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India's feisty – and effective – environmental champion

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But Narain and Kothari were interested. Along with a couple of other students, they formed an organization called Kalpavriksh, by most accounts Delhi's first environmental activist group.

Kothari knew early on, when he and Narain attended a workshop on pollution together, that she was bound for success.

"A lot of people are tentative. She wasn't tentative. She was forthright," says Kothari, who remains at Kalpavriksh to this day. "I could see in that one meeting that she had great potential to be an environmentalist."

Scan Narain's desk today, and you'll see bundles of letters addressing her as "Dr. Sunita Narain." Narain laughs at that – because she never actually went to college.

Believing this was what she was meant to do, Narain immediately left high school to join an environmental group in Ahmedabad, a large city in the western state of Gujarat.

"It was my mother who was extremely brave, not me," Narain says. "Letting me get into very uncharted territory is not an easy decision. I would not have been able to do it if she didn't say yes."

But it wasn't long before Narain returned to Delhi, where she discovered the fledgling CSE, founded by Anil Kumar Agarwal. She joined as a research assistant – "a junior, junior research assistant, bottom of the pile," she jokes – and began work on Mr. Agarwal's most visionary contribution to Indian environmentalism: the very first State of India's Environment report, a citizen's perspective on the importance of environmental sustainability to personal livelihoods.

It convinced Narain that sustainable development was possible, with the right kind of preparation.

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