The Environmentalist of the Poor: Anil Agarwal
The Berkeley Nobel Laureate George Akerlof once remarked of his fellow economists
that if you showed them something that worked in practice, they would not be satisfied
unless it was also seen to work in theory. This insight explains much about the dismal
science, including why, as late as 1980, the MIT economist Lester Thurow could so
magisterially write: ‘If you look at the coun?tries that are interested in environmentalism, or at the individuals who support environmentalism within each country, one is struck by
the extent to which environmentalism is an interest of the upper middle class. Poor
countries and poor individuals simply aren’t interested.’ It does not appear that Thurow looked very closely around the globe. For, seven years
before he wrote his lines, the Chipko Andolan had decisively announced the poor’s entry into the domain of environmentalism. Nor was Chipko unique: the decade of the 1970s
saw a whole slew of popular movements in defence of local rights to forest, fish and
water resources, as well as protests against large dams. These movements took place in
India, Brazil, Malaysia, Ecuador and Kenya, and among peasants, pastoralists, and fisher
folk: that is, among communities even economists could identify as being poor. Lester
Thurow could write as he did because of the theory chat environmentalism is the full
stomach phenomenon. In the West the rise of the green movement in the 1960s was
widely interpreted as a manifestation of what was called ‘post-materialism’. The
consumer societies of the North Atlantic world, wrote the political scientist Ronald
Inglehan, had collectively shifted ‘from giving top priority to physical sustenance and
safety toward heavier emphasis on belonging, self-expression, and the quality of life.’ It was thought that a cultivated interest in the protection of nature was possible only when
the neces-ities of lire could be taken for granted. As for the poor, their waking hours were
spent foraging for food, water, housing, energy: how could they be concerned with
something as elevated as the environment.
Movements such as Chipko challenged the post-materialist hypo-thesis, in practice.
But its decisive theoretical refutation was the work of the campaigning journalist Anil
Agarwal, who died in Dehradun on the 2nd of” January 2002, aged fifty-four. Agarwal
was a man of ferocious intelligence and commitment, these traits displayed early. At the
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, where he studied mechanical engineering, he was
elected president of the students’ gymkhana. After he graduated, he travelled in Europe
but came back to join the Hindustan Times as a science reporter, this when his class-mates were taking the already well-trodden route to the United States. His flair for
communicating complex ideas in clear language was recognized by the New Scientist, for
which he also began to write.
The story that changed Agarwal’s life originated in a visit to the Alakananda valley
sometime in. early 1975. The Chipko Andoian was then less than two years old. But
Agarwal was impressed by what it had already done and more impressed still by its
leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
Agarwal returned from Garhwal with an essay that, with a key word misspelt, was
printed in the New Scientist under the title ‘Ghandi’s Ghost Protects the Himalayan
Trees’. It might have been the first account of the Chipko movement in the international press. It was certainly a definitive moment in the career of its author. It was through Chipko that Agarwal came to understand that the poor had, if anything, a greater stake in the responsible management of the environment. That insight became the driving force of his work over the next twenty-five years.
In the mid 1970s Agarwal moved to London to join the Interna-tional Institute for Environment and Development. There he came under the caring tutelage of Barbara
Ward, the author with Rene Dubos of Only One Earth, the ‘official’ text of the first
United Nations Symposium on the Environment. Then, encouraged by that remarkable
civil servant Lovraj Kumar, he decided to return to India to found the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi.
Not long after founding CSE, Agarwal went for a meeting in Malayaysia, a trip that was as definitive as his earlier trek to Garhwal. For his hosts in Penang had just published a report on the ‘State of Malaysia’s Environment’. It was a slim document, but suggestive. No sooner had he read it than Agarwal started planning a more ambitious Indian version. The material was at hand, if one cared to look for it. For the natural resource conflicts of the 1970s had been attentively and sympathetically documented by our journalists,
writing in English as well as in the Indian languages. The academic community was by
and large blind to the degradation of the environment, but here too there were exceptions, most notably the partnership of the ecologist Madhav Gadgil and the anthropologist
Kailash Malhotra. These two had just completed an extended study on behalf of the
newly instituted Department of Environment, which documented the shrinking access to
nature in the villages and hamlets of India. There was also the work on fisheries by John Kurien and on common property by N.S. Jodha: two economists with a most atypical
orien-tation towards fieldwork.
Drawing on these scattered studies, and aided by his colleagues Ravi Chopra and Kalpana Sharrna, Agarwal and the CSE published The State of India’s Environment 1982:
A Citizens’ Report. This was a landmark, in an intellectual sense—as the first serious
overview of the use and abuse of nature in India. But its merits were as much about form as content. The report was attractively produced and imaginatively laid out plenty of pictures interwoven with the text, artfully designed to highlight salutary or egregious examples, numbers and tables sparingly but effectively used.
This work, often referred to as the First Citizens’ Report was, in a word, a triumph.
Two years later the CSE put out a Second Citizens’ Report, edited by Agarwal and his
colleague Sunita Narain, an effervescent young activist who had come to
environmentalism through the Delhi-based students’ group, Kalpavriksh. This report was
pre-sented as elegantly as its predecessor, but it was more thorough, and enriched by two essays on the politics of the environment, written by Agarwal and Dunu Roy.
The Citizens’ Reports were a simultaneous wake-up call to an in-sular academy, a
half-blind state, and a somnolent public. They were read, discussed, and acted upon, and came to enjoy an influence far in excess of what its editors anticipated: this influence not being out of proportion with their intrinsic value. Among the signs of how good the
reports were was the fact that their Kannada and Hindi translators were Shivarama
Karanth, the great Kannada novelist and polymath; and the respected environmentalist
and Chipko historian Anupam Mishra.
In between the publication of the two Citizens’ Reports, Anil Agarwal lectured in Calcutta. I lived then in that city. I was in the last throes of a Ph.D. dissertation on forests and social protest in the Him-alaya. During the course of my research I had met Agarwal, interviewed him on his encounters with Chipko, and raided the files on the movement
that he generously placed at my disposal. Like him, I had met and been captivated by
Chandi Prasad Bhatt. My conversion to their brand of environmentalism, however, was
interrupted at every stage by my milieu, by the dominance in Calcutta of a worldview that regarded ecology as a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle.
It was to such a sceptical audience that Anil Agarwal was asked to speak. The talk was held in the Mahabodhi Society, in a long low hall which, like all such places in Calcutta, had a marked scarcity of light. But this dark room was gloriously illuminated by the
lecturer. Agarwal was a little man, five feet four inches at most, his figure made less
prepossessing by a heavily banded pair of spectacles. Yet the glasses could not hide die sparkle, nor the slightness of his figure overshadow the manifest energy and enthusiasm. Bobbing up and down the pod-ium, he delivered a missionary sermon to a bunch of
pagans, piling up example upon example of the destruction of nature and its impact on
the poor. The crowd, at first unbelieving, slowly came round, persuaded by the integrity of the man as much by the solid core of his message.
Agarwal was that rare bird, a superb public speaker who was also a skilled writer. (Indians who are good at the one form of communication are generally hopeless at the
other.) He had a way of immediately attracting the reader’s attention, most often through
clever juxtaposition. Thus his flamboyant but also deeply insightful remark of how
natural resources management in India was a case of ‘nineteenth-century laws for twenty-
first century realities’. Thus also his mischievous yet not entirely facetious desire to define GNP afresh as ‘Gross Nature Product’. I recall, too, a piece on how the
Maharashtra government had been forbidden by the Forest Conservation Act to construct
water taps for pilgrims en route to- the shrine of Bhimashankar. Agarwal suggested that
the application to the Centre be reworded to claim that the taps were intended for
migrating elephants. (The recommendation was acutely topical, for the environ-ment
minister at the time was the animal fundamentalist Maneka Gandhi.)
Under Agarwal’s leadership, the CSE played a critical role in at least four environmental campaigns. To begin with, the Chipko experience informed his
participation in the countrywide struggle for a democratic forest management. This
struggle won a partial success when, in 1988, the Indian parliament accepted that
ecological stability and people’s needs, rather than commercial exploitation, were to be
the cornerstones of the new, ‘official’, forest policy. Inspired by the same ideals of local participation and control were the CSE’s seminars and reports on traditional water
harvesting. These, emphasizing the creative partnership between indigenous knowledge
and collective action, were compiled in a valuable volume with the characteristically
catchy title, Dying Wisdom.
Admiration for the work of Anil Agarwal and the CSE was never confined to India. Nonetheless, their presence on the global stage was enhanced by the publication, in 1989, of Global Warming in an Unequal World, a pamphlet co-authored by Agarwal and Sunita
Narain. This made a distinction between the ‘survival emissions’ of the poor, as for
instance the methane released by paddy cultivation, and the ‘luxury emissions’ of the rich,
such as the gases released into the atmosphere by the automobile-industrial complex. The
conventional wisdom out of Washington sought to suggest that the poor were as
responsible for global warming: thus, countries such as India and China needed to be as
quick and ready in their remedial measures as, say, the United States and Germany. This
wisdom had been re-stated in a report of the World Resources Institute (WRI), a report
which Agarwal and Narain brutally took apart. They showed, first, that the WRI report
erased the past, the historical responsibility for the build-up of greenhouse gases by the
industrialized countries; and second, that in its prescriptions for the future the WRI made
the unfair and illogical assumption that the carbon ‘sink’ provided by the oceans and
atmosphere should be divided in proportion to the magnitude of greenhouse gases
currently emitted by each country. A more just and tenable assumption, argued the
Indians, would be to allocate each individual human being an equal share of the carbon
The WRI report, in sum, sought to blame the victims and reward the polluters. This,
said Agarwal and Narain, was an unhappy but by no means unique illustration of the
‘environmental colonialism’ that ruled international negotiations on climate change and
the protec?tion of biodiversity. As the CSE complained in a ‘Statement on Glo?bal
Democracy’ issued specially for the Earth Summit of June 1992:
There is no effort to create new levels of power that would allow all citizens of the
world to participate in global environmental management. Today, the reality is that:
Northern governments and institutions can, using their economic and political power,
intervene in, say, Bangladesh’s develop?ment. But no Bangladeshi can intervene in the development processes of Northern economies even if global warming caused largely by
Northern emissions may submerge half [“their] country.
Even so, at least one Indian was able to positively intervene in global debates.
Sometimes his influence passed unnoticed. Thus, the World-watch Institute has
reproduced, more-or-less wholesale, the framework of the CSE Citizens’ Reports in its
own State of the World Reports, issued annually since 1987. These follow the Indian example in dividing the work into thematic sections, using boxes as a key illus-trative
device, and seeking to address multiple audiences—policy as well as popular. The
imitation is so obvious that in a just world Agarwal ought to have demanded
compensation for his hard-won intellectual property.
On a personal front Anil Agarwal possessed an almost heroic determination. He
conducted a long battle against chronic asthma, and then in 1994 was diagnosed as
suffering from a very rare form of cancer which affected the eyes and brain. From his
sick bed, while in re-mission he planned and carried out his last campaign. This related to
the shamefully high levels of air pollution in Delhi. The CSE report on the problem was
called—with an evocative economy so typical of the man—Slow Murder. This report
almost single handedly forced the government to introduce remedial measures, these
aimed both at vehicles and factories. Agarwal’s insistence on Compressed Natural Gas
(CNG) as Delhi’s sole alternative to existing fuels became somewhat controversial. The jury is still out on whether CNG or low-sulphur diesel is the more suitable choice, yet
there is no gainsaying the fact that, without Agarwal and the CSE, the citizens of Delhi
would still be subject to the ancien regime of pollution unchecked and undiagnosed. For more than twenty years Anil Agarwal was India’s most articulate and influential
writer on the environment. Viewing his career in the round, one is struck by several
features. First, an ability to synthesize the results of specialized scientific studies. Second,
a knack of communicating this synthesis in accessible prose. Third, the insist-ence that it
was not enough for the environmentalist to hector and chastise: solutions had to be
offered, even if the state was as yet un-willing to act upon them.
One is impressed, too, by the range of Agarwal’s work. Forests, water, biodiversity,
climate change at the global level, air pollution in a single city: he studied and wrote
about them all. What unites these dispersed and prolific writings is Agarwal’s approach—he looks at environmental problems from the perspective of the poor. His
oeuvre provides an intellectual and moral challenge to the belief that the poor are too
poor to be green. He demonstrates that, in the biomass economies of the rural Third
World, the poor have a vital interest in the careful management of forests, soil, pasture,
and water. (The rich can more easily shift to alternative fuels and building materials.) In
his later work, he shows likewise that, the more prosperous the country or community;
the more likely it is to insulate itself from the harmful effects of pollution while passing
on this burden to the disadvantaged.
If I had to recommend only one essay by Agarwal, it would be his World
Conservation Lecture of 1985, first published in The Environmentalist, 1986, and
reprinted in an anthology I edited, Social Ecology (Oxford University Press, 1994). This essay presents a detailed picture of environmental destruction in India, against the
backdrop of the rather different Western experience. The examples are drawn from across
the country and deal with a variety of natural resources. The conclusions are crisply and
unambiguously stated. The ‘first lesson’ is that ‘the main source of environmental
destruction in the world is the demand for natural resources generated by the
consump-tion of the rich (whether they are rich nations or rich individuals and groups
within nations) . . .’ The ‘second lesson’ is that ‘it is the poor who are affected the most
by environmental destruction’; thus, the ‘eradication of poverty in a country like India is
simply not possible without the rational management of our environment and that,
conversely, environmental destruction will only intensify poverty.’
Agarwal anticipates in this essay a theme later picked up by feminist writers. As he
The destruction of the environment clearly poses the biggest threat to marginal
cultures and occupations like [those] of tribals, nomads, fisher-folk and artisans, which
have always been heavily dependent on their immediate environment for their survival.
But the maximum impact of the destruction of biomass sources is on women. Women m
all rural cul-tures are affected, especially women from poor landless, marginal and small
farming families. Seen from the point of view of these women, it can be argued that all
development is ignorant of women’s needs, and often anti-women, literally designed to
increase their work burden.
The process of resource degradation, says Agarwal, has made it more difficult and dangerous for women to go about the business of col-lecting fuel, fodder and water. He
makes an inspired distinction between ‘male’ trees—species promoted by forest
departments seeking to increase their cash income—and ‘female’ trees, those species that
lighten the woman’s load yet tend not to be favoured by public agen?cies. On the whole,
Agarwal’s understanding of the gender dimen?sions of the environment debate was
indubitably ahead of its time. It has always seemed to me that his precocity has not been
adequately recognized, perhaps because in this regard he happened to belong to the
wrong gender himself.
It was, I think, Voltaire who said that while one might seek to flat-ter the living, the dead deserve nothing less than the truth. No assess-ment of Anil Agarwal as writer and
activist can overlook his flaws. These were personal as well as intellectual. Thus, while
the first two pioneering Citizens’ Reports were being produced, Agarwal and the CSE
were catalysts to a genuinely collaborative exercise. Over the years, however, Agarwal
came to distance himself from many individuals and trends in the environmental
community with whom he had once worked and who had contributed to his reports.
Perhaps this alienation was related to his creeping cancer. Still, one could not altogether overcome the suspicion that the CSE would participate in a campaign only if it could
orchestrate and direct it. One example was the organization’s withdrawal, over the 1990s,
from the continuing struggle for forest democracy. Again, it is something of a pity that
the activities of the Narmada Bachao Andolan were never adequately covered in the
pages of the CSE fortnightly Down to Earth. Future historians of this most important
social movement will find more meat in the reports of daily newspapers than in this
specialist environmentalist journal.
Agarwal had a deeply prejudiced attitude towards the bureaucracy, which he distrusted and seemed at times to despise. This is a trait shared by some kinds of Gandhians and
some kinds of Marxists, and indeed Agarwal was a sort of socialist Gandhian himself.
What made his prejudice unpalatable is that he had no difficulty courting ruling
politicians. At various times he closely identified himself with the Prime Minister, Rajrv Gandhi, the environment minister Kamal Nath, and Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister
Digvijay Singh—with such men he kept in abeyance his sceptical attitude towards power
In an interview to Seminar, Agarwal described the bureaucracy as ‘pig-headed,
obstinate and stupid’. ‘I don’t expect the bureaucracy to do it’, he added, speaking of
natural resource management, adding: ‘The only way the bureaucracy will work together
is if there is a drive from the top. These strictures appear to me to be excessive as well as false: forestry reform in West Bengal was initiated by capable and farsighted officials
without directives from the ‘top’. There are good bureaucrats as well as bad ones.
Agarwal hoped to dispense with the class altogether, a wish that seems naive in light of
the needs of a complex modern society. (Perhaps, in a long distant past, a benevolent raja could actually ‘return the forests to the people’,) Our politicians need to be sensitized
and—in my view more crucially—our bureaucrats humanized. This, of course, will take
much persuasion and agitation. Still, a sustainable system of environmental management
cannot come about by turning one’s back on officials of the state, whether they be paid or elected.
There are environmental activists who were wounded by Agarwal’s capricious behaviour, and there are environmental scholars who were obliged to state their
disagreement with aspects of his work. Yet even when we stopped speaking with him, we
read him. This is a measure of his continuing importance, but I hope I have adequately
stressed the other measures too. It was a privilege to have known him, and a honour to
have been a fellow traveller on a rocky road—the Indian road to sustainability.