about-Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain has been with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) since 1982. She is currently the director general of the Centre and the treasurer of the Society for Environmental Communications and editor of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth.

For her lifelong work, she was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the nation’s highest civilian honours, by the Government of India. She was also made a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change that decides on actions to address climate change impacts. In 2005, she chaired the Tiger Task Force at the direction of the Prime Minister, to evolve an action plan for conservation in the country after the loss of tigers from a protected reserve. She was also a member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority set up by the then Prime Minister to develop effective measures to conserve and clean up the river.She was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize in 2005 and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Award for her work to build a water literate society that values every raindrop and teaches society to learn from the frugality of our ancestors, to build a water prudent world. She was twice on the list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals put out by Foreign Policy/Prospect, and in 2016, Time Magazine featured her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for her advocacy on poor and the environment and climate change.In 2020, she was conferred the Edinburg medal for her leadership in championing climate justice for the poor and disenfranchised.

Ms Narain through her research and advocacy has been influential in building public opinion on the challenges and solutions for environment, particularly in countries of the South. She has in her over 4 decades of work conducted in-depth research on the governance and management of the environment and directed campaigns on air pollution control, community water management and pesticide regulation, among others. Her effort to combine science-based evidence and solutions with a pro-poor perspective to mainstream environmental concerns in public policy and society has been richly awarded in India and internationally. Her ideas have gained wide acceptance, leading to a slew of policy and regulatory measures that are built on the premise that sustainable development is not possible without inclusive and equitable growth.

Her career

Sunita Narain began her work in the early 1980s, as a co-researcher with Anil Agarwal, an eminent and committed environmentalist who gave the country its environmental concern and message. In 1985, she co-edited the State of India's Environment report, which built an understanding in the country on why India is so important for the poor. With Anil Agarwal she learnt that environment and development are two sides of the same coin and that for the millions of poor, who live on the margins of subsistence, it a matter of survival. In 1989, learning from the successful initiatives of people to manage their environment, Anil Agarwal and she wrote Towards Green Villages advocating local participatory democracy as the key to sustainable development. She has continued to research and write about how environment must become the basis of livelihood security of people in the country. She has also linked issues of local democracy with global democracy, arguing that every human being has an entitlement to the global atmospheric common. In 2012, she has authored the 7th State of India's Environment Reports, Excreta Matters, which presents a comprehensive analysis of urban India's water and pollution challenges.

Her key achievement has been to contribute the understanding of the environmentalism of the poor and the need for countries of the South to leapfrog and reinvent the growth trajectory without pollution. To use this knowledge for strategies for air pollution control in Indian cities, which is transformative and based not on incremental strategies, but changes in practices of clean fuel used for combustion and mobility transition. To build the understanding on the need for inclusive politics for environmental management – from the need for equity and justice as an imperative for an effective climate change agreement or from the need for affordable and inclusive water and sanitation for river pollution control or the need for a co-existence strategy for conservation in the wilderness habitats of the South. But most important, Sunita Narain work, spanning over 4 decades, has remained uncompromising on the need for transformative solution, which are inclusive and just. She has worked to inform, to build knowledge through rigorous research, to cajole changes in mindset, and to push for policy and practice to change.

Her brand of environmentalism is based on a commitment to sound scientific knowledge, combined with a pro-poor perspective. She combines research, journalism and advocacy. Her activism is research based but also driven by the need to find solutions that are workable and yet transformative in the lives of the poor.

Her ideas have been vital in building the narrative for environmental consciousness and change. She has argued for the need for participatory management of natural resources to strengthen the ability of the poor to banish poverty; that poor countries cannot afford to follow the Western model of intense and extensive use of resources and energy that generates enormous pollution and must therefore leapfrog to approaches that prevent waste and pollution; that access to water and sanitation is a key determinant of human health and that countries like India need to reinvent the water and sewage system so that it more affordable and so sustainable. She argues equity and democracy in dealing with the earth’s common natural resources and believes that the existential threat of climate changecan only be resolved through a framework of international cooperation and climate justice.

Her research and its contribution to knowledge and change

The poor and the environment: Since the early 1980s, Sunita Narain working with her colleague, late Anil Agarwal, has advocated for participatory democracy for community-led natural resource management as the way to build livelihoods and wellbeing. This understanding is even more critical today when the world looks at how to use nature-based solutions for climate change.

Harvesting rainwater for local water security: Access to clean water is crucial for livelihood and nutrition security. Sunita Narain work has contributed to changing the narrative of water management by stressing on the potential of local rainwater harvesting with the active participation and control of local communities on their water assets.

Reinventing the paradigm of urban sewage management: Cleaning up polluted rivers and other waterbodies will require countries like India to is rework the system of sewage management and move towards use of onsite sanitation systems and land-based reuse of human excreta. Her work to argue for sanitation systems that are affordable and so sustainable has had huge resonance and has driven changes in policy and practice.

Air pollution in cities of the South and the need for transformative solutions: Countries of the South must not emulate the "pollute and clean up" model; they must forge new leapfrog pathways to move into the forefront of environmental management. Her policy advocacy for clean air in the city of New Delhiwas instrumental in making the city move away from diesel-run public transport system to one based on clean natural gas. As a result of this work that she directed, there are today policies that mandate improved fuel quality, emission norms, vehicular technologies and inspection and maintenance systems for vehicles in the city. She continues to argue for mobility transformation as the way for local and global pollution control.

Global environmental governance needs cooperation and justice: Sunita Narain has worked consistently to articulate the need for justice, equity and democracy in the arena of global environmental negotiations. The publication, Global warming in an unequal world, published in 1991 and co-authored by her, called for equal rights for all to global atmospheric resources. The issue of equity and justice as a pre-requisite for an ambitious and effective climate change agreement remains crucial for the change we seek.

Connecting food and human and planetary health: CSE’s laboratory studies on toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, antibiotics in food have brought changes in policies and regulatory mechanisms to minimise pollutants and to work to link food with biodiversity and nutrition. Narain has continued to advocate for the need to connect biodiversity, nutrition and livelihood in our food systems.

Sunita Narain has devoted time to build the capacities of the CSE so that it can function as an independent and credible institution, influencing public opinion and advocating change. CSE is an institution, which believes in the need to use knowledge to bring about change. In other words, it is about "working India's vibrant democracy". The challenge for CSE is to raise concerns and to participate in seeking answers and more importantly, in advocating for the answers to become policy and then practice.

Phone:+ 91-11-29955778
E-mail: sunita@cseindia.org