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  Books   08 Dec 2017  ‘Fixing the air is everyone’s job, says Sunita Narain

‘Fixing the air is everyone’s job, says Sunita Narain

Published : Dec 8, 2017, 12:34 am IST
Updated : Dec 8, 2017, 1:23 am IST

I have had many other American commentators, equally well known, who have come and interviewed me but I have always been censored out.

Sunita Narain, of the Centre for Science and Environment. (Photo: Sondeep Shankar)
 Sunita Narain, of the Centre for Science and Environment. (Photo: Sondeep Shankar)

The director-general of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, is one of the leading environmentalists. Ms Narain has been at the forefront of using research and knowledge to push for change in environmental policy and practice in the country and was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in April 2016. “Ms Narain’s ideas have shaped some of the key debates of our time” noted Time. In a free-wheeling conversation with Patralekha Chatterjee, Ms Narain discusses her thoughts about contested realities encapsulated in her new book Conflicts of Interest: My journey through India’s Green Movement. Excerpts from the interview:

The title of the book, Conflicts of Interest, instantly grabs attention. How did you choose the title?

The book is about a conflict of ideas and interests, and often the interests are driven by the ideas that people have, and the reality that people are living. That is what all the chapters show. It is about contested realities. Two things that come out from this book that should help us reflect on the future — if you want to really win in tomorrow’s and today’s world on any of these issues, it has to be a very scientifically-contested debate. The core is science. But, then there is such an entrenched group. I wouldn’t even call it conflict of interests in commercial terms. It is an entrenched world view. Take pesticides. They have taken a view that pesticides are good for agriculture. It took us 20 years to get Indian scientists to actually accept that pesticides are toxins that could have health impacts.


There is a powerful sentence in your book. “Air pollution — and in fact environmental degradation — is a great leveller. Even if we think that we can “run” away from pollution by moving to greener areas in our cities with less traffic, it does not work.” Why is it so difficult for people to grasp this?

This is because environmentalism as an idea has come from the West. And in the West, environmentalism has been differently situated and discussed differently from issues of inclusiveness and equity and justice. The environmentalism of the rich has been of garbage cleaners — first you pollute, and then you clean up. Whereas in our context, the environmentalism has to be different. You can’t live in a rich part of Delhi, not even Lutyen’s Delhi and believe that air pollution will not affect you. You can’t have air purifiers at home and say, “I am safe”. You will not be safe. The answer to air pollution is energy for all. Because if there is a poor woman who continues to use cooking fuel which is biomass, it is going to kill her, but it is also going to pollute the same common air-shed. The fact is that inclusive growth is going to be critical for environmentalism in our world. I want people to understand the different notions of environmentalism. As far as air pollution is concerned, the Centre and the state governments need to come together and fix the air. It is their responsibility.

In the chapter on climate change, you talk about taking Hollywood superstar Leonard DiCaprio to Nuh in the Mewat district of Haryana to see first-hand the impact of unseasonal weather on farmers in India. What was it like interacting with Di Caprio?

I have met him only once. I did the interview starting in Delhi for about an hour, and then we drove to Nuh. It was pretty much the whole day. His world is not my world. But, two things impressed me. One, his genuine desire to learn. I have interacted with many other important people, and I often find they hear they want to hear. But with Di Caprio, I really felt that here was a man who genuinely wanted to listen and learn. That was quite unusual and I give him a lot of credit for it. Two, I was also impressed that he actually showed me his film. I have had many other American commentators, equally well known, who have come and interviewed me but I have always been censored out. On some pathetic excuse like shortage of time and so on. This is because it is a point of view which is too inconvenient. They come to India to listen to how bad our government is, they want to know how bad our pollution is, they want to know how we are responsible, how our power plants are responsible for climate change. They want me to be an Indian environmentalist who raves and rants against her government and her country, but the minute I talk about the issue of environmental justice about who is doing how much, who needs to do how much, I am censored out. I am sure Bollywood is equally concerned about such things but the question is if there is a commercial space for it. Remember Leonardo showed his film on Netflix.

Today, my biggest issue is that I am invariably asked to speak on air pollution but the programme is sponsored by an air purifier company and I have to say no, I can’t go, because there is a direct conflict of interest. You must understand that in India it is coming down to “air pollution is a big issue; how can I sell a few masks, how can I sell a few air purifiers?”

Does an air purifier even really work?

No. And that’s the point I am making. It works only up to a point. But you can’t be just in one room, one house. Pollution is mutating. You think you have dealt with PM2.5, but now you have the problem with ozone. You need to know you have to clean the air. There is also an equity issue. Am I going to promote air purifiers which only the rich can afford?

I found the chapter on “Water and Waste Wars” very moving. You talk about the need to relearn the art and science of water management, revive dying wisdom. Do you think India today is going in for techno-managerial fixes for many problems and the mindset that goes with this is coming in the way of reviving ancient wisdom?

On one hand, we are completely romantic about the ancient pastm, on the other we are so techno-fixed with what we consider modern. This is the contradiction. Frankly, what we are not able to do is to situate the ancient and the wisdom of the ancient within the context of the future. We had an extremely rich water culture. Why did it get destroyed? That’s because we appropriated water into the State and destroyed community ownership and community wisdom over water. But you can’t bring that water wisdom if you don’t talk about empowering communities for the future. So, it is not just a technological issue, it is also a societal issue.

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