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Exploring the myth - ‘Poverty is the biggest polluter’
By Maria Alte and Mai Simonsen    
To get a better understanding of the relationship between poverty, development and environment in the Indian context, we will give a brief presentation of Indira’s politics when in government. We argue that the ‘State of emergency’ and the ‘Garibi Hatao’ plan launched during her time in office have had severe effects on how India today struggles with the question of poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. Many characterized Indira Gandhi as a strong and idealistic politician, but her actions were not always in line with the ideals she spoke so dearly about.

When Indira Gandhi attended the UN World Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972, she never said precisely "Poverty is the biggest polluter" but rather asked the question; are not poverty and needs the greatest polluters? However when this is quoted in various articles her statement has grown into the myth: ‘Poverty is the greatest polluter’. This has become the very foundation of our project, as everyone felt that this statement was too general and subsequently sparked off so many other questions. With this statement, Indira also initiated a global debate on the relationship between poverty, economic growth, ecology and environment. Suddenly there was a realization that there is only one earth and global actions must be taken to combat pollution. This website is meant to show that there are MANY more pollutive factors to take into account, and we hope to uncover various aspects that fit into Indira’s statement and break down the myth of poverty and needs being the single biggest polluters.

Indira Gandhi’s political career

Indira Gandhi is often referred to as the iron lady of India. With her strong personality, her reign was popular within many segments of India's population, and there seem to be differing opinions about her personality and her politics. She was the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister. When he died in 1964, Indira pursued a more prominent career in politics. She was elected Member of Parliament in her father's Indian National Congress party, and appointed a minister of Information and Broadcasting in the cabinet of Congress of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri died in office in 1966 and Indira succeeded him as party leader, and thus became the new Prime Minister of India. At first she was dubbed goongi gudiya (Hindi for dumb doll), as people thought that she would be a puppet in the hands of other Congress leaders, but she proved them all wrong as she emerged to be one of the strongest leaders in the history of independent India. Growing up with parents that were often traveling, Indira was left to fend for herself and developed a rather loner personality and a general distrust in people, qualities often reflected in her political actions. Indira attended two of the top universities in India, England and Europe. Find out more on Indira's personal life here and here

Indira timeline
Click to view the timeline

What did she do to India?
As Prime Minister, Indira created her own governing Congress (R) party, following the November 1969 split within the governing Indian National Congress. Indira’s political skills and determinacy together with India’s triumph over Pakistan in 1971 and India’s first nuclear device explosion in 1974 granted her certain popularity among the people, especially the middle-class. ‘Garibi Hatao’ – Remove Poverty, which became Indira’s slogan during her first elections, soon turned out to cause economical decline, poverty and dissent among people in Delhi and the Northern provinces of India. In 1975 the High Court accused Indira of using illegal practices during her election campaign and requested her resignation. Feeling threatened by demonstrations and the courts decisions, Indira instead responded with declaring a ‘State of Emergency’. This state of emergency led to an extreme centralisation of power, crackdown of civil liberties and political dissent. This is the very essence of Indira’s contradictory personality. Indira was a cultured woman who claimed to be a believer in democracy. Her ‘Remove Poverty’ programme however largely transferred the power away from the people and centralized it into the hands of government officials, completely ignoring the importance of ecology in poverty eradication and development. Her excuse was that the people had to be protected against their own carelessness and incapability of managing their lives and livelihoods. Many claim that it was this period that caused irreparably harm to Indian democracy, damages that are visible to this date. The state of Emergency lasted 19 months and despite Indira’s authoritative rule the economy thrived somewhat. In 1977 she ran for re-election but was defeated by a coalition government led by the JP party and an Indian public that had gradually grown to resent her authoritative actions. Three years later Indira ran for the presidency again and won, now adapting a slightly less authoritarian profile and politics. In 1984 her own Sikh bodyguards murdered her. Click here for more information about her assassination or read these articles ( BBC - 1984: Indian prime minister shot dead, BBC - 1984: Assassination and revenge)

Garibi Hatao
In Indira’s ‘Remove Poverty’ program she argued economical betterment for the poor, but in practice excluded them from share in political power. Indira promised an egalitarian model of development. Instead the poor were unable to participate in the process and made passive spectators of Indira’s development plan for India. The general discourse was that the poor had to be forcefully guided into the ways of life the middle-class was leading, and ‘saved’ from the ignorant ways they were living their own lives. Slum demolitions and forced sterilisation were imposed on the poor. Forest, land and water resources were largely centralised and made national property.

The link between Garibi Hatao and our web documentary project
It is particularly the centralisation of natural resources that have created problems for people and tribes in rural areas, as our stories will depict. Our articles will show that in fighting poverty one must understand the importance of the environment. People depend on their ecological surroundings for survival. In India 70 % of the population lives in rural areas. This means that the interrelationship between people and environment must be addressed when tackling the developmental challenges of the future. Through our stories we will show that thinking outside dominating models of development and reinventing old and traditional methods of water harvesting and agriculture, solutions can be found and a better future for all achieved in rural and urban areas. Our stories show that decentralisation of power and nature management and enforcing the local democracy can provide a better basis for use and preservation of natural resources. When people are given ownership to the resources that are imperative for their survival, their sense of responsibility will grow and hence the foundation for creating a true people’s democracy can flourish.

What is mentioned above is crucial to keep in mind when you read, visualise and hear all our stories. A great range of topics have been explored within the areas of water, land, air and people; water crisis, distribution, management and theft; forest management, people displacement and tourism in forests and national parks; traffic, air pollution and leapfrogging in Delhi; and environmental education, garbage and waste management are some of our main topics.

As a reader we want you to decide who or what is the biggest polluter, we are only providing a glimpse of the complexities related to Indira’s statement.