Over the last five decades, Sunita Narain has been striving to make environmental consciousness everybody’s business. Be it her work on rainwater harvesting, efforts to introduce CNG in Delhi, advocacy of pro-poor policies, or the fight for an equitable climate change agreement, the Padma Shri awardee has been a strong voice championing climate justice.
When I speak with Narain, she is fielding calls and emails after the release of ‘Honeygate’, the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) report on honey adulteration. Not many know that the investigation took all of three months and was done entirely during the lockdown. No mean feat for the environmentalist, who won Edinburgh Medal 2020 last month, awarded for significant contributions to science and technology and to the wellbeing of humanity. “COVID-19 is the result of our progressively worsening dystopian relationship with nature,” she said at the virtual awards ceremony, adding that the climate crisis was making the world’s poor even more marginalised and insecure. Excerpts from an interview:
What led to the Honeygate investigation?
We kept getting distress calls from beekeepers in North India who said the market price for honey had crashed and it wasn’t selling. On the other hand, there is anecdotal data that suggests COVID-19 has led to an increase in honey consumption because of its immunity-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. We were intrigued with the beekeepers’ claims who, in literal Chinese whispers, spoke about a ‘Chinese syrup’ that was being used to adulterate honey. We went on to find the ‘designer’ syrup that could bypass Indian rules and also studied how they have been altered over the years.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been putting out notices about a similar ‘rice syrup’ being imported to India. When we spiked it with raw honey, it cleared all the lab tests. This was really scary. We then sent samples from 13 big brands for advanced testing to Germany and they failed the test.
The business of adulteration is a sophisticated one. The bigger concern is the threat to bees. They are the harbingers of the ecosystem’s health and if not for them, you won’t have food productivity. It was the bee colonies’ collapse that pointed to the overuse of pesticides in large parts of the world and in India.
As for the backlash from companies, this is a textbook case. The first response is to deny, then bring in scientific jugglery with test reports, followed by attacks on us as ‘foreign agents’. What we are expecting now is that they will use the government to target us and prove us wrong. They have huge ad spends to convince the customer and this worries us enormously. We have made our presentation to FSSAI and hope the regulator will take it forward.
Is it too late to reverse the climate crisis?
I will never say it is too late. But yes, we are running out of time. Climate change has been talked about, at least seriously, in international negotiations since 1991. Since then, the world has only procrastinated, prevaricated and delayed serious action — we are already seeing the consequences.
There are no 10 ways to save the planet. But governments all over the world are certain that there are ways in which you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No country has really made big-time investments to move out of fossil fuel yet. Some exceptions are the U.S. (shifted from coal to gas, which is still a fossil fuel), Germany (solar), the U.K., Norway and Denmark (offshore wind), and Sweden (biomass, hydro and nuclear).
If you can reduce emissions from the energy sector, don’t increase it somewhere else. For instance, in the U.S., they have had a massive 30% reduction in energy-related emissions in the last decade, but the country’s consumption has increased as fuel is cheaper. Now, their emissions are higher than in 2016. We need to reduce energy-related emissions and also ensure that we bring change in every other field, particularly transportation.
The poor and the farmers are the worst victims of climate change. They are not responsible for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but are the victims of our excesses. World over, young people are urging us to take climate change seriously. We need to pay heed to those voices. These are interesting times from which we should learn and change the way we are doing things. Unfortunately, our governance systems are still wedded to the old ways and not ready to change.
What are your views on the controversial draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 and the impact the proposed expansion projects, in Mollem and the Jolly Grant airport, for instance, will have on India’s environment?
This is the final nail in a coffin. But you already have a coffin made out of the corruption of environmental clearance procedures. The scrutiny of projects is being done today by faceless committees who take no responsibility for their decisions. For instance, the Navi Mumbai airport proposal went through years of convoluted decision-making. Environmentalists opposed it, but the government finally cleared it with conditions. Once the airport is built, is there any way to check whether those conditions have been complied with? No, because there is no monitoring. The EIA notification has already been killed by successive governments, not just the current one. We should be demanding a better process of environmental clearance instead of clinging to the draft.
You were part of the 22-year-old Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) that has been dissolved to give way to the Commission for Air Quality Management in the NCR and adjoining areas. How do you see the new body tackling the spiralling crisis?
I’m very proud to have done the work we have done at EPCA. We have managed to take several tough, contested actions — be it control on the trucks or the closure of the last thermal power plant in Badarpur, New Delhi. We were able to do it because EPCA was a court-mandated authority. Today, the fact that the government has dissolved it and set up the commission is a good thing because we need a permanent body. The government has signalled that they are taking full charge of the issue, which I see as an important step ahead. Now, it’s about enforcement and making sure the local sources of pollution (stubble and garbage burning) are controlled.
COVID-19 has reversed the ongoing war against single-use plastic. What are your thoughts on this?
The pandemic has increased the amount of plastic waste and this should worry us tremendously because one crisis is adding to another. The politics of it is in the seemingly benign word, ‘recycling’, that the plastic industry uses to get us to use more. There’s a lot of plastic that cannot be recycled because it is not economically viable. It is the responsibility of us middle-class Indians, who use plastic, to be aware of the implications of our actions.
Do you think the Biden-Harris team will change the way the U.S. has handled the climate crisis till now?
The change of top leadership in the U.S. is important for the climate movement as the former president was so out of sync with reality and a climate-change denier. The Biden-Harris team has clearly stated that they are committed to climate change action, and we need them to take effective action. What the U.S. does is important for climate change negotiations because, in some sense, it’s an indicator species. If they are able to do things then the whole world will do it.
In India, we need to do a lot more. There is an awareness among the top leadership of the need to do things, but I don’t think there is enough knowledge about the scale at which we need to act. When it comes to air pollution, for instance, I have been arguing that just like we had CNG for vehicles, we need to have natural gas for industries. It’s a win-win situation because you have industrial growth, but without pollution. But that requires a different taxation system. India needs what we call the co-benefit approach: we need economic growth but we need to do it in a way that lowers air pollution.
Why is investing in energy access for the poor crucial in our fight against climate change?
Climate change and air pollution are great equalisers, affecting the rich and the poor equally. If the poor are hit today, the rich will also be impacted eventually . And we are already witnessing that as wild fires and floods become frequent. The whole world is interconnected and interdependent. Whether we are willing to accept that and take the necessary steps is for our leaders to decide.