Spotlight Series: Q&A with Taruna Seth, Founder of Encompass Experiences

We caught up with Taruna about her expert insights into the future of travel and how she views sustainability in the slow travel industry.

Travel might just be part of Taruna’s DNA. Having spent the most formative years of her life studying, traveling and working abroad. Taruna has had a passion for travel ever since she can remember. She has lived in 3 continents and her travels have taken her across the world. Her passion to explore the world, along with her education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Manchester in International Relations has led her to a 15-year career in marketing, public relations, alternative education, developmental work and a stint in television media. 

At her latest venture Encompass Experiences, she swifts through the melange making connections to conceptualise immersive experiences for their circle of explorers. Taruna’s life experiences and work have allowed her to define her skills and relationships in radically different ways. She thinks working within diverse setups allows us to celebrate our common drivers: curiosity, the need to give back, and an unabashed passion to learn something new. 

Taruna was bestowed with the award of ‘Exceptional Women of Excellence creating a better world for all’ by the Women’s Economic Forum in 2017 and the ‘Women Super Achiever Award’ at 7th Edition of World Women Leadership Congress in 2020.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I was born and raised in New Delhi. After completing high school I went to University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA for my higher studies in Political Science and Organizational Studies. After graduation, I travelled around Europe and after returning home, I joined an international PR firm. After getting some work experience, I attended University of Manchester to attain a MA in International Relations. 

Since then I’ve had a short stint in Germany in a corporate set up but soon realised it was not for me. After returning back to New Delhi, I joined Youthreach, an NGO that works as a bridge between grassroots organizations, corporates and international organizations to facilitate funding and projects in the development sector. Post that I joined NDTV a leading television media company as a journalist and anchor. Since travelling and experiencing new cultures was something I was always passionate about, I started Pearl Luxe, an experiential travel consultancy which has now evolved into Encompass Experiences.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

I visited Soneva Fushi, an island resort in the Maldives back in 2012 and I was really impressed with their sustainable practices, whether it was growing their own organic vegetables, recycling all their waste on the island, giving back to the local communities or encouraging biodiversity on the island – I was deeply influenced by all their practices. It formed a blueprint for sustainability for me as far as the tourism and hospitality industry was concerned and what we as a travel company can encourage our clients to experience over other mainstream tourism offerings in the market.

It’s still a niche in our business but we take pride in creating awareness about conscious and sustainable tourism and how travellers can demand experience providers to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious if they indeed want their business.

It’s still a long road ahead but we are at a solid start. 

Can you tell me about your career so far and work for Encompass? What inspired you to take on and promote sustainable travel?

I’ve been into the luxury experiential travel space for over a decade now. Sustainable travel is the only way forward for us on this planet. Educating our audience and raising awareness about sustainable travel is our way to make an impact in a space where we feel we can make a difference. I believe in the positive influence travel can have. Not just for individuals and their experiences but for the destinations that receive them and the world as a whole. Travel has always helped fund local economies and in recent years, in particular, become increasingly adept at preserving the culture and supporting conservation of lands and protection of ecosystems.

Travel creates empathy and understanding, can inspire and educate. It creates the human to human and human to nature connection that the world needs right now.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

2020 has been a great learning experience and the whole sustainability movement has become more mainstream than ever before. This year has taught us to slow down and be in the moment. Even when it comes to travel the trend of immersive travel experiences has gained momentum and is here to stay. People will travel to fewer places and stay longer at each destination, really engaging with the locals and experiencing a destination in depth. The coming years will see a growth in travellers establishing repeat connections to people and places that have captivated them before, ditching “bucket list” tourism in favour of putting down roots and creating a home away from home. “Slow travel” is here to stay. Travellers now realise it’s the best way to discover a destination’s nuances and, over time, to feel like a local. 

Being South Asian, did you face any pressure from family, friends or society at large to choose the career path you did? Would you have done anything differently if given the opportunity again? 

Not really… I was always encouraged by my family and friends. (I guess my experience would be different from how South Asians migrated to Europe, for eg.)

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

We have our own organic kitchen garden at home and we create compost from vegetable waste that is used as manure for our organic garden. Now I buy much less fast fashion and invest in fewer classic outfits that are evergreen. I’m also trying to buy almost no plastic toys for my daughter.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis among South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

Vibs, I think this will be different for Indians and South Asians in the UK or the developed world… Because each country is at a point on the trajectory of awareness and taking action. In India traditionally, we have been a country with sustainable practices, but lately due to the recent economic boom, liberalisation and development – pre-covid –we have become consumption oriented. 

We have major issues we need to tackle – managing pollution levels is the top of the list right now. There is part of the population that understands the climate crisis but there is a lack of a solid game plan to tackle it. Having said that, India’s contribution to carbon emissions is still lower in comparison to some developed economies. 

We need to tackle these issues sooner than later. 

I guess there is a lack of political will at the moment due to other more pressing issues that take precedence over the climate crisis here in India. 

Being carbon conscious on a practical day-to-day basis but also for travel and life experiences can be quite costly (e.g. vegan/organic food supplies, electric powered transport, resorts/culinary experiences more expensive overall). How can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

It is easier than I thought – especially here in India. Since it has been a way of life for most south Asians for centuries. It’s just about going back to the basics and trying to adopt practices that our forefathers used. In 2020 many people here, in urban centres have started growing organic vegetables in flower pots, for instance. But each country is at a different developmental trajectory. Consumption and economics go hand in hand. A vast Indian middle class just saw an economic boom in the last two decades so mass consumption has been on an upsurge – which as we know is not always sustainable. 

Why should everyone start to consider more sustainable travel? What is there to gain? Are you seeing any growing trends in the travel industry? 

In an ideal world, yes. In the high end travel space it is slowly becoming a reality with raising awareness but in the low end / mass tourism sustainable travel is definitely not a priority, yet.

With transport and particularly air travel being a huge contributor of carbon emissions on a global scale, do you believe tourism and travel truly can be sustainable or even net-zero? 

One could argue that tourism cannot be sustainable, that sustainability is impossible. Negative effects on the environment are inherent to the industry, such as the emission of greenhouse gases and waste generation, that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.

Slow travel might be the answer.

It should never be about ticking off the boxes, but staying at one place for longer and immersing. Take fewer flights. It’s a long road ahead. We hope there will be a day when we can power airplanes with zero emissions. Battery operated cars are already becoming reality… So we are treading along on the right path. 

Broadly speaking, however, the tourism sector’s commitment to sustainable development is rather weak. It’s understandable when considering tourism, which is, like most other industries, growth-oriented and profit-driven with a relatively short-sighted approach to planning and development. The primary focus is generating a return on investment to increase shareholder value as quickly as possible which is similar to many politicians, to appease constituents to foster the probability of re-election.

You mentioned ‘sustainability’ being a buzz-word used by all businesses now, both in a good and bad way. Good as it shows there is some level of engagement, progress and education even if small, but bad because some companies brand themselves as sustainable without knowing what it even means. How are you ensuring Encompass truly is sustainable and spreading awareness of climate change effectively?

The term sustainable tourism means different things to different people in the industry. But like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than organization-wide commitments, strategies, and actions.

We at Encompass promote sustainable travel experiences as part of our portfolio and do our bit to raise awareness. We can’t claim to be 100% sustainable, but we take conscious steps in this direction on a daily basis. We do this by being transparent in our communication and educating our audience about the best practices in sustainable travel and promote conscious tourism. 

If we feel one of our partners are in gross violation of sustainability protocols we red flag them. However, in the high end travel space most hotels and experience providers are already on the conscious tourism bandwagon – so it’s a good place to be in. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Keep educating yourselves. Demand sustainable practices from experience providers. We are nothing but the sum total of our experiences so invest in them. Seek out destinations and hotels that leave minimum carbon footprint. It’s a long road ahead and every little action will have a long standing impact.

Email: taruna@goencompass.in

Instagram: www.instagram.com/taruna_seth

Website: www.goencompass.in

Encompass offers unique, authentic and sustainable experiences for the mind, body and spirit.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with PhD Climate Change Researcher, Zarina Ahmad

We spoke to Zarina about her climate-equality based community projects, creating pathways for diverse groups in Scotland to have an active voice in sustainable solutions

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I was born and brought up in Newcastle and moved to Scotland when I was 16. ​Both my parents were born in India and after the partition were displaced to Pakistan. I hold a BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow and worked briefly with the Education Department. However, for the last 10 years or more I have been working with diverse communities to help tackle climate change.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?  

As a child I was always one with nature, a child that spoke to plants. I believed that trees had souls (still do), never ate meat however, growing up I wasn’t aware that my passion for the environment would lead to a career in this field.

Approximately 15 years ago I was at crossroads in my life and knew that I wanted a career change, one that would allow me to follow one of my passions; either care for the environment or Psychology and human behaviour. I had to weigh up my options in terms of retraining, looking at costs involved and the time it would take to get into a job. After some consideration, taking into account all the factors, the environment sector won and that’s how I ended up following a career in this sector.

Can you tell me about your recent role at CEMVO? What sparked the choice in career change? 

There was an incident at a Hustings where a candidate from a political party made a racist remark to me, the comment he made was “your kind don’t grow do they?”. This remark made me reflect on how white the environmental sector was.

At this time, I thought naively we lived in a society which was zero tolerant towards racism, we had moved away from a racist society and we were accepted and integrated into the wider society. Hence led me to working with a race equality organisation addressing both environmental justice and race justice.

My role developed into 4 main areas:
a) I support BME community groups to develop climate change projects, help access the climate challenge fund and ensure projects are implemented and delivered well.
b) I sit on a number of stakeholder and working groups which help influence policy change and decision making.
c) I help to diversify the environmental sector and environmental NGOs through collaborative work and representation.
d) I set up and run the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network across Scotland which provides peer to peer support, upskilling and training and opportunities for collaboration to individuals and organisations who are interested in environmental work.

Zarina speaking at community event. She's wearing a beige long cardigan and standing holding a mic.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/ unfamiliar path, particularly midway through your career? Has it been challenging?  

The biggest backlash I’ve received, and this goes back to my childhood, was my choice of following a vegetarian/vegan diet which didn’t sit right within a Muslim family. Regarding a career path I think the biggest issue was that it was not a recognised or valued career. It took my mum years before she was able to explain to her friends what I actually did. Even some of my friends still struggle to conceptualise my job as it doesn’t fit in with a traditional or known career path. 

Also being an environmentalist in the third sector isn’t a well-paid job, at least it’s clear that I do this job for passion and not money. Some people find this difficult to understand, as growing up we are taught that success is measured on a monetary level. 

I think taking a step out of this competitiveness has its challenges as I can’t afford the same lifestyle as others but at the same time, I’m aware that I don’t want that lifestyle as it has environmental consequences. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

My biggest success and learnings are both linked as I have been fortunate to have been in a position to create space for many people across the country from various diverse backgrounds (age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sex, education and socioeconomic backgrounds) to have meaningful and relevant (to them) conversations on climate change. 

From these conversations I have learned so much about the global impacts of climate change, traditional, religious and cultural sustainable practices, which have been passed down many generations. I’ve also learned about community resilience and adaptation to climate impacts and how there is still a lot to be learned from grassroot movements.

Never underestimate someone’s knowledge and ability to influence change. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable? 

There are a few things that I try to do. I only buy items that I need, I’m not a fan of shopping, and I try to mend and repair as much as I can. I’m a vegetarian and have been for all my life with only limited dairy in my diet, therefore I do try to source produce locally and cook from scratch. I try to source items that have less plastic packaging and look for non-plastic alternatives. There are more things that I would love to do but access and affordability are huge barriers. 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? 

I don’t think there is a lack of understanding. In fact I think there is more understanding of what a climate crisis can actually look like within a South Asian context.

I think the issue is more to do with the narratives, discourse and jargon used by policy makers and campaigners which can come across unfamiliar, high level or irrelevant to South Asian communities. 

What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues? 

Some of the blockers are the climate language and jargon which is used, especially terms like carbon emissions and carbon footprint. This is too abstract a concept unless you are a climate scientist, or your work involves measuring carbon impacts. 

The other big blocker is embarrassment of and undervaluing of traditional sustainable behaviours, which have been passed down in South Asian communities. For example, reusing plastic ice cream or butter containers to store leftover food, growing your own herbs and vegetables in your front garden, no waste attitude – reusing and recycling wherever possible; however, these practices once in the west were looked down up i.e. perceived as behaviour of people who were unable to afford a better lifestyle. Unfortunately, a better lifestyle equated to overconsumption and a disposable society.  

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone? 

If we consider small steps to sustainable lifestyles then this is accessible to all, however some of the bigger steps such as installing solar panels, driving an electric vehicle or even buying organic may exclude a lot of us, simply on the basis of affordability. The easy steps we can take are just trying to be conscious of what we buy, what we use and need and what we eat. Try and reduce our waste by buying less, recycling and reusing more. Sharing with others instead of competing with others. 

You touched on feeling a lack of representation and your work since has been about amplifying voices and engaging more diverse communities. Can you tell me more about this and why it’s particularly important for there to be greater representation in the sector? 

When I started out there was very little to no representation from any person of colour within the environmental sector.

A whole portion of society was being excluded from any discourse on climate change, mitigation, adaptation measures and looking at sustainable behaviours and lifestyle.

If we live in a democratic society, surely all people should be included and opportunities for all voices to be heard should be created. 

Firstly, it is important to recognise that one approach for certain communities will not be fit for another community. Secondly acknowledge that there is diversity within diversity; having one person from a BME background to represent the views of all the ethnically diverse communities of the country, is simply not good enough nor is it appropriate or fair. 

Then there is the issue of climate justice – those that are being most impacted by climate change are the ones least contributing, but also have the least power to influence change.

Climate justice is also a racial justice issue similar to what we have unfortunately seen over the recent months with the pandemic. If we want systemic and structural changes, we need to see and have different diverse voices around the table. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Firstly, you need to understand how we are connected to nature and the environment in order to understand where our produce, clothing and other consumable items come from. Look at nature-based solutions not just techno fixes going forward. Secondly, become active citizens, realise that you have power and are able to influence change by using your voice and actions, become more politically involved, don’t shy away from being involved in campaigning and activism. Lastly don’t be passive consumers become conscious consumers and try not to be influenced by fast trends or buy into the disposable culture. 

You’ve had much exposure to government processes in place, working on policies and engaging with grass-root organisations. Based on your experience, what do you believe the most important and effective methods are to have the largest climate impact? 

For me being interconnected in terms of dialogue and action is important i.e. policy makers, communities, industries and academics should all be working side by side, sharing knowledge and experience.

We should work less in silos and work more collaboratively to find solutions that fit the needs of society. 

Communities should be adequately resourced if they are expected to take local action. Adding to this, I also think it is important to act locally but think globally, we are connected to other parts of the world and what we do here does have an impact somewhere, our carbon emissions contribute to global warming – the UK is not in a bubble. 

Your example of actively using ‘positive environmental change’ rather than ‘behaviour change’ is really striking. Why do you believe our choice of language is important? 

The language we use is important as this is our main means for communicating and bringing people together however, it can also lead to pushing people away. Simply put, language can be inclusive or exclusive.

In the UK and indeed in the West, the narrative on climate change and sustainable behaviours very much focusses on “behaviour change”. From my experience of working with communities this terminology isn’t helpful because people become very defensive when they hear behaviour change. 

With the narrative of change as the premise, you are telling someone that how they previously lived and behaved was wrong and now they are going to be told how to live and behave better. The agency over their choices is not taken into consideration. Therefore, simply using a term such as “positive action” is more likely to result in people embracing change and steps to a better world for all. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you? 

Early in my career I was working with a Muslim woman’s group and engaging them with activities to build their understanding of climate change. One day I was taking this group out on a trip to see a demo house with a number of energy efficiency measures adapted into its construction. 

One of the elderly ladies (probably in her 70’s) thanked me. I thought it was for taking them out for the day on a trip, but she said it was for raising awareness about climate change. Her son is a frontline journalist who was posted out in Pakistan and covered stories about the floods caused by the ice melting on the Himalayas, which in turn caused huge devastation.

Many lives and homes were lost as a result of the vast amount of water and ice sheets hitting villages. She told me there were weeks, even months when she would not hear from her son and would worry that one day she would get the sad news of him passing away. She knew this was because of climate change and wanted others to be more aware and realise through our actions we can change these outcomes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I also think it is important to be connected to nature, be aware of our ecosystem, and understand the role we play within this system. Unfortunately, colonisation and capitalism have removed us further and further away from our connection to the land.  Only when we fully appreciate this, will we stop exploiting resources and relearn how to live as one with the planet.

Zarina on a boat, touching the ripples of the lake. In the background mountain ranges can be seen. She's wearing a tan coloured jacket

Find out more about Zarina and connect with her on Instagram and LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Dr Poshendra Satyal PhD, AFHEA, MPhil, BSc (Hons) Ag

Read our deep dive into Dr Poshendra’s academic journey, with key interests in environmental development, agriculture and conservation in the Global South

What is your ethnic and academic background?

I identify as a Nepalese and South Asian living in the UK (for the last nineteen years). I was born and raised in the foothills of Nepal Himalayas (near Mount Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world). Our family later moved to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) where I completed my secondary schooling and A-level education. I also did my BSc there before going to Haryana in India to study for my 4-year BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree (1994-1996). After finishing my degree I went back to Nepal, taught for a year in a private agricultural college and got involved with a couple of environmental NGOs working in the issues of sustainability and natural resource management. 

I came to study for my MPhil in Environment and Development at the University of Cambridge in 2001. Since then, I have been based in the UK. I continued for my PhD in Environmental Policy at the Open University (2005-2009) and then worked at various universities, institutes and organisations, broadly on different areas of environmental development (including climate change, forest governance, conservation and natural resources management). 

I now work as Global Forest Policy Coordinator with the Policy Team of the BirdLife International (an environmental NGO), based in Cambridge. Prior to that, I worked for five years as a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s School of International Development (2014-2019). I also serve as a Trustee of the Mount Everest Foundation (Royal Geographical Society), an affiliate fellow with the UEA’s Global Environmental Justice Group and a visiting senior fellow of South Asia Institute of Advanced Studies (Nepal). I have also worked as a research fellow at the Warwick University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (2018-2019) and Crichton Carbon Centre and ClimateXChange – Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change (2012-2014). 

In the past, I worked as a researcher, lecturer and consultant with a number of institutions and organisations in the UK (The Open University, UNEP – World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Fern, and Forests Monitor) and Nepal (Himalayan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Forum for Sustainable Development Nepal, and Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Nepal). I was also an affiliate fellow of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (2014-2018), University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies (2012-2014) and Open Space – Centre for Geographical and Environmental Research of the Open University (2009-2012).

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

Having spent much of my early childhood in a tiny remote village of Hedangna in Sankhuwasabha, a district of Eastern Nepal, I had witnessed the local villagers’ very close relationship with nature. The place was very rich in biodiversity, forests and other natural resources (the area later became the Makalu Barun National Park).

While the local indigenous Rai communities had a very simple lifestyle, most of the villagers had very basic standards of living, with no electricity, no proper medical facilities and other services (which we take for granted in the West). I also witnessed (and experienced myself to some extent), poverty, underdevelopment and spatial inequity arising from the remoteness.

This made me hyper-aware of the circumstances that make people vulnerable, due to a range of social and environmental issues (e.g. socio-political marginalisation, climate change and natural hazards). This sparked my interest to explore the dynamics of social, environmental and climatic issues that can impact local livelihoods. More particularly, my concern about injustices in the context of natural resources. This was the beginning of my interest to study and research these issues in greater depth.

Having studied and worked previously in the field of agriculture and natural resource management in India and Nepal, my interests, concerns and desire to understand the underlying causes of injustices in the natural resources context; based on what I had witnessed in the field, had a bearing on the choice of my research in environment and development. 

In fact, I began to realise and question the limitations of my own technical knowledge in agriculture that I had gained through my BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree in India when I returned to Nepal. I started to question whether natural resources and farm management involve not only technical and scientific issues, but also a number of other socio-economic and political issues.

I had concluded that, in order to solve problems in agriculture, forest management and natural resource governance, issues of justice should come to the fore.

This led me to apply for the MPhil in Environment and Development degree at the University of Cambridge, which would equip me with social sciences approach to environmental analysis in my chosen career. 

Can you tell me about your research over the years in conservation and what has interested you the most? 

With a background in natural and social sciences, I have a long-standing interest in interdisciplinary and policy relevant research in environment and development issues, particularly conservation, forest governance, and climate change in the context of developing nations. 

My interest in engaging with the theoretical debate on social and environmental justice and in exploring the empirical understanding of environment and development problems is related to my academic, personal and professional background.

In that sense, my work has a biographical connection. The underpinning research interest on various environmental and development challenges faced by the developing world, is primarily rooted in my background as a Nepalese and South Asian. While this was a starting point for my interest, there are also further reasons for choosing a research topic in social and environmental justice. 

My interest in exploring North-South differences in tackling the twin challenges of environment and development, progressed more prominently during my MPhil degree in Cambridge, exposing me to a broad range of ideas and concerns regarding the debate on environment and sustainable development.

As a new researcher and practitioner from the “developing world,” but studying in the West, I was constantly confronted with new ideas, including those on justice, in my participation in academic discussions; which further pushed me to engage in research that could explore the real tensions and differences in priorities between the developing world and the developed world, in terms of social and environmental dimensions involved in sustainable development and sustainability. 

Reflecting upon these issues led me to conclude that a productive research avenue would be to use an environmental justice framework. My PhD project thus worked on and developed theories of social and environmental justice, drawing from in-depth field research on community forestry and natural resources management in the Terai of Nepal; looking into issues of social equity and forest ecology in the context of environmental and socio-political change in the region. 

Building on my PhD, I have further used the environmental justice framework in policy research and analysis in the context of climate change adaptation, forest governance and water security, with various organisations in the UK.

The most recent role that I have in BirdLife involves supporting our Policy Team and advising project partners on forest policy issues. Forests have received renewed attention in recent years (particularly in the debates around Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and climate change policies) due to their potential for a ‘triple win’ in terms of addressing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change and providing other local and global ecosystem services. 

Ending deforestation, advancing forest conservation and restoration and sustainable management, of all types of forests and trees are vital for the purpose. Hence I see that there is an important role for advocacy and policy work on forest, biodiversity and climate change issues, at global and national levels to help develop and operationalise effective environmental policies across different scales of governance. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

There have certainly been various milestones, but I do not consider that I have achieved any big successes as of yet. Also, it depends how we define and measure ‘success’. I believe that we need to continue doing our Karma with persistence, trust in ourselves, and success will appear in different guises and degrees. In my case, the progress has been gradual as I have built and continue to build on some of my achievements. 

To begin with, I consider two of my early achievements (before coming to the UK) as the ones that still guide my passion for learning and hardworking: (1) in 1991 I stood among the top three positions during the national School Leaving Certificate exam (GCSE equivalent) among more than 150,000 students taking up the exam in Nepal; (2) I was also a gold-medalist scoring highest marks among more than 400 students in the BSc (Honours) Agriculture programme in India. 

In retrospect, my turning point was when I was selected for my MPhil degree in Cambridge, which I consider a significant milestone that opened subsequent opportunities and shaped my future. Coming from a remote Nepali village, I felt quite lucky to be selected for Cambridge Overseas Trust Scholarships for my postgraduate study in Cambridge, among many competent candidates from around the world. My MPhil degree laid a foundation for my interest in further studying the environment and its development.

My selection for a fully funded PhD studentship was another milestone in my life. My PhD and post-doctoral research at various institutions further provided cumulative and progressive impacts, towards my personal and professional development. For example, building on my original doctoral research on social and environmental justice, I developed a climate justice framework for policy research and analysis in Scotland, which was very well received by the Scottish Government. 

I also consider my wide-ranging academic and professional experience, working on various projects and in different organisations useful experience. Through these works, I now have a good record of publications and my published items have ranged from peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, to policy reports, briefing papers and general articles. 

I have also widely presented in various forums and meetings involving a variety of audiences (e.g. international conferences, workshops, interaction programmes, and policy engagements).

I see my unique position as a South Asian researcher based in the UK as a strength. I’m placed in a prime position with exceptional potential for North-South collaboration and trust. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for choosing to work in environmental research from family, friends or society at large? You originally wanted to study medicine – what changed?

When I did quite well in my GCSE exam in Nepal, the expectation from my parents, family and wider network of relatives in Nepal was that I choose some high-demand career such as medicine and engineering for my further study. 

Everywhere you go, people would ask you what you want to become in life. Most children in Nepal are still taught that “they will become a doctor or engineer and serve the society”. With such societal ‘pressures’, I also naturally aspired to become a medical doctor. However, there were only a few medical colleges in the country at that time and the competition was very high.

I did not manage to get a place and was feeling very low, thinking that my dream was shattered. It was only after that, I began to consider other subject areas for further studies, and I decided to go for an agriculture degree with a scholarship from the Indian government. 

Even then, many of my friends and family would sometimes tell me that I could have done better choosing medicine or engineering. In their minds, medicine and engineering subjects would land you a secure job and high salary, while those preferring agriculture, forestry or environmental studies would not have comparable future prospects. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

While wider policies and plans are needed across different sectors and scales of environmental governance, these would not be successful if we do not feel responsible to operationalise, practice and monitor, in whatever way we can. In that sense, every individual has the responsibility to change their behaviours and actions and adopt a sustainable lifestyle, while also engaging in some form of citizen activism. 

The reason for this is because every day we make choices in our lives that can affect the environment, the climate and biodiversity. From what we buy and what we eat to how we travel to work, there are a lot of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and environmental impact. 

On a personal level, I have been conscious of all aspects of my daily life (e.g. how my shopping behaviour can impact the environment, going plastic free, switching off the lights when not in use, reducing unnecessary water use etc.). While this may seem a very small effort, individual actions are important to collectively address the enormity of the challenge we are facing.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

South Asia as a region is vulnerable to climate change. While rising sea levels and flooding threaten the coastal states of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives, landlocked Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal face rising temperatures, drought, and glacial melting. 

The climate crisis can further exacerbate environmental degradation, natural disasters, extreme weather events, food and water insecurity and economic disruption. As high temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and climatic variability and change have already started to impact people’s daily lives and livelihoods in the region, I think South Asian communities living in the region (and also South Asians living in the UK, to some extent) are aware of the climate crisis. 

However, when it comes to individual actions to mitigate climate change and environmental issues, there certainly seem some cultural barriers. For example, while simple measures like using public transportation more often, reducing energy consumption, becoming more eco-friendly can help reduce our environmental impact and make this planet a clean and safe place, our society seems to have a tendency to ‘respect and value’ those who drive fancy cars, wear ‘big brands’, own big houses and earn and spend more. 

I also think that there is very low uptake of a ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ culture among us, as many of us feel hesitant to go to a charity shop and buy second-hand clothes. This is generally true for both South Asians living in urban or peri-urban areas in the region, as well as British Asians living in the UK. Having said that, I think it will be unfair to point a finger and put a blame just on South Asian communities, because the behaviour is common across all of us.

We all as human beings are responsible for this crisis and we need to work collectively to address the challenge. 

While our South Asian culture is generally considered to be based on the ethos of sharing and caring for each other and a common respect for the Mother Nature (e.g. there are references to this philosophy in most of the major religions in the region, including Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism), our modern lifestyle has made us more greedy and needy, as we are attracted to materialistic culture and consumerism. 

South Asian culture is also considered to take a more collectivist and holistic approach on social relationships and, supposedly, by extension on environmental issues. However, we have now become more selfish and individualistic and such dichotomy of culture does not seem to be valid anymore, both for urban and peri-urban South Asians and British Asians.

You mentioned your experiences in Africa and how you were misunderstood for working in a different profession. Why do you think South Asians are underrepresented in the environmental sector? Has it been challenging for you over the years?

I’ve had an interesting mix of experiences in the sector. My work experience has been both intellectually challenging and enthralling. In a good way, this experience has also changed my way of life and thinking as it has taught me to think critically and out-of-the box, at times. 

Of course, there have been a lot of challenges too. As an immigrant exposed to new culture, getting used to the new way of life in the UK was one of my initial challenges. I also found initially that there was a lot of competition in the job market and I had to get myself prepared to compete amongst the best in the subject area. 

Once in the sector, I realised that there are only a few South Asians with whom you could relate to or look up to for a ‘role model’.

The reasons for under-representation of South Asians in the environmental sector may be, as I highlighted earlier, due to the cultural preference over high-demand and well-paid STEM subjects (such as medicine and engineering) and more importantly, due to lack of diversity in the sector in the UK. 

Many of the organisations and institutes have not yet embraced diversity and inclusivity in policy and practice, hindering access and participation of BAME (Black, Asian and and Minority Ethnic) communities. 

In my personal case, there has also been a funny side to it. As part of international development research projects, I had to travel to new places, often in remote areas and countries. At times, I have been misunderstood for coming to set up a business or work as a medical doctor (in Uganda and Kenya, as many Indians go there for the purpose) or as a field support or research assistant to our research team (which mostly consisted of UK British White colleagues and local country partners). 

In some cases, I have been interrogated extra in immigration (e.g. Mexico – a country where many South Asians are trafficked for illegally entering into the USA) or sometimes being let go easily: in Liberia, when an immigration officer checked my passport and I said I am a ‘Nepalese’ but he heard ‘Lebanese’ (as Lebanese and Indians go there to set up businesses, the officer was quite relaxed on further checking). 

Similarly, I was once on a 16-hour road trip to a research site in Southern Ethiopia from Addis Ababa and we had to stop at a few places for meals. As the area was quite remote, local people were not accustomed to seeing ‘brown’ people traveling to their area for research or tourism. A waiter in a small motel came to me and said: “I think I have seen you before…probably in Bollywood movies” – I took that as a compliment!

Leaving aside the funny part, the upshot of my experience is that the area of international development and environmental sector is still massively underrepresented for South Asians and BAME communities in general. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

I agree – there are some barriers to practice sustainable living at an individual level. For example, public transport is not timely and sometimes it can be costly too (e.g. train travel is sometimes costlier than driving or even flying in the UK). Similarly, organic products are more expensive than other products on the shelf. Theoretically, sustainable farming, shortening supply chain, cutting down water and energy consumption, reducing packaging etc, should also lower the cost in the long run. 

In order to change attitudes and behaviours into positive actions, we need some incentives and penalties (e.g. financial contribution to switch to renewable energy). Also, we need increased awareness and a socio-cultural shift towards sustainability, which will make consumers conscious about the climate emergency and damaged ecosystems; so they understand and are willing to pay a little bit more to help the planet (e.g. carbon tax added to our airfares). We also need to recognize, embrace, and reward sustainable values and actions of environmentally conscious consumers in ways that increase the uptake of sustainable consumption more widely.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

For younger generations, I would like to encourage them to reflect on the urgency of saving the planet and embrace sustainability, making it more ‘mainstream.’ Sustainability, in essence, is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. In that sense, it is an intergenerational issue.

The younger generations have both the responsibility and power to change the world for the better so that we can bequeath the planet to our future generations safely, respecting their right to a healthy planet. More specifically, I would like the younger generations to see sustainability as a justice issue in our relationship to the nature: intragenerational justice (poverty alleviation and social justice); intergenerational justice (justice to future generations); and inter-species justice (justice to non-human nature, including other species and biodiversity). 

As younger generations also have the power to change the status quo and make the world a better place to live, I encourage them to actively engage in some form of environmental activism. We have already seen a number of youth role models in recent years (e.g. Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Licypriya Kangujam from Manipur, India) and their activism has started to bring some positive results in terms of increasing awareness on the issues and bringing some policy change. 

Networking and partnership with like-minded individuals and organisations would help maximise the impact of advocacy, hence I would like to advise everyone to work together in this collective goal. With a right mix of inspiration, aspiration and networking, I am sure we can make some real impact. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

I guess my roots and early childhood experience have impacted me deeply to continue working on areas of justice and sustainability.

As I elaborated earlier, my growing up in a small remote village of Nepal, witnessing local communities’ proximity, dependence and respect for nature, their sufferings and simple lifestyle had an empowering impression on me. 

Additionally, as I see similar circumstances that a majority of people in the developing world experience (pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya, indigenous Batwa peoples in Uganda, ethnic minorities in Vietnam, community forest users in Nepal), I am even more determined to continue working to understand and bring to the fore their specific needs, concerns and priorities; so that their roles and rights are recognised and respected in global and national policies. 

There have also been some unique insights and experiences gained through specific incidents. For example, in my trip to Southern Ethiopia, I saw how long and harrowing a journey (sometimes up to 6 hours) that agro-pastoralist girls have to make to fetch one to two gallons of water for their household. This made me more conscious of my own use of water for daily use. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I do not have more to add but would like to thank you for providing this platform and opportunity to share my experience to fellow South Asians. I hope this was interesting and useful. I want to engage with young South Asians in the region as well as British Asians living in the UK on efforts to raise public awareness and activism in areas of sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity conservation in the coming days. I wish you all the best for your campaign and efforts. I look forward to working together.

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