Sunita Narain, India's feisty - and effective - environmental champion

by Jason Kehe
Contributor of The Christian Science Monitor
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was granted by
The Christian Science Monitor

Sunita Narain has learned that being an environmentalist in India means being an advocate for the poor – and for immediate action.
‘We don’t lose fights. We can’t afford it,’ says Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.  <P>Jason Kehe
‘We don’t lose fights. We can’t afford it,’ says Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Jason Kehe


Don't lecture Sunita Narain. You might just find yourself on the losing side of an epic showdown.

That's what happened in 2003, when the nonprofit group Ms. Narain directs, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), published a report about unsafe pesticide levels in bottled water.

Not long after, a senior executive of PepsiCo paid Narain an unexpected visit.

You don't know what you're talking about, she was menacingly told.

Narain was confused. The CSE's report had given Pepsi's bottled water a good rating. Why should the company care?

So Narain ordered her researchers to test Pepsi's soft drinks. The result: lots of pesticides.

A year later, Narain found herself staring down, as she likes to put it, "the might of the American empire." Soft-drink giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo united against her and her 130-person organization in the biggest fight of her 30-year career.

She won.

"We don't lose fights," Narain says. "We can't afford it. How can you lose a fight?"

It's that arrogance – even she would call it that – that's given Narain her reputation as one of India's feistiest and most effective environmental activists. This year marks her 30th with CSE, and her 10th as its director.

"If you were to list the top five or 10 urban organizations in India," says fellow Indian environmentalist Ashish Kothari, "[CSE] would certainly be on it."

Mr. Kothari first met Narain when they were high school age in late-1970s Delhi, at a conference on the environment. At the time, few people were talking about environmental issues in India.

But Narain and Kothari were interested. Along with a couple of other students, they formed an organization called Kalpavriksh, by most accounts Delhi's first environmental activist group.

Kothari knew early on, when he and Narain attended a workshop on pollution together, that she was bound for success.

"A lot of people are tentative. She wasn't tentative. She was forthright," says Kothari, who remains at Kalpavriksh to this day. "I could see in that one meeting that she had great potential to be an environmentalist."

Scan Narain's desk today, and you'll see bundles of letters addressing her as "Dr. Sunita Narain." Narain laughs at that – because she never actually went to college.

Believing this was what she was meant to do, Narain immediately left high school to join an environmental group in Ahmedabad, a large city in the western state of Gujarat.

"It was my mother who was extremely brave, not me," Narain says. "Letting me get into very uncharted territory is not an easy decision. I would not have been able to do it if she didn't say yes."

But it wasn't long before Narain returned to Delhi, where she discovered the fledgling CSE, founded by Anil Kumar Agarwal. She joined as a research assistant – "a junior, junior research assistant, bottom of the pile," she jokes – and began work on Mr. Agarwal's most visionary contribution to Indian environmentalism: the very first State of India's Environment report, a citizen's perspective on the importance of environmental sustainability to personal livelihoods.

It convinced Narain that sustainable development was possible, with the right kind of preparation.

"At the end of the day, we're looking for development that meets the needs of all; and if you want to do that, you have to make sure you have an environmental policy that is coherent," Narain says.

Being an environmentalist in India in the 1980s was easy – or easier than today, at least. The government was open to recommendations and active in its passage of new legislation.

Delhi, too, was different back then – greener, cleaner. Trees were everywhere, and the sun shined in a clear sky. It was the dawning of a new environment-friendly age.

But as the years progressed and development fever caught on, Delhi began its transformation into the trash-strewn, smog-choked city it is today. It was only then that Narain developed her fighter's edge.

"Delhi had just started motorization, and we were suddenly choking in the spit of the vehicles," she remembers. That's when she and CSE launched the Right to Clean Air campaign – and came up against the superpowerful diesel lobby. The massive Tata Group, which owns everything from steel mills and auto and truck plants to telecommunications services and hotels, brought a defamation case against CSE.

CSE defended itself, though its legal wranglings with diesel interests continue.

That, Narain says, is the narrative of environmentalism in India today: reversing – but not preempting – unsustainable trends. During her time as director, she's pushed for "mitigating" solutions, like decreasing reliance on pollution-spewing cars. It's been a steeper and steeper uphill battle.

Narain's brand of environmentalism, and India's generally, differs from the approach in the United States, where the "green movement" is popularly associated with left-wing tree-hugging.

The difference, Narain says, is that India is dealing with an "environmentalism of the poor," an activism born not out of some well-intentioned desire to improve the world for future generations, but rather of a need for immediate survival. Being an environmentalist in India means being an advocate for the poor, for the hundreds of millions of people who rely – in ways difficult for many Americans to understand, Narain says – on their immediate environment for their livelihoods.

For instance, fishermen can't fish in sewage-choked water.

"I can always say that the government is ... incompetent, that the government sold out, and that all it wants to do is to take the point of view of corporate India, but I think that's too simplistic," Narain says.

One might think that India, which is predominantly Hindu, would be uniquely suited for environmental activism. After all, Hinduism as a religion stresses man's sacred relationship with nature. Rivers, the most popular example, are worshiped as goddesses.

But Narain, a nonpracticing Hindu, only sees the irony.

"The modern Hindu is someone who worships all this and then goes out and pollutes," she says, pointing to Delhi's filthy yet sacred Yamuna River as a prime example of the hypocrisy.

Narain says there's potential for change, however. "If you scratch [Indians], they will talk about consumption," she says. "There is a moral streak in India which is based on religion, which worships it. That is an advantage we have."

Vijaya Nagarajan, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Hinduism and the environment, agrees. She says environmentalists in India need to follow Narain's lead and begin exploring people's personal relationship with the world.

"Sunita Narain is very much in the present moment," Dr. Nagarajan says. "I think one of the biggest ideas we need to tackle in the modern world is that most of modern life is about cultivating the fulfillment of our desires. That's part of the reason for our environmental mess.

"What Sunita represents is that aspect of India which is trying to deal with the balance between collective desires and individual desires."

That's been Narain's challenge for 30 years. And she's still got a lot of fight left.

"We're like a dog with a bone," she likes to say. "We don't give it up."

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Last edited 1/5/2017 9:30:22 PM

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Centre for Science and Environment - Find out more about the Centre for Science and Environment
Globe Aware - Promotes cultural awareness and sustainability. Project: Volunteer to fight poverty in India.
Solar Household Energy - Works in India to promote solar cooking as a practical, economical, and environmentally benign cooking alternative
Occupational Knowledge International - Helps build the capacity in developing countries to identify, monitor, and mitigate environmental and occupational exposures to hazardous materials. Project: Ban lead paint in developing countries

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Friday, June 8th, 2012
Christian Science Monitor