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The Intrepid Crusader

Naina Sood profiles Sunita Narain, a pioneer of environment activism in India

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From shaking up the international soft drink giants to challenging Leonardo Di Caprio's perception about climate change, this lady fears none. She could be shrill and blunt with her views, but there is no doubt that she draws the attention to the issues that need it.
Sunita Narain, the lady who is well credited for taking environmental concerns mainstream in India, and making it a household word. Narain has never shied away from taking on the hazards to public and environment health, regardless of the clout of those being investigated.

Narain joined CSE from high school, because she was drawn to Anil Agarwal's, Founder CSE, vision of allying "the rigour of science to the passion of journalism", and inherited his mantle when he died in 2002. At the time, some doubted whether CSE could maintain its standing. Since then she has made a very crucial connection between why a country like India needs to be so concerned about its environmental present and future. Today she heads the organization and has developed the management and financial support systems needed for the Centre, which has over 150 staff members and a dynamic program profile. Apart from that she continues her endeavour as a publisher of the 'Down To Earth' magazine.

Her 1985 report on the state of India's environment (co-authored with Anil Agarwal) was among the early pieces of work that brought a paradigm shift in understanding environment and ecology that were treated as subjects for specialists, with little awareness among ordinary citizens. Her other papers have become the charter of global climate justice.

Asked about her inspiration, Narain said in an interview, "My mother. Most women relate to this answer, however clichéd. In my case, she was particularly important, because she single-handedly brought up four of us. I saw the adversities that she faced, but I also witnessed extraordinary courage. I always say that if I didn't do what I did, she'd just come back and kill me".

Sunita was awarded Padma Shree in 2005. She considers her work as a continuum. She humbly says that the impact of the work done is not considerable but she takes some amount of courage from the little battles that they keep winning, even if they don't win the war.

A non-scientist, Ms Narain is proud of having a useful journalistic habit: never being afraid to ask a stupid question. She has taken environment beyond being an emotive issue. Be it, the denting of 2 most glossiest beverage brands, Coke and Pepsi, bringing water issues to the centre, campaign against air pollution which was credited with the decision to use CNG as fuel in Delhi's buses, taxis and auto rickshaws or championing the dying wisdom of India's traditional systems of husbanding water. So much so, that she did not hesitate in criticising the environment minister Anil Dave for trashing a report which said that air pollution causes more premature deaths in India than in China.

Author of 'Why I should be tolerant', Narain's stance on environmental issues in the developing world sometimes puts her in conflict with environmentalists in the West, but that doesn't concern her. She continues on her endeavours to fight for the right.

On mentoring women, Narain believes that women need no women mentors. Women are bright, dedicated, and honest to work with and have the ability to succeed. Running an organisation of 150 people, Narain has made very clear to the women who work along do not get any special privileges and do whatever it takes to get the job done. They do and enjoy it too!