In memoriam

Anil Agarwal 1947-2002

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MY professional mentor, Prem Bhatia, whenever he saw me weighed down by the load of trivialities that daily journalism imposes, would 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 momentary irritation or a crippling setback, I have 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 last month at the unspeakably young age of 54 never gave up. A life-long crusader who worked tirelessly to make this world, the country and our own neighbourhood better places to live in, tried, tried and tried before rolling himself ‘up in a big ball’. Ironically enough, the cause of death was one which Anil was warring against to save the citizens of Delhi from being afflictedly – the cancer-inducing pollution which hangs at nose level in the capital’s air and atmosphere.

If Delhi today is less of a hellhole than before, pollutionwise, it is largely due to Anil Agarwal. He campaigned against vehicle pollution for close to two decades, trying to move the two great immovables – government and judiciary – succeeding at long last in inducing the needed shift from petrol and diesel to compressed natural gas for public transport. Realising 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 around.

For Anil, there was no fragmentary interest in environmental issues. To him it was not a crusade to save trees or tigers; neither was it to prevent big dams or promote renewable energy sources. Yes, these are issues to be fought for and necessary for a better environment, but Anil insisted, and rightly, that environment concerns people, their very survival. A major problem of 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 social, economic, religious and other barriers. His concerns were global and humanistic.

This 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 potable water to village homes so that men and women need not trudge miles of hot, barren soil to get a pot of water or, in winter, collect dry sticks to fire their non-descript hearths. If only our political leaders had the wisdom to heed what Anil had to say, 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 fuel for cooking and lighting their homes. It does not matter what they use but that it should be available in adequate quantities to make lives a little less arduous.

This simple idea does not attract the government simply 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 labour and environment. Water harvesting is a neighbourhood concern while building huge dams remains a governmental obsession. Nuclear, hydel and thermal power plants consume billions of rupees rendering it impossible for poor people to dispel nightly darkness.

Over the decades, Anil Agarwal inspired two generations of selfless workers and spurred voluntary movements. His Centre for Science and Environment and 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.

V.N. Narayanan