Earth, water, fire and controversy

Updated: Mar 3 2004, 05:30am hrs
Shes petite, but she does pack quite a punch. Some say Sunita Narain makes too much of a noise, others call her gutsy. But everyone agrees she can grab their attention. Whether it is waking up the Delhi government to the usefulness of CNG in buses, whether it is checking out what, besides water, is packed in that bottle of mineral water you drink, or, whether it is whipping up a storm over the hard facts behind that soft drink you guzzle. She can move and shakesystems.

You have to be driven to bring about changelike a dog with a bone, Sunita says earnestly. Perhaps it is a tribute to her persistence that India Today recently voted her one of its 50 powerful people.

She goes into overdrive talking about the cola controversy: We initially started with mineral water. When we took a sample of the raw water that is used by these companies, we found huge amounts of pesticides in it. When we then took a sample of the so-called treated water, we found pretty much the same pesticide content. Around that time, someone told us to look into soft drinks too. Thats how this controversy began. Any case, now the cola episode is behind us and we are on to other things.

Sunita Narain
For a person who is so vocal about her obsessionthe environment Sunita is strangely reticent talking about herself. She is one of four sisters who were brought up by their mother after their father died. My mother looked after the familys handicraft export business too, apart from raising us. She claims she has a bad academic record but was interested in Nature right from her days in Modern School, New Delhi. Her first brush with environmental activism was the Chipko Movement in the late 70s. Thats when she knew working on environmental issues was her calling in life. So after her graduation, she went to Ahmedabad to research on the wildlife and ecology of Gujarat. A short stint at the Bombay Natural History Society followed, after which Sunita moved back to Delhi and joined the Centre for Science and Environment in 1982. She has obviously flowered in CSEin her 22 years here, Sunita has graduated from selling books to becoming the director. She is also the publisher of the widely-acclaimed environmental magazine, Down To Earth.

A journalist and environmental activist is how Sunita describes herself. But her secret for being an effective activist in the era where NGOs mushroom everyday is: You must have an inquisitive mind. You have to be dumb enough to keep asking questionsnever have preconceived notions.

Sunita maintains a demanding schedule. Its a lot of travel, administration and advocacy. Her fatigue sometimes shows up in the course of the conversation. There are distractions like phone calls and queries from staff too. The inability to move the system can sometimes get quite exasperating. Getting bureaucrats to see your point of view, without losing your patience, can really be tiring, she says with a sigh. In the next instant though, she perks up to tell you: But something has happened. CNG has happened to Delhi. The kind of resistance CSE had to face in the cola controversy is nothing compared to what we faced during the CNG campaigns. There was so much disinformationthat it causes cancer, that it is a bomb on the road. Politicians like Madan Lal Khurana and Sheila Dikshit were opposed to it.

Three issues Sunita wants to address

We as a society are slowly becoming water illiterate. CSE plans to look at ways and means of conserving water in agriculture, industry and at home.
Most of the time people talk about protecting the environment. We want to look at ways of using the environment as a source of employment generation.
CSE plans to take the Delhi experience of introducing CNG in buses to other cities. We also want to create an environment where people would prefer to travel by public transport instead of their own private vehicles.

Sunita recalls how within 24 hours they had to produce facts countering the Delhi government stand that the price of CNG is higher than that of diesel. We got the data from 10 cities around the world that this was not true. We could do that because we are globally networked and when you are pushed to the wall, you have to fight back. The fact that your credibility is being challenged every step of the way makes you fight back that much harder. To do that, you work round the clock and you keep investigating deeper and deeper into an issue. It becomes like an obsession then.

Surprisingly, Sunita didnt face any threats at the workplace or on her person considering all the rage she had whipped up. There were slander campaigns like what does the woman know, but I respect Indias democracy for giving me the freedom to say what I want. We also have safeguards like the media and the courts that keep things in place.

Seeing her work in perspective, Sunita says with a smile that her aim is to provoke the reader. I want them to react to the issue Ive written about. At CSE we believe that we should never be the last word, but the first word on anything.

Looking back, Sunita says the happiest moments in her career were when she travelled through India with Anil Aggarwal (a journalist, environmental activist and CSEs founder) in the mid 80s. Thats the time I saw people in their own surroundings and understood the framework on which our country operates.

Some say she is a tough boss to work for. Sunita says with a laugh that she is. I dont hesitate to tell a person to leave if he/she is not up to the mark. However, I think over the years I have learnt the hard way how to handle people and now they dont leave CSE because they hate me. In fact, I tell people that the first year they are with us at CSE, is the hardest. After that we try to ensure they dont leave. She adds, after a break: They still leave!

Today CSE has a team of about 100 people and its work attracts a lot of attention. Getting funds isnt a problem. But Sunita says she hasnt quite figured out how to grow in size and quality. Ive seen that when you grow in size, you tend to institutionalise. You tend to lose some of the anger that activism needs.

But shes happy about the work model that exists in CSE. We tell our reporters that they have two months to do a story, unlike the two days you get in a mainstream newspaper. So we combine research and writing for a cause.

When she isnt fanatical about bringing about change, Sunita prefers to be home with her mother and sister in the evenings. Two of her sisters are married and Sunita says someday she might have regrets of not having a family of her own, but right now she doesnt have the time to think of it.