February 21, 2020
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Like Cola Through A Sieve

The pugnacious Sunita Narain fought governments and corporates on behalf of the voiceless against environmental degradation. This is her story.

Like Cola Through A Sieve
Photograph by Getty Images
Like Cola Through A Sieve
Conflicts Of Interest: My Journey Through India’s Green Movement
By Sunita Narain
India Viking | Pages: 240 | Rs. 599

Biographies of warriors such as Alexander, Babur, Napoleon make for fascinating reading. Sta­­ring with modest resources, they expanded their jur­­isdict­i­ons across diverse lands and people, leaving permanent legacies. A common trait among them was lack of fear, and a passion and love for conflict. The memoirs of environmental activist Sun­ita Narain, aptly titled Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement, reads like the acco­unt of one such warrior. She ventured to wage battles against the mighty on diverse issues, including air pollution, use of pesticides and their impact on ground water, climate change and carbon emissions, tiger conservation and managing water and waste.

Initiated into environmental activism at 21 by her employer and mentor Anil Aggrawal, Sunita took on his mantle after his premature demise. She brought to their agenda and work fearlessness and agression that eventually brought her org­­a­­nisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), to the public policy mainstream. Sunita (and CSE) picked her battles well—issues that impacted com­­mon people. She took on the mighty: auto leaders like Bajaj and Tatas on air quality; Coke and Pepsi on pesticide resi­dues in ground water; developed countries on climate change; conservationists and luxury resorts on tiger conservation and government agencies on water and waste management. She is unsparing of celebrities too, including superstars who advertised on behalf of cola giants. She uses Al Gore’s terminology, ‘inconvenient truth’, repeatedly in the chapter on clim­ate change to mock the US’ double stan­dards in climate change negotiations.

In each case, she also took on what she calls ‘established science’, opposing leading opinions within the scientific community. This led to her research met­hodologies, competence, even her moti­ves being questioned. However, env­­­­i­­ronmental activism has in recent years found a great ally in the judiciary and that is how Sunita won many a battle.

Though not focussed like others on mobilising public movements, each battle was waged for the weak and the voi­celess, like unsuspecting urban reside­nts brea­thing toxic air, aerated drinks with low quality standards, dev­­eloping countries unfairly treated on climate cha­­nge talks, communities alienated from their ecosystems by Pro­ject Tiger and traditional water harvesting practices.

Not all of her battles were won, nor did her opinions and aggression meet with universal approval, but Sunita’s courage and exemplary leadership always inspired awe.

The book is a lucid, detailed account of these battles from inside the ring. Sunita explains how she got drawn to each issue, how established beliefs and vested interests were challenged and the ensuing tri­b­­ulations of the long-drawn struggle for change. Not all the battles were won and even where points were scored and deba­tes won, desired outcomes have not fully fructified. But, undoubtedly, Sunita and CSE have been and are significant stakeholders in the environment space. They are taken seriously in India and abroad.

The book is a must read for both the lay reader interested in our environmental concerns and those actively involved in public policy and research on environm­ent. Many of us from the latter space have not always agreed with Sunita’s views and her overt agression, but have always been in awe of her courage and exemplary lea­dership in building up a non-goverment institution without significant governm­ent/corporate support. From this ari­ses her independent streak and ability to call a spade a spade. Obs­essive warrior that she is, Sunita’s memoirs do not adequately capture the con­­c­­urrent contributions of other individuals and institutions in taking forward the environment agenda. I guess in the ring, with the lights and media glare, you can barely see others.

Aware that a book on environmental iss­­ues could easily be a drab reference book, Sunita includes interesting, drama­tic anecdotes. The most interesting cha­pter is the one on cola wars, perhaps the most contentious of her battles. The det­ails relating to her experience with the parliamentary committee are almost hil­­a­rious and surprisingly, she gets a major vindication there. It also became one of the factors leading to the present food safety and standards framework. The chapter on climate change exposes how the US is leading the developed world in imposing unfair rest­rictions on energy consumption in developing countries.

The last chapter attempts at outlining a blueprint for the future. Inadequate adv­ancement in technology and poor INS­titu­tional framework for implementing age­­­­ncies and regulatory bodies are seen as factors responsible for our failure to res­olve our environmental problems. Informed people will agree. An interesting perspective is that the likes of Uber and Airbnb could be a highly positive disruption for the environment through optimum use of existing resources.

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