The bread I bought in the supermarket this morning caused a small farmer to become insolvent, giving up our life-sustaining agriculture into the hands of transnational business giants. When I washed my car this afternoon with water and a strong car detergent, I hurt the dolphins I love. Chances are my drive to the library this evening contributed to global warming. Bewildering, isn’t it? Welcome to the world of environmentalists.

Indian environmentalists in the U.S. work on a staggering diversity of issues: governance, animal rights, intellectual property, nuclear disarmament, genetic engineering, organic agriculture, environmental health, climate change, water conservation, energy efficiency, food safety, outreach to ethnic minorities, land reform, storm water management, transportation, and a whole slew of other environmental problems.

Despite their passion in such diverse concerns, however, there is one thing that ties all their concerns together—they work towards safe livelihood for everyone. Not just their family, not just their religion, not just their caste, not just their country. They are aware of the inter-connectedness of everything on earth: if the oceans are polluted, our health will suffer. If the African-American population in New York is struggling with a toxic waste incinerator in their neighborhood, that is our concern too. If we generate nuclear waste with no safe way of disposing it, it is our responsibility to hold corporations and the government accountable to keep our health in mind when they make decisions that affect us. In this world where a safe environment, safe water, nutritious food, and safe living environments are an option, these people are fighting to make a safe environment our right.

While this article is about environmental leaders, activists are leaders in their own right. A few notable ones are: Nandita Sharma (Basmati Action co-founder; works against biopiracy and patenting of indigenous knowledge); Swati Prakash (works in the Harlem promoting environmental justice); Suma Peesapati (attorney, Communities for a Better Environment; fights in court promoting environmental justice); Meena Palaniappan (senior research associate, the Pacific Institute, published the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Report); Seema Mehta (freelance journalist for the LA Times, writes thoughtful media stories on environmental concerns); Amit Srivastava (CorpWatch, works for climate change concerns).


The Economics of Hunger

ANURADHA MITTAL. co-director, Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Institute for Food and Development Policy is a leading progressive think tank and education-for-action center focusing on food as a human right. Their work aims to reshape our global food system to make it more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Anuradha Mittal also coordinated the national campaign, “Economic Human Rights: The Time has Come” to challenge increasing poverty, hunger, and economic insecurity inside the U.S. She is co-editor of the book “America Needs Human Rights” and her articles on trade, women in development, food security, economic human rights have appeared in major newspapers nationwide.

Mittal has spoken on inequities in the global food distribution system, and the current dominant system of agribusiness. A passionate advocate against hunger, she quotes a Federal Accounting Office survey, which reveals that approximately 30 million Americans are hungry; at least 12 million are children. An estimated 43 million have no health care and between 5 and 7 million are homeless. When the then President Clinton signed into law the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” better known as welfare reform, he consigned many of the nation’s neediest citizens to poverty.

She furthers her argument, “The U.S. has fallen short of commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights to food, clothing, shelter, education, health and employment are fundamental to survival. Poverty, sickness and illiteracy undermine human dignity as effectively as military dictatorships. The U.S. needs to ratify the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an international treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter but never ratified by the U.S. Senate. Until we legally endow all our people with the inalienable rights not just to liberty, but to freedom from want, the U.S. can claim no moral authority as a human-rights leader.”

Her goal is working toward change to realize the true potential of the U.S. She believes there are enough resources to provide food, clothing, adequate shelter, a good education, a secure job, and comprehensive health care for everyone. She fights against the “blind pursuance of the market (that) has created an economy that puts corporate profits before people’s lives, that places economic efficiency over opportunity and compassion for all.”

Advocate For Water Quality
DR. XAVIER SWAMIKANNU. chief, Stormwater Program, California Environmental Protection Agency, (CalEPA) Regional Water Quality Control Board LA


California Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Water Quality Control Board (CalEPA-RWQCB) Los Angeles, is the state agency with the responsibility for protecting water quality in Los Angeles and Ventura County—the most populous and urbanized region in California and the U.S. Chief Xavier Swamikannu leads a committed staff to address the most challenging sources of surface water pollution in California and the U.S. today. Governor Gray Davis appointed decision-makers, such as Wayne Baglin (Chair CalEPA-RWQCB San Diego), has said that Xavier’s initiative on controlling pollution from new developments has led to the most progressive action by the State of California in more than a decade in terms of water quality. His lead set a statewide precedent to be followed by all CalEPA water quality boards (they have nine).

Swamikannu believes in public service, irrespective of compensation. He would like to “make the community of Indian-Americans and my parents proud with my dedication to the cause of the environment. Too often the spotlight has been on money makers who become millionaires because of their participation in private industry—rarely recognized are those who serve the public interest, like leaders in NGOs and public agencies, for moderate compensation.”

With a degree in engineering and law, Swamikannu has worked for CalEPA-RWQCB Los Angeles for 13 years. Prior to this he researched in the environmental field for five years where he received the superior sustained accomplishment award twice from CalEPA—in 1994 and 2000.

Born in Penang, Malaysia, to Indian expatriates, Swamikannu was brought up among a community of Malaysian Chinese. “I want people of Indian ancestry to change the nations they live in first—such as the U.S. and Canada before they seek to change India. Environmentalism begins where one lives … before we seek to influence policies in the lands of our mothers and forefathers. One might think globally … but the challenge is to act locally to influence the communities we live in. An example is the Jewish community that immigrated to the U.S. in the last century and influences U.S. foreign policy towards Israel to such a great extent, despite being less than 2 percent of the population.”

“Support and contribute to the causes of the environmental leaders who live in your community. Change your lifestyle—recycle, minimize consumption, conserve water and energy, read environmental education. Lobby your elected officials to appoint leaders from your community to positions of influence in federal, state, and local government administrations. Do your communities proud.”

Demanding Democratization of Science
ARJUN MAKHIJANI. president, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER)


Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) does scientific studies onhealth and environmental issues related to nuclear weapons production, on ozone layer protection, energy policy, electricity systems. Arjun Makhijani is also the author of a book on the global economy “From Global Capitalism to Economic Justice,” and a theoretical work, “Ecology and Genetics,” about the risks of using genetically engineered seeds. He has been working for nuclear disarmament with the U.S. and Russia, and increasingly in South Asia.

Makhijani works toward both “process” goals and “substance” goals. In “process” goals, the aim of IEER is democratization of science. “If people do not grasp how scientific and technical establishments affect life on earth, the great issues of war and peace, of environmental protection or destruction, of poverty or prosperity, it is very difficult to hold elected representatives accountable, because even they must rely on scientific opinions for critical decisions. This is the process goal,” he states. As to “substance” goals, he works for a robust economy based on low environmental impact and least threats to climate, nuclear disarmament, and a diminution of the gross economic inequalities and injustices in the world.

In 1970 a UC Berkeley proffessor of nuclear engineering laid out the environmental problems of nuclear power to Makhijani’s class by stating that nuclear power was better than coal and that we needed 1,000 nuclear power plants over the next 30 years. Makhijani wondered why 1,000? Why not 500 or 1,500. This led to his first set of calculations of the energy efficiency potential of the U.S. economy.

He returned to work in India and realized that though he knew about the technical aspects of rural energy issues, he knew nothing about the real life problems of the poor. “It was a humbling realization that led me to learn about India in the villages. I realized that nuclear weapons states were harming their own people through pollution and radiation in the name of national security—and a great deal of the science used to assure people that there was no problem was poor quality.”

Makhijani dreams of “a culture in which people have a notion of ‘enough,’ in which compassion was set in the context of common values—kindness to neighbors, equality and democracy, and respect for all life on Earth.”

Working for Indian Environmental Professionals
CHANDRA KISHORE. founder, Network of Indian Environment Professionals (NIEP).


The son of a mining engineer in Chotanagpur area in Bihar, Chandra Kishore had firsthand access to the rich biodiversity of the area. He witnessed its slow erosion due to the large-scale mining in the region. After getting a master’s degree from Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, he worked for nine years mitigating and monitoring the large-scale environmental impact of the mega Sardar Sarovar Dam Project.

Network of Indian Environmental Professionals provides comprehensive career support to more than a thousand environment, nature, and natural resources professionals. The network seeks to build an ecosystem of relationships between the Indian environment professionals and organizations, institutions, professionals, and nature lovers. The organization provides institutions with freelance consultants, recruitment support and institutional membership for marketing their strengths to 150+ environmental organizations and educational institutions. Kishore works towards creating and sustaining a class of environment leaders, professionals and eco-preneurs who “can make our planet a dream place to live.”

Kishore is amazed by the fact that the poorest people of the world live in the richest environment domain. He calls into question the definition of rich and poor, and the measurement of wealth in monetary terms. It infuriates him that environmental professionals are disregarded in the world economy. For a medical doctor to save 1,000 lives a year the highest accolade can be monetary remuneration and acclaim from society. The highest accolade an environmentalist gets, who seeks to save all life on earth, is censure or death threats if they question corporations that wield tremendous clout. “Even the best education from the ‘best’ environment management school in Asia (read-IIFM) does not provide you the same status and prestige that an MBA receives from a B-grade management school. It’s the same case even here in U.S. Environment foundations seek decorated Ph.D.s for a salary not fit even for a fresh graduate,” he says.

He wants to change that. He wants to create a million man-hours of work during his lifetime for environment and nature professionals, nurturing their career. That is his life’s mission. “If I could have anything I wished for, I’d want a world in balance and environmentally secure, free of all destructions and disasters caused by unnatural human emotions.”

Environmentalism Makes Business Sense


RITU PRIMLANI. founder, president and executive director; Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education.

Thimmakka’s Resources works to provide easy-to-implement solutions to current environmental problems. In a space where ethnic minorities almost never receive effective communication about the benefits they receive from environmental protection, and a system that rewards environmental destruction, creating the image that environmentalism is for those who can afford it, Ritu Primlani has created a system of outreach that works for everyone, regardless of their language, nationality, or income level. She believes the U.S. can learn much from Indian culture that is traditionally environment-friendly, and at the same time Indians can learn from the U.S. why we need to care for the environment.

Primlani created Greening South Asian Restaurants (GSAR): a first model of comprehensive environmental outreach to ethnic businesses, which is currently being implemented in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has created unique partnerships with government agencies, cities, counties, private energy providers, non-profits, community leaders, artists, and media to get free services to South Asian restaurants, with the two primary motives of saving them money, and saving the environment (57 environmental measures). She wishes to see it grow nationally, then globally. Thimmakka’s Resources also conducts outreach to Sikh farmers working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) promoting environmentally sustainable agriculture to them, and promoting their produce in the Bay Area.

Born in Delhi, India, Primlani got a masters degree in Geography from UCLA, with the departments of urban planning and law. Her interest in the environment, curiously, started with Panchantantra; the Indian comic books of animal stories that her father gave her. She says her father then got them a fox from the jungles of Burma, who was dearly loved in their household. At the age of 9, she observed the incongruency of “what we are taught to do as children and realized, that we simply cannot afford to destroy the resource base we owe our survival to.”

“Learn about the current global and local environmental status, and work toward making sure our only relationship with the earth is not that of taking: of consumerism.”

Calling for Institutional Reform
ANGANA P. CHATTERJI. Professor Social and Cultural Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.


Since 1997 Angana Chatterji has been teaching in the Social and Cultural Anthropology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the areas of postcolonial equity and advocacy, social and ecological justice, indigenous knowledge, gender and applied research. Her work focuses primarily on India and South Asia where her perspectives have been defined by a lifetime of learning and living. Since 1990 she has conducted workshops and lectured in various universities and organizations in India and the U.S., as well as in Mexico, Sweden, and Russia.

Chatterji is on the board of directors of International Rivers Network, Earth Island Institute, and Community Forestry International, and the director of research with the Asia Forest Network. She also serves on the advisory board of Sustainable Alternatives to the Global Economy in San Francisco, advisory council of Vasundhara in Orissa, India and editorial board of TAMARA—a journal of critical postmodern organizational science, New Mexico State University. She has an M.A. in politics, and a Ph.D. in the humanities with a focus in development studies and social and cultural anthropology.

“In Calcutta, in my childhood, I would step over bodies lying on the pavements on my way to and from school, haunted by the sites of privileged contradiction that I occupied while too many around me were dispossessed, bereft of the most basic rights to food and shelter,” she says. “I work to honor those people whose commitments and endurances have shaped my life with courage, purpose and hope; in spaces where pain and resistance are intricately linked to life and incessantly complement the act of living.”

It is her hope that those working with social and environmental justice offer leadership in calling for citizens’ action and governmental resolve globally toward affirmative action and ethical foreign and trade policy. To that end, she calls for prioritizing land reforms, community governance in the global south, institutional reform of World Bank, IMF, debt cancellation, structural reform connected to the role and function of the nation-state, generate relevant frameworks for addressing gender, ethnic, class and caste inequities, North-South alliances, and nonviolence.