Spotlight Series: Abhiir Bhalla, Youth Environmentalist & Sustainability Consultant

We caught up with Abhiir about his journey so far as a Youth Environmentalist. Named by the BBC as The Indian Teenager Fighting Global Air Pollution, he has a wealth of experience already in bringing about policy change and grass-root action.

Early beginnings 

I once thought the environment was boring. In primary school, we used to attend Environmental Awareness Classes on a biweekly basis, in which I would find absentmindedly scribbling or doodling, scarcely paying attention. 11 years later, today, I’ve completed 8 years as a youth environmentalist and have worked with prominent organisations both in India and internationally. 

So, what changed? Amusing as it may sound to hear a 19-year-old say this – it has not been an easy journey. If anything, my age is responsible for making the path traversed even more difficult. This is the story of my growth from being the stereotypical bored, ignorant, environmental-averse child, to being the founder and coordinator of an environmental campaign that’s been running successfully for the past 4 years.  

My journey began in middle school – thanks to my mother and grandmother, who coerced me into taking part in activities in school and to join a few clubs and societies. I became a member of the ‘Paryavaran Club’ (Environmental Initiatives Club) in my school and began attending weekly meetings. At the meetings however, I found myself bored and I began to think that the club was all talk and no work. But I was wrong; work used to happen, only that juniors weren’t involved in it – we were too scared to participate in an activity dominated by high school seniors. As a result of our lack of participation, we weren’t entrusted with work – it became rather cyclical. 

Medicines and nebulisers

Simultaneously, in Grade 7, I was diagnosed with a type of bronchitis. While it isn’t life threatening, every year since I can remember, I have had to use nebulisers between October and January. Unsurprisingly, this is also when Delhi’s air pollution peaks. As it happened, the next meeting of the club happened to be on air pollution – the rest is history. From then on, I rose through the ranks and became an active voice, participating in intra- and inter school activities and projects. In high school, I was elected to the Student Council to lead Environmental Initiatives in my school.  

These two years were crucial in my development – I learnt skills, expanded my network and began to train my juniors to ensure that the work didn’t stop even after I graduated. Working on audits with the Centre for Science and Environment India for 5 years, I learnt how I could make my school campus more environment friendly and sustainable. 

In my final year of high school, after 4 years of persuasion by students, the school decided to install solar panels – nearly the entire campus is now powered by renewable energy!

My experiences 

I’ve attended several conferences on climate change, and in some, I even participated as a panelist. In 2016, I underwent a 2-month long ‘Care for Air’ Student Ambassador training to spread awareness regarding air pollution and affect change. In 2018, World Environment Day was hosted by India and I participated in a 3-day long conference hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, where I also appeared on a panel with the then-UNEP Director, Erik Solheim. 

While air pollution was my personally driven area of work, I was equally interested in other aspects such as waste segregation, renewable energy and sustainability. Over the years, I have also worked with the World Wildlife Foundation, Kids for Tigers and Sanctuary Asia on wildlife conservation, and was awarded the prestigious Token of Appreciation by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India.   

My biggest project, ‘Swachh Chetna’ – a collaboration between the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation and public, private and NGO schools – was focused around cleanliness, plantation and awareness drives. 

Leading over 300 volunteers in over 3 years, we cleaned areas around metro stations across the city and carried out awareness campaigns through street plays and flash mobs. We planted over 200 saplings at Metro officers’ residential colonies and outside metro stations in a bid towards mitigating air pollution. 

Not all fun and games 

None of this was as easy as it sounds. Age bias plays a crucial factor. Most people reading this, even now, would think “what does a young boy know about the challenges of the world?” Yet, to establish a multi-entity corporation between a State-Central shared Government organisation, like the Delhi Metro and to sign a Memorandum of Association with various schools is particularly challenging, especially for a 17-year-old. 

All of this was done whilst juggling school classes and assignments. In fact, I was so invested in my activism, there was a marked dip in my academic performance between 8th and 10th grade! I was able to overcome this with time – a lot of credit for which goes to my 10th Grade class teacher, who didn’t allow me to miss classes for environment work as my other teachers used to. He taught me how to manage my time and made me understand that no matter how passionate you may be about a cause; it can’t come at the cost of education. 

Environmental activities weren’t particularly helpful for my social life either. What’s more important to a teenager? Even some of my closest friends were very amused by this aspect of my life. 

My enthusiasm for environmental conservation was degraded and compared to that of a glorified school gardener, “there goes Bhalla to straighten every blade of grass in the football field”

For many years, I heard comments like this, but if anything, it only strengthened my resolve to make my mark in the world of environmental conservation. 

Looking Ahead 

Today, as I’m about to enter into my second year of university, a lot has changed, but there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. Year after year, I see and even participate in similar televised debates during October-January regarding air pollution. It’s the same political blame game, the same inaction and unfortunately, the same 2 million deaths every year due to the snail slow action (or perhaps even inaction) on air pollution in India. 

Motivated by international figures like Greta Thunberg, many more young people have begun to take up the cause. The sad part is, many of them are doing it only for their college resumes. For 2-3 years they’ll plant a tree here and there, speak a few words, take a picture and then disappear – a new way the environment is being exploited. Nevertheless, there’s also many people out there who are working day after day to bring about real change. 

My latest project is to carry the Swachh Chetna model forward, and I’ve proposed it to several corporate giants and multinational companies, all of which have expressed a keen interest in it. With new research proving that environmental degradation has played a large part in the emergence of the current COVID crisis, we must strengthen our determination to carry forward our work. 

My own plans for cleanliness and awareness drives have come to a screeching halt but I’m turning to the internet like many others – environment discussion related Zoom calls, webinars and outreach to maximise awareness and outreach.

At Care for Air, I lead a team of over 20 people with the aim of combating air pollution in India. We focus on the problems, the causes and the solutions. While we have multiple projects, our primary one currently is to conduct awareness sessions on air pollution with schools, colleges, Residents’ Associations and retirement homes. So far, we’ve positively influenced over 400 individuals and reached organisations spanning across India, emphasising and building awareness around the air pollution problem. 

It is time the world knew that the human race has turned our own planet against us. Having worked with national and international organisations, I’m looking to continue to work with like-minded individuals – professors, students, businesses – no matter the industry, provided they’re looking to work collectively to secure a better future for all of us.

Noteworthy Moments

I’ve been fortunate to have had my work covered by the media, and links for the same can be accessed via this link, which grants you access to all my print and TV media features, my articles and even my resume. 

Most recently, I was one among five international youth environmentalists from around the world, representing India on BBC World News in conversation with Mr. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. BBC further identified me as one of the foremost youth environmentalists, and their posts on their website identified me as ‘The Indian Teenager Fighting Global Air Pollution’. 

I’m currently producing a podcast on Climate Change for the Ramphal Institute, a UK-based think tank which is quite popular in academic and diplomatic circles amongst Commonwealth nations. As part of this partnership, I was invited by the UK Government and the Ramphal Institute to be a panelist on a conversation around ‘Air Pollution in the Commonwealth‘.

Find out more about Abhiir here: https://linktr.ee/abhiirbhalla

BBC World News: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-55193232

Air Pollution in the Commonwealth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VJBZ_oaKxw&t=1197s

Head – Operations and Community Engagement, Care for Air India

President – Executive Council at Youth Connect

Podcast Producer – The Ramphal Institute

Undergraduate Class of 2022 | Ashoka University | www.ashoka.edu.in

Connect with Abhiir on LinkedIn: https://in.linkedin.com/in/abhiir-bhalla-9809b4165 

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Sustainable Tourism and Development Lead, Tejal Thakkar

We spoke with Tejal, about her experiences working in the sustainable development and tourism industry and transitioning from corporations to social enterprises

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I am a South Asian female and my background is in hospitality and tourism.

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

For me, it was about a couple of things. Firstly, I have always thought about how to make incremental improvements to our world. I really liked the tourism industry, but because I was so entrenched in it, I could also see its flaws. So I thought, why not pick an industry and see how I can make it better serve society. That’s kind of how my initial interest in social enterprise and sustainable development began. Secondly, I really hate waste.

Can you tell me about your work in Sustainable Tourism Development and how you got into it? 

My career started in hotels (literally from the age of 16). I studied hospitality for my undergrad and worked at a big travel tech company out of university. Whilst I was at Expedia, I started to learn more about tourism development and how it can be done well or not well.

That’s when I decided to go back to uni for my masters in Tourism, Environment, and Development at King’s College London. After that, I worked for an international development consultancy where I worked on a couple of sustainable development projects. My focus now is on social enterprises in the sector.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

I don’t know about the biggest successes, but there have been a lot of learnings. I think the most important thing is to really listen to that voice inside you if it’s telling you that something is not quite right or if you are looking for more. 

Corporate jobs are cushy – they pay well and have benefits which make it hard to leave, but that’s not all there is in life. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty when trying to figure out what your passions and goals are, and I am still going through that now, but I have a lot of peace in the fact that when I think back to my corporate job (which I really liked!), I have no desire to go back. It means I am slowly moving in the right direction for me.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about switching to more sustainability-led work from family, friends or society at large?

This one is interesting to me. I think there are societal pressures to be doing something that is traditionally ‘successful’, and I have experienced them as well, even though my family is super open. For example, when deciding between two job offers earlier this year, one thing that weighed on my mind was ‘which will be easier to tell people about?’ I, obviously, was so annoyed at myself for thinking that, but it does creep up. 

Interestingly, the other thing I really had to get over was accepting the fact that prioritizing money is okay. I think often, people who are interested in purpose-driven career paths are conditioned to feel ashamed of wanting to make a decent salary. When looking for jobs and considering salaries in comparison to the cost of living in London, salary was something that factored into my decision, and that’s okay! 

If we break it down further, it’s just capitalism telling us that the only thing that should be rewarded is an endless pursuit for profit and I question why. Why should we have to accept lower salaries just because we want to do something positive for society when the ‘Amazons’ of the world are destroying the planet and getting rewarded for it?

Have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Yes of course! Like I said earlier, I hate waste, especially food waste! I have never really bought much and prefer to have fewer possessions, probably because I have moved around so much, but I am trying to take it one step further by exclusively buying from ethical and small businesses.

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?

I think in immigrant and minority communities, there are often a lot of other worries and issues we have to overcome.

I don’t blame people who are trying to make ends meet for not worrying about the climate crisis, because let’s be honest, they are also probably the smallest contributors to climate change.

However, South Asian communities specifically do have a lot of social and political capital. I think our generation has a lot of untapped potential and I do get disappointed with the general lack of social and political engagement of the youth in the South Asian community.

Culturally, we are generally taught to not ruffle feathers and to keep our heads down and work hard. Frankly, change isn’t made by not ruffling feathers. We have a lot of skills, capital, and ideas in our community, it just needs to be harnessed in the right way.

You touched on feeling like your previous consultancy work didn’t give you the same amount of satisfaction or purpose – would you now say feeling purpose from your job is vital for you?

Purpose in my career is vital for me. I am not sure if it’s the workaholic American in me, but I really don’t subscribe to the ‘I work to live’ philosophy. We will, inevitably, spend a LOT of our life working, so why would I not search for something that fulfills me? 

I never want to live a life where I am watching the clock so I can leave at 5pm. I do want to be excited to get up on Monday morning. I can’t live a life where I spend 40+ hours a week just waiting for them to end – that sounds so miserable! I will say, it is important to remember that work is only part of life and whilst work is important, it’s integral that your work doesn’t come at the expense of your relationships and the rest of your life.

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 actually get really annoyed at the climate change rhetoric that places so much responsibility on the individual and especially on minority communities and communities in the global south. Really, we should be fighting the handful of companies who are responsible for the majority of global emissions. 

When it comes to reducing waste, I actually think that minority communities are models that the rest of the world should learn from. It’s about being resourceful rather than buying things to fit our convenience. This is actually something that South Asians are known for! 

Have you heard of ‘jugaad’ innovation? I’ll give an example. It feels like a lot of sustainability rhetoric in the west is actually commodified. For example, we see bloggers shaming people for not having the right reusable containers or the new ‘it’ ceramic non-stick pan? In comparison, immigrant families have been saving yogurt containers to transport chole (chickpea curry) and using durable stainless steel cookware for generations!

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?

Well, there are multiple parts of sustainability, right? I believe that the problem tourism helps to solve for our society is the social and economic aspects of sustainability.

Tourism, when done well, provides opportunities for people to learn about others, connects families, provides sustainable jobs for people in even the most remote parts of the world, for example. For a sustainable development practitioner, the goal is to figure out how to encourage all of those things happening whilst minimizing the environmental backlash. 

Also, it’s kind of a fallacy that air travel is one of the worst contributors to global carbon emissions. Human air travel contributes to around 2% of global emissions, whereas emissions from livestock alone accounts for 14.5%. (Gerber et al., 2013).

Recently, local tourism is becoming more and more popular. This form of tourism does involve fewer emissions and still creates the same benefits of international travel (i.e. creating community, exploration, job creation). I see this as a way forward for the tourism industry, especially with the pandemic.

Again, you’ll notice that the rhetoric around reducing emissions are very individual-focused. While there is room for improvement on the individual level, I have to ask the question as to why we aren’t going to our governments and the big oil companies and demanding incentives for greener technologies and taxes for carbon-emitting ones? That’s where I think our focus should be.

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

To me, being socially and environmentally conscious should just be inherent for our generation moving forward. When making decisions about your career, about your purchases, about anything, sustainability should be on our minds. This is how we make change, by voting with our wallets.

Given that we live in a capitalist society, we can make a difference by choosing to support small businesses, to buy less, and to choose more sustainable alternatives when possible. When picking a job, even a corporate job, see what opportunities there are to get involved in CSR, understand the company’s ethos. This should be important. 

Being in corporate consultancy before and switching to sustainability-led social enterprises now, would you say it’s just as viable and economically stable? Have you faced any challenges?

I work for a startup that is mission-driven now, but I used to work for an international development consultancy, where the company contracts with the government. Naturally, there is more stability in a job like that, especially during the uncertain times we are in right now. 

However, I think it is also harder to move up and learn more at a faster pace in those environments. I actually earn more now than I did in my old job, have more responsibility, and I am learning a ton. Sure, it’s less ‘stable’ than working for a government contractor, but I think you also have to bet on your own intuition as well as your skills and talents.

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

Ha! I am not sure if I can think of any one thing. I think learning about sustainability and social impact is a slow learning process. Unlearning mistruths that we learned as a kid and exploring more sustainable ways of living takes time and is a life-long process.

Spotlight Series: Q&A with CEO & Founder of ChargeInc, Akshay Mukesh

We caught up with Akshay about his tech developments in all things Electric Vehicle charging in India, Middle East and North Africa

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I was born to a North-Indian family residing in South India so one could say that I was brought up in a very cosmopolitan-kind of environment. Essentially, I am a self-taught entrepreneur with minimal formal education and a handful of practical experience. 

I started working when I was 16 and I have diverse experiences in industries like publishing, realty, IT and a digital agency upholding senior executive positions. I love to dig into customer problems and solve them with modern tech and out-of-box solutions. I create, scale and optimise portfolios that matter.

What is Charge Inc and how did it come about?

When I founded ChargeInc back in 2018, the company was headed towards setting up smart charging infrastructure across India and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. In the process of developing the charger (EVSE), we realised that over 5000 companies with a similar product were going to deploy different solutions by 2026 making it difficult for the end user to charge the electric vehicle (EV) with different hardware/service providers. A user, at one time would not subscribe to more than 2 service providers, dividing the charging infrastructure and making adoption of EVs more difficult.

To curb this menace, we decided to focus on building a software platform that could manage and power hardware from any manufacturer or service provider. In simple terms, We would do what ‘Windows’ did for the computer industry and what ‘Android’ did for the cell phone industry. 

What are your main values and aims as an organisation?

We have one clear focus. A unified charging infrastructure irrespective of the type of vehicle, the service provider, the manufacturer of hardware or the geographical location of the charging station. The sooner we are able to achieve this, the faster we can see people choosing EVs over internal combustion engines. And, in this process, we as an organization, are imbibing the values of globality, collaborations, integrity and utmost commitment towards customers

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

The movie ‘2012’ caught my attention in 2010. Though the movie was overly dramatized, it depicted the imminent disaster that is in looming unless we reacted in time. This was just, as I realize now, paving my path forward.

Being an automotive enthusiast, I started to notice advancements in the industry. The kind of buzz Tesla and Lucid Motors were making at the time made me more interested in the EV industry. I transitioned to the IT sector in 2016 where as part of my job, I was fortunate to meet with prominent government figures from across the world and pitch for projects defining the future of the public transport system. 

Their valued opinions and feedback on national problems they face owing to transportation were intriguing for me. I was also witnessing how a few lines of code were able to reduce the efforts and drudgery of millions of people. This was the tipping point. It was here that I knew something bigger could be done.

I started researching what the EV industry was missing and every person I spoke to pointed towards 2 things. First being the range anxiety and second being the lack of charging infrastructure

The vehicle manufacturers were working on developing better battery technologies to fix the problem of range and a lot more charger manufacturers were working on setting up the infrastructure. But with such a diverse approach to the charging infrastructure a much bigger problem was awaiting to be addressed. Unlike refuelling a gasoline powered vehicle, an EV would require the user to reserve a charging point, before they get to a charging station or any business premises supporting it; but the user would be limited by the subscription from a service provider they opt in for. We were now clear on what we wanted to pursue, using our expertise to make a difference. 

I believe I am in the right place at the right time with the right kind of people. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this career decision from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it?

I would consider myself blessed to be surrounded by people who have always supported me in my endeavours. It surprises me sometimes yet gives a feeling of gratitude to have such an arrangement around. Almost everyone I reach out to for help, guidance or connections, they do the best they can. 

I make conscious efforts to ensure I pass on what I receive in a similar fashion.

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

With the kind of work I do, I land up travelling a lot. I currently drive to most destinations because of the pandemic which adds to the carbon footprint. Within the organisation, we often talk about ways to offset the carbon footprint we incur. We are tirelessly working towards deploying our solution at the earliest as it would enable faster adoption of EVs which in turn will offset quite a bit of carbon coming from vehicles on the road.

While this is a part of our primary objective of the organisation, as a personal commitment towards sustainability, I turned vegan back in 2019 and started to ride to most destinations within the city on a bicycle. We also try to limit Air/Long Road travel, use less paper, re-use most resources and reduce electronic waste by donating what is not in use or use electronics for a longer duration than intended. Soon we’ll work on policies where we will incentivise colleagues who eat locally (as that reduces the need to import products from distant locations), share rides to work and replace their ICE vehicles with EVs. While most of these are plans for the future, we intend to take them up gradually to ensure there is less resistance and we are able to sustain proposed changes in our lifestyle. 

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?

It is a harsh reality but most people today wish to switch to an EV for the financial incentives and not the environmental benefits. Environmental reasons and climate change often get side-lined.

I often hear a conversation about “Climate change being real” when people realise that summers are getting hotter or winters are colder or when we experience natural calamities. We need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to prevent this? 

Something as basic as waste segregation is not widely adopted in most places in India. It’s surprising to see that most developed nations in the MENA region also do not enforce segregation of waste in households. It’s of prime importance that we understand this and self-regulate our lifestyle or the Government will have to step in, incentivise or enforce people to change to be more sustainable in their lifestyle. 

Just running ads or campaigns for awareness are not going to be enough. Stricter regulations have to be put in place and environmentalists have to be taken more seriously before it’s too late. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings?

I personally don’t think I have experienced success as yet. My contributions have been minimal and I would consider them negligible. The vision is to make an impact which reflects in the life of millions for a long period of time. Whilst I am not someone who runs a company which is valued at over a Billion USD, it is difficult to convince people and make them align with the vision. 

There is also a subtle difference between being persistent and being clingy. As an entrepreneur, it’s necessary to know the difference and to know who to have around you for the journey. Unless the person travelling with you matches your vision, they will only end up being a hindrance. 

There are 3 main things I have learnt on this journey and remind myself of these.

You are going to hear a lot of “NO”. You will meet a lot of people who will disregard your idea, do not let them de-motivate you. Self-motivation is one of the most expensive resources and it’s scarce. Use it wisely so you don’t run out of it.

Assuming you do find a person, they may not always be able to align to your vision, learn to let go of people and focus on those who do. If you do not have a person who aligns with your vision, don’t stop searching for them. If you are on the lookout for such a person for a long time, it’s probably the vision that needs to be adjusted. 

It is important to be persistent, but one must know where to stop. Sticking to something that may never work is putting yourself at massive risk. It is okay to fail at something and apply the learnings from that onto the next one. Knowing where and when to pull the plug is an art not many can master. 

What are the biggest challenges being faced in the EV industry? Has any one country got it ‘right’ so far?

The EV industry is MASSIVE. The challenges that lie ahead are bigger than one person, one company or one country. The problems will continue to remain as long as there is range anxiety, lack of charging infrastructure and long periods of time taken to charge the EV batteries.

Norway and China are leading the EV adoption race and other countries need to learn from the, but even in these countries, the charging infrastructure is defined by the companies that manufacture the vehicle. 

Imagine if brands like Mercedes or Volkswagen had to step in to sell fuel because no one else will do so. The vehicle manufacturers are currently charging service providers because they are forced to do so. They have invested massive amounts of money in developing these vehicles and it is in everyone’s best interest to get them on the road as soon as possible. 

If experts from the charging domain step in to fill in the gap, vehicle manufacturers can focus on the battery technology and develop better vehicles rather than focusing on providing charging services.

It needs to be a joint effort between domain experts from the charging infrastructure and vehicle manufacturers to enable faster adoption of EVs.

What career advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future? 

My advice to the younger generation would be to look around and analyse the situation for themselves. Refer to historical data and look at how things have changed over the years and try finding the reasons for those changes. 

They will soon come to realise that it’s us who are responsible for these changes and unless we do something right away to fix these issues, shortly there would be no room left for us to be able to step in and fix them. 

These shortcomings are not too far ahead in the future. Today when you read about the technical advancements, you would often read about companies trying to colonise Mars or space travel and alternative places on Earth for the existence of the human race. 

Looking at billions of $ being poured into making it happen must ring loud alarm bells within us so we wake up to reality and realise that we are already late. We either start to fix the problem right away or fixate over it for the reason of not doing so for the rest of our lives. This choice needs to be made by our youth.

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

I have had far too many ups and downs in my life. I have experienced a steep raise and fallen too quickly. These ups and downs made me value quite a few things that I took for granted. 

A few instances during the initial phase of my career made me realise how important it was to be financially secure. I started to pursue projects in the realty sector as they paid well. Every project I would take up would be of decent value and if something came across that did not pay well, I would not take it up. 

Shortly after I was left with no work and with depleting finances it would become increasingly difficult to live below means after experiencing a lavish lifestyle. The reality of life hits you hard when you are down and the first thing that goes out the window is faith. 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be surrounded by people who truly care for me and stand by me in every situation. Some helped me reinstate my faith while others helped me find work and some helped in stabilising the situation so I could focus on work.  

It’s often said that only a few get a second chance. I can, with gratitude say that I have received quite a few ‘second chances’ and this keeps me grounded.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I may sound like a hypocrite when I say this as my previous answer reveals how I reacted, but I now believe faith is the driving force behind everything. Be it faith in The Almighty or the faith in yourself to do something. 

Be rest assured neither the good nor the bad is going to last for too long. Life will be a roller coaster, it will flip you upside down over and over again. I can scream but it’s my choice whether this is because I am scared or because it excites me.

Company Website: www.chargeinc.in

Akshay’s Linkedin Profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/amukesh/

ChargeInc on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/chargeincindia

ChargeInc on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/charge.inc/

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.

Connect with Dr. Poshendra and follow his work on Instagram

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Policy Advisor & Founder of Climate Bites, Aman Grover

We spoke to recently appointed Nuclear Policy Advisor and Founder of Climate Bites, Aman about his experiences navigating through the industry mid-pandemic, his MSc climate adaptation research in Punjab and more

What is your ethnic and academic and professional background?

Hi, my name is Aman Grover, and I’m a Policy Advisor for the Nuclear Directorate at the UK Civil Service (Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy), where I contribute towards overseeing the new nuclear build power stations as part of the government’s energy infrastructure and net-zero commitments. I’m also a recent Master’s graduate in Climate Change: Environment, Science & Policy from King’s College London, having specialised in climate adaptation within the Punjab regions.

I wanted to use this background with my experiences as a public speaker, poet and facilitator to empower and engage with my local communities and networks. So I recently founded Climate Bites, a new educational platform designed to make climate science accessible, engaging and easy to understand for young people, through concise digital content and workshop programmes.

I believe change will happen through discourse and discussion, and at the heart of that lies the uptake of knowledge and education about climate action. That’s what Climate Bites hopes to shape, the conversations in our living rooms around climate change.

Away from environmental discourse, I co-founded the Two Rupees Podcast, a platform that discusses issues surrounding the South Asia diaspora here in Britain.

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

I don’t have a groundbreaking story to be honest. Like many graduates, I wasn’t sure where my career would take me and chose to pursue consulting and the technology sector after leaving university. I was building applications for clients to transform their business, and it was definitely worthwhile, but I found that I was lacking internal satisfaction towards the work I was doing. It didn’t feel like there was a bigger picture. And when looking at my options, I realised that I had been keeping up to date with articles and books around various aspects of climate science. So I went back to university, choosing to immerse myself in climate policy and environmental change.

I strongly believe robust policy serves as a catalyst for environmental change. And I hope to use this aptitude and drive in my current policy role, to utilise nuclear energy in supporting the UK’s drive towards net-zero and improve how climate change is communicated to the public.

Can you tell us about your MSc research? What were your findings and has it had any significant impact beyond academia? 

Sure! I studied the effectiveness and role of climate adaptation strategies in the province of Punjab in Pakistan, and the drivers and barriers affecting local capacity to build resilience towards climate change.

Both of the Punjab regions represent an important case study in this field, due to their high physical vulnerability and economic significance as an agricultural hub, as well as significant for me since it’s where my family stem from. My research found 4 key themes based on primary research of climate adaptation contributors within the province:

Adaptation strategies in Punjab were difficult to differentiate with other development efforts. Climate adaptation was essentially ‘pasted’ onto bog-standard agricultural irrigation by international donor agencies, and promoted as climate adaptation for appearance and reputation purposes. Respondents from the study implied a disconnect between stakeholders on the ground and external organisation with their climate initiatives.

Coordination and collaboration amongst local stakeholders is key to the successful implementation of climate adaptation in Punjab. Where there has been buy-in and participation from farming communities at all project stages, climate adaptation is largely successful in improving resilience. However, limited communications between departments, as well as external funding being withdrawn when projects finish, threaten the sustainability and longevity of climate projects. 

The bureaucratic systems in place are the biggest contributor to the effectiveness of climate adaptation. This includes power relations between province and district level on who is responsible for climate change management, climate change priorities changing with government transitions, and even corruption. 

Farming communities use very different terminology to that within climate policy, with some communities not even acknowledging and attributing the environmental changes within the region to climate change. The discourse around climate change is written predominantly in English and by external agencies, with little discussion in native dialects and factoring in localised impacts and vulnerability. This weakens attempts to build resilience, since these attempts do not factor those communities that they are trying to help.

The aim of this research was to explore what defined effective climate adaptation in relation to Punjab, which could inform policymakers and international agencies on how best to formalise adaptation and account for vulnerable communities. I presented these findings at a Sikh Research Conference in December 2020 and hope that these efforts lead to more focus and literature on climate change with Punjab.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about your career choice from family, friends or society at large?

No backlash from my immediate family and close friends, they are very supportive and know enough about me to know that I enjoy my work most when I am creating change and trying to make a difference.

I think I experience ignorance mostly, from people who are distant or don’t know me as well. Sometimes it is frustrating, when you get lots of questions or off-handed comments, or where it’s difficult to engage and have conversations with others because they make no attempt to understand other career paths outside of the orthodox ones. But I believe it’s part of the role, to raise awareness of your career, crucial challenges you’ve faced, etc. Since you’re the one engaging with environmental activities, when you speak about it, you are in the best position to articulate this in a concise and engaging manner to others.

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

I definitely acknowledge that I have a long way to go in order before I can classify my lifestyle as sustainable. But there are ‘quick wins’ which I think anyone can do, and build the momentum to make small changes that feel relatively easy. I don’t eat meat very often anymore, maybe once or twice a week maximum, which has taught me to be more conscious about my dietary choices. I’m a big fan of the variety of plant-based milk available, and have switched between soya and oat for my cereal, coffee, etc. I’m conscious about my shopping habits, and try to make fewer purchases and purchase quality clothing that I can make last much longer, as well as thinking twice before making a car journey.

Making incremental changes takes the fear out of change, and opens you up to make larger adjustments to your lifestyle and way of thinking. The black and white way of viewing the world does not work for sustainability, and it’s okay to accept that you are not perfect.

I see my role primarily as having a voice and being able to articulate myself, in order to project and champion causes and hopefully inspire, so I’ve embraced that as my contribution towards social action.

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?

As a community, we have placed our trust in education and believe it to be an empowering platform across all aspects of our lives. Education provides the refinement and the tools to contribute to society, shape our future and live meaningfully. It is what has allowed South Asians to succeed in many fields. But, when it comes to environmental concerns, I’ve found my communities to adopt a ‘someone more specialised or knowledgeable than me will fix it’ type mentality.

It’s as though we believe we are inferior, or we must be an expert, that we can only act when all the conditions around us are perfect. So this is the biggest blocker – disassociating ourselves from the mentality that we need to be all knowledgeable to act.

Fighting the climate crisis is a continuous learning process, both on a deeply personal level and on a large international scale. And in order to empower this, the technical and policy knowledge on why we need to tackle the climate crisis and tangible strategies that we can all align with needs to be easily available and digestible. 

Climate Bites does this through informative weekly videos on a range of environmental topics, from sustainable behaviour to new technologies. I hope to use my experiences, of seeking this knowledge out myself, working in the education sector and being a public speaker, to make this process easier for others. And in turn, with the right information delivered through an approachable medium, we as individuals feel a greater competence, and can support and align ourselves with local organisations that are doing the hard work. Whether that’s holding our local authorities and governments accountable, tree-planting in your town, community-clean ups or pushing for changes in our school curriculums.

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

The largest barrier I’ve seen when working with young people is the belief that one person alone cannot make a difference. It causes us to question whether our voice and the value we project out into the world is worth listening and watching. If we are heard, we feel as though we are unworthy or a fraud. I continue to experience it myself regularly. I felt it when I left my job to pursue a Masters degree, and questioned whether I’d be able to keep up with everyone due to my inactive study skills. I experience it when I run workshops with young people, and wonder if I even have anything valuable to pass on. Experience is the best teacher. Planning and strategizing is useful, but it can be debilitating as well.

I realised that I want my career to focus on contributing towards humanity’s biggest challenges, in any way I can, which would make me feel like my efforts are worthwhile. So I was drawn to climate change, and I’m just beginning that journey.

My advice would be to pay attention to the causes that mean something to you, that bring out real power and passion when you speak about them. Then, throw yourself wholeheartedly into them and ask questions later. I have a favourite quote that I fondly remember when someone asks what impact one person can make. ‘Those who question what difference one alone can make, have obviously never been trapped in a room with a fly’. That keeps me smiling. 

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

The entire process of public speaking for me has been defining. I’ve always loved speaking and narrating from a very young age, but I found myself gravitating at it towards university. I thrived in situations or scenarios where I could influence and inspire simply by using my presence and voice. That realisation was incredible. I feel very complete on any ‘stage’, whether it’s performing at poetry slams, at the front when delivering a workshop or keynote speech, or on a screen presenting to clients and stakeholders in my career. It’s a very grounding feeling, and it’s one I want to continue building towards and pursue every opportunity to do so, as I champion the causes I care about – including education reform, climate and sustainability, creativity and the South Asian arts, etc. So that’s where I hope to end up, with a microphone in my hand, creating change and opening minds. 

What was it like trying to find a job in the industry during challenging COVID-19 times? Do you still think you made the right decision to choose this industry?

It was immensely difficult, for a number of reasons. Like other graduates across multiple sectors during this tough time, there was a lot of self-doubt and internal turmoil that comes with job searching. I think that there is less awareness about the environmental and sustainability sectors overall, so I definitely found it harder to seek career advice and expertise, both from close family/ friends and professional contacts.

Whilst there are people to connect with on LinkedIn and aspire to reach a similar position, I feel as though the options for resources, job boards, forums, etc are all fewer than more orthodox pathways e.g. Finance, Consulting, etc. But I don’t regret aligning myself with this industry, and I am so pleased I am now contributing meaningfully to our government and low carbon energies.

I found the feeling of continuing to contribute whilst job searching kept me going, through volunteering, speaking at events and raising awareness, as well as creating educational resources. Climate change represents a substantial challenge spanning across all sectors, so all of us have a role to play.

How do you feel about the UK government’s TCFD & 10-point climate change plans?

I think the greatest aspect of the 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is what it represents. It shows initiative and intent, and a degree of gravity about achieving net-zero. Better yet, it incentivises green jobs and community involvement.

Economic gains will always generate the most interest in the current society and systems we operate within, especially to large investment organisations, so stressing that environmental measures can also be economically viable is definitely the way forward. So it is definitely encouraging. But it just represents the beginning, and an opportunity to demand more from the organisations that we interact with, for increasing environmental transparency, accountability and action at every stage of their processes. 

Find out more about Aman and Climate Bites

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Sustainability Campaigner Nina Jatana

We caught up with Sustainability Campaigner and Corporate Social Responsibility expert, Nina about her global experience in community development and implementing SDGs in the not-for-profit sector

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I am British-Indian and both my parents are from and were born in Punjab. I have a BA (Hons) in Economics from Manchester Metropolitan University and an MA in International Relations Theory from Warwick University. Professionally speaking this is more difficult to explain! I have a cross-section of experience but, I suppose you could say I am an experienced policy and campaigns generalist in the not-for-profit sector, working my way up to manager roles. The subject areas of which I have experience include community development, CSR and sustainable development issues including the United Nations SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

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

When I was studying my MA there was one module called International Business and it explored the role of business as a global citizen. At the time the premise of CSR (corporate social responsibility) focused on the roles of big businesses operating in foreign countries so the likes of Shell, BP, Nike. Their supply chains and the impact they had on local communities was only really articulated by the likes of Transparency International and Greenpeace – hardline campaigns which acted to raise public awareness of issues very rarely addressed by big business or in the media.

This led to me writing my dissertation on the role of the media and CSR and whether or not the media is a hindrance or support for good. After I completed my MA I looked for intern roles in London for organisations ‘that were doing that sort of thing!’ My first sustainability/ CSR role was as an intern for AccountAbility. 

Can you tell me about your career in CSR/ Environmental consultancy and policy and how you got into? 

It started from my role as an intern at AccountAbility (3 months long). Once that role finished I had to find a paid role to stay in London and managed to get myself a policy officer role for a consumer watchdog called Postwatch (part civil service but no longer exists). This was a stop-gap. It enabled me to stay in London and gave me much needed work experience, but the issue itself wasn’t of massive interest to me.

Whilst there I went on a one month course about international development issues from the perspective of a developing country; 20-25 graduates and non-graduates met in Mysore, India for a 4 week course led by fantastic development experts from India. I came back fired-up wanting to change the world. My line manager at the time told me she didn’t want to see me at Postwatch when she came back from maternity leave. Within 3 months of being back, I got myself a role as a researcher at New Economics Foundation and the rest is history really… I moved onto other roles for a variety of reasons (redundancies, leaving the UK, coming back to the UK etc.)

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

On a personal level, building up a cross-section of experience that has enabled me to move into different types of organisations at home and abroad. I used to think this was a disadvantage – not being specialised in one particular area but recently found it isn’t! On a professional level delivering and running the leadership programme in Mysore, India (I went back there in 2012) for the Global Institute for Tomorrow’s executive education programme. Taking 25 middle managers and executives from across Asia to India and organising a 2 week programme of lectures and field trips. To be able to reignite the networks and friendships I developed all the way back in 2005 was very rewarding as well as useful to other roles – a key learning.

Another key learning is that the range of commitment and understanding of sustainability is vast and it’s really important not to feel intimidated by those around you who appear to be fully ‘woke’. Being interested in sustainability isn’t a competition. If you don’t want to give up meat, it’s okay!

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/ unfamiliar career path? Has it been challenging or isolating over the years not having your peers fully understand your job?

I wouldn’t say backlash at all, just more indifference and a look of concern mixed with confusion. As I write this it does make me laugh. The lack of apparent interest in my work did annoy me when I was younger, you do feel a bit left out.

My parents had such low expectations that completing my MA was more than enough for them and living in London without needing their help was also quite satisfying. If anything it was the fact I lived away from home which probably concerned more them than anything else. I suppose I was also lucky in that we were very much a nuclear family – unusually the majority of both my parent’s families all stayed in India, so there was far less pressure surrounding myself and my brother. 

Yes, I would also agree that not being able to explain what I do, or present a really clear job title was and is sometimes still annoying. Once I moved into campaigning roles that was all a bit clearer!

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

Hmmm… Not massively. I don’t like to waste food and use my own shopping bags.

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?

I think it’s definitely a lack of understanding and dare I say a lack of priority for them (when I say them I am thinking of the older generation to some degree). No matter what, South Asians will fly home to see their families and visit for weddings etc. I would counter, that for specific communities in Asia there is more awareness. My family are traditionally farmers so they see the direct impact of climate change. Climate refugees in Bangladesh are on the rise each year. For those in developed countries their attitudes are somewhat removed and the issue is not so relevant.

Blockers – the mediums which they communicate and live within maybe don’t talk enough about climate issues. Zee TV and all those other channels just don’t emphasise the role individuals can play and how they impact. Businesses, and suppliers advertising on such channels should also perhaps make more on environmental credentials – consumers see these brands as an extension of their lifestyles. 

For the younger generation, I’m not so sure the stigma is there. I actually think they often seem slightly envious that someone has chosen their own career path, rather than following the path set out for them/ be approved of by their families. 

Another point – I think the way many South Asians consume food and understand its value is hugely impressive and positive. I think this should be celebrated – fresh, seasonal, cheap food is the staple for many families (lack of meat for many communities) and something other communities can only aspire towards. This is one way they can understand how they are already helping. Daily household chores are also quite carbon conscious without people even realising. The families I grew up with used their own shopping bags and recycled ones well before the trend was to do so!

I think if you break it down, South Asians are actually already doing a lot just by living their natural, cultural lifestyles.

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?

Firstly, people need to know what being carbon-conscious means. It always resonates more when you can say it saves you money etc. People need to be encouraged to do what they can manage, taking small steps and feel satisfied and accomplished in whatever they can do. In time, they will then learn what else they can do. I don’t think it’s costly in terms of money. It is costly in terms of research, understanding and then implementing it in your own lives. I think being sustainable is accessible to everyone – within their own parameters of how they can live. 

You touched on representation and generally only finding South Asians (majority women) working in D&I, but rarely ever in the environmental/ sustainability sector. Why do you think this is? Why is it important for there to be more representation in this sector?

I think it’s about some of the things I have mentioned above. A lack of peer networks going into similar careers but also I think a lot of it is down to understanding the types and breadth of careers you could have. It’s much easier to envision a career path as a doctor, optician, accountant etc.

It is really important to have representation in the sector to develop practices and research that can be applied across social and ethnic boundaries to affect change at a faster pace.

If you don’t have BAME representation you are perhaps less likely to get BAME engagement across the board through communities, business and families. 

You’ve worked in policy and community regeneration, across corporations and even in Hong Kong – what has been the most rewarding for you? 

That’s a tricky one! The community regeneration work was perhaps most rewarding because I engaged with beneficiaries more directly, whereas a lot of corporate work is directed to the goals of the company, no matter how ethical those are – it is hard to measure the ‘good’ you have done.

However, working with corporates is rewarding when, as I have, have those ‘penny drop’ moments when a senior executive sees a business issue through the lens of CSR and social justice issues. What’s more rewarding is seeing companies who have those moments make actual change.

Change is much easier and faster to achieve in a corporation than lobbying for local or national policy changes… If only more corporates realised this!

Having worked in such diverse organisations, can you confirm the industry is just as economically viable and stable as those of your peers?

Absolutely, if anything I would say it’s probably the safer long term industry than many others given COVID and the increasingly alarming impacts of climate change.

The insecurity of the industry lies in the roles that are in-house corporate ones. These roles are solely dependent on the success of the business however, business may well start to prioritise these roles more given the demand from consumers and employees to demonstrate ethical, environmental values. However, the industry operates in thousands of not-for-profit orgs as well as in local and national government agencies. 

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

I would say go for it if that’s your interest, passion or looking to be the next environmental entrepreneur. No business in the future can operate without understating diversity, environment and well-being. This is where CSR I believe is headed.

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

One of the executive education programmes I was part of for a company I worked for in Hong Kong took place in Balikpapan, Indonesia. This is one of the last resource frontiers in Asia with virgin forests being chopped down at a pace for their timber and agricultural land. It was an experience of a lifetime. It was a programme for 25 executives and middle managers from one company – a family owned Singaporean shipping company.

The CEO was relatively enlightened for a man of his background and age. He wanted a select number of employees per year to get a better sense of globalisation and open their eyes beyond their conventional business education. The trip was to the family-run new arm of the business – a palm oil plantation in what was once a virgin Indonesian jungle.

It was heartbreaking seeing hectares upon hectares of plantations all owned by different companies, the scale was breathtaking. It made me realise how much work needed to be done (or impossible to do) to accept that resource exploitation won’t end anytime soon.

The role of some of Asia’s biggest paper and oil manufacturers are on a whole other level. On the one-hand it made me think CSR is perhaps a futile exercise, on the other it made me realise how amazing it is when smaller companies can demonstrate the provenance of their products, at every point in the supply chain versus those who require a global supply chain where transparency will always be compromised.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think I have said enough! Although I have sometimes felt despair at doing something that can feel like you are hitting your head against a brick wall, whilst also having to contend with the fact that you mates and your family don’t even know what you do! It is an industry which is finally having its day of reckoning. If it wasn’t for CSR we wouldn’t have seen Sainsbury’s taking the plunge (although that is a ridiculous way to describe it) to have a Christmas advert featuring an all black acting cast; we wouldn’t have a modern slavery act, a constant push to close the gender pay gap and a recognition of workplace well-being.

CSR has come a long way from the days of greenwashing; although it is still out there, social media and activists in particular are constantly keeping companies on their toes in their responsibilities towards consumers, employees and shareholders and this is perhaps the best we can hope for! 

Connect with Nina on LinkedIn