Battles of a climate crusader
Ms Narain begins her story with the tumultuous and largely frustrating case of CSE’s fight for Delhi’s air. In 1998, the Indian automobile industry got the goahead to use diesel in private cars, although global research had begun to point to diesel emissions as being highly polluting and carcinogenic. Diesel was, however, also cheap. When CSE published a report provocatively entitled “Engines of the Devil: Why Dieselization of Private Automobile Fleet Should Be Banned,” Tata Motors sued them for defamation. Ms Narain quotes from their sworn affidavit in court: “I deny that the smaller the particulate, the more harmful it is. I deny that RSPM is more deadly because they are breathed deep into the lungs and lodged there...”
Eventually, while the court set emission standards for all vehicles, CSE lost a critical battle because it was unable to prevent the manufacture and sale of private diesel cars. Even though its efforts resulted in Delhi’s bus fleet adopting CNG, a cleaner fuel, vehicular emissions from the growing number of diesel cars negated its positive effects in no time.
In the chapters on CSE’s campaigns against Endosulfan and pesticides in soft drinks, Ms Narain recounts numerous ways in which her colleagues and she have been harassed, or attempted to be silenced. Cases under SLAPP, an acronym for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” have been a common tactic. Over the years, corporations such as Tata and PepsiCo have sued her for defamation, while lower courts have issued nonbailable warrants against her. She writes that soft drinks majors first used their clout and foreign investment to hinder the setting of product safety standards — and then argued in court that they cannot be held liable for pesticide residues in their products if there are no standards in place! Undeterred, Ms Narain calls these confrontations “dialogues of the deaf” — for these corporations seem to be willfully heedless of the science behind CSE’s research. Frustrating stories all, but the author writes: “We are dogs with a bone — we won’t give up”.
Describing droughts as “manmade”, Ms Narain traces the origins of India’s water crisis to the colonial-led “modernisation” of traditional water management systems. She’s all praise for traditional water management and rainwater harvesting systems across the country, which combined sound engineering practices with an acute knowledge based on experience of the region’s geology. As with everything else that’s going wrong with the country’s ecology, these too have fallen prey to the politics of development and conflicts of interest.
Ms Narain is at her eloquent best on the fraught issue of climate change. The developing world has no alternative but to spew carbon as it develops further, she writes. On the other hand, the developed world must pay for the carbon it has already released, and therefore must bear the onus for reducing their present-day emissions. Climate change negotiations are really about negotiating the right to development, and differentiating between “survival emissions” (from agriculture or cattle raising) and “luxury emissions” (from cars etc). This doesn’t, judging from US President Donald Trump’s recent exit from the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrates, look like it’s going to happen any time soon.
Conflicts of Interest drives home the oft-overlooked fact that air and water; forest, deserts, sky and sea are commons owned by the entire planet. Like it or not, the US’s energy-guzzling path towards further development impacts the rest of the world. Closer home, the government can’t just clean Delhi’s air without improving public transport, empowering farmers and ensuring safe garbage disposal – not just in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, but also in the rest of the country. The solution she advocates is to innovate by borrowing from the past. For example, reduce the ill-effects of droughts by combining traditional water harvesting wisdom with modern solutions such as switching to water-efficient crops and developing more accurate weather forecasting systems.
The memoir with its well-designed cover is difficult to put down, the many allusions to Ms Narain’s most famous campaigns – pesticides in soft drinks and emissions from diesel vehicles – seem repetitive. Perhaps this is because Ms Narain has spent her career talking (and repeating herself) to an audience that hears but doesn’t really listen. This is an important book, not only for policy makers and environmentalists, but also for ordinary people (this reviewer included) who go through life blithely unaware of what happens to their faeces after they pull the flush. A careful perusal of this book will convince readers that almost everything they do has negative consequences for the environment. This is what makes Conflicts of Interestone of the most depressing but thought-provoking page-turners to be published this year. My Journey through India’s Green Movement Sunita Narain Penguin Viking 217 pages; ~599