Rare privilege of reflection
In India, there are so many things that need to be done and all to be done yesterday. How do you choose your priority?
Penguin has published my book, Conflicts of Interest, which I am hoping will provoke responses. The book is a journey, one I would never have undertaken, because in our work looking back is a privilege. Every day there is a new challenge that forces us to learn more and to push more. In fact, in the kind of work we do, which is mostly frustrating and often deeply disturbing the only way to stay ahead is to keep a tunnel view—focus on where we need to go—with single-minded obsession. Or desperation. That is what keeps my adrenaline going. And frankly, it's the only way not to let the sense of helplessness—the immensity of the task and often the sheer futility—make you go under.
There are many lessons—or let me say inter-connected strands in our work's tale that I find.
First, there is the issue of the issue itself. Often we are so lost in the problem, that we have lost our ability to propose what should be done. This push for answers is what I believe has been our most important contribution. But it is even more difficult to stay the course to push for implementation. There are a billion plus Indians; we are borne with ideas—no solution is perfect—and of course, we are well-oiled critics. So, what is really difficult is not to fight that contested reality; but to fight so that you do not lose focus.
Then, of course, there is the problem of the problem itself. In India, there are so many things that need to be done and all to be done yesterday. How do you choose your priority?
This, when you know that each problem is a world in itself. Our work of over 30 years shows that each issue is contested, and it takes time to get results. Take air pollution. We started work in mid-1990s, got some victories by early 2000s but are now back in the fray. The circle is round and it requires you to persist and persist.
And this is when we have an institution, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to back us. The fact that Anil Agarwal in 1980, returned from his job at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London to set up CSE, is our most important asset. After him our challenge—my colleagues and mine—has been to ensure that the institution continues to be driven by passion and not by the tasks that should be done.
This is then the third thread. The fact is that every issue is contested because of the conflicts of interest. It is contested because it is the contest of ideas and the contest of realities.
To engage in this contest requires research and an ability to stand against the stated truth—or what I have called the established fact. This is where we have faced our biggest enemies. Not because of the conflict of interests but because of the conflict of ideas, which is driven by interests.
Read any chapter of my book and you will see what I am talking about. We had to fight the "established" science of diesel in our fight for cleaning air; the established science of pesticides in our work on toxins and food safety; the established science of conservation in our work to bring a new way to manage wildlife so that people also benefit. The list is long. But the war is about the mind.
And as I write this, I am conscious, that this war for a space of the mind, is only going to become more difficult in the years to come. I explain this in the book. The fact is we may believe that the world has become smaller; and we have become more connected and media has become "social" but this is far from the truth. In reality, we are living in our individual bubbles, reading who we "like" and "unfollowing" views we don't.
For people like us, who have to push the envelope of status quo, this means that going will be tough. But we cannot give up; we cannot say let the interests prevail. The conflict is real and it must be contested.
This is the real nub. The fact is that there are two distinct versions of environmentalism—of the rich and the poor. There is a technic view of the future, where machines and automation will smoothen our blips. Then there is the view that unless we can develop in ways that are more humane and more inclusive we will not be able to build better futures. This is the politics of environment. It cannot be neutered.
(The author is Director General of Centre for Science and Environment and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. The views expressed are strictly personal.)