The Leapfrog Factor - Clearing the Air in Asian Cities

August 03, 2006

The Right to Clean Air Campaign is rooted in an angry question of Anil Agarwal, the late founder directorof the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). One day in 1995, when he was made to stand in aqueue to get his car tested for emissions, he asked: why did Indian vehicles pollute so much and wouldthis checking of the tailpipe be effective? It was his curiosity and anger that propelled CSE on a journey to findanswers to a highly complex problem. With Anil, CSE evolved its perspective and understanding oftoxification of the urban environment. Wrote Anil: “I had advised the country’s leaders in 1986 that ruralenvironmental problems — because they affect many more millions of poor people in India — are far moreimportant than urban environmental problems. Ten years later I realise how stupid and ignorant I was. I hadno clue about the speed with which pollution problems would grow.”

Anil was an environmental activist. But he was also a victim of environmental pollution — he fought a longand painful battle against a rare form of cancer. He was an environmentalist who searched for thegenesis of his cancer in environmental degradation. He understood how every poison we put out in theenvironment comes right back at us, in our air, water and food. Anil hit out at the inefficient state for failing tobalance responsibilities and precautionary activities; for letting air pollution grow to a highly poisonouslevel; and for attempting to shield its own corruption and incompetence by putting an undue blame on theordinary motorist.

Putting together this book brings back some of the principles that Anil had scripted — understand theissue in depth; get a good grasp of the state-of-the-art. Nobody will listen to us if people do not have confidencein what we are talking about. A book is a tool for spreading a message. Come in contact with the constituency.Get prepared with knowledge and answers so that we can push for solutions and bring change. It happened withthe campaign’s first book, Slow Murder: The deadly story of vehicular pollution. Anil believed books, if rich invalues, would explode one day like a bomb. But we must learn to shorten the fuse — we must campaign.For us, the campaign — when it unfolded — presented a new challenge. When the big fightensued over toxic particulates, invasion of dirty diesel cars and CNG phase-in, public interest in our work grewexponentially, activities intensified rapidly. Life as a campaigner transformed completely. We had to keepinformation flowing; keep our constituency informed; continue policy research to remain prepared to respondto any criticism or resistance; develop our own capacity to demystify science. Anything could be thrown atus — and a lot of it would be disinformation — and we needed to be ready to respond.