Conflicts of Interest-My journey through India's Green Movement

Author Abhilash Khandekar Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2018 (17:28 IST)
Book title: Conflicts of Interest-My through India's Green Movement
: Sunita Narain
Publishers: Penguin Random House

Pages: 228
Price: Rs 599/-


Sunita tells it all....

" In 2013 when I was cycling, a car reversed, hit me and sped away--leaving me bleeding on the road. This is what happens again and again in every city of our country, on every road, as we plan without care for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, who are as good as 'invisible users'. They die doing nothing more than the most ordinary things like crossing a road ".....this is what Padmashri writes at one place in her latest book enumerating her 35-year long environment activism.

Environment is a hot topic now all over and on this and related topics are flooding the market. This year's World Book Fair in New Delhi had environment as the main theme.

Well, Sunita needs little introduction, so do her writings and what she publicly stands for. Barring in bits and pieces where she tells her us new stories or views on the 'green fight' that she has been engaged in for others, the book does not offer fresh stuff much for a person following her and environment issues. Yet, it is readable. Why ? Because at one place you get to know the recent history of environmentalism , events, perspectives, arguments, and some political insights into the glaring issues has been facing--from water to tiger ! 
As country's leading and committed environmentalist, she has her firm opinions about everything environment--climate change, pollution, urban planning, wildlife and the dirty politics around it. With her engagement with this vast and complex sector for over three decades, Sunita is widely read about and seriously heard when she speaks. The crusader in her does not stop from airing her well considered views, mostly based on scientific evidences. And what she consistently says is about the common good of this ancient country's millions of poor and middle class people. She repeatedly says air pollution is an equaliser !

Why I started the of her book here with her own experience on the New Delhi roads is because what she has narrated in that particular chapter relating to air pollution, is being faced by most Indians daily but they have no voice. Travelling on Indian roads is a very risky affair, something the Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has started saying from day one. And he is serious about it and taking steps to curb road deaths, despite challenges.
Sunita says : " We cannot lose the space to walk and cycle....we have built the city's roads only for cars. They rule the road. There are no dedicated lanes for cycles; there are no sidewalks. The little stretches that do exist are either dirty or taken over by parked cars. Roads are for cars. The rest don't matter.  " 
She goes on..." but cycling and walking are difficult not just because of poor planning. It is also because of our mindset that only those who move in a car have road rights. Anyone who walks or cycles is poor, wretched and destined to be marginalised,if not obliterated." 
This is a small book with just seven chapters but the selection has been very precise. They tell us stories about the cola wars her Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) fought bitterly against all odds, as also about the debates on tiger conservation--with or without people. A substantive part of the book is dedicated to air pollution, one of her pet themes on which despite her and CSE's long drawn fight against government, unfortunately, pollution is consistently on the rise. Even the Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) of which first Anil Agarwal ( CSE founder) and after him, she is a member, is seen to have failed. Former bureaucrat Bhure Lal is chairman of this committee since it was first formed two decades ago.
 When I am writing this piece, pollution has subsided a bit but in December first week of 2017 it was very very high in the national capital where former US president Barack Obama spent two days inhaling toxic air, and so did the Sri Lankan cricketers, playing a five-day Test match at Kotla stadium. On all days pollution levels were severe but money-minded BCCI never thought of suspending the game.

'Conflict of Interest ' gives you a detailed account about her battles. She terms maintaining clean air as the battle of battles and suggests that like the Graded Response Action Plan, government must act swiftly to reduce pollution as was admitted in the Supreme Court in 2016 winter. When the levels reach emergency--code red--everything from shutting power plants, taking cars off the road and shutting construction activities must happen. " If action will happen, clean air will happen " she argues, adding that the decision to completely close down the old and polluting Badarpur Power Plant in Delhi by summer 2018 was a bold move of the government but felt more such moves were required. 
Her book has hit the stands when the pollution levels have been all time high in the past several decades, mainly due to automobiles and construction material dust. 
She drops broad hints in her book that her next fight is going to be against clean diesel car technology because without that Delhi will not get clean air. " The carcinogenicity index of diesel is not a laughing matter. It will poison. It will kill--this is no longer 'slow murder', but ' fast and deliberate murder' the book tells us.
Incidentally, it was CSE which had first published a book Slow Murder way back in 1996 setting the problem out in details. It's 20 years now but pollution is rising and rising and that makes Sunita's resolve firmer and firmer. She says explosion in the number of cars with no standards set for quality of fuel and vehicles emissions have made the Delhi air toxic.
Last year in November around Diwali, Delhi's air turned so black than even the most sceptical became breathless. It was literally ' death by breath '....There was no question that Delhi faced a public health emergency because of it's deteriorating air quality. Giving account of earlier years Sunita wonders  " why had the air in Delhi become so bad and what could be done to combat this hazardous pollution ? And then systematically explains it too.
In the winters of 2015 and 2016, Delhi's air was classified as severely polluted of over 65 per cent days of November, December and January. According to the government's own air quality index, this meant that the pollution was so bad that it would cause 'respiratory effects even on healthy people'.

In a way what the author obliquely suggests in her book is that the slow murder of hundreds of people of the national capital has been happening since last 20 years when CSE started its work on air pollution in 1996 and first raised alam over vehicular emissions.
Curiously enough, the book tells us that the Supreme Court's original case directing the Government of Delhi to ' clean up the air' continues till date ( writ petition number 13029 of 1985--MC Mehta versus Union of India and others). Imagine how courts and the governments function in public interest--20 long years and no solution yet in sight with people losing lives in thousands due to inaction of the authorities !
Elsewhere, she narrates her horrible tales of the legal, physical and other threats received from pesticides industry when she and her colleagues were exposing the deadly side effects of pesticides and other chemical substances in food items and in vegetables, besides in blood of farmers from Punjab. 
Her fight was not confined to Delhi or NCR. Padre is a village in Kerala where aerial spraying of endosulfan devastated entire village where a medical practitioner Dr YS Mohana Kumar was slapped with legal notices for finding out the problem and treating poor, ignorant patients. CSE, led then by Anil Agarwal, the founder, too investigated the case and fought till the end but was intimidated no end. It was AK Antony, then chief minister of Kerala who banned the spraying and later Union health minister CP Thakur supported the ban admitting that it caused cancer to villagers. 
What the author has said in her lengthy stories that the new generation must know, is that from time to time, CSE and her teams had scientifically proved and investigated such scams against people and nature but vested interests and lobbies used their economic might to defame herself and her team. But with a sense of pride she tells the readers that she refused to budge an inch, throughout. And most of us know how thought she has been.
As you keep turning pages after pages, every time you realise that she continued taking on the high and mighty only to help a large section of the society which had no clue what was being done to them and to their lives in the name of selling pesticides or Coca Cola. Her fierce fight against the two powerful soft drink giants of the US is no less interesting. How the CSE laboratory findings were challenged; how they were berated; the statement of health minister Sushma Swaraj in the Parliament after Government's food testing labs at Mysore and Kolkatta had tested the samples and almost denied the CSE findings; the formation of a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) under Sharad Pawar's chairmanship in 2003 and finally the victory of Sunita and her team as the JPC ruled in their favour on the eve of Lok Sabha polls of 2004, allaying fears that politicians may favour global soft drinks companies and their big money etc, is written in a very matter-of-fact manner.

It reminds us how someone other than the government has to be vigilant for the public good. Because the government, in this particular case--which actually started from the testing of bottled drinking water--never ever thought of testing the colas made of American and European formulas and the water they used, notwithstanding the fact that Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 was in place, people were drinking pesticides. It was government's job which CSE did.
Her rich experiences of climate change conferences, the deals struck on international fora, the convoluted international politics associated with it--all have found way in this book and those wanting to keep track of the climate change talks can hugely benefit it. Though she has written from her own perspective as also from Indian point of view, it gives a fair idea what all happens at such CoPs---Bonn, Copenhagen, Kyoto or Paris. The rich versus poor nations' tales, games the mighty nations such as US, Britain or France play, have been unfolded before the readers by Narain.
I was particularly curious about her experiences as the Tiger Task Force chairperson which she has interestingly put together. In pesticides war, the moneyed manufacturers were against her, in cola war global lobbies were lampooning Sunita. But strangely, when she was nominated by PM Dr Manmohan Singh as the tiger working group's head, post Sariska debacle, none other than the wildlife conservationists bayed for her blood, almost !
They asked who she was ? She has never seen a tiger and so on. Yet, she went about doing her business and submitted the 'Joining the Dots' report in August 2005 as a result of which the Project Tiger was bundled and an authority--NTCA--was created for better governance besides improving the science of counting the Tigers. The pug marks method was discontinued and camera trap method introduced, in 2006. 
I recall those days reports of fights between Sunita and tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar used to be heard as Thapar was against her idea of man and tiger's coexistence. Traditional conservationists too were up in arms against Sunita and her way of securing the future of tigers and wanted their ways to prevail. But with that traditional way Sariska had lost all tigers, a first such instance in India that had shaken everyone. But for Sariska, perhaps tiger task force may never have been formed.
The author also suggests ways and means for nature conservation at the end of her book in chapter " a blueprint for the future" in which she appears to be advocating the middle path by saying focus should be on development, including in states like the Himalayas where pro and anti dam lobbies have been locked for ever on issues of hydro power production versus the fragile ecology of the region. Sunita favours that answer has to be to evolve policies for ecological flow in rivers to ensure that all times 50 per cent flow should be uninterrupted in these Himalayan rivers.
As far as Delhi is concerned she says only 10-15 per cent of Delhi owns or drives cars but these vehicles take up 90 per cent of the road space and contribute to the bulk of the contaminants in the air. And therefore she one again argues for public transport and mobility revolution, something like Singapore has done.

[The writer is a veteran journalist and writes about politics, environment, books and urban affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected] and Tiwtter @Abhikhandekar1]

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