussed at all.

In addition to your environmental work, you are also an animal rights advocate. Can you say something about how the two are connected? 

Animal and environmental protection are inseparable. Meat is the single greatest cause of deforestation worldwide and a major factor in climate change. It takes 10 times the resources including land, water and energy to produce as cereal or vegetables. Turning rainforests into grazing grounds for meat herds, destroys plants, animals and the environment.   Meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (methane) than the entire transport sector put together. 

Many of the world's massive environmental problems including global warming, loss of topsoil, loss of rain forests and species extinction. could be solved by the elimination of meat.  Vegetarianism is not just an animal rights issue but an economic and environmental solution.  

Similarly with leather. In India, since beef is not eaten, leather is not a by product. Cows are killed for their skins. Since cowslaughter is illegal, the killing is even more brutal than otherwise as it involves smuggling of the cows piled one on top of another suffocating in covered vehicles long distances to filthy killing places where they are hacked to death by unskilled labour.

Untreated slaughter waste is poured into our rivers. In Delhi, 23,000 litres of blood is poured into the Yamuna everyday.  The leather industry further pollutes our waters with chemical effluents. In Kanpur which is the hub of the leather industry, the Ganges turns brown. It is important to understand the connectedness of all life. When we interfere with nature by multiplying one species and decimating another, we destroy the ecological balance. For example, usiong frogs for dissection has multiplied mosquitoes.

All cruelty comes back to us in the form of  disease and disaster.

There is much talk today of promoting peace, instead of war, yet many peace campaigners eat meat. The same for many environmental campaigners. What would you say to them?

Those who campaign for peace or environmental protection while themselves supporting the killing of animals for meat, are either shallow hypocrites or foolish enough not to have realised  the connection between one and the other.  You cannot achieve peace or environmental harmony whilst you yourself perpetrate torture and violence against fellow beings. Meat-eating contributes to a continuing cycle of misery.

Although the idea of karma is generally associated with Eastern philosophy, many people in the West are also coming to understand that karma is a natural principle, like time or gravity, and no less inescapable.For every action there is a reaction. 

Many people would like to believe that animals are now slaughtered 'humanely', thus presumably removing any possible objection to the eating of meat. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The entire life of a captive 'food animal' is an unnatural one of artificial breeding, vicious castration and/or hormone stimulation, feeding of an
abnormal diet for fattening purposes, and eventually long rides in intense discomfort to the ultimate end.

The holding pens, the electric prods and tail twisting, the abject terror and fright, all these are still very much a part of the most 'modern' animal raising, transport and slaughter.

Commercial slaughterhouses are visions of hell. Screaming animals are stunned by hammer blows, electric shock, or concussion guns. They are hoisted into the air by their feet and moved through the factories of death on mechanized conveyor systems. Still alive, their throats are sliced and their flesh is cut off while they bleed to death.

Animals are not encroachers upon the earth , they are our co-sharers and deserve to be respected as such.  Nor is it just peaceniks and environmentalists, but anyone interested in food security (vegetarianism assures 10 times the food supply) , women's rights ( man is the aggressor against both women and animals), public health (meat is responsible for 40% of all cancers) and the economy (meat is the least efficient and most expensive food source, not to mention its health and environmental costs); in fact everyone needs to understand that vegetarianism is the starting point of  healing the planet both physically and spiritually.  

Prominent ethicist Peter Singer has called for a hefty tax on meat-eaters, arguing that they are killing themselves and the planet. What are your thoughts on this?

I completely agree. With almost 7 billion people grazing the planet, the very survival of life on earth depends on our food choices. MacDonald's hamburgers consumed in Kuala Lumpur require forests to be destroyed in Brazil and water sources polluted in Europe.

Bacon and eggs cooked in Durban or Port Louis exact a heavy price in mechanical, inhumane animal care in other cities and nations.

Meat can no longer be protected as a personal choice. If your meat is going to destroy my health and our environment,  you ought to have to pay for it. Just like tobacco is required to carry a health warning , so too should meat. 

Methane is 23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It also has a short shelf life in the atmosphere – about 9 years. 50% of methane emissions are created by animals that are grown for meat and the rest by rice.

This is something that can be turned around immediately and the results will be apparent in less than a decade. Carbon dioxide control requires technology shuifts which are expensive and slow. But stopping the eating of meat requires nothing except common sense.

You were recently re-elected as BJP's candidate. What are your key policies and aims?

Winning my sixth election makes me one of India's most senior Members of Parliament. The thrust areas for my constituency remain health and education with an emphasis on vocational training.  Rural health remains hugely neglected with a lack of trained doctors to man medical facilities.

I would like to find ways to bring reliable healthcare to my constituency rather than have suffering people forced to travel to cities for treatment. Medical camps and NGO participation are some of these ways.  I have a hands on approach to problems and ensure direct and easy interaction with the people of my constituency.   

What has been the response in India to you, as a politician who campaigns for the rights of animals and for the environment?

As someone who has taken up and popularised animal and environmental protection in India, I have received tremendous public support. Although I am not in government, people from all over the country turn to me for support and  guidance  on these issues. Similarly , I can pick up the phone to anyone in the country to intervene in these matters. 

They know I speak from experience and a deep concern for the country and all its citizens-- both two legged and four. I believe that God has put me in this special position to be able to the most good for the maximum number of the most needy.

In the West, feminism has highlighted the difficulties faced by women in positions of power, including women in politics. What are your thoughts on this and how do they reflect your experiences as a female politician?

I have never compartmentalised myself as a 'woman' politician nor do I believe it necessary to do so. I do not believe that power flows from a name or a designation, power flows from the fact of how much you yourself are willing to do for what you believe in, irrelevant of whether you are a man or a woman. Everyone in India knows that I will do whatever it takes to help or reduce suffering. I think it's irresponsible to blame gender or age or anything else for one's own limitations.  

In the West, the environment movement has become mainstream, but it's still linked with consumerism and the buying of 'green' products. In your view, is this a good thing - ie at least if people are going to buy stuff it may as well be eco-friendly - or is it simply an attempt to make us feel like we're doing our bit without really changing our habits and behaviours?

Most of what we do is really just 'feel good' window dressing. Recycling which also takes energy, land , chemicals and generates waste, is a typical example . Eco-tourism is another. There is no such thing with air travel being so hugely fuel intensive. Not buying what is not essential would be the best

What are they key things people should be doing in order to protect the planet and reduce our carbon footprint on the earth?

Less is more.  Instead of replacing one product with another, find ways to reduce consumption. If we truly understood that we are just transitting this earth, perhaps we would be less frenzied about accumulating things. The cost of safe waste disposal must be built into products so that greener products are automatically cheaper. Obvious climate hazards like large cars, meat-based diets, chemical pesticides, suburban homes and frequent travel should be mocked out of existence. 

On the positive side, plant and 'grow up'  at least seven trees a year, put out water and seeds for the birds everyday, adopt homeless animals, avoid leather and all animal based-products, plan ecological cities that encourage walking, cycling and public transport. Cherish the earth and all its wondrous creatures.     

To support animal welfare in India, visit


-1 #2 Ritika Solanki 2010-06-18 01:27
Its really sad to hear about the tragedy of your father Shaunak. I think, both Mrs. Gandhi and you are right in your area of debate. Both have their own logic. I would say, life saving drug and vaccine development should be allowed to use animals but those drugs (so called lifestyle drugs) of cosmetics etc should not be allowed.
+1 #1 Shaunak Jain 2010-02-26 03:48
Can Mrs. Maneka Gandhi answer few questions: My father died becuase of delay in reseach for Kaposi sarcoma trial in Monkeys. Had the trial gone well in few monkeys, not only people like my father, many monekys could have survived that dangerous disease. Has she ever suffered an a dying father crying out of pain. I am not a animal trial supporter. But at the same time, we have to be practical and keep things in perspective. The trail going on Kaposi sarcoma at Covance was stopped because of some animal rights activists protested against it. I heard it was at its last stage of trial and got a bad set back. Had that trial gone for 2 more months, it could hv given the world a live saving treatment of a dealy cancer (which anyways could have tickled down to vets for treatment of monkeys too). These mindless potests against animal trials are stone age thinking. I don't think antibiotic came into world without animal trial.

Vegeterianism could be good and I have no problem as I myself is a vegeterian and supporter of it. But why stop advances of science which is boon to whole mankind and animal kingdom. I hope Mrs. Gandhi will give a deep thought before creating fuss about animal trials. - Shaunak Jain

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