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India's feisty – and effective – environmental champion

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"At the end of the day, we're looking for development that meets the needs of all; and if you want to do that, you have to make sure you have an environmental policy that is coherent," Narain says.

Being an environmentalist in India in the 1980s was easy – or easier than today, at least. The government was open to recommendations and active in its passage of new legislation.

Delhi, too, was different back then – greener, cleaner. Trees were everywhere, and the sun shined in a clear sky. It was the dawning of a new environment-friendly age.

But as the years progressed and development fever caught on, Delhi began its transformation into the trash-strewn, smog-choked city it is today. It was only then that Narain developed her fighter's edge.

"Delhi had just started motorization, and we were suddenly choking in the spit of the vehicles," she remembers. That's when she and CSE launched the Right to Clean Air campaign – and came up against the superpowerful diesel lobby. The massive Tata Group, which owns everything from steel mills and auto and truck plants to telecommunications services and hotels, brought a defamation case against CSE.

CSE defended itself, though its legal wranglings with diesel interests continue.

That, Narain says, is the narrative of environmentalism in India today: reversing – but not preempting – unsustainable trends. During her time as director, she's pushed for "mitigating" solutions, like decreasing reliance on pollution-spewing cars. It's been a steeper and steeper uphill battle.

Narain's brand of environmentalism, and India's generally, differs from the approach in the United States, where the "green movement" is popularly associated with left-wing tree-hugging.

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