Interview with Sunita Narain,
Yuli Ismartono [time 23:00]
11th December, 2006
Yuli Ismartono: Welcome to another edition of THE LEADERS. We are in New Delhi, India, where we will meet with Ms. Sunita Narain, a well-known environmental activist who has won a number of awards for her advocacy and campaigns on conserving and managing natural resources in India.
Ms. Narain, thank you for meeting with us.
How did you first get involved with social-environmental activism?
Sunita Narain: That was a very, very long time ago. I was a student in an upper-middle class public school in Delhi. We just happen to come together--as a group of students-- looking at environmental issues. I'm talking about the late 1970s through the 1980s. We started our interest with really just the environment of Delhi, cutting of trees in Delhi, the whole issue of esthetics. As I started looking into environmental issues, it became very clear that it wasn't just about pretty trees. It was really about the ranks of people over those trees. I think that was the exposure to the environmental movement that I had, looking at a very fascinating movement in India, where the women cut trees to protect them. That really changed my own perspective, but it made me strongly believe that without environmental safeguards, we cannot have development in India. And that development and environment are two sides of the same coin. That really made me so committed to this issue.
YI: Did you go to a particular school to be trained for that?
Narain: No, in fact I began working right after that and I began working only because I was very keen to work on the environment, but there was no school in the 1980s that taught the environment. Everywhere I went they turned me away and yet I was keen to work on it. So, I stayed on and I'm very glad I did. I met my colleague Anil Agarwal, who founded this center a year later. I learnt a lot from him. This was the 1980s, a time in the world when we said that the environment was the rich countries' problem, that we first need to pollute, we first need to have the chimneys, then we'll talk about the environment. As early as 1980 they were talking about the environment because we said the environment in which the poor in India live, and therefore we are talking about building a subsistence economy. We're talking about land, we're talking about water, we're talking about firewood, which is energy for cooking food. So, we're talking about a basic need. And it is that basic need which will determine whether India will be rich or poor. Therefore, if India can't manage its environment, it will be poor. And I think that understanding of the environment has really helped me also to understand the also the importance of the environment in a country like India.
YI: So, what would you say is India's biggest environmental problem?
Narain: Today, there are two big issues. Overall I would say water remains one of our biggest concerns. Even in water there are two things: one is the access to water, the availability of water to everyone in India and clean water to everyone in India. And two, to make sure that water does not get polluted and contaminated because as we are industrializing, and as we are organizing, we will have large amounts of waste. And our inability to manage that waste: clean the sewage means that they are going to pollute our rivers. And so I think water is and will become one of India's biggest issues.
The second issue is poverty, and I think the environment is the most important aspect of poor people. And so I believe that if we do not manage environment with the needs of poor people we will increase poverty in India. So I see environment as an opportunity in one place, and I see environment as a threat.