Sunita Narain | Centre for Science and Environment

Sunita Narain


The inconvenient truth

Many years ago, in a desperately poor village in Rajasthan, people decided to plant trees on the land adjoining their pond so that its catchment would be protected. But this land belonged to the revenue department and people were fined for trespass. The issue hit national headlines. The stink made the local administration uncomfortable. They then came up with a brilliant game plan—they allotted the land to a group of equally poor people. In this way the poor ended up fighting the poor. The local government got away with the deliberate murder of a water body.

Why excreta matters

Water is life and sewage tells its life story. This is the subject of the Citizens’ Seventh Report on the State of India’s Environment, Excreta Matters: How urban India is soaking up water, polluting rivers and drowning in its own excreta. It has a seemingly simple plot: it only asks where Indian cities get their water from and where does their waste go. But this is not just a question or answer about water, pollution and waste. It is about the way Indian cities (and perhaps other parts of the world that are similarly placed) will develop.

From protests to where in 2012?

2011’s person of the year, according to Time magazine, is “the protester”. Clearly, this is the image that has captured the world—from dissent against the lack of democracy and repression in large parts of West Asia to anger against economic policies in vast and disparate parts of the world. People, all over, are saying enough is enough. But what will happen to these voices in the coming years? Will the movements of protesters be enough to change the way the world runs its business? Do these movements even know what they want?

Equity: the next frontier in climate talks

In 1992, when the world met to discuss an agreement on climate change, equity was a simple concept: sharing the global commons—the atmosphere in this case—equally among all. It did not provoke much anxiety, for there were no real claimants. However, this does not mean the concept was readily accepted. A small group of industrialised countries had burnt fossil fuels for 100 years and built up enormous wealth. This club had to decide what to do to cut emissions, and it claimed all countries were equally responsible for the problem. In 1991, just as the climate convention was being finalised, a report, released by an influential Washington think tank, broke the news that its analysis showed India, China and other developing countries were equally responsible for greenhouse gases. Anil Agarwal and I rebutted this and brought in the issue of equitable access to the global commons. We also showed, beyond doubt, that the industrialised countries were singularly responsible for the increased greenhouse gases.

Count the natural debt, too

Now that Europe’s debt crisis is unfolding all around us, shouldn’t we question why the world is determined to live beyond its means and not worry how it sabotages our common future? The debt crisis is a mere symptom of a deeper malaise. The fact is that countries, private companies and individual households can run only if they can borrow against their assets and hope that the debt will grow slower than the value of their asset. Most financial analysts will now tell you that this business is doomed because of the Ponzi scheme nature of the loan business, where borrowing is used to speculate to get more loans and so repayment becomes difficult and over time impossible.

Diesel: when bad policy makes for toxic hell

Just consider. Every time petrol prices are raised, oil companies end up losing more money. Simply because the price differential between petrol and diesel increases further, and people gravitate towards diesel vehicles. More the use of diesel, more the oil companies bleed. Worse, we all bleed because diesel vehicles add to toxic pollution in our cities, which, in turn, adds to ill health and treatment costs.

How to rewrite the Durban script

It’s that time of the year again. Climate change talks are heating up, with the next conference of parties scheduled in Durban in end-November. There is heat but no light. The negotiations are stuck despite the clear signs of climate change: dangerous and potentially catastrophic extreme weather events.

The bogey of green clearances

The environment is holding up growth and economic development. This is the common refrain in circles that matter. So when the Group of Ministers tasked to resolve the issue of coal mining in forests asked for a report on what needs to be done, it was told that the best would be to dismantle green conditions, almost completely.

20 years to…where?

Next year, in June, world leaders will get together in the joyful city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to mark 20 years of UNCED—the Earth Summit (see Down to Earth, May 15, 1992).

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