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A lasting legacy

In his lifetime, Anil Agarwal fought for and has left behind a solid legacy, the belief that a healthy environment is a basic human right. BITTU SAHGAL pays tribute to the noted environmentalist who died early this month.


Concern for the environ ... Anil Agarwal.

I WAS in the Tadoba Tiger Reserve when Anil Agarwal died on January 2, 2002. He exuded such vitality. Even though I knew he was gravely ill for years, when I heard about his death on my return to Mumbai I was shaken. I liked Anil. He was not a close personal friend in fact he often fought quite strongly with me over issues. But he was a breath of fresh air because he was brutally honest (sometimes borderline offensive!). If he liked you, he made that clear and if he did not, that even more clear!

An engineer, prolific writer and social activist with a difference, he was different things to different people. But his team at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an organisation he crafted painstakingly over the years, almost uniformly looked upon him as a visionary leader. That and the fact that he was one of the world's foremost environmental thinkers, should, to my mind, be his lasting legacy.

I knew Anil for two decades and over. I recall the time he came to see me at my home to talk about ambitious plans for the first State of India's Environment Report a year before it was published. He asked me then to contribute to the document on the issue of wildlife and I readily agreed. But I really did not know what to make of this man with his high-pitched voice and surprising thought processes. Nevertheless I was mesmerised by his passion, his grasp of issues and his willingness to listen, even to opinions he clearly found surprising.

What struck me most about him, of course was his attention to detail and his almost quirky perfectionism. He was not satisfied with generalised statements, which in fact irritated him. I recall suggesting to him that wildlife protection leads to water security and he responded with demands for proof, research reports, long term studies and the like, stating words to the effect that: It's not that I disagree, it's just that without a reliable reference even what might be true becomes unreliable.

This I expect is as good a point as any to state that Anil Agarwal and I differed seriously on two issues: He thought wildlife protection was an elitist concern and his insistence, to the day he died, that deforestation in the Himalayas had at best a minimal impact on floods. To a large extent these two differences had created barriers between us, but whenever he got the opportunity he would write gentle, almost affectionate notes as if to suggest: I may not agree with you, but you are not such a bad sort!

Nevertheless, he made no bones about the fact that in his reckoning there were greater national priorities than wildlife protection, which he felt had been made into a cause celebre by a powerful coterie of English speaking people who were largely out of touch with reality.

Sitting in his office in Delhi almost a decade ago, I remember testily pointing out once that elitist wildlifers might be a dime a dozen, but he would be hard pressed to find one elitist tiger! My point being that the animals should therefore get his support, even if those who championed their survival did not. He responded by smiling tolerantly, suggesting by his demeanour if not his words that I was unlikely to understand him (because I belonged to the band he so readily wrote off!).

On another occasion, I had invited him to be a part of a small group of people to make an environmental presentation to the then Chief of Army Staff, General S. F. Rodrigues. I was worried about the protocol of telling the country's most senior army man a civilian's version of the truth, but was completely taken aback by the gentle, respectful manner in which he went about explaining the most complex issues. Sitting there and listening to him was an education and it seems grossly unfair that he should be snatched from India at the young age of 54.

There are many unfinished battles he was fighting including one for clean air and water and it is to his credit that he left behind a legacy, not only in the shape of CSE, but also a legion of young environmental fighters, who have chosen to pursue the cause with ever more vigour.

It is ironic and sad that he succumbed to cancer, a disease caused by the very chemicals he fought all his life to protect others from. But I would like to believe that he laid for us a solid foundation, a rational foundation that will serve us well as we continue to work towards the proposition put forward by him that a healthy environment is a basic human right.

The writer is the Editor, Sanctuary Magazine.

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