I do not remember how I received India’s first State of Environment Report published by the Centre for Science and Environment. Going through the content of the report, which went deep into the environmental crisis overtaking the continent-sized mass of India, it was obviously important to find out, “Who is Anil Agarwal?” Stereotype would have him as a trader, but here was a scientist, communicating complex ideas in a simple and effective style. Then. came CSE’s second report, which covered many aspects of water development that engineers and social scientists alike were not sensitive to.
Anil visited Kathmandu before the 1992 Rio Summit to deliver a talk on global climate change, and he ferociously. questioned the iniquitous nature of the debate and the processes of negotiations. He knew his subject well. He ended his talk saying, “I sound angry, because I am angry.” His forceful style and commitment did not diminish even as he battled a cancer he knew was bringing life to an end. After watching him berate Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair regarding their position on global climate change in Star TV early this year, knowing people in the far corners of South Asia would have said, “This is our Anil!”
Besides floods and forests and ground water and rural selfhelp, once he got hit by cancer Anil typically turned his personal tragedy to a learning experience for the rest. He homed in on the carcinogens in our modern lives, and provided seminal research on pollution, pesticides and fertilisers. Internationally, he was a strident voice on equity on global environmental issues. It was he and the CSE that introduced the concept of per capita pollution allowance in the climate change debate, stating famously, “Every human being has an equal right to the atmosphere. Industrialised countries have used up more than they have the right to, by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution.”
As someone dedicated to science, people and environment, Anil Agarwal was not just an Indian. He was the quintessential South Asian or Subcontinental, who thought not of nationalism but the quality of people’s lives. His work was relevant to people everywhere, across India’s expanse but also in the neighbouring countries. This was the reason why, even as the SAARC summit met to discuss the most narrow-focused, state-centric agendas in Kathmandu in early January, some of us got together to put out a condolence announcement in the Kathmandu Post, saying, “Once there was a South Asian…”
Anil’s devotion to simplifying science and make it accessible to all was a crusade. Take for example, the Third State of the Environmental Report, which focused on floods. The report presents how and why floods came to be disasters, and how one might respond to disaster mitigation differently than how the technocrats and engineers would have it. Of course, colour graphics would have made the presentation more effective. Then came the next report, titled Dying Wisdom, which not only set a new standard in presentation and style, but also single-handedly made rainwater harvesting a subject of concern and debate. If today the Groundwater Development Board in India brings out public notices in newspapers asking New Delhi’s residents to tap their roof water and feed into wells, it was primarily the result of the work by Anil and his able colleagues at CSE.
Indeed, CSE created the space for the so many idealistic young men and women to pursue the understanding of the environmental issues in India. Many who joined the ‘crusade’ to bring out the state of the environment reports continue to contribute to India’s public life — Kalpana Sharma, Ravi Chopra, Sunita Narain, Dhunu Roy, Himansu Thakkar and many others who are at the forefront of environment discourse in India. No nation-statism among this lot. Behind the angry and arrogant environmentalist that was his public face, was a sensitive human being. Once, sharing a meal in Stockholm, I asked Anil why he had not chosen a corporate career like so many of IIT (Kanpur) graduates such as him. “Our college was detached even from its physical surroundings. I did not want my life to detached from my society.”
Early on his career, he confronted the Herculean task of sensitising an insular national bureaucracy. The best way he could contribute to bridge that gap was by making knowledge accessible, available and understandable. He set high standards, academically and professionally, for himself and those around him. Unlike so many who cry fashionably in the wilderness, Anil also made the effort to work with the ‘establishment’ in India. Ever the scientist, his goal was always to see that the people received succor and the environment saved. He therefore had no politically correct ideological agenda keeping him from working with government, for example. As the powerful entity that rules our lives, if necessary we have to go with the bureucrats and politicians to bring change. As he was battling the third attack of cancer, I had asked him why he did not come to Kathmandu more often. “Woh upar wala mere ko bulata rahata hai, kya karun, ana to chahata hun,” he replied (I would like to come, but the person upstairs keeps calling me.) A few months later, Anil had departed.