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Want to be an environmentalist?

If you are good at science, have an inclination for research, a habit of questioning and analysing everything endlessly, this is the perfect career option for you.

education Updated: Jun 20, 2012 17:40 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

She tweets: “Just established an Earth University between Puri and Konarak,” to protest against the takeover by some parties “of 10000 acres of fertile land and river and some of the most pristine and beautiful beaches”. And then again: “The spirit of Seattle was alive in Copenhagen when I addressed the gathering of nearly 100000 before the march. The people will make change.”

Definitely not an average Twitterer like you or me, grumbling about the fog and the 80-day motorists’ exile from Connaught Place, physicist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva is an advocate of traditional farming practices. She grew up in and fell in love with forests as her father was a conservation officer, and shot into the limelight during the ’70s Chipko Movement, when women from Indian villages surrounded trees and prevented their felling. Her battles for revoking of the patents on Basmati, neem and the wheat variety Nap Hal are legendary.

“What is essential for an environmentalist to have is love of nature,” says Shiva. “You should have the ability to deal with every aspect of the environment. Adopt an interdisciplinary approach, a holistic approach. A geologist or a botanist will work within his or her narrow field. Doing it holistically helps,” she adds.

Shiva founded Navdanya, which promotes seed saving and organic farming. She also runs Bija Vidyapeeth (the Seed University) at the Navdanya farm near Dehradun, where courses educate and initiate dialogue on holistic living. The intellectual combines very well with the activist. Shiva did her Master’s in the philosophy of science at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada), and then a PhD at the University of Western Ontario.

“Narrowing one’s field is something I call ‘reductionist’ knowledge,” she says. “All of it gets fragmented and you remain busy with your little numbers and games. Understand each discipline related to the environment and then work to protect it,” she says.

Is a science background a must? “Not necessarily. Passion for environment protection will take you where it matters,” she says.

Jagdeep Gupta, general manager, programme management at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), agrees. “It is only the mindset that can make a difference. The environmentalist is within you, not in your degree alone,” she adds.

The CSE, a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi, researches into, lobbies for and communicates the urgency of sustainable and equitable development. Graduates in environmental law and scientists with doctoral degrees in organic/inorganic/environmental chemistry are hired by the CSE.

Shiva and Gupta agree that NGOs might not pay much, with salaries starting from Rs 10,000. “But environment-friendly initiatives can be practised in all kinds of ways,” says Shiva, adding, “you can be as innovative, as creative as possible. Join the government and work on policies. Become a solar energy entrepreneur or a consultant. Do what your heart tells you to.”

His heart is what Anil Sethi, CEO and co-founder of the Zurich-based FLISOM (which makes flexible and lightweight solar modules), listened to. A CA and MBA, Sethi left his plum job with IBM to become a green entrepreneur. The change of track happened after a meeting with scientists in thin-film solar cell technology. He then set up this venture with scientist AN Tiwari, the world record holder in a technology that creates cells of 14 per cent efficiency on thin film solar cells.

Says Sethi, “It was in 2004 and I was evaluating this technology to understand the viability of commercialisation, when the tsunami hit South-East Asia. Many died later due to non-availability of clean water and medication. Mobile power could have then facilitated communication and powered water purification systems and saved lives!

“By producing and commercialising the solar cells, I may be able to contribute to emergency responses in the event of such a calamity. Also, energy from the sun is renewable and clean and help drive growth and development without harmful emissions.”

Seeds, solar cell technology — everything works for the environment. Love for the earth should spur you on.

What's it about?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines an environmentalist as ‘One who is concerned with protection of the environment; one who considers that environment has primary influence on person’s or group’s development.’ Today, being an environmentalist is much more than giving a two-hour lecture on the Amazonian rainforests or railing against the sale and manufacture of carbon-emitting ‘clunkers’. A ‘friend of the earth’ can be a scientist studying retreating glaciers or rising sea levels, or a lawyer taking on polluting industrial units, or an activist campaigning against ‘biopiracy’ — the move by an industrial organisation to patent indigenous crop/plant varieties — or fighting to change certain anti-environment policies

Clock work
When it comes to international activism, Dr Vandana Shiva’s time-table at Copenhagen could have looked like this:
6 am: Wake up
9.30 am: Breakfast
10.30 am: Morning workshop on organic farming, discuss the book Soil not Oil, inform people about good farming techniques
1.30 pm: Rush to a conference with indigenous people. Talk and interact with them. Discuss various indigenous practices
3 pm: Rush to the Bella Centre for a meeting with government officials to discuss global warming, climate change, etc

When in grassroots action:
6 am: Wake up
9.30 am: Breakfast
10.30 am: Go for a tour of villages, talk to the local people about seed saving
1.30 pm: Lunch
2:30 pm: Organising meetings etc, related to the BT brinjal (genetically engineered crop) issue

When in Delhi
6 am: Wake up
9.30 am: Breakfast
9.30 am: Talk to students about climate change
1.30 pm: Lunch
2.30 pm: Meeting with World Bank officials to discuss energy policies
4 pm: Interview with a journalist

The payoff
Salaries depend on the organisations you work for. Starting salaries at NGOs could be about Rs 10,000 per month. Salaries for middle and senior level people or researchers could start from Rs 50,000-Rs 1 lakh per annum. An eco-entrepreneur or consultant could earn good money, provided their ventures are successful

Skills
.
Good in science, inclination for research, habit of questioning and analysing everything endlessly
. Great communication skills. You might be required to deal with people at the grassroots level to learn from or teach them effective farming/ agriculture technology. You might also have to interact with prominent national or global personalities if you are advocating policy changes, etc
. Good analytical skills
. Ability to handle adversities and move on. Land, water, forests and agriculture are crucial for the environment. Big industries have big stakes in these segments. Taking them on, advocating policy changes, fighting endless court battles, taking out rallies and sitting in dharnas requires patience and perseverance and large dollops of courage.
Sometimes you might lose the battle, but to win the war you have no option but to soldier on. It can get frustrating but you should have the patience and diplomatic skills to handle it all

How do i get there?
Take biology, physics, chemistry and maths at the Plus Two level. A BSc or MSc degree in environmental science will definitely help. Further research and an MBA can add value to your work. Many NGOs offer training capsules. You can also join them as a volunteer to gain experience

Institutes & urls
.
Delhi University (BSc in environmental science)
www.du.ac.in
. School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (MSc
in environmental science)
www.jnu.ac.in
. Ambedkar University, Delhi (MA environment and development)
www.aud.ac.in
. SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai (environmental and development-
postgraduation)
http://sndt.digitaluniversity.ac

Pros & cons
.
That you are doing the best thing you can for the earth and her people can be a great feeling
. Activism is not easy. You have to devote a good part of your life to it at the cost of time for yourself and your family

Environmental bent of mind a must

A top official of a green watchdog body says what it takes for a career

Please tell us something about the profiles of the people you recruit at the CSE?
CSE’s core area of work is policy research and advocacy of environmental issues. So far as research goes, we have broadly two segments — the environmental reportage section, which brings out the fortnightly magazine Down to Earth and its supplement for children, Gobar Times; and the hardcore scientific research at secondary and tertiary levels, which deals with subject-specific area such as water, air, land, industry, poverty, climate change, etc.

Therefore, profiles of people would vary from reporters, with or without scientific background, to copy editors with good rewriting skills in English.

The hardcore scientific research studies would call for people with Master’s in environmental science/ environmental engineering. Master’s degree-holders in architecture, planning and social work are also sought-after candidates. Master’s in economics is preferred as well since we have lot of data crunching and statistical analysis. Even environmental law graduates find a good place in CSE. We also recruit scientists with doctoral degrees in organic/inorganic/environmental chemistry to work in our laboratories. CSE designs its products internally, hence we recruit art and graphic designers and photographers. We have had medico doctors for our health programme and chartered accountants working for our support programmes. But then, all must have an ‘environmental’ bent of mind.

Is it mandatory to have a science background?
It depends on the work area. Frankly speaking, when CSE started, these courses were non-existent and our research then and now has been the same. Our research stalwarts come out of a mixed bag: They even have English, history, home science as their background.

What kind of a mindset should an ‘environmentalist’ have? Do you look at that, too, while recruiting or do only qualifications count?
It is only the mindset that can make a difference to the environment. The environmentalist is within you, not in your degree alone.

What kind of people look to work with you? Are young people interested in working for the environment?
In fact, it is the younger generation that is extremely sensitised on this issue, thanks to the government introducing environment as a compulsory subject. We have no dearth of interested and educated candidates. We have a full-fledged volunteers and internship programme to cater to the applications we receive from all over the world. CSE engages almost 20-25 foreign volunteers and interns, apart from almost 300-400 volunteers from within the country per year.

What kind of salaries should one expect while at the CSE?
Starting salaries are kept low to recruit people with an interest in issues, not money. CSE tries to maintain salaries as per industry standards, in the research sector at least. However, we definitely cannot match the perks and other attractions of the corporate world. Monthly salaries could range from Rs 10,000 to around Rs 1 lakh.

Jagdeep Gupta, general manager, programme management, Centre for Science and Environment Interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee