Sunita Narain, born in 1961, has been with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) from 1982. She is currently the director of the Centre and the director of the Society for Environmental Communications and publisher of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. She is a writer and environmentalist, conducts research with forensic rigour and passion, so that knowledge can lead to change. In 2005 and again in 2008 and 2009 she was included by US journal Foreign Policy as one of the world’s 100 public intellectuals. In 2005 she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government. She has also received the World Water Prize for work on rainwater harvesting and for its policy influence in building paradigms for community based water management. In 2005, she also chaired the Tiger Task Force at the direction of the Prime Minister, to evolve an action plan for conservation in the country after the loss of tigers in Sariska. She advocated solutions to build a coexistence agenda with local communities so that benefits of conservation could be shared and the future secured. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change. As well as the National Ganga River Basin Authority, chaired by the Prime Minister, set up to implement strategies for cleaning the river. Narain began her work in the early 1980s, as a co-researcher with Anil Agarwal, an eminent and committed environmentalist who gave the country its environmental concern and message. In 1985, she co-edited the State of India’s Environment report, which built an understanding in the country on why India is so important for the poor. With Anil Agarwal she learnt that environment and development are two sides of the same coin and that for the millions of poor, who live on the margins of subsistence, it a matter of survival. In 1989, learning from the successful initiatives of people to manage their environment, Anil Agarwal and she wrote Towards Green Villages advocating local participatory democracy as the key to sustainable development. She has continued to research and write about how environment must become the basis of livelihood security of people in the country. She has also linked issues of local democracy with global democracy, arguing that every human being has an entitlement to the global atmospheric common.
She has devoted time to build the capacities of the CSE so that it can function as an independent and credible institution, influencing public opinion and advocating change. Today, with over 120 full time staff, it is actively engaged in a variety of programmes spanning issues of water management, to rating of industries in terms of the environmental performance and training. CSE is an institution, which believes in the need to use knowledge to bring about change. In other words, it is about “working India’s vibrant democracy”. The challenge for CSE is to raise concerns and to participate in seeking answers and more importantly, in advocating for the answers to become policy and then practice.
Combating air pollution
Air pollution is an extremely serious problem, which damages the respiratory system and can lead to mortality as well. Narain, working with her colleagues at CSE, has been actively engaged in advocating for air pollution control. She believes that the answers to the growing problems of pollution will be in reinventing the growth model of the Western world so that we can leapfrog technology choices and find new ways of building wealth, which will not cost us the earth. It is in this context that Narain and her colleagues advocated for the introduction of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in Delhi, to reduce air pollution. The successful implementation of CNG in buses in the capital has lead to substantial reduction in air contaminants and has become a model for the rest of the world. As a member of the 2 statutory body, set up under the Environment Protection Act and under mandate from the Supreme Court, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the National Capital Region, she continues to monitor and implement strategies for reducing pollution in Delhi and in other cities across the country.
Making water everybody’s business
Water is clearly most important asset for the country. For Sunita Narain it is an issue of great passion as she devotes time to research and advocate for the need to change the paradigm of water management in the country. She began work in this area with her colleague, Anil Agarwal, as she discovered the fascinating ingenuity of communities to harvest rainwater across the country. Research lead to their book, Dying Wisdom and then later a book entitled, Making Water Everybody’s Business. Since then she has continued to build an understanding of the need for water security, using rainwater harvesting to augment resources and pollution control to minimise waste. She believes that her biggest contribution would be to build a strong and vibrant movement for water literacy in the country. In 2005, the Centre and she were awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, considered the Water Nobel for work on building an informed public opinion on the need for decentralised water management and rainwater harvesting.
It is in this context that Narain has argued that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme public funds to create public assets with the labour of poor people. And the opportunity lies in using such labour to build assets: drought relief for relief against drought. Today, the national rural employment programme is already the world’s biggest ecological regeneration effort – just under a million water bodies being dug, desilted or renovated by people. Now we must make sure these water bodies are not just holes in the ground, but will capture the next rain and recharge the aquifer. Her work to build an awareness on this issue continues.
Food and water safety
In 2001, CSE set up a state of art laboratory to analyse contaminants in water and food so that it could undertake science for ecological security. In 2003 and 2004, under Narain’s direction, the Centre analysed bottled water and then carbonated beverages for pesticide content. The aim of the study was to understand the extent of contamination of our groundwater and food systems and to use this research for reform. The study lead to the setting up the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages. The JPC gave its report in February 2004, endorsing the findings of CSE on pesticides in carbonated beverages and recommending wide ranging reform in food safety for the country. The report of the parliamentarians has become an important milestone in building a new and more vibrant regulatory system to ensure that contamination in food and water is minimised and does not compromise human health. Narain’s research has also helped to build a strong public opinion in favour of reform, particularly, regarding the contamination of groundwater, the drinking water source of millions of people across the country.
Climate Change: working for an effective and equitable regime
Narain began work on climate change in the early 1990. In 1991, she co-authored Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism, which played a critical role in establishing the principle of equity in the framework convention on climate change. Since then she has continued to work in building awareness and consensus about the need for an effective and equitable climate change agreement. She has researched and authored publications on different aspects of the climate regime – from aspects of negotiating positions to critiques of various trading mechanisms and options for mitigation and adaptation. In 2008-09, she served as a member of the Swedish government’s high level commission on the need for adaptation and its links with development.
1. 1990-1999: Member, Grant in Aid Committee for assistance to voluntary agencies under the scheme of ‘Environmental Orientation to School Education’, Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.
2. 1995-1999: Member, National Standing Committee on Rural Technology of the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology, Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment, Government of India.
3. 1995-1999: Member, Program Committee of the Urban Waste Expertise Program of WASTE Consultants set up to oversee the project by the Netherlands Ministry of Development Cooperation, Gouda.
4. 1995: Member, Independent Expert Group on Global Forest Policy established by the Swiss and Peruvian governments, Geneva.
5. 1996- present: Chairperson, Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad.
6. 1997-1999: Member, Mid-size grant task force, Global Environmental Facility, Washington.
7. 1997-1999: Member, Global Water Contract, established by The Group of Lisbon under the chairpersonship of Mario Soares, former President of Portugal.
8. 1997-1999: Member, Scientific Planning Committee for the Global Environmental Change and Human Security Research Project of the International Human Dimensions Program on Global Environmental Change.
9. 1999-2001: Founding Board Member, ILEIA Foundation (The information centre for low external input and sustainable agriculture), The Netherlands.
10. 2000-present: Member UNDP CSO Committee to provide strategic, policy and substantive guidance to the Administrator of UNDP.
11. 2001-2003: Member, Executive Board, Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
12. 2000-2004:Steering Committee member for setting up SCIDEV, a science for development website, promoted by Nature.
13. 2001–2004: Member, IUCN Council, IUCN – The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland
14. 2002-2008: Member, Board Gram Vikas, Orissa
15. 2002-present: Member, Environment Pollution Authority for the National Capital Territory, Government of India, New Delhi.
16. 2004-2008: Member, committee on environment, Indian Planning Commission.
17. 2004-2006: Member, Executive Board, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, Sri Lanka.
18. 2005 – Chairperson, Tiger Task Force set up to review the management of tiger reserves, New Delhi.
19. 2005: Member, Board of Trustees, Centre For International Forestry Research, Bogor, Indonesia
20. 2006 Chairperson, Sub –Committee for ‘Wider dissemination information and knowhow’ under the Artificial Recharge of Ground Water Advisory Council, New Delhi
21. 2006 Member, Steering Committee on Environment, Forests and Wildlife for Eleventh Five Year Plan, Planning Commission, New Delhi
22. 2006. Member: Working group for plan on Quality Certification and Conformity Assessment- Eleventh Five Year Plan.
23. 2007-present: Member, Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change
24. 2007-present: Member, Swedish Development Policy Council
25. 2007-2009: Member, Commission on Climate Change and Development, Sweden
26. 2009: Chairperson, Committee set up for monitoring village relocation as per recommendations of the Tiger Task Force.
27. 2009-present: Member, Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board.
28. 2009-present: Member, National Ganga River Basin Authority.
Awards & Recognitions
• In 2002 the Dr B.C. Deb Memorial Award for the popularisation of science by the Indian Science Congress Association, Calcutta
.• In 2003 Dadabhai Naoroji Millennium Award by Dadabhai Naoroji International Society, New Delhi.
• In 2003 Rotary Eco Foundation Award – outstanding work done in the field of rainwater harvesting in Delhi and surrounding areas.
• In 2004 Siri Ram Washeshran Devi Bhatia Memorial Charitable Trust Award
• In 2005 Padma Shri by the Government of India, New Delhi.
• In 2005 Chameli Devi Jain Award for an outstanding woman media person by the Media Foundation.
• In 2005, the Stockholm Water Prize, by Stockholm Water Foundation, Sweden, awarded to CSE under her leadership
• In 2005 and 2008, British Magazine Prospect and the American Magazine Foreign policy included her among the world’s 100 public intellectuals.
• In 2006, Bharat Shiromani award by Shiromani Institute.
• In 2007, Honorary doctorate in science from Cranfield University, UK.
• In 2008, Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation water award
• In 2008, received the Dr Jean Mayer Global Citizenship award, Tufts University, Massachusetts.
• In 2009: M.S. Swaminathan Award for Environmental Protection, Rotary Club of Madras East, Chennai, India.
• In 2009: Honorary D.Sc. Degree, University of Calcutta, India.
• In 2009: Raja-Lakshmi Award, Sri Raja-Lakshmi Foundation, Chennai, India.