If nothing else, SunitaNarain.jpgit speaks to the fire behind Sunita
Narain’s words that this reporter, upon hearing her address
Thursday evening to UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion, was ready to board a
plane to India and participate in a think tank to help solve the
country’s air and water pollution problems. The diminutive Narain,
who just peeped over the top of the podium and lectured while
wearing her rain slicker, spoke of the environmental problems
facing her homeland with such confidence and passion that one could
not help being moved by her words.

Narain spoke extensively of how difficult environmentalism is
for India, as the nation lacks the money boasted by other nations
that have made strides to clean their resources. As such, India
must be more innovative, she said. “We are inheriting a model that
is extremely toxic,” Narain said, referring to developments like
the Indian people’s increasing dependence upon cars, which she said
grows from a tendency to follow examples set by nations like the
United States. “I don’t say this because I am a rabid
environmentalist,” she said. “I am, of course. But I say this
because it is true.” Matter-of-fact with the manner in which she
discussed the foibles of her country and others, Narain stated
India’s problem as being both poor and polluted — “a deadly
combination,” she explained.

Having worked with India’s Centre for Science and the
Environment since 1982 — just two years after its inception —
Narain has pressed government officials hard to work for a cleaner,
healthier India. In explanation of her background at the beginning
of her speech, Narain recalled her days in the late ‘90s pushing a
movement known as the “Right to Clean Air,” which sought to
detoxify New Dehli’s breathing space. According to Narain, the
proliferation of diesel-fueled vehicles had made the city so
polluted that approximately one person died every hour of a
respiratory disease. Narain participated in the movement by, among
other methods, creating propaganda such as flyers that depicted the
black, decayed lungs of typical New Dehli residents. Appearing to
be a bit of a firebrand among Indian movers and shakers, Narain
admitted that one campaign involved the mass publication of the
prime minister’s personal phone number in literature explaining the
pollution problem. She noted that she was careful to include the
number that would cause the prime minister the most frustration and
annoyance. Eventually, the Right to Clean Air movement resulted in
the city’s switching to public transportation vehicles powered by
compressed natural gas.

Perhaps best known to the international environmental community
as the brains behind a study indicating that Coca-Cola and
Pepsi-Cola products contained a higher level of pesticides than the
Indian government permitted, Narain concentrated her speech at UCSB
on the notion of sustainable development under conditions of rapid
growth. According to Narain’s statistics, India experienced a
doubling of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between 1975 and 1995.
This good news, however, is mitigated by the fact that the India of
1996 also suffered from eight times more vehicular pollution and
four times more industrial pollution than it did in 1975. Narain
explained that these numbers are especially troubling for a nation
like India, which is relatively poorer than countries like the
United States, Britain and Japan, which experienced a marked
increase in pollution following World War II but had the financial
resources to work to fix them. In Narain’s opinion, India cannot
look to wealthier nations as models, as money-driven solutions are
not feasible. “We want to be a rich nation. We want to be a
powerful nation. But the question is what will it do to our
environment,” she said.

To illustrate the difference in how India should develop in
comparison to wealthier nations, Narain quoted Ghandi, who once
said “If it took Britain the rape of half the world to be what it
is, how many would it take India?”

Essentially, Narain explained the global air pollution problem
as a gradual process of identifying harmful particles, finding a
way to filter them out, and then realizing that the process allows
a still-finer substance to escape into the air. This process has
currently led American environmentalists to research ways to
protect people from harmful nanoparticles, she said. Yet India has
no money to engage in this process. Instead, she said India’s best
bet to protect its citizens is to think of ways to “leapfrog” ahead
in the process and bypass the costly methods of gradual
environmentalism. The total elimination of diesel-fueled vehicles
is a prime example of this kind of thinking, which Narain more than
once referred to as “a shortcut to the future.”

Addressing the obstacles facing such progress, however, Narain
frankly addressed the nature of Indian society: “In India, the
economy is, to use an impolite word, retarded,” she said, noting
that taxes there weigh more heavily on those using public
transportation that those driving cars, who receive subsidies. “We
are imitating all the stupid things you [Americans] have done. You
are considered very wise and things you have done are considered

Narain then spoke of Indian water policy, which has recently
fallen under the jurisdiction of centralized government, which
inhibits the often tried-and-true methods for water allotment,
which vary wildly from one region of India to the next. Her
conclusion, however, focused on the need for innovation in order to
solve the problems of her country — and, ostensibly, other
countries in similar circumstances. The growing Indian GDP coupled
with worldwide awareness of potentially cataclysmic events like
global warming, she said, mean now is an ideal time to redirect the
course of her nation. Narain implored her audience to realize that
India must not necessarily work alone in the process of “finding
answers to questions that defy solutions.” The environmentally
minded from outside India can help just as much as innovations
discovered in India could theoretically help the rest of the world
achieve methods of producing food without damaging soil, building
cities without drowning rural areas in waste, and creating industy
without allowing corporations to hijack democracy.

“You should be proud,” she told the crowd, which consisted of
many environmental studies majors. “You have fixed some problems…
We can work together to do more.”


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