THE CENTER FOR Science and Environment (CSE) was established in 1980 by a group of engineers, scientists, journalists, and environmentalists to increase public awareness of science, technology, environment, and development in New Delhi, India. The center became functional with a small group of writers in 1981, and, in its first year, it was involved in producing an information service on science and society-related issues such as energy, environment, health, human settlements, and the impact of science and technology at the grassroots level.
Anil Agarwal, an environmental journalist, advocate, and analyst, was its original founder. His biggest achievement has been to spread the environmental message in India and abroad. Also notable was his invaluable role in arguing for equity in global environmental management in the process that led up to the Rio Earth Summit. He worked to put environment on the global political and civil society agenda from a Southern Hemisphere perspective. Most importantly, through his writings and advocacy, he played a vital role in providing the answers for an environmentally sound development strategy for countries such as India. Sunita Narain, CSE’s present director, has carried on with advocacy for the Global South, and has played an important role in climate change negotiations. The center has advocated for the Global South and developing countries. According to its briefing paper, "Equity is a prerequisite for any global agreement, particularly when dealing with the pollution of a global common property resource such as the atmosphere."
CSE helps the public to search for solutions that people and communities can implement, and/or push the government to create a framework for people and communities to act on their own. CSE is considered one of India’s leading environmental nongovernmental organizations specializing in sustainable natural resource management. Its strategy of knowledge-based activism has won it wide respect and admiration for its quality of campaigns, research, and publications worldwide. CSE promotes solutions for India’s numerous environmental threats, including ecological poverty and extensive land degradation, and rapidly-growing toxic degradation of uncontrolled industrialization and economic growth.
In late 1981, the center embarked upon a major exercise, the State of India’s Environment, the first citizen’s report on the environment. It was a unique document that was prepared in active collaboration with concerned academics, activists, and citizens’ groups across the country. The report had a critical impact on the unresolved worldwide debate on environment versus development. The cynics argued that northern India, already affluent, now also wanted clean air and water for their health, and nature parks for recreation. The report detailed how environmental destruction usually targets the poor, who survive on the resources provided by nature. Any development that destroys the environment exacerbates poverty and increases unemployment by destroying the survival base of the poor. This is particularly true of India, which has a large number of biomass-depen-dent people and a high population density; therefore, a developing country such as India has to take care of its environment even more than an industrialized country. The report generated much debate and was widely read and reviewed nationally and internationally. The United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi called it a model for all countries to follow.
The second citizens’ report was perhaps the first report that showed how environmental degradation has a disproportionate impact on women. Since then, this idea has been widely accepted. The State of India’s Environment also caught the attention of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who invited the center, in 1986, to address the nation’s Council of Ministers and the Parliament on the importance of sustainable development.
The third citizens’ report, the State of India’s Environment: Floods, Floodplains and Environmental Myths, was published in 1991. It broke new ground by arguing that the severe floods in the Gangetic Plain and the Brahmaputra River Valley (areas that are more flood-prone than any other region of the world) can be controlled by better management of the floodplains, not the rivers’ uplands, as conventional belief dictated.
The fourth citizen’s report, Dying Wisdom: The Rise, Fall and Potential of Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, was published in 1997, the completion of an eight-year exercise that documented India’s millennia-old traditions in water management and rainwater harvesting. This seminal publication on water management started a nationwide interest in community and household-based water harvesting initiatives. It argued that the management of water should be everybody’s business. Several Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, and even the central government launched major rainwater harvesting initiatives to combat drought and widespread land degradation.
Incorporating nationwide research efforts, the fifth citizens’ report, the State of India’s Environment, was published in 1998. The fifth report came in two parts. The first part was a comprehensive dossier on environmental issues, events, policies, and practices. The second provided statistical analyses on different aspects of India’s environment. CSE’s citizens’ reports have been the combined product of networking, constituency-building, and intellectual leadership. They have received national and international acclaim and have been translated into several Indian languages.
In early 1992, CSE organized the first South Asian nongovernmental organization summit to discuss the agenda of the forthcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development meeting at Rio de Janeiro, and to prepare common positions of South Asian nongovernmental organizations. The summit helped to promote a common understanding in the region on critical global environmental issues. Four staff members represented CSE at the Rio conference. The director, Anil Agarwal, was a member of the official Indian delegation. The team intervened in the forest convention debate and mobilized public opinion in favor of the view that the world’s forests are best managed by the local communities. The industrialized countries, on the other hand, had proposed a system in which economic interests in the developed nations and professional foresters could control the levers of forest management.
While Rio established environment firmly in the political agenda, implementation of the agreement has been hesitant and slow. CSE has identified its key function as an agency monitoring international developments, research, and analysis of issues, and initiating an informed public debate in India, in particular, and the developing world, in general. CSE’s researchers have tried to develop a policy framework for participatory and environmentally-sound development. Some of the significant concepts that have emerged from CSE’s past research programs are: the need for ecosystem-specific and culture-specific approaches to economic development; participatory, legal, and institutional mechanisms for rural development; the importance of traditional knowledge systems; and just and equitable governance for global environmental problems.