Anil Agarwal 1947 2002

  • 30/01/2002

Every period of his life was a new chapter of discovery. Anil never let us, even for one moment, feel that we were less powerful

This is the most difficult article I have ever written, without my colleague Anil Agarwal and about my colleague Anil Agarwal. Anil and I have worked together, travelled and written together for the past 20 years. It is not that we did not write alone. In fact, the past many months he has been so unwell, that for the first time he did not even have the energy to read the articles I wrote on his behalf. The difficulty is living life alone. Without Anil's sheer fire and commitment.

For him, life began and ended with work. When you think back it is truly amazing how much he managed to do in the past seven years as he battled cancer. I remember when we first found out that he had a rare and possibly fatal lymphoma, which had spread to his brain, his spine and his eyes, his only response was, "is there a possible treatment". He took the horrendous chemotherapy so calmly that being with him you would think it was a simple stomach pain.

But our focus even then was on work. This was the p eriod that our organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ), was in a mess. We had expanded, started a fortnightly magazine, but with hardly any management systems. Being writers and environmentalists we had no clue what it took to run an institution. All the months we spent in the us and then later in France where Anil went for a bone marrow transplantation, we worked furiously to set up internal systems. And we made many mistakes as Anil's impatience drove colleagues up the wall. But he soon learnt that to build a solid foundation he needed to give his strength and generosity and most of all, his time. He did. And I know he died with the knowledge that he had created an institution, which would carry his work forward. Poorer without him. But not destitute.

For him, the most hated legacy was what Gandhiji left behind. "Orphans," he would say. "Their inability to stay involved with the challenges and to show the way ahead has made Gandhiji irrelevant." For Anil to live on in our hearts and minds cse will have to continue to drive the environmental message, as loudly and as stridently as he would have done.

His message was also always evolving. Knowledge was his biggest passion and he never assumed that he had learnt all there was to know. This, to me, is his most endearing message. Till the end he listened to people, travelled and read, as if he was a cub reporter. It is because of this, his intellectual legacy is enormously rich. In the 1980s the fledgling environmental movement got its basis as he established the need for poor countries to be concerned about the environment. This was the time when it was generally accepted that environment was to do with "pretty trees and tigers" and that "smoke was the sign of progress". Poverty in fact was seen as the greatest polluter, in the words of late Indira Gandhi. Anil debunked this and how effectively.

Environment for the poor was not a luxury but a matter of survival, he wrote. He conceptualised the alternative economic paradigm of the poor, arguing that the rural poor lived within what he called, "the biomass based subsistence economy". That is, they lived on the environment as all their basic survival needs, from food to firewood, was collected and used. He mocked our economists who measured welfare in terms of the Gross National Product and demanded instead that poverty should be measured in terms of Gross Natural Product and indicators like the number of hours it takes women to collect water or firewood, should be used to calculate the improvements in our economy.

Today, all this is common knowledge. But for someone who has journeyed with him, I know how difficult each step was. In the late 1980s we wrote a book, Towards Green Villages , which outlined how rural regeneration was more to do with decentralisation and devolution of power than with planting trees or smokeless stoves (which were in fashion then). Again, this is well accepted today. But as our correspondence over this publication will reveal, many people disagreed with us, and violently.

Every period of his life was a new chapter of discovery. Our book, Global Warming in an Unequal World forced us to fight the most powerful research institutions of the industrialised world. The campaign on air pollution made us take on the powerful automobile industry. But Anil never ever let us, even for one moment, feel that we were less powerful.

This is because his faith in democracy was total. As long as we were absolutely sure about our facts we could challenge the world. "If we have good knowledge and we have social capital - friends and experts willing to cooperate with us - we can work Indian democracy," was what he said again and again to us. For Anil, democracy was not a "good idea" to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi in the current context of Indian politics, it was his way of life. It is becaus e of this belief that Anil was able to find the balance in the challenge: markets were important as much as participatory democracy at the village level.

"Forensic rigour combined with passion" was how a leading journalist from uk described cse 's work. This was Anil's key quality and what he has left behind for us to emulate. His last many years went in building up two campaigns - to push for community involvement in water management and to clean up Delhi's air. My last memory of him