Sunita Narain: Portrait of an activist

By Sanjay Kumar | September 1, 2016


Back in May this year, Time magazine named its “100 Most Influential People” of the world for 2016—a list that included such well-known figures as Leonardo di Caprio, Pope Francis, Mark Zuckerberg, and the president of the United States, Barack Obama. And included among them was an environmentalist perhaps best-known to the reading public in the West for a book titled “Excreta Matters.”

While not readily known outside her native India, Sunita Narain has cut quite a name for herself in her homeland and the developing world, campaigning to deal with climate change and what she calls “climate justice,” fighting for improved water and air quality, championing the dying wisdom of India’s traditional systems of husbanding water—and often putting herself at odds with those in power.

Narain is also known as one of the most vociferous voices articulating the interests of developing countries in the global climate debate; she considers the environment an issue of daily survival for millions of poor and indigenous people. As such, her stance on environmental issues in the developing world sometimes puts her in conflict with environmentalists in the West.

She, along with her mentor, the late Anil Agarwal, may well be credited with taking the environment mainstream in India, and making it a household word.

In this interview, veteran journalist and Bulletin special correspondent Sanjay Kumar—who usually freelances for publications such as Nature—sits down with Narain for a one-on-one discussion in New Delhi at her Center for Science and the Environment. They discuss India’s plans to build dozens of nuclear reactors, climate change, the country’s prospects for solar power, environmental colonialism, and the Paris climate deal—which Narain termed “a cop-out.”

(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

BAS: Just a few days back, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Russian president Vladimir Putin dedicated the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in southern India. The Modi government has announced super-ambitious plans to promote nuclear energy and install dozens of nuclear reactors all over India, take it to 63,000 megawatts (MW)—even while much of the world wants to shift away from nuclear energy. We have also seen massive protests against nuclear power in India, especially against Koodankoolam. What’s your take on this whole issue?

Narain: I think it’s important for us to be technology agnostic—in other words, we do not believe or disbelieve that the solution lies in technology, but await the evidence. I am a technology agnostic. Nuclear power serves a particular purpose; I have no problems per se with nuclear. But I don’t think it will happen in India. And I’ll tell you why: I think these plans in India are too ambitious and impractical.

For one thing, we will have siting issues unlike other parts of the world where land is available. Many nuclear plants were built at a time when there wasn’t enough knowledge. But today everybody has a television set in their homes.

There is also more and more concern about nuclear power, and India is a densely populated country which means any place you site a nuclear plant there will be somebody living next to it.

And there will be issues of how to manage protests. We have seen this happening in the case of the states of Maharashtra and also Gujarat where the plant is being moved to Andhra Pradesh. Now Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has promised us the dream of bringing a nuclear plant to Andhra, and he will situate it. I think it’s a bit of a pipe dream because getting that land is going to be difficult.

Second, I don’t think there is enough openness in the nuclear community—the scientist community—to converse with people. Let’s say nuclear plants have become even safer. Let’s say the issues of safety and radioactive waste have actually been better dealt with in the new generation of plants. But there is no ability to converse with people—and I speak about the Indian nuclear power establishment; I don’t have much to say about the global nuclear power establishment. In most cases, and you will forgive me when I say so—they are men, they are old, and they are arrogant. They don’t like to talk to people, they talk down to people.

And the fact is nuclear power needs to be understood by larger numbers of people not as a science which should give them horror but as a science that can be used in everyday life. For that, there needs to be a conversation about the risks, about the problems and how they are going to be dealt with. In India, for instance, we have had a really bad conversation about the nuclear accident liability law. And today, everybody knows that the nuclear establishment is forcing our government to weaken the liability law. When you do that, what’s the assumption? That they have something to hide. They know the plant is unsafe.

There is a third problem with nuclear, which basically tells me that nuclear will never happen. India already has a huge installed capacity for electrical power, but it is being underutilized.

These power plants are fueled by cheap coal, and our hydroelectric power plants are also cheap to run. It is in this scenario that you are trying to fit in a much more expensive technology—nuclear—which will generate power at much more expensive rates.

BAS: So, where does the Indian energy problem lie?

Narain: The problem with India is not power generation—the problem is the affordability and access to power. So if affordability and access to power is the issue, how can nuclear power be the answer? In my view, nuclear ambitions are masculine dreams dreamed by men, and I don’t have the time or interest to fight them. I know these are issues which will never happen and would rather focus my energies on things that will happen.

BAS: Are you happy with the solar ambitions of India? Do you think solar is the way out of energy crisis for developing countries?

Narain: I am happy with the ambition, but I think solar has to be reinvented for countries like India and developing world. In a nation where you are able to generate power at less than a rupee per unit (less than two US cents) in the dirtiest of your coal-based power plants, who is going to buy solar energy?

What the government of India has done—and which I really like and which is something of a game changer—and has not been done anywhere else in the world: The government has actually brought about grid parity through policy in coal and solar. It has done that by creating a larger market for solar, and by providing government support for it.

Meanwhile, the government has also brought in new standards for coal emissions for coal-based power plants—they increased the price and put a higher tax on coal, known as the green tax.

The combination of the green tax and higher emission standards means that you basically make coal more expensive while making solar less expensive. So, you are creating a competition between the two energies. I think that is clearly a good thing the Indian government has done.

The problem in India, however, is not solar. The issue is access to energy for the poorest. And that will only come about when you deliberately think about how you make sure that the poorest can get affordable energy.

In the latest survey by our center’s magazine, Down to Earth, we sent our reporters to almost all parts of the country where there are energy problems. In the villages, they essentially tell us that the government’s electrification numbers are not working. Basically, the definition of an electrified village means that 10 percent of the village has to be electrified, and you have to get the Panchayat Ghar (Village Council Office) to be electrified. There is no question about regular supply. So what my colleagues found was: Yes, there is a pole, but the village is only technically electrified because there is actually no energy coming down the lines on a regular basis. And there is a huge problem in the unreliability of power; the “last mile” connectivity is extremely poor. [Just as in installing lines for cable television or the internet, one of the most difficult parts of putting up an electrical grid comes in the final connection to the end-user.]

And there are poor people who can’t pay. Where there is poverty, and you can’t pay for power, what electric company is going to go there and supply the power? That is to me a bigger issue to fix, because if so much of India still remains unconnected to the electrical grid, what are you going to do with all this power? You are going to generate it, but who is going to buy it, who is going to sell it, who is going to pay for it? That to me is a bigger issue.

BAS: India has also witnessed really massive protests against hydroelectricity, against big dams such as the huge Narmada dam protests. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of dams being planned all over India. How do you view this mania?

Narain: The Ministry of Power will talk about hundreds of dams and that’s their job. A power minister many years ago had even come out with a directory of the untapped potential of dams. That’s their job. But the fact is that in India, when it comes to nuclear or something else, there are processes to decide these things. Processes means that you have an environmental clearance system, you have a social clearance system. In many of these cases you will see a number of projects getting removed just because once you start doing your environmental and social clearances, a number of projects can’t make it, they get stalled.

Today in India, you do have a right to public hearings. So, there will be people who will protest under the environment clearance. Under the forest clearance, you have the Forests Rights Act under which people have the right to actually give clearance. So, there are procedures. And many of those projects will not see the light of day.

BAS: So, how do you view hydroelectric power?

Narain: I can easily be an environmentalist who says “no” to all forms of energy. There are many. There are people who are fighting against coal and say that hydroelectric should not happen and nuclear should not happen—which means that the only form of energy they feel acceptable is solar. I am not one of those. I situate solar as one option that we have—perhaps the best option, because of its decentralized form—and if we use it in that way, it’s a good option.

But let me be very clear: No country in the world has been able to reinvent its full energy system to move towards renewables. Even Germany—which is outstanding in the way it has pushed solar—is finding that wind and solar are meeting a lot of its needs but not all its needs. So, given that fact, as an environmentalist I actually find that hydroelectric is the most benign form of energy. It’s a renewable form of energy that uses water as a raw material. If the project is designed well, and if its environmental costs are minimized, then there is nothing wrong with that project.

The problem in India has been that we have not really got the design part of it right. So, because there was a lot of protest against reservoir-based projects, we moved towards run-of-the-river projects—ones where there is little or no water storage. Technically, run-of-the-river projects are much more benign because you are not impounding water. You are simply diverting water, generating energy, and it goes back into the river: minimal environmental damage.

But Indian water engineers don’t seem to be able to design anything unless destruction is a part of it! So, what did they do? They designed these projects bumper to bumper. This means one project ends and another starts, and the river has no place to breathe.

They also designed the projects without taking into account what’s the minimal flow for the river. Now, if the river also must at all times have 50 percent of its flow, and if I design my projects keeping that in mind, there is nothing wrong with run-of-the-river. But if I'm engineer, I design my projects with zero percent flow of the river. So, my attitude is: Why does the river need water when I need it for energy? If that’s the case, then you have a disaster on your hands. Then you have a backlash and it means all projects are moved, which is also what has happened.

BAS: Where has this happened?

Narain: All over Uttarakhand state. All projects are at a stall now. There is a fight going on between two ministries. So, all run-of-the-river projects now are stopped because the Supreme Court intervened and said no more projects. The Ministry of Environment now says we want more projects. Ministry of Water Resources says no projects. So it’s become another chess game.

Instead of that, what if you basically said: I have a goal of generating energy out of hydro, but I will also make sure my hydroelectricity, when generated, does not destroy the river. The formula we gave to the government says we should mimic the river flow. So, in the Himalyan rivers as well as the peninsular rivers, you have huge flow during monsoon period. If I was to over-design and have my turbine designed for generating more energy during that period and less during winter then I am basically mimicking the river. That does mean my cost per unit will go up because I am overdesigning for a particular period and I am underdesigning for another when my turbines will remain idle. But that’s the cost we need to pay.

Hydroelectric is still cheaper; at the end of the day, you are not paying anything for the raw material. In other cases you are paying for coal, paying for uranium. You are paying for the cost of your raw material.

BAS: So, does India have a well-thought-out energy policy?

Narain: No. There is no question. We’ve had it on paper but not in practice. We have all these fancy documents we bring out with regularity—everything from integrated energy to comprehensive energy to holistic energy policies—but we don’t even bother to read them. We don’t bother to follow them and we don’t look at them from the point of view of energy access. Let me emphasize again, in India the issue is not energy, the issue is poverty, the issue is access to energy.

You have about 700 million individuals in India who cook using biomass [such as wood, tree stumps, animal dung, and agricultural waste]. It’s criminal. You cannot say to me that that’s acceptable in modern India. We don’t have a policy keeping in mind that we will have huge unmet demand because of sheer poverty. How do we meet the needs of such people?                                  

BAS: There is serious criticism that ever since the Modi government came into power, environmental concerns are increasingly being thrown out of the window. Your assessment?                                                                           

Narain: I think in India that won’t happen. The only saving grace in India is that democracy in India remains strong. If there is extreme pollution, somebody will raise a voice. The problem in China was that they could throw the environment out of the window and nobody could raise a voice. There is no doubt that when we intensify our industrial production, pollution will go up. It will be at the cost of environment. I think it’s going to be for the maturity of both the Indian state and also the Indian people that we are able to raise our voice and make sure that this does not happen.

My worry is that our institutions that should be able to monitor the extent of environmental damage are extremely weak. We have institutions like the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court. But none of their cases are leading to any fruition because the monitoring data is so poor. The Central Pollution Board and state pollution boards do not have the capacity to monitor. Everything has been outsourced by them to industry, and industry in turn has outsourced it to third-rate environmental laboratories. So, data is fudged.

If data is fudged, then as a citizen affected by environmental degradation, I can never ask for remedial action to be taken because I don’t have the data in my hands to push for that change. And that’s where, in my view, this government is doing little to strengthen the database.

We are moving now to what they call Continuous Online Monitoring System, which could be a good thing—but it could also be a disaster because, as you know, technology is a double-edged sword. I am now telling industry to put in the equipment, to monitor their pollution and feed it directly into a central database which comes onto the phone of the minister. Technically, it’s brilliant. But that equipment could not be calibrated and it could be faulty. The data that is fed into the system could be fed through an algorithm that says have a cut off and anything that’s above the standard should not be picked up by the system. It’s basically hugely open to manipulation.

BAS: How happy or unhappy are you with the Paris climate deal? Is it a step forward, or two steps back?

Narain: I am very unhappy with the Paris climate deal. I think Paris is a cop-out. Paris definitely does not keep the world at a safe threshold. And more than that, Paris erases the historical burden of the rich countries. It is not only an unambitious deal, it is an inequitable deal. It could not have got worse. Therefore, I am highly critical of the Indian government that they have signed it. I think the Indian government wants to be the 51st state of the United States of America when it comes to climate agreement. I think it is bad for India, it is bad for the world.

BAS: So, it’s not a step forward but two steps back?

Narain: Oh, definitely steps backwards. Because what does Paris do? If it had given you ambition even then I would have said “fine.” It basically uses the word 1.5 degree centigrade, but it has no mechanism that we will remain below that figure, because it lets off the hook all the countries which are huge polluters; it does not hold them responsible for emissions before 2020. It uses very weak words to say enhance the level of ambition pre-2020. And we know that’s where the major problem lies; if those emission reductions happen, then you can have real emission reductions. So it’s unambitious and inequitable. How much worse can it get? You have actually destroyed the idea that you could reduce emissions and still build a fair world.

BAS: You, along with your mentor, Anil Agarwal, were very critical of Western calculations and projections of the contributions of developing countries to CO2 emissions and the global climate crisis. That was some 25-to-30 years back. Has the situation changed for the better? Or is it worse now?

Narain: We published our report, Global Warming in an Unequal World: The Case of Environmental Colonialism, in 1991. In some senses that story has only come true in Paris. And if you look at it, the fact is that in Paris the world has agreed to the carbon budget being appropriated by the rich countries, and the poorer countries who have still not joined the race have no space to grow. And there is this broad assumption that they don’t need to grow. They can grow differently. How do they not need to grow or how can they grow differently is not spelled out.

We know that solar is not still that real, that you can’t move all of Africa to solar tomorrow and not worry about their development.

So, what Paris has done is actually to tell the rest of the world that the party is over, the cake is already eaten and you don’t even get crumbs. And the door is closed on you.

We produced a report last year, Capitan America, where we put forward a very detailed analysis of the US climate action program, and we said it is not even worth the paper it is written on. It is just meaningless. Nobody in the United States has responded to us by saying that we are wrong.

BAS: So, is the West really serious about dealing with climate crisis? Or is it just business as usual?

Narain: I think they are serious about dealing with the climate crisis as long as the action happens on our part of the world, as long as we do something.

BAS: What about the Western NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]?

Narain: It’s actually becoming a very intolerant world. Today, the circles of information have shrunk, and the Western NGOs have shrunk the circles to hear and write about the voices they agree with. They don’t want to include in their conversation any voice which is divergent to their point of view. And I think this closing of the circles has definitely meant that we are today having less and less of a conversation. I often believe that when I talk to an American NGO, we both live on two different planets. They have no idea what I am talking about and I have no idea what they are talking about. And that’s what’s happening more and more. We are beginning to see more and more intolerance in the world and a lack of appreciation of each other's positions. That’s what’s happening on environment as well.

BAS: What about the Western media?

Narain: Western media is a part of that circle. The New York Times will interview me for Ganges river pollution, but they will never interview me for my position on climate change, because that is an inconvenient truth that they don’t want to hear. As long as they can hear the voice of an NGO based in Washington who can interpret the climate change message to them from a position of convenience and comfort, then they will hear it and write about it.

BAS: While one may critique the West, what about the local elite in the developing world? Aren’t they following the same path, are equally wasteful?

Narain: Oh absolutely! No question about it. We are the local elite, and I am very much a part of it. We are all following the same path. But the fact is that we need to be able to challenge it, question it. If you look at the Indian media, it’s the same. Where can we get the issues of floods and droughts and all the distress that’s happening or development in general into the Indian media? You get a little bit when the crisis reaches a point where a lot of people die. So, the normal thing is it leads only when it bleeds. And there has to be a lot of blood, and it has to be enough for it to be able to become part of your page 10 of the newspaper. So, it’s the same functioning of the elite across the world.

Where is the lever to change it? The lever to change it is to empower more and more communities, strengthen them, and give them a voice that in some ways will challenge this order today or tomorrow.

BAS: How do you see the impact of climate change happening in developing countries?

Narain: We are seeing very bad impacts now. What does climate change mean in a country like India? It is definitely going to mean more variations in weather. That’s really what it seems to be boiling down to. More variations, more sub-regional variations, more extremes. Now in India, we are beginning to see already more rain in less rainy days and more extreme rainfall events. We are seeing more extremes of cold and heat. 

Last year we had hailstorms and very intense rainfalls in particular periods. You’ve had cloudbursts that have never been planned for. A lot of this used to do with normal variations of the monsoons. Monsoons are the finance minister of India, but also the most capricious natural phenomena which is also the least understood. But that is getting to be more and more uncertain; now science is learning that what would happen in every ten years is beginning to happen now with increased frequency.

All that has huge impacts on people. There are farmers who are dependent on weather. It’s not about urban people who can switch on lights, fans, and crank up their air conditioners. It’s really about the people who deal with the elements; for them, if the elements change, they find it difficult to cope. Their livelihoods are at stake.

There was a huge impact last year; we found agrarian distress is increasing because of crop loss. It’s also increasing because of faulty policies. We are also beginning to see huge incidences of urban floods. That’s also happening because we have destroyed our local water bodies but also because of the extreme nature of rainfall. So, this combination of maldevelopment with climatic changes is beginning to have huge impacts in India; it is taking away our development dividend because at the end of the day any one flood makes it that much more difficult to cope. It has the potential to turn the economy upside down.

BAS: Why is India so dirty?

Narain: India is so dirty because we have been hoping to clean it up in the same way that the rest of the world has tried to clean up, and we will never be able to do so because the rest of the world followed a poorly thought-out and ineffective model that requires a lot of big investments. They got into this cycle of making things dirty and then spending a lot on very costly clean-up technology. That was part of the model. In a country like India, we just cannot afford that economic model.

Therefore, we have to reinvent. We cannot clean up our rivers by setting up costly sewage treatment plants as is done in other parts of the world—most of our cities are not connected to a sewage system. Given that, India has to actually reinvent, rethink how it can clean up.

We think we can use and dispose, but we can’t! We have been a less-waste society because we have been a resource-recovery society. We need to actually do more of that rather than less of that.

BAS: Have we neglected our local historical traditions while chasing Western models for solutions?

Narain: I think the West is also learning. Today it’s talking about “glocal,” or characterized by both global and local considerations. The West is also learning that a lot of the solutions lie in strengthening local economies. India has had tremendous traditions in resource management at the local levels, such as water, for instance. We did a book, Dying Wisdom, several years ago where we documented the amazing treasure trove of traditions that exist across India, in which we learned to live with both scarcity of water as well as excesses of water. Why did we lose it? Because we centralized water management. We didn’t lose it because of anything else. When the British came in, they built a bureaucracy which found it easier to use centralized solutions—canals, waterways—rather than decentralized solutions.

Today, the whole world is understanding that decentralized solutions actually put things in the hands of people. This way you are really putting things back into the hands of communities. That’s where India’s strength has been. I keep saying this: Why do we have to first do it completely wrong and then reinvent? A lot of things we have not got so wrong yet. We are still eating good food, we are eating home-cooked food. Why do we first have to move to processed food and then rediscover cooked food? Can we actually do some self-correction now? There is no one model of growth. But just by doing things in a way where you can put money in the hands of the poorest, you can do sustainable resource management and build the livelihoods of the poorest people. I think for me that would be the new paradigm of growth—whenever and however it happens.            

(Photo courtesy of the Center for Science and the Environment.)

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