By VN Narayanan
Noted environmentalist Anil Agarwal, who passed away recently, was a supreme combination of human excellence and humanism
Whenever Prem Bhatia, my professional mentor, saw me weighed down by the load of trivialities that daily journalism imposed on me, used to ask me: ‘At what stage do you give up?’ My answer was: ‘Every morning when I open the paper,’ and then, looking at him, I would add: ‘Never, Sir’. Whether it is momentary irritation or a crippling setback, I had learnt to take things as they came because life is a lot easier, or a lot less difficult that way. I often recall the lines from that old Frank Sinatra song, That’s Life
That’s life, I can’t deny it
I thought of quitting
But my heart won’t just buy it
If I didn’t think it was worth a try
I’d roll myself up in a big ball and die.
Anil Agarwal, who died in January at the unspeakably young age of 54 for useful persons, was a person who never gave up. The lifelong crusader who worked tirelessly to make this world, the country (India) and our own neighborhood better places to live in, tried, tried and tried before rolling himself ‘up in a big ball’ and die. Ironically enough, the cause of his death was one which he was warring against to save the citizens of Delhi, India from being afflicted—the cancer-inducing pollution which hangs at nose level in the capital’s air and atmosphere.
I had known Anil Agarwal for 25 years, from the days he moved from a career as scientist to become a journalist involved in the crusade for a better environment. Always a gentle inspirer, he reminded me of that delectable Wodehousean character, Lord Ickenham, whose mission in life was to ‘spread sweetness and light’ everywhere and ‘to make the world less of a hellhole than what it was before I came in’.
If Delhi today is less of a hellhole than before pollution-wise, it is largely due to Anil Agarwal. He campaigned against vehicle pollution for close to two decades, trying to move the two great immovable objects—government and judiciary—and succeeding at long last in getting the needed shift from petrol and diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG) for taxis, autorickshaws and buses besides old cars. Realizing dreams means braving the odds.
That’s life, funny as it seems
Some people get their kicks
Stepping on dreams
But I don’t let it get me down
‘Cos, the ol’ world keeps getting
For Anil, there was no fragmentary interest in environmental issues. To him it is not a crusade to save trees or tigers; neither is it to prevent huge dams or promote renewable energy sources. Yes, these are issues to be fought for and they are necessary for a better environment, but Anil insisted, and so very rightly, that environment concerns people—their very survival. One of the major problems of all governance is that policy makers and law implementers respond to persons—groups of humans with specific interests—but ignore people, a term that cuts across ethnic, social, economic, religious and other barriers. His concerns were cosmic, global and humanistic.
Anil’s cosmic mind could encompass worries about the ozone layer, bio-diversity and global warming while at the same time devising ways to reach inexpensive fuel and drinkable water to village homes so that men and women need not have to trudge miles of hot, barren land to get a pot of water and dry sticks to fire their nondescript hearth. If only our political leaders had that tiny wisdom to heed what Anil had to say on a national energy policy, the country would not be in such a sorry plight of perpetual energy crunch it faces to this day.
The core of any energy policy ought to be to ensure that all people, especially the poor millions, have access to cooking fuel. It does not matter what they use—fuel wood, agricultural waste, biogas or LPG and electricity—but that it should be made available in adequate quantities to make lives easy, or a little less arduous.
This simple idea would not attract the government purely because PEOPLE are not its concern, but Persons may be. Spending macro-money for mini benefits is what government is all about! So Anil’s efforts concentrated on making poor people, village dwellers, less dependent on the government and more on their own labor and energies. Water harvesting is a neighborhood concern while building huge dams remains a governmental obsession. Nuclear and hydel and thermal power plants consume billions of rupees rendering it impossible for poor people to afford to dispel nightly darkness.
Over the decades, Anil Agarwal has inspired two generations of selfless workers and spurred voluntary movements. His Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and its fortnightly organ, Down To Earth, have helped raise public awareness of environmental issues and the level of social consciousness on problems faced by deprived sections of society. The message from this unproclaimed Gandhian is simple: ‘Do not worry about the Gross National Product; preserve and promote the Gross Natural Product.’ The pursuit of the former GNP and the neglect of the latter GNP have served to increase our GNM—gross national misery.
The nation has lost yet another of those countably few persons who do not give up or lose hope. But his CSE and Down To Earth go on. The inspirer has left behind countless young inspired men and women. The Indian poet-king Bhartrihari has identified in a classic verse on the types of people who undertake endeavors:
Base humans do not undertake work fearing obstacles. The mediocre embark on adventures but give up in the face of problems. Persons of excellence, once they start a venture, do not give up whatever the impediments.
Anil Agarwal was a supreme combination of human excellence and humanism.
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