Sunita Narain is a woman with a mission. It is not easy to take up the cudgels for India's fragile ecosystem and make one's voice heard. But the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) remains undaunted. "This year I am so angry, so angry... because of rising air pollution and the use of hazardous petcoke and furnace oil. I am still fighting it," says the Padma Shri winner who is also the editor of the fortnightly magazine Down To Earth.
Since she joined the CSE in 1982, Narain has been working on a wide range of environmental issues, helping change policies and regulations in areas such as air pollution, food safety, solid waste management and climate change.
The fight against air pollution started in 1996 and CSE fought hard to ensure that Delhi's public transport system would run on compressed natural gas, a clean fuel. Narain says it takes around 10-15 years to create awareness and then some more to get the solution implemented. She is now working on tightening pollution control norms for diesel vehicles.
CSE also demanded a ban on the use of endosulfan in the early 2000s when the harmful side effects of chemical pesticides were not even talked about. In 2011, the Supreme Court passed an interim order to ban the production, distribution and use of endosulfan in Kerala where health issues were reported due to its spraying on cashew plantations. In May 2017, the CSE released a study that found potassium bromate-a possible cancer-causing chemical - in 38 samples of popular bread brands in Delhi, pushing the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to remove it from its list of permissible additives.
Every battle is tough, says Narain, for it is a battle of David against the Goliaths of the government and the corporate world. "But it is our job to report what we see."