Conflicts Of Interest: Sunita Narain On Her Battles For A Clean India

Tara Khandelwal
Feb 21, 2018 10:14 IST
The Real Challenge Is Overcoming the Mind: Environmentalist Sunita Narain on Her Book

In ‘Conflicts of Interest’, India’s foremost environmentalist Sunita Narain talks about her battles for the country’s green movement. She has taken on corporations, lobbyists and more in her fight for a clean India. She speaks to SheThePeople.TV about how she overcame close-minded organisations, the future of air pollution in India, and how the youth can get involved with the environment. 


What was the idea behind writing the book?

The idea behind this book is a rather simple one – to take issues of environment to a general audience in a way that is not only very comprehensible, but also provides solutions. As much as this book is a narration of a journey, it is a glimpse for people out there into what goes on behind the newspaper headlines and between those whose interests, often inadvertently, come into direct conflict.

You talk about fighting the established science of diesel, pesticides and the like in your efforts with the CSE. What has been your challenge over the years when it comes to putting your argument forward?


The real challenge is overcoming the mind. We are increasingly getting confined within our own bubbles – reading what confirms, reaffirms our own opinions and ‘unfollowing’ those whose opinions are hard to digest.

It may seem that the world is getting smaller. But the truth is we are only seeing what we want to see. There is so much out there that we comfortably choose to not be our reality.

Air pollution is a great equalizer. While the middle class can buy both cars, including SUVs, and air purifiers, they may not be able to protect their children from bad air


Everyone will need to step out at some time or another, even those of us who can afford to stay in our protected bubbles. If the air is polluted, then no mask or purifier can protect us from harm. The air-shed is one and the movement of wind enables pollution to travel from one place to another. The only viable alternative is to clean the air for all.

What do you think is the future of air pollution in cities like Delhi and beyond? How can we assert the right to breathe?

India is getting progressively more polluted — the air is just as foul in several other cities as it is in Delhi. A growing number of diesel vehicles, poor public transport, weak surveillance of polluting factories and poverty, which forces people to burn biomass instead of employing clean cooking fuel – all these have ensured that other cities too do not stay far behind the national capital when it comes to pollution.


Poor or no pollution monitoring in these cities makes the problem worse. This, I believe, is the real challenge. We cannot be selective about checking air pollution, focusing only on some people or certain places

We also cannot say that we prefer one source of pollution over another – that will just bring us back to square one. We would find ourselves fighting newer battles, looking for newer solutions – and maybe choosing newer/lesser known modes of pollution over existing ones.

For instance, if we improve the quality of fuel used in cars, but not the fuel used in factories or thermal power plants, it will not work. Similarly, we must have strategies to incentivize farmers, not to burn their crop residues. But they will only do more if we do more. Delhi cannot simply blame farmers when its own track record of enforcing steps to combat pollution has been so disappointing. This is why air pollution control demands collective, persistent and tough effort. This is the only way we will be able to assert our right to clean air.


With development, as you mention, comes more pollution and more waste. How do you think this challenge can be met?

Progress cannot be sustainable if it is not built on sustainable methods. And when we talk about sustainability, we also need to talk about sustainable practices, sustainable habits.

For instance, it is easy to say that an individual should choose a bus over his own vehicle but are there enough buses in the country for everyone? And then comes the biggest challenge, the last mile connectivity – the one sure-shot way of inculcating a sustainable habit. We will not or cannot take a local train or ride a bus if we cannot get to the station or to our destination with ease.


We cannot take a bus if we cannot cross the road. We cannot use public transport, without the right to walk or cycle. And if we cannot use public transport, we cannot secure our right to clean air

Similarly, when we talk about waste management, finding the right technology for waste processing may not be very hard. But the real way to turn proper waste management into a sustainable habit would be to integrate the right technology with house-hold level segregation, waste collection and transportation -- and in ways that even the smaller districts, towns and cities find it easy to adopt.

How can individuals contribute to the environment?


Today, the bulk of our city walks, cycles and takes a bus. It does this because it is poor. We need to take the bus, cycle and walk when and because we are rich. Not wait to reinvent after cars have filled up our roads. That is one way in which individuals can make smarter choices.

But as I have said before, to adopt these green habits, we’d need walkable roads, pedestrian and cycle-friendly routes, more buses and last-mile connectivity.

The urban and middle-class across India (and the world) are now facing environmental threats – maybe not as immediate and devastating as the ones faced by poorer communities, and by those on the margins. But the fact is that excess amounts of garbage are produced because of this middle-class that consumes a lot. The fact is also that the richer we are becoming, the more we throw and waste. And the more we pollute. This consumption is necessary as it is linked to economic growth models that we have decided to adopt as our own. But we forget that the more we consume, the higher the cost of collection and disposal, which we cannot afford. So we look for band-aid solutions. In middle-class environmentalism, there is no appetite for changing lifestyles that will minimize waste and pollution. At least, not as yet.

And this will have to change at an individual level. More from a top-to-bottom approach, where policies and infrastructure are in favour of an individual who chooses to walk on the road, than one where people find it extremely hard to first adopt and then to follow environment-friendly practices.

How can we educate the next generation on sustainability?

Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) should be the next 40-year slogan for anyone who becomes or aspires to become a part of India’s environmental movement in the next 40 years.

The next generation and this cannot afford to ignore the fact that the environment they create is the environment they choose to live in. When I say Not-in-my-backyard, I am saying I will not allow anything bad to happen in my vicinity. This concept has driven change across the world and continues to be the reason why projects from shale gas exploration in the US to wind power in the UK face protests. Ordinary people, but with power because they are part of the voting middle-class, take up these issues because they affect their lives. Therefore, the slogan for the next-gen environmentalism must be this.

Also Read: Smog or No Smog, Delhi’s Pollution Levels are Beyond Acceptable Levels


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