CSE was set up in 1980 in New Delhi as an institution that would work on topical issues of sustainable development, looking at the linkages between science, technology, and environment. The objective was to create public consciousness on the need for sustainable development, and influence public policies.
CSE believes that the educated class and not the poor and illiterate need schooling on the concept and practice of sustainable development. Why? The poor, particularly the rural poor of India depended on their immediate environment for their very survival. The example of the Chipko movement showed that the poor were prepared to protect their natural resource base even at the cost of their lives. Whereas, the average literate and educated person had no idea of how urban consumption patterns impact the natural resource base of the country. Therefore, CSE’s early efforts were focussed on educating the urban literate population about the linkages between development and environment through publications.
1982 to 1985: Environment is fundamental for good development
Protecting the environment is not a luxury meant only for rich countries like America, but rather a necessity for poor countries like India.
Rural women are most affected by environmental destruction in India and therefore, women are most willing to participate in environmental regeneration efforts.
CSE’s studies in the early eighties showed that environment and development were not opposing ideas. CSE produced the citizens’ reports on the State of India’s Environment (SOE) that highlighted the importance of the environment to a poor country because of the extreme dependence that the country’s poor have on their local natural resources.
1985 -1990: The Gross Nature Product
Poverty, for a majority of the rural poor of the world, is defined by the shortage of biomass resources to meet basic needs like food, fuel, fodder, manure etc; in other words, the Gross Nature Product
CSE argued that the problem of rural poverty in large parts of the developing world is not one of economic poverty but of ecological poverty -- the poverty of natural resources needed to build up the rural economy.
CSE examined a number of grassroots experiences in villages, from Pondicherry to Ladakh, Gujarat to Nagaland and learnt that the rural poor depend on the biomass for their survival. Whether it is food, fuel (cowdung, timber or crop residues), building materials (timber, thatch), medicinal herbs, or fertilisers like leaf litter, the environment provides the poor with all their survival needs. When the environment degrades, and the Gross Nature Product shrinks, economic and social poverty rears its head. In other words, if a country focuses only on its Gross National Product and in the process destroys its Gross Nature Product, it will only lead to more poverty, loss of livelihoods and greater unemployment.
1996: Dying Wisdom: Water is the starting point for rural regeneration
CSE’s study of community initiatives in India showed that the beginning for the eradication of rural poverty has to be made from water. Water brings land to life and yields biomass in the form of food, fuel, manure, timber and milk. The rural economy consisting of agriculture, animal production, trees and forests, is built entirely around the availability of water. Therefore, bringing water to villages is infusing a new economic life into the poverty-stricken rural areas and moving towards poverty eradication.
CSE published Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, which argued that water management in India was built on harvesting of rainwater, which makes eminent sense in a monsoon-type climate, and community participation, and that Indians can learn from their traditions to develop new approaches for sustainable water management. The book provided a comprehensive overview of India’s traditions in community-based water harvesting, their decline and reasons for relevance in the modern context.
CSE followed this up with a study on modern day examples of community efforts in rural regeneration based on water harvesting in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Haryana.
These initiatives, begun in the late 1970s and mid 1980s had, by the 1990s, wrought an economic transformation. In Ralegan Siddhi over a quarter of the village population today earn over US$10,000 per year. In Alwar district, the Gross Village Product rose from a low of US$1,785 to a high of $2,565. Learning from these examples, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has replicated the model of participatory watershed management in the state resulting in economic prosperity in these areas.
CSE pondered: Can the paradigm of public participation which works in the rural sector be replicated on a large-scale? Therefore, it produced another book, Making Water Everybody’s Business, whose central message was that everyone, from villagers to government officials, from NGOs to politicians, must get involved in catching and conserving rainwater. It is a social process that not only takes care of your water needs and your economy but goes beyond that to improve the very social fabric of society. It is a binding and cohesive force that brings people together to act in their interest.
2000: Leapfrogging on Urban environmental problems
Urban development in the developing world is a total copy of the Western technological paradigm. But the Western technological model is an inherently toxic model because of its extraordinary material and energy-intensity.
By 1995, the city of New Delhi had become notorious as one of the most polluted cities in the world. CSE discovered that the globalisation process resulted in the rapid spread of Western pattern of development, a highly toxic pattern that is energy-intensive, capital-intensive, resource intensive and also extremely polluting. Anil Agarwal said, “Pollution amounts to slow murder. Regular exposure to industrial and vehicular pollutants leads to life-threatening diseases. Therefore, no one has the right to pollute, rich or poor”. CSE argued that the country needs to develop innovative technologies to leapfrog to advanced non-polluting systems.
CSE’s Clean Air campaign has grown considerably from its initial days of creating awareness about the impacts of vehicular air pollution. The campaign slowly resulted in measures to improve fuel, emission norms to result in improved air quality. New Delhi is the only city in the world to operate a large transport fleet of over 10,000 buses on the clean and unadulterable fuel of Compressed Natural Gas. The campaign pushes the city to improve facilities for walkers and cyclists in the city, restrain car use and promote use of buses.
CSE’s research showed that more than 70% of pollution of rivers is because of untreated sewage. Almost all small rivers are badly polluted in India today. Water-borne sewerage is a waste disposal paradigm that works neither for the poor nor for poor nations and settlements. This paradigm is extremely expensive because it has high economic costs, environmental and public health costs and, as a result, high political costs. CSE argues that the country must invest in research and development for low-cost decentralised sewage treatment systems and in non-sewage alternatives.
1992 to date: Global Environmental governance: Justice and equity to be the cornerstone
CSE strongly argues for the management of global environmental resources to be based on the concept of equal environmental rights for all human beings. It believes that the different mechanisms being developed to deal with global environmental problems, including conventions, aid, trade and debt, are not international instruments because they can never be used by poor countries. Just before the 1992 Environment Summit, CSE published the book, Towards a Green World, which argued that while global environmental governance was essential to avoid global disasters, its principles should be based on democracy, justice and equality among all world citizens -- the key principles of good governance. The book helped to influence the negotiations at the Rio Conference on environment.
CSE argues strongly for equity to be the basis for negotiations on climate change. The challenge of addressing the impacts of climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. As economic growth is strongly related to carbon emissions, CSE argues that there must be provisions in the agreements to provide the developing nations (that have not contributed to the global warming) their rightful space for future economic growth.