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‘Civil society is a cacophony, not an orchestra’

Interview with Sunita NARAIN

11 / 2009

Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, has been actively involved in research, communication and advocacy on environmental issues. She has also co-edited a range of publications on the state of India’s environment as well as advocated environmental issues at major international fora. Narain has helped build the CSE into a premier institution with a staff strength of around 100. She has also been publishing the fortnightly newsmagazine, Down To Earth, since 1992.

How would you define civil society?

Civil society is a cacophony, not an orchestra. There are different kinds of voices speaking for different segments of society. We have been witness to so much change in the last five years. I would describe it as a growing civil society movement. A great deal of this focuses on middle class issues and is about defending the rights of the middle class. Take the example of the residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) that have taken up the whole power rates issue, or the Jessica Lal murder case and the way it was highlighted by the media.

Would you agree with the perception that civil society is becoming more and more powerful?

There was an empty space which is now being filled. My fear is that India remains an inequitable country. It also remains a very rural country. If civil society is able to represent the voice of this vast majority then it is a good trend. Then the pressures being exerted are for the good. But this is not always the case. The BRT corridor is a classic case of car versus bus. Here, what civil society is doing is trying to protect the rights of people who drive cars. Here, civil society is not pushing the voices of the poor; rather it is pushing the voices of an elitist class of people.

Is this a global phenomenon?

In the US, the middle class comprises a key component of civil society. It has been in the forefront of major campaigns including the way garbage is collected from homes. But in India the situation is very different. Take the example of the ragpicker. How concerned is civil society about his situation? Who is speaking on his behalf? Everyone here follows the NIMBY (not in my backyard) principle. We don’t want something uncomfortable to happen in our own backyards.

But you can’t dispute the fact that civil society has had its share of successes…

There is no doubt that initially we were driven by the Gandhian culture, but the situation has changed over the years. Today, one of the key questions facing civil society is: Where is the money going to come from? People talk about corporate social responsibility, and high-profile bodies like the Planning Commission also talk about a bulk of the money coming from the corporate sector. My question is: How are we going to be allowed to create structures which will allow dissent? How are corporations going to be persuaded to pay for such institutions realising that this is also part of a democratic process?

In other parts of the world, the government will give civil society agencies a certain amount of money. But in India the situation is different. Take an umbrella organisation like CAPART. We know, through our own experience, that no NGO that raises its voice on independent issues will receive funding. I believe the government must give civil society a space in which to operate. As a government, the Congress party is more open to dissent, but the issue before us is how can different points of view be promoted? The Planning Commission talks about allowing many voices to speak out, but we believe it is always the same kind of voices that get a hearing in India.

How strong is the emphasis on creating more transparent and more accountable governance?

We at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have helped build an understanding on issues relating to the environment. This has now emerged as an issue of prime concern in developing nations. Earlier, people believed that the environment mattered only if you became rich. Today, the situation is different. Millions depend on the environment to survive.

The CNG (compressed natural gas) campaign to clean up Delhi’s air was a major gain in environmental terms. The whole campaign for public transport also requires a major transition, forcing the government to depart from its car-centric approach. It is keeping this in mind that we have been demanding an increase in the number of buses and bus lanes, as also the integration of bus and bicycle tracks and walking lanes. We have also been demanding an increase in taxes being levied on car owners. In Bangalore, the tax is around 114% but in Delhi it is around 4%. We wanted it hiked in Delhi but the lieutenant-governor shot it down. The car lobby is extremely strong. The bus is treated as a commercial vehicle that has to pay an annual passenger tax; car owners can get away with a one-time tax. We need to highlight that cars and two-wheelers transport only 20% of Delhi’s people. Over 38% walk to work and another 10% of the population are cyclists.

Why does the CSE tend to adopt an adversarial position while raising issues with industry, as we saw during the cola expose? What have these exposes achieved in the long run and, in retrospect, do you think adopting a less adversarial position might have helped?

Every group has its own role to play. We believe in pushing the envelope; our aim is towards pushing the biggest and mightiest. If we had written a letter to Coca-Cola, it would not have worked. We need to have public advocacy in order to make big changes. We also need to strategise to come up with the most effective way of dealing with a situation. Even with automobile companies, we may sit around and talk to them but our role towards them continues to remain adversarial. We don’t want money, we don’t want to be chummy with them or part of the cocktail circuit. Our role is (out there) in the public arena, and we are willing to use any strategy to put our point of view across.

As regards the specific question of colas, we had received emails to check colas (we have a laboratory). When we decided to check colas for pesticide content we did not know that there were two American cola companies (operating) in India. Our findings turned out to be dead right. A joint parliamentary committee was set up against us in 2004. It went on to uphold our findings that colas contained dangerous levels of pesticide, thereby exonerating our claims.

We are still fighting to ensure cola companies agree to formulate standards for finished products. People ask us why we are so obsessive. I maintain that if we can get them to adhere to standards, it will be a first in the world because there are no standards for finished products. If we do succeed, India will be the first country to have these standards.

People have asked us why we have not conducted a similar campaign against municipal corporation water. I would like to point out that this would require us checking the water content in many locations. We are a small company; this would require a much larger operation than we can handle. We need to strategise and come up with effective action. Our role is that of a watchdog. People levied all kinds of charges against us. We were accused of being a pseudo NGO, jholawallahs, and so on. But I would like to ask: Did I get my science wrong? In what way have we polarised the debate that pesticides in colas are bad for health?

Do you feel there should be greater public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the future?

Let me ask you a counter-question. Where have these PPPs worked? The only place where it seems to be working is outside urinals where an ad has been put up outside the urinal announcing the price to be paid to use that space. In all these PPPs, we are talking about profit. Public good in India represents the very poor. In the US, the middle class are in a position to pay for services, but that is not the case here. I don’t think the PPP model works here and the UPA government has little to show for it.


sociedade civil, ONG

, Índia



Artigos e dossiês

Rashme SEHGAL, ‘Civil society is a cacophony, not an orchestra’, in InfoChange Agenda, November 2009

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