By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Maneka Gandhi has been fighting for India’s underprivileged and vulnerable citizens for 40 years, spearheading a campaign that has earned her international recognition and acclaim. From helping unemployed women and poverty-stricken children, to fighting for the welfare of animals, Maneka Gandhi has become respected worldwide for her compassion and political activism. Over the years, she has won countless awards for her commitment to helping others. And in spite of her own personal tragedy, she continues to serve today as India’s Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, paving the way for a better and brighter future for those that need help the most.
TRAGEDY AND POLITICS
Maneka Anand was born into a Sikh family on August 26th 1956 in Delhi, India. Her father, Tarlochan Singh Anand, was a Lt. Col. in the Indian army, and her mother, Amteshwar Anand, was a traditional housewife. During her teen years, Maneka attended Lawrence School, Sanawar, a private boarding school located in northern India, in the Western Himalayas. Upon graduating, she went to Lady Shri Ram College for Women and, later, Jawaharlal Nehru University. During her studies, she developed a strong interest in politics. While at Lady Shri Ram College, Maneka also decided to enter a beauty contest, which she won – inspiring her to take on modeling assignments after she graduated. After several modeling jobs, she met Sanjay Gandhi, a famous politician and son of India’s former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The couple shared an interest in politics and social issues. They quickly fell in love and were married on September 23, 1974.
Sanjay was an active politician, and during their marriage, Maneka was exposed to the inner workings of Indian political life, deepening her interest in the field. Like her husband, she was concerned with a wide range of issues facing the country. Eventually, she founded a political magazine, called Surya (the Sun). As its editor, Maneka was able to use the magazine as a platform to express her evolving opinions and ideas.
After just 6 years of marriage, however, tragedy struck, and Sanjay died in a plane crash, leaving Maneka devastated. The couple had just recently celebrated the birth of their son, Varun. Emotionally stunned and traumatized by the incident, Maneka went into mourning. Eventually, however, she emerged stronger and decided to honor her husband’s legacy by following in his footsteps, beginning her own career in politics. Maneka formed her own party, called “Sanjay Vichar Manch,” named after her late husband. The party’s main focus was to help the unemployed and empower the nation’s youth. With child slavery and indentured labor rampant in India, Maneka Gandhi wanted to tackle these issues and eliminate them with new regulations and reforms.
After winning four seats in parliament in 1988, the Sanjay Vichar Manch party merged with another party, Janata Dal, and Maneka Gandhi was chosen to be their General Secretary. Only one year later, she was appointed to the position of Environment Minister, and served for three years from 1989 to 1992. As a vegetarian and a supporter of animal rights, Maneka created a new department during her three-year term to address the issue of animal welfare. She drafted a number of bills to help reduce animal suffering, all of which were passed and made into laws. But these victories were only the beginning of a long and distinguished career.
FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN
As the Minister of the Union for Women and Child Welfare, Maneka Gandhi has led the campaign to empower women and children and to free them from the shackles of indentured labor, slavery, prostitution, and malnutrition. She has been paramount in formulating plans, policies and programs with both industry and the government to help rescue children from child labor and sex slave rings. As of 2017, there are an estimated 4 million children in India engaged in some form of labor, often under hazardous conditions. Approximately 1.2 million have been forced into labor as prostitutes in illegal sex slave rings. Manuka is working hard to put an end to this. She is also working to pass regulations that will ensure children stay in school and receive a proper education. In addition, she created several programs to open up new employment opportunities for women.
One of her most recent successes had been the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save a girl child, educate a girl child) program, a social movement whose goal is to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services intended for girls. In addition, she is championing nutrition improvement for families and their children with a program called “Malnutrition Free India-2022.”
“After the resounding success of the “Save a girl child, educate a girl child” program that brought about a phenomenal change in the mindset, a similar approach is needed to fight malnutrition, particularly among mothers and children,” said Maneka Gandhi. To help the program along, she has written and published “Forest Lanterns (2016),” a book containing essays on solutions to improve nutrition and promote the use of supplements among children in tribal areas.
One of the most widespread and devastating problems facing India today is human trafficking, especially among poor women and children. Many unsuspecting victims are lured to India’s towns and cities each year by traffickers, where they are promised good jobs, but end up being sold into slavery for domestic household work or sex work or to industry workshops. Speaking at a recent conference on child adoption, Maneka Gandhi told delegates that the government was in the process of putting in place a series of policies to prevent human trafficking.
A new law implemented in 2017 to combat human trafficking will also provide for the establishment of a central investigative anti-trafficking agency to coordinate and allow cooperation between states and special courts to hear individual cases. Under Maneka Gandhi’s leadership, the Union for Women and Child Welfare has been working to crackdown on corruption by making the flow of funds more transparent. “WCD (Women and child Development) Ministry was the first to fully get on board the Public Finances Management System,” she recently said. “This not only enables all funds to be transferred directly to the target bank accounts but also monitors the utilization of these funds centrally. The Ministry also operates 14 programs where funds and services are given to individuals & institutional beneficiaries.”
As a long-time animal rights leader in India, Maneka Gandhi has led the way for social and legislative reform and has played a key role in bringing the issue of animal rights to the forefront. Her promotion of a vegetarian lifestyle has been a major note in her campaign to end animal suffering, as well as improve human health and the environment.
“Unless we change our food choices, nothing else matters,” she says. “Because it is meat that is destroying most of our forests. It is meat that pollutes the waters. It is meat that is creating disease which leads to all our money being diverted to hospitals. So, it’s the first choice for anybody who wants to save the Earth.”
In 1992, she founded “People For Animals,” the largest animal rights organization operating in India. Under her guidance, PFA has fought to outlaw animal sacrifice; rescued animals from deplorable situations; arrested cattle smugglers; inspected slaughterhouses to ensure the animals were treated humanely; and worked to expand animal birth control efforts to decrease the stray animal population, among other things.
For instance, it was commonplace for hundreds of animals to be sacrificed at the Bhukhal Kalinka Temple at certain times of the year. But Maneka Gandhi drove an anti-animal sacrifice campaign that brought a lot of attention to the events and pushed them to abandon the tradition. Within 18 months, not one single animal was being sacrificed at the temple. This victory encouraged Maneka to continue the campaign. She had the same success with dozens of other temples around the country, reducing animal sacrifice considerably.
In 1995, Maneka Gandhi was chosen to be chairperson of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA). Responsible for the welfare of lab animals, they would often pay surprise visits to laboratories, sometimes catching them in the act of cruel and/or unlawful procedures. Gandhi and the PFA found one toxicology lab to be in violation of animal welfare laws and lodged an official complaint against them for promoting and encouraging deplorable practices and ignoring the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Because of Maneka and PFA’s activism, the Forest Department has since closed the lab and has taken legal action against a head of the toxicology department.
When it was brought to Maneka Gandhi’s attention that homeless dogs were being euthanized in certain neighborhoods, she worked to have this measure replaced with a sterilization program to prevent any future unwanted animals from struggling to survive on the streets. She also won legislation to regulate the sail of airguns (sometimes used against stray animals), and banned traveling zoos – to prevent the stress and anxiety experienced by the animals being shipped from place to place.
To help make the public more aware of animal suffering and abuse, Gandhi also hosted a weekly TV program called “Heads and Tails,” calling attention to the misery animals experience for commercial exploitation. In addition, she’s also written a book on the subject, also titled “Heads and Tails.” Her commitment to improving the lives and comfort of animals everywhere has gained her international recognition as a true champion of animals, and she has won countless awards for her compassionate work.
FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Maneka Gandhi has also been a staunch environmentalist. And she is profoundly aware that environmental damage can have a very real and immediate impact on the economy. According to Gandhi, environmental degradation is largely responsible for the spiraling prices of essential commodities, which has been draining the resources of India’s most vulnerable residents.
“Forests are being cleared and water sources are shrinking,” she said. “This has caused environmental imbalance resulting in changes in weather pattern.” This can cause crop losses, food shortages, and skyrocketing prices for basic staples.
And of course, there is the issue of Climate Change, which is one of her top priorities. She likes to emphasize that Climate Change is not a prediction about the future, but is a phenomenon that is already visibly underway worldwide.
“We are already into the crisis,” she said recently. “It will accelerate in the next five years. There will come a time in the next 10 years when it will be irrelevant which party comes to power. The word “democracy” will be irrelevant when people rush to grab whatever available resources are left.”
While some Indian leaders place the blame for Climate Change primarily on Western, industrialized nations, Maneka Gandhi is quick to point out that India is also playing a role, as it rushes to modernize its economy and meet the needs of nearly 1 billion consumers.
“It is a question of always putting the blame… the west did it. They may have done it 100 years ago. Now India is one of the main players in destroying the climate,” Gandhi told NDTV.
Still, thanks to advocates like Maneka Gandhi, India has taken a firm stand against climate change and was one of many countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, an international effort to curb Climate Change. The push for switching to renewable energy, such as solar and wind, have also been a part of Gandhi’s campaign to help stabilize the climate and secure a better future for India and the world.
OPTIMIST FOR THE FUTURE
Maneka Gandhi has been committed to protecting women, children, animals, and the environment for the better part of 40 years. There are no problems too small and none to big for her to take on. She is not afraid to speak her mind and work hard to accomplish what needs to get done. Now in her early sixties, she continues to work tirelessly, tackling one problem after another.
At a recent organized event for women’s empowerment, Gandhi addressed a crowd eagerly hanging on her every word. While sharing a story of how difficult things were for her when she first started working as the Women and Child Welfare Minister, she said: “Initially, I worked from an office of the Coal Ministry. Slowly, brick by brick, we started working and eventually created an identity for ourselves. One girl from Bengaluru wrote to me explaining that she ran away in fear and embarrassment when she found out that a male gynecologist was to treat her. I immediately called up the hospital authorities and got that rectified.”
Always positive, forever the optimist, when a woman in the audience asked a question near the end of the event about child abuse, Gandhi answered it, and then added, “Let’s not end the conference on a depressing note, can someone please sing a song?” This is her way: working hard to uncover and solve problems, but always remaining positive and optimistic about the future. And this is what makes her one of the world’s leading social reformers and top advocates for the rights of women and children.