I WAS READING Conflicts of Interest on a flight out of Delhi when I noticed my co-passenger peer at the book with interest. He was a young tourist from Egypt who wanted to see the world and had used his savings for an India trip. So far, it had been disappointing. The Taj was amazing, but Agra was steeped in rubbish, and Delhi was thick with smog, his lungs weighed heavy, “making even breathing difficult.”
You may say we don’t need visitors like him, but anyone who lives in Delhi NCR and breathes the world’s most polluted air cannot deny his truth.
I felt a sense of shame, but as I gripped the book in my hand, hope stirred—for Conflicts of Interest tackles these very environment issues that have mired India and its battles to resolve them—polluted air, pesticides in our food, a fast food epidemic, climate change, endangered tigers, and toxic water and filth.
The book is hard hitting, strident in tone, yet a fluent read as the narrative weaves through the environment struggles of the author, and the organisation she heads, Centre for Science and Environment. The CSE has been at the forefront of many environment ‘conflicts’ and readers may recall its push for CNG to replace polluting diesel at the turn of the millennium. This helped Delhi breathe cleaner for a few years, till a massive tsunami of cars and diesel SUVs had us again struggling for breath.
The book exposes the complicity of big corporations and their collusion with governments mandated to protect the interest of citizens. Tata Motors, for instance, sued CSE for defamation when it wrote on the toxicity of diesel, even though diesel exhaust has potent carcinogens. Most attacks, however, were personal, says the author, citing the instance of protests outside her residence. The cost environmentalists like Narain pay for fighting what are essentially everyone’s battles is a telling commentary on multiple ‘conflicts of interest’—of profits, ideas and ideologies that surround all green issues.
The ‘Cola Wars’ was another controversial story that hit headlines (and profits) with CSE exposing high levels of pesticide residues in these drinks. The study succeeded in the impossible— getting archrivals Coca-Cola and Pepsi to join forces to discredit Narain, and dismiss the health concerns raised as a publicity stunt. Meanwhile, in an advertisement blitz by the cola majors, ‘Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan mocked [CSE’s] study and seduced the public to go back to Colas.’
But it is not big corporations, or film stars paid to endorse unhealthy habits, or even complicit governments that are Narain’s real ‘villains’ in the environment debacle, it is people like us who do not want to make the change, evinced in the resistance to BRT corridors or odd- even schemes for cars, or our relentless greed for water that denies farmers and villages. She comes down hard on elitist environmentalism with its NIMBY syndrome which protests against mining in ‘our backyard’ (in the Aravalis bordering Delhi NCR, for example) that simply shifts the mining—and the problem—elsewhere.
Strangely, or perhaps not, Narain is also equally critical of conservationists, and in the interest of full disclosure: I am one of those conservationists who has had ideological differences with the author’s stance on tiger conservation, and question some of her inferences of largely painting wildlife conservationists as ‘anti-people’ or opposing the Forest Conservation Act, which has slowed down diversion of forests for industry even as it is admittedly abused routinely.
That said, the importance of Narain’s book is self-evident, and cannot be overstated. It is a book of our times. Even as we shy away from inconvenient truths, the environment is everyone’s business: bad air, water, climate change are great equalisers, even though the poor are more vulnerable. Narain goes beyond the problems, providing a blueprint which demands development to be reinvented, to be more equitable and inclusive, rooting for what she calls the ‘environmentalism of the poor, which offers no quick-fix techno solutions’. Conflicts of Interest is an inspiring read that jolts you awake from complacency and rouses you to action for a clean and green future.