I am delighted that the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for 2019 is being formally conferred on Sir David Attenborough today. Sir David is already well known to us all through his prodigious creativity in educating human kind with brilliant films and books about the natural world. And he has, of late, been the most sensible voice warning us that we, more than anything else, are responsible for the accelerating threat to the environment on our planet.
In essence, for well over half a century, Sir David has been one of Nature’s most staunch conscience keepers.
Indira Gandhi too was one throughout her life. She was born in a political family but saw herself as a child of Nature, developing a special affinity for mountains, forests, birds and animals from an early age. Along with the Quaker associate of Mahatma Gandhi Horace Alexander, she was one of the founder-members of Delhi Bird Watching Society as long ago as 1950.
Subsequently, as Prime Minister she became an unwavering champion of environmental protection long before that cause had become popular both in India and abroad. Her momentous speech at the first-ever UN Conference on Human Environment at Stockholm in June 1972, has become a milestone in the global environmental discourse. It was in this speech that she first elaborated on the inter-connectedness of peace, disarmament and development with environmental conservation.
Her view was forthright: without meaningful disarmament you cannot have enduring peace, and without protecting the environment, development will simply not be sustainable. In that speech, she was one of the first world leaders to draw attention to changing weather patterns, something now accepted as a hard reality.
Indira Gandhi was acutely conscious of the fact that she was Prime Minister of a developing country, a country that needed to create jobs and tackle poverty.
India needed to accelerate the pace of investment, and to expand its economic infrastructure. But at the same time, she was very sensitive to the imperative of maintaining what she would often call ‘ecological balance’. Her political innings were a search for that balance and a journey of educating her colleagues and the people to preserve that balance. Her Stockholm address ended with an invocation from the Atharva Veda: What of Thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over, Let me not hit thy vitals or thy heart.
It is not a surprise, therefore, to find that the legal and institutional framework India now has for protecting its wonderful bio-diversity had been put in place during her tenure as Prime Minister. It bears her personal imprimatur.
What can I say about Sir David himself that is already not known. To say that he is the world’s leading authority on the natural world is to state the obvious. To say that his passion has been inspiring is also to reiterate what we all acknowledge.
He has legions of admirers across the world. Age has not dimmed his zeal, neither has humanity’s willful disregard for what he says. He has kept going relentlessly, educating, enlightening and sensitizing millions of people. I well remember how excitedly Indira Gandhi would watch his documentaries with us and encourage her grandchildren to do so. I am not sure whether Sir David had ever met her.
But whether or not he had, the fact remains that when environmental protection has become all the more imperative, when climate change and continued loss of bio-diversity is threatening livelihoods and public health, indeed life on earth, there could not have been a more appropriate choice for an award in her name than Sir David Attenborough.