Every winter, a toxic, eye-watering cloud of diesel fumes, smoke, and dust descends on Delhi like a shroud. Children stay indoors, pedestrians wear masks, and hospitals overflow with people gasping for air. Sunita Narain calls it “death by breath.”
Narain has been fighting the battle for clean air in Delhi for the past two decades. She is one of India’s most vocal environmental activists and her recent memoir covers a host of thorny issues including the early years of Delhi smog.
Conflicts of Interest: My Journey Through India’s Green Movement opens with a flashback to a press conference in April 1999. Narain had recently co-authored an article on the toxicity of diesel, and Tata Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, had retaliated by filing a legal notice threatening to sue for defamation. Facing a hostile audience, she held her ground, arguing that diesel engines emit a particularly dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5, fine particles that were a “likely carcinogen.” Tata subsequently withdrew its threat.
It was a small victory for clean air that would eventually lead to bigger changes down the road. In 2002, Delhi banned diesel public buses and switched to compressed natural gas. “Finally the stars were visible in the night sky,” writes Narain. In hindsight, it was too little too late. India’s capital was growing fast and an explosion of private diesel vehicles on the streets soon nullified any gains from the switch to natural gas for public buses. “Our biggest failure … is that nothing has changed on the ground,” she writes.
Narain’s book describes many other controversial issues that her New Delhi-based group Centre for Science and Environment has researched and fought to ameliorate, including pesticide residues in colas like Coke and Pepsi, the impact of the pesticide endosulfan on public health, and India’s heavily polluted rivers.
She also argues that India needs to “reinvent growth without pollution.” But what does sustainable growth look like for a country with 1.3 billion people? Narain points to overlooked opportunities outside the big cities. Most villages in India still lead a fossil-free, pre-industrial lifestyle when it comes to cooking fuel. Wood, dried twigs, and cow dung cakes, collectively known as “biomass,” are burned by 66 percent of the population, and Narain believes that these rural poor “provide us the only real space today to avert climate change.” With the right policies and incentives, over 700 million people could potentially bypass fossil fuels and switch to cleaner alternatives like biogas or solar.
Gas stoves, cars, and flush toilets are trappings of a Western middle-class lifestyle that are unsustainable when scaled in developing countries, she writes. India went on a toilet building spree recently to deal with its sanitation crisis and has been on a campaign to shame people into using them. According to latest census figures, 53 percent of Indian households had no toilet as recently as 2011. But Narain feels more people should be asking about what happens to the waste once it gets flushed down these toilets. Much of it ends up as untreated waste in the nearest waterway, turning many freshwater streams into rivers of sewage. “These lost rivers are our collective shame,” she laments. But the solution — functioning sewage systems — are, for the most part, unsustainable. Municipalities simply do not have the resources to build and maintain them. She suggests that on-site waste disposal like septic tanks or well-regulated private sewage tankers are more suitable for local conditions.
Narain favors a back-to-basics approach when dealing with environmental issues, and reports that grassroots green practices are alive and well in some rural pockets. She recalls stumbling upon what looked like an inverted saucer in the middle of parched scrubland while driving down a dusty road in Rajasthan. It was a paved funnel that channeled rainwater into a covered well. Local environmental solutions like this make economic sense as well, she observes.
India needs a new kind of environmentalism, Narain concludes. One that takes cues from local communities, not Western green movements. It should ask the question: If not in my backyard, then whose?
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