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India's feisty – and effective – environmental champion

Sunita Narain has learned that being an environmentalist in India means being an advocate for the poor – and for immediate action.

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‘We don’t lose fights. We can’t afford it,’ says Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Jason Kehe

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Don't lecture Sunita Narain. You might just find yourself on the losing side of an epic showdown.

That's what happened in 2003, when the nonprofit group Ms. Narain directs, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), published a report about unsafe pesticide levels in bottled water.

Not long after, a senior executive of PepsiCo paid Narain an unexpected visit.

You don't know what you're talking about, she was menacingly told.

Narain was confused. The CSE's report had given Pepsi's bottled water a good rating. Why should the company care?

So Narain ordered her researchers to test Pepsi's soft drinks. The result: lots of pesticides.

A year later, Narain found herself staring down, as she likes to put it, "the might of the American empire." Soft-drink giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo united against her and her 130-person organization in the biggest fight of her 30-year career.

She won.

"We don't lose fights," Narain says. "We can't afford it. How can you lose a fight?"

It's that arrogance – even she would call it that – that's given Narain her reputation as one of India's feistiest and most effective environmental activists. This year marks her 30th with CSE, and her 10th as its director.

"If you were to list the top five or 10 urban organizations in India," says fellow Indian environmentalist Ashish Kothari, "[CSE] would certainly be on it."

Mr. Kothari first met Narain when they were high school age in late-1970s Delhi, at a conference on the environment. At the time, few people were talking about environmental issues in India.

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