Review: Angry Reflections Amidst India’s Ongoing Environmental War
In the middle of a war, it is tough to turn philosopher.
Activism demands attention to the immediate — a tunnel vision, of sorts — where one's time and energy is directed towards solving an issue and tackling the problems which come up.
In Sunita Narain’s ‘Conflicts of Interest’, these challenges are as varied as a swamp of lawsuits, the fight against 'established science', unresponsive politicians and Bollywood stars with a Cola bottle in their hand.
Narain, arguably India’s leading environmentalist, writes on major environmental issues in the country like air pollution, waste management, climate change and pesticides in aerated drinks in a historical context. Written in an engaging and accessible manner, the book frankly looks at every ‘conflict’ and explains what worked and what didn’t.
Kissa Pesticide Ka: Cola Wars
How do you convince people you’re telling the truth, when you’re up against a Bollywood star in India? Or worse, a respected cricket icon?
Caught in a perception and a legal battle when the CSE decided to investigate pesticides in aerated drinks, ‘Cola Wars’ is the most riveting chapter in the book. The chapter begins with a compelling meeting between the CSE’s research team and the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) which was instituted to investigate the allegations that there were pesticide residues in cola.
At the time of the meeting, CSE was perceived to be ‘rogues’ who had done the study on pesticides in colas to ‘extort’ money from multinational organisations. CSE’s research team had worked for weeks, only to begin the JPC deposition on the backfoot, since they realised that there was no Powerpoint equipment to present their data.
Narain describes this by saying,“It was my toughest moment.”
In the run-up to the moment of deposition, Narain and her research team had to face a barrage of criticism and lawsuits. Despite the shocking data shown by CSE’s pollution-monitoring laboratory, regulators, bigwigs in bottled-water industry and government agencies were pressurising the organisation & often intimidating them. Interestingly, at the time, the PepsiCo chief wrote in newspapers arguing that the CSE study is,
But despite ad campaigns by Bollywood stars reassuring audiences of the safety of colas, CSE was proven right and subsequent regulations sought to address the residue of pesticide in aerated drinks. More than anything else, this chapter is a good example of not giving up on a fight even when everything seems dire.
Air Pollution: ‘No One Was Listening’
For Delhi residents, smog is now an annual winter event to be welcomed with masks and air purifiers, along with festive cheer. In 2017, black smoke in the capital city sparked an angry debate and quick-fix policy solutions like odd-even. But pollution has always been an issue, one with its origins in the inky black air in Delhi in 1996. Writing about the early days in the struggle for air pollution to be recognised as a legitimate problem and the challenges encountered by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), Narain writes:
Remember, this was the time when air pollution was not being discussed much. It was not on anyone’s agenda yet. In fact, we were asked more than once why we were so worried about some black air. The then lieutenant governor of Delhi said this was only dust, and nothing to be worried about. The then health minister said air pollution was not a health concern.Excerpt from ‘Conflicts of Interest’
Ironically, a similar statement was made by Union Environment Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan when he said, “to attribute any death to a cause like pollution may be too much.” The only difference being that he said this in 2017, when an entire city was coughing its lungs out in what many described as a ‘gas chamber.’ So, how far have we really come on the battle against air pollution?
The chapter on air pollution in ‘Conflicts of Interest’ makes for fascinating reading. It describes a time when politicians had to be convinced that diesel particles weren’t even recognised as air pollutants and there was “no standard for the quality of fuel or limits on vehicle emission.”
With debates on air pollution and climate change becoming an everyday phenomenon, ‘Conflict of Interest’ is an important intervention — an essential reflection amidst an urgent war — written by an author whose unique experiences, angry exhortations and practical solutions would be dangerous to ignore.