Journalist and environmental campaigner Credit: CENTRE FOR SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

There can't be many science journalists who, having described the government of their country as a “persistent pest” in need of a “truly deadly pesticide”, have been praised at their death by both the president and prime minister of that country as a national hero.

But Anil Agarwal, whose death on 2 January at the age of 54 ended a long fight against cancer, was no ordinary science journalist. A passionate and articulate campaigner for environmental justice, embracing issues ranging from water quality in rural India to the need for global controls on carbon emissions to limit climate change, Agarwal won respect from friends and enemies alike.

As the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, a non-governmental organization that he created in 1980 on his return to India after working in Europe, Agarwal spearheaded the creation of a new form of activism. It was based on a commitment to sound scientific knowledge, combined with the idea that worries about the natural environment, and its destruction by the by-products of modern technologies, is not just a luxury of the industrialized world, but a major concern to the poor of developing countries too.

This idea is commonplace today, and forms the cornerstone of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which takes place in Johannesburg later this year. But it was far from accepted 20 years ago, when concern for the environment was seen as incompatible with economic development. Similarly, as the founding editor of Down to Earth, a popular-science magazine that he created in 1992 to promote the critical analysis of such issues, Agarwal pioneered a new form of science journalism. It is based on a commitment to expose the failures of government policy to protect the health of individuals, and to campaign, for example, for cleaner technologies, such as the use of compressed natural gas for public transport in Delhi.

An intense man, who reminded many of one of his heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, Agarwal trained as an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, graduating in 1970. After a short spell in the commercial world, an interest in environmental issues led him to Europe for the United Nations Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972. Articles written about the meeting and related issues, including a series of interviews with prominent European scientists, led to a number of journalistic appointments in India, and subsequently to a feature-writing position with the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. His journalistic career developed steadily, and he regularly contributed to publications such as Nature and New Scientist.

But his interest in the relationship between poverty and environmental protection also intensified. Given Agarwal's commitment, it was little surprise when he returned to India to try to make his mark on this issue in his home country. There followed more than 20 years of active journalism and vigorous campaigning that led to changes in many areas of government policy. These ranged from legislation on air pollution to India's position in international negotiations on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Much of Agarwal's work involved supporting grass-roots efforts to protect local communities against unscrupulous developers. For example, he championed the cause of the Chipko 'tree huggers' — women in a small Himalayan village who put their arms around trees to try to stop foresters cutting them down. Other efforts were more globally oriented. Agarwal was among the first to argue that concepts of social equity need to be integrated into international policies aimed at mitigating the harmful effects of human-induced climate change. Initially his was a relatively lone voice, but his arguments have had increasing influence on government policies in many developing countries. And his campaigning was not solely critical. For example, he argued vigorously for the widespread adoption of strategies for 'water-harvesting', a technique developed centuries earlier in parts of India, but neglected in many modern water-engineering projects.

Agarwal was awarded many prizes for his work combining care for the natural environment and social development. In 1979, for example, he was the first winner of the A. H. Boerma Award given by the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. And in 1987 he was elected to the Global 500 Honour Roll by the United Nations Environment Programme. He also pursued environmental causes at the international, as well as the national, level. Between 1984 and 1987 he was chair of the board of directors of the Environment Liaison Centre in Nairobi, and from 1988 to 1990 he was on the council of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC.

In the early 1990s, Agarwal was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that affected his sight and his brain. He wrote openly about his illness, castigating the lack of reliable statistics on cancer incidence in India, and raising questions about the extent to which his disease might have been caused by exposure to man-made chemicals in the environment.

India's president, K. R. Narayanan, described Agarwal's life and deeds as “a shining example of dedication to making mankind's onward advancement consistent with ecological protection”. Agarwal's colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment and elsewhere are carrying on with this task. But as they admit, his absence will make it more difficult.