When the Centre for Science and Environment was set up 25 years ago, it was a small rented office with hardly a dozen people in the dusty bustling Nehru Place area of New Delhi. Today, CSE functions out of its tastefully designed building bustling with over 125 researchers, activists and writers who have taken up themselves the tough task of fighting for a cleaner world.

Sunita Narain.

It has been raining awards. Literally. In a short span of three months, employees of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have been celebrating as many times. First, it was the coveted Padma Shri that its director, Sunita Narain, was awarded for her pioneering work in cleaning up India's environment and creating awareness about various issues.

Then, the CSE was awarded the prestigious 2005 Stockholm Water Prize. The award was for building a new paradigm of water management that uses traditional wisdom to harvest rain and promotes the role of communities in managing their local water systems. CSE (www.cseindia.org) will receive the $150,000 Prize from HM King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in August 2005. The Prize is awarded annually to individuals and institutions for their outstanding contributions to the world of water. This year's prize to CSE acknowledges the growing crisis of water management in many regions of the South and the need for new approaches that provide local food and water security to communities.

The third award came in late March this year when Sunita Narain was awarded the Chameli Devi Award for an Outstanding Media Person. She is the editor of "Down to Earth", (www.downtoearth.org.in) a fortnightly that has down the years grown to become India's leading environment magazine and an important voice of the practitioners of hope and change. For almost 20 years the magazine has relentlessly campaigned on various issues that are today wrecking India's environment. It has closely followed people's movements and tracked how government policy has been impotent on many issues. Policy makers look at the magazine seriously. Advertising in the magazine is thin, but CSE has managed to keep it alive and maintain its quality in terms of content and production values. Reporters from Down to Earth travel into the countryside to investigate and report on the environment.

No one has grudged Narain or CSE for that matter as the awards came pouring in. Both have in the last few years, become synonymous with each other. Narain has been with the CSE since 1982. Since the death of its director, Anil Aggarwal, three years ago, she took over the reigns infusing it with a new energy to clean up India's environment and force government policy to look at human right issues and sustainable development. CSE's State of India's Environment report is now widely respected even in government circles as it chronicles the highs and lows of the country's environment.

Stellar contributions

Narain became the face of a number of pubic campaigns like the one on pesticide overuse in India. CSE created an international uproar when its findings showed that pesticide had got into popular drinks like Pepsi and Coke that use groundwater. It forced Indian parliament to sit up and take notice. A Joint Parliamentary Committee which was set up to look into the issue, fully endorsed CSE's findings and its recommendations to address the larger issues of food safety and regulation.

She also led the campaign that ultimately led to a cleaner Delhi, which was one of the most polluted cities in the world. The government after a lot of dilly-dallying took the step to introduce CNG for its city buses, three wheeler auto rickshaws and taxis that has dramatically reduced emissions. Even private vehicles are now changing to CNG. The Delhi Transport Corporation now boasts it has largest fleet of buses in the world that use a clean fuel like CNG.

Other cities like Mumbai are now looking at introducing CNG in a big way after seeing that it marginally cleaned up Delhi. But India today has hundreds of towns like Kanpur, Pune, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, Bangalore and many others where breathing easy is difficult due to the extremely high rate of pollution. Autorickshaws in Ahmedabad, for instance, dilute the fuel in their vehicles with kerosene leaving behind a trail of choking smoke. Little is being done to clean up the cities.

While the stellar work of one CSE in Delhi is hardly enough, it is an example for other organizations to emulate. Still, larger challenges remain. Even in Delhi where there has been so much awareness, trucks continue to spew black smoke as they run on very old machines and use adulterated diesel. CNG autorickshaws belch black smoke as they use inferior oil to lubricate their pistons. CSE's CNG battle itself is far from over.

Green rating for industries

In 1996, CSE started a project to present a market-oriented framework by which environmental impacts of industrialization could be monitored and influenced. CSE's Green Rating Project (GRP) is a civil society initiative to develop an alternative form of governance to control industrial pollution in India. It systematically collects information on the environmental performance of industries, rated them and pushed the information onto the public domain. Public pressure because of this forces companies and regulatory and financial agencies to take get their act right. Industries are today taking voluntary proactive action to improve their environmental performance. Asiaweek judged the GRP as the best Green Audit Project in Asia over the last 25 years.

The Green Rating Project has brought pressure for better environmental performance of industries. The paper industry is one of the most polluting; since the GRP, some industry majors have made noticeable changes to their processes.
 •  Karnataka's rainwater harvesting
 •  Expert committees under the lens
The Green Rating Project basically took up three sectors: Auto, paper and pulp and chlor-alkali. Of them, the most important impact has been chlor-alkali. Because of the CSE's spirited campaign, the last union budget said that the government would offer tax incentives to those industries, which avoided using mercury, a dangerous contaminant, and instead opt for cleaner technology. Industries will now have to move away from using mercury to produce chlorine as the government has also given strict timelines to phase out mercury by 2012. Many have already moved out opting for cleaner technology and there are only 12 plants are left to change over.

Paper industry is one of the most polluting. ITC, Bhadrachalam has significantly improved. The change is apparent as they have become the first company in India not to use chlorine in bleaching. JK Papers in Raigad, Orissa, is another where there is a change. Companies have made hardware changes with major technological enhancements like Andhra Pradesh Paper Mills in Rajmundry. Tamilnadu Newsprint has also switched over to cleaner technology.

Chandra Bhushan, associate director, CSE, says that while companies are rated under GRP, it asks companies for commitment. "All changes have happened because of voluntary commitment. We saw the change happening between the two ratings we did in 1999 and 2004," he says. A study by the Delhi School of Economics shows that companies rated poorly by the GRP suffered in share market value. (Source: CSE Website, www.cseindia.org)

Global engagement

In the last 25 years, Narain has studied issues ranging from global democracy to climate change. Other interests were joint forest management, water conservation and local participatory democracy as the key to sustainable development. One issue she got actively involved was Global Warming. She asked uncomfortable questions: Was environmental management built on legal conventions or human rights? Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, she actively campaigned for equity and entitlements in climate negotiations.

CSE became involved in the discussions preceding and succeeding the Rio conference and continuing in Kyoto. It was very critical of the unfair emission quotas set in Kyoto, favouring rich countries. It argued that all had the right to equally share the atmosphere. CSE also campaigned to bring policy changes in the areas of air pollution, industrial pollution, water management and pesticide use. Points out Sunita Narain: "The challenge for CSE in the future is to remain effective by making an impact as issues are going to get very difficult and complex. Vested interests are getting stronger and therefore it will take a lot more effort and energy to drive change in India."

As she voices common concerns, she has become an icon of sorts in civil society and is seen as a crusader who has no vested interests. The Week, a national weekly, published by the Malayalam Manorama group, put her on its cover saying she was one of the Indians who would be one of the movers of the future.


Field studies by the CSE have shown a clear association between degradation of the environment and poverty. Women were found to be the worst victims as it increased their chores collecting firewood and water from far away places. With its relentless campaign, CSE got one concept into the Indian consciousness: rainwater harvesting and sustainable use of water was inevitable. Soon, both central and state governments in India initiated several water harvesting projects. Encouraged, CSE set up a National Water Harvesters Network to strengthen the hands of those promoting water management. The CSE has even started helping Delhi schools harvest rainwater from its rooftops. It found it easier to convert the young into sustainable ways of living.

It was increasingly clear that the real problem is not scarcity of water, but the management of water. CSE's work on rainwater harvesting (www.rainwaterharvesting.org) showed how simple it was to tap India's traditional wisdom. Practiced diversely in different regions, it lies in capturing rain as it fell. The idea was to divert every raindrop to ponds, step wells and underground storage tanks. This would ultimately recharge groundwater reserves for irrigation and drinking water needs for the entire year. If done well, it could be a fitting answer into dramatically changing the look of parched areas into green ones. Naturally, it would increase incomes and reduce poverty.

CSE's funding

CSE has a host of funders that total an average of about six to eight crore rupees a year. (1 crore = 10 millions) The main funders (both Indian and external) are: Swedish International Development Agency, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Rockfeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, United Nations Development Fund, United Nations Child Fund, Global Water Patnership, Delegation of the European Commission in India, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust, Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Management and Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Also, almost one crore rupees comes from selling their publications and audio visual films.

The battle ahead

Says Sunita Narain: "The greatest challenge for India is to strike a balance. In the years ahead, there is going to be a real need for industrial growth increasing. But at the same time, the fact that we cannot ride rough shod over environment issues remain and we have to strengthen the ability of people to push concerns."

Many cynics say that the work of CSE and Down to Earth is just a drop in the ocean and so much remains to be done in India where the environment is deteriorating rapidly mainly because of man-made reasons. Many more organizations have to aggressively take up the cudgel just as the CSE does to make an impact. Many NGO's are comfortable not raising these uncomfortable questions that hurt the bureaucracy and the government. These NGO's could become the change that they are constantly talking about by example - just the way CSE is doing.

The challenges in India are many. CSE realizes this and hopes to use its research, youthful energy and commitment of its employees to keep the battle going. There is good reason to. The Water Prize in many ways is not just an encouragement to the commitment and struggle of CSE, but to the environmental movement, which must now rise and inspire the unconverted.