Narain calls for Reinventing India’s Growth

Speaking at ERG’s 20th Annual Lecture at UC Berkeley, Sunita Narain begins with an uneasy comment. “The big challenge for India is: Can we actually change the trajectory of development so that we don’t first pollute and then clean up? Because that’s what the rest of the world does. That’s what you do.” Laughs come from the audience. Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, continues to explain with poignant detail why India needs to reinvent itself, ending with a “zillion dollar” question about America. Watch the video to know more.

About the Lecture
India is fac­ing a dou­ble bur­den of envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems — of the poor and of the rich. So, on one hand, its forests are under threat but on the other hand, its rivers are increas­ingly pol­luted by sewage and indus­trial waste and cities are choked under tox­ins from the spit of its vehi­cles. All efforts seem point­less as the scale of the prob­lem is enor­mous and pal­lia­tive actions do not seem to work. So, what will work? Can India rein­vent its way to growth with­out pol­lu­tion? Are there lessons in this for the rest of the world? What can we learn from the envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the poor to face the chal­lenge of cli­mate change that is threat­en­ing the world as we know it.

About Sunit Narain
Named one of the world’s Top 100 Pub­lic Intel­lec­tu­als on Earth three times by the U.S. jour­nal, For­eign Pol­icy, and awarded the 2005 Stock­holm World Water Prize, Sunita Narain is an Indian envi­ron­men­tal­ist and polit­i­cal activist as well as a major pro­po­nent of the Green con­cept of sus­tain­able development.

Narain has been with the India-based Cen­tre for Sci­ence and Envi­ron­ment since 1982. She is cur­rently the direc­tor of the Cen­tre and the direc­tor of the Soci­ety for Envi­ron­men­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lisher of the fort­nightly mag­a­zine, Down To Earth. Narain started work­ing with with CSE in 1982, and took over the organ­si­a­tion and the mag­a­zine in 2001, after the death of Founder Edi­tor Anil Aggar­wal. Under CSE, Narain has worked in a var­i­ous fields related to envi­ron­ment. Be it for­est devel­op­ment, cli­mate change, or water resources; she has researched, writ­ten about and worked on loca­tion for these issues.

What how­ever caught the atten­tion of the entire world, was the claim of the CSE that cola giants like Pepsi and Coke use con­t­a­m­i­nated, pesticide-ridden water in the drinks that they make and dis­trib­ute in India. While the CSE pro­vided hard proof twice over for their find­ings, the com­pa­nies denied it and the gov­ern­ment refused to do any­thing, and instead launched an enquiry on CSE to check if their find­ings had any value.

Apart from Green awards, Narain has been fea­tured by Time mag­a­zine as one of India’s most influ­en­tial peo­ple, and in 2005 and again in 2008 and 2009 she was included by For­eign Pol­icy as one of the Top 100 pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als on earth. In 2005 she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian gov­ern­ment. In 2005, she received the Stock­holm World Water Prize for work on rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing and for its pol­icy influ­ence in build­ing par­a­digms for com­mu­nity based water management.

From Time Magazine’s 15 Most Influ­en­tial Indi­ans
Envi­ron­men­tal­ists have a lot to com­plain about in India and Sunita Narain does her fair share. She can be acer­bic and pop­ulist but there’s no doubt­ing that she draws atten­tion to issues that need it. The Delhi-based Cen­tre for Sci­ence and Envi­ron­ment (CSE), which she heads, mon­i­tors air pol­lu­tion lev­els around India, stud­ies the effects of cli­mate change and even runs train­ing courses that show busi­ness­peo­ple and stu­dents how to lead greener lives. But it is her crit­i­cism of inter­na­tional soft drink mak­ers Coca-Cola and Pep­siCo that has won Narain most atten­tion. Over the past few years the CSE has reg­u­larly alleged that soft drinks sold in India con­tain high level of pes­ti­cides — a charge both Coke and Pepsi reject. Narain says her main goal is not to hurt com­pa­nies but to spur the gov­ern­ment to tighten reg­u­la­tions. But a lit­tle pub­lic­ity goes a long way: her pes­ti­cide charges spurred some Indian states to ban the sales of Coke and Pepsi last year. Now, she’s tak­ing on river polluters.

This talk was pre­sented under the aegis of Urban WASH, the Cen­ter for South Asia Stud­ies’ urban water ini­tia­tive designed to address the urgent need of urban water and san­i­ta­tion issues in South Asia.