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Difference Maker

India's feisty – and effective – environmental champion

Sunita Narain has learned that being an environmentalist in India means being an advocate for the poor – and for immediate action.

(Page 3 of 3)

One might think that India, which is predominantly Hindu, would be uniquely suited for environmental activism. After all, Hinduism as a religion stresses man's sacred relationship with nature. Rivers, the most popular example, are worshiped as goddesses.

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But Narain, a nonpracticing Hindu, only sees the irony.

"The modern Hindu is someone who worships all this and then goes out and pollutes," she says, pointing to Delhi's filthy yet sacred Yamuna River as a prime example of the hypocrisy.

Narain says there's potential for change, however. "If you scratch [Indians], they will talk about consumption," she says. "There is a moral streak in India which is based on religion, which worships it. That is an advantage we have."

Vijaya Nagarajan, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Hinduism and the environment, agrees. She says environmentalists in India need to follow Narain's lead and begin exploring people's personal relationship with the world.

"Sunita Narain is very much in the present moment," Dr. Nagarajan says. "I think one of the biggest ideas we need to tackle in the modern world is that most of modern life is about cultivating the fulfillment of our desires. That's part of the reason for our environmental mess.

"What Sunita represents is that aspect of India which is trying to deal with the balance between collective desires and individual desires."

That's been Narain's challenge for 30 years. And she's still got a lot of fight left.

"We're like a dog with a bone," she likes to say. "We don't give it up."

• To find out more about the Centre for Science and Environment, go to

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