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A drive from within


"I wanted to search for and understand my India. It was a very internal drive which became a life-long passion," says noted environmentalist and director, Centre for Science and Environment, Anil Agarwal in an interview with T.K.V.DESIKACHAR.

The one thing that repeatedly fascinates T.K.V. Desikachar is the inherent concern and care for society - a message that is in every teaching, be it Christianity, Buddhism or Judaism. He believes that the time has come to address the conflict and despair in society today with the relevance of this message.

In this column, Desikachar will engage in a dialogue with people who have an influence over society and who have a vision deeper than material success.

T.K.V. DESIKACHAR: Often, what is seen outside is, in fact an expression of what is embedded within. Your deep-rooted concern for the environment, working as the director for the Centre for Environment and Science... Sir, how did all this happen?

ANIL AGARWAL: It was a time when India's economy was really very poor at the roots. And we were students of fancy engineering institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) which were being created. We were supposed to be well-educated and deal with India's problems. But, first of all, we did not really know what India was all about. IIT Kanpur, where I was studying, was situated in the middle of a rural area. Of course, we were in a very fancy campus and it looked like the University of Berkley. But if at all you had looked with your eyes outside the campus, then all the villages were dark at night, we had no idea what they were all about, no idea what their lives were like; we had no idea what kind of science and technology they needed. What was this science and technology that we were going to generate or disseminate that would solve India's problems? We didn't know what India itself was about.

I felt my education was not very good, not correct and I decided to explore what India was about before I could make up my mind about the nature of science and technology India needed. I wanted to see my country and I thought journalism was a good profession which would not only allow me to earn my bread but also to see the country, meet people, understand their problems... I joined the Hindustan Times and I came across a very fascinating project by women in the Himalayas, the Chipko movement... this was an eye-opener. I realised how important nature was for these poor people. I began to realise that, for the poor of India, it is the gross natural products that matter, not the gross national product. This created a burning desire within to help these people make better use of their environment... to research issues properly, understand these issues and then participate in the debate - create a debate in society.

You speak of a very subtle relationship between man and his environment. But in a system which is based on what we call in the Ramayana "Kshatriya power", that is the power of money, the power of wealth, etc. You must have some strength inside you to sustain this endeavour. I am sure you face resistance.

I just survive on love of the people. This is what most people tend to forget. You can have an enormous amount of money, you can have a lot of power and therefore people will do all kinds of things. But when people give me love and affection, it is not because I have any money or any power or anything else. They do it because they want to do it. It is very, very special. I have felt it most of all in periods of crises.

Can we speak of these experiences?

When I first had cancer, I didn't even know what the cancer was. I went to a very eminent scientist in this country and said "well, if I have to face death, I'll face it. But, I would like to know what is wrong". And the love and affection with which he helped me try and find out what the problem could be was unbelievable. He arranged for me to go to one of the best eye hospitals in the United States where they diagnosed it as an extremely rare case of cancer. Even there, the number of friends I had to help me, take care of me - I had no money, I had nothing. But all the help that I received was amazing. It had nothing to do with any power or privilege that I had. It was only the love and affection that I had even in moments of personal crisis.

But professionally, you must face opposition from the bureaucracy.

I am essentially a creature of India's democracy. As a young student, I met an eminent Swedish economist. As always, we were grumbling that this was bad and that was difficult. I remember he said to me, "It is very easy to grumble, but remember, you have the biggest strength in your country - it is a democracy. If you think there is something that you want to change, you have the power to change it. So don't grumble about others. If you feel something is wrong, then change it. Democracy allows you to do that. You have to convince others and slowly they will begin to appreciate what you have to say. They will support you. And then you will be able to bring in the change." And I have begun to experience the meaning of those words...

Does it give you the strength to move on?

I have my problems taking on politicians, industrialists; people have tried to threaten me. When I was campaigning against the growing use of diesel, a big company producing diesel cars for rich people - even though diesel is kept cheap so that poor people can use buses, farmers their irrigation pumps) - sent me a Rs. 100 crore legal notice. But there was nothing to be afraid of. The industrialist would have to appear in court and pay a lawyer lakhs of rupees every year, every time. I had as good a lawyer as they did and I would not have to pay even one rupee. And my lawyer would defend me with more interest and commitment than their lawyer would defend the company! And of course, when I went to the press, within 15 days, I got an apology letter from the company. If you are honest and if you have your own commitment, then you have hundreds and hundreds of friends to support you.

I hear your message, sir. But what is the secret of this strength? Is it faith in something? Your belief in God? Personally, I always consider that there is a force behind me.

I had excellent parents. My mother, uneducated by all modern standards, gave me the strength to be honest. I remember as a child I had stolen something or spoken a lie. She was so angry that I could not bear it. I have never again spoken a lie in my life. Secondly, she had said "if you want to do something, never to do it behind my back." So even in my work, I don't hide anything - whether something is bothering me, troubling me, or if I like something you are doing, I would be full of praise for it. And over time one realises, you have so many friends, so many who respect you, love you. It helps me handle adversity

There is no fear it seems... As you go closer to the reality and its acceptance...

I was 46 when I had cancer for the first time. But the good thing about that shock is that you realise your mortality. And after that, the fear of death disappears. I have to die some day or the other. Whether this one on that is going to kill me - it doesn't really matter. The second thing I realised is that all the great mercies of God come to you through the hands of our fellow human beings. The love, affection and concern with which people took care of me is why I am alive today. If there is so much love and affection for what you are doing, and respect for what you are doing, God will come. Because that is what God is all about. So there really is nothing to be afraid of. You can call it inner strength; there is no fear.

Also the other side of the picture, sir, is maybe because you are receiving so much affection and love, you want to cultivate something and this may be an incentive for you to go on.

Yes, yes. Absolutely. The more affection or respect you get, the more the desire to do something. Not to run away from it. And you also have a sense of mortality so I want to do something more as fast as possible. Whether it is environment or science, there is something inside that always drives me to do it. If that drive is not inside you, it will never express itself in any kind of activity. It is something internal which must make you feel that this is something that I want to do. There may be a series of reasons and forces because of which that drive may get created. But a drive is something that is internal. I wanted to search for and understand my India. It was a very internal drive. It became a life-long passion.

And what you discovered must have often disturbed you, yet you carried on..

I have always admired Gandhiji for three of his characteristics. Gandhiji, in my perspective, was a very ordinary human being. But that one insult he received in South Africa transformed him. The strength that he acquired personally, clearly made up his made at that time that he was going to get rid of the British Empire. It shows us that if you are not prepared to surrender, then nobody can take away anything from you except your life. He dedicated his whole life to it. And finally succeeded and started a whole process of de-colonisation and independence in the world.

His three characteristics that I consider incredible were 1) persistence. - it was not a one year job or a two year job - it was his life. 2) He didn't have the hot anger that we have - we boil over and then cool down, Gandhiji's anger was a cold anger. Nothing boiling over, it was just there. 3) The anger was very creative. It was not merely protest and destruction. Studying this has been a great learning for me. Because if anyone can put those three things together, the drive will be so enormous that it will burn anything in its path. But this, sir, has to come from an intensely internal source.

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