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 ESG Research Analyst, Visvesh Sridharan

We caught up with Visvesh, Chemical Engineer turned Environmental Social Governance (ESG) Research Analyst, working in impact investing with Sustainalytics

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I am an engineer turned sustainability professional currently working as an ESG (Sustainable Investing) analyst for Sustainalytics in Frankfurt. I grew up in Chennai, a large metropolitan city in south India and completed my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering before moving to the US to do my masters in environmental sustainability.

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

It has been a combination of different experiences and moments. I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors in nature and this was probably my starting point towards getting into sustainability. Growing up in India, I was able to witness first-hand the environmental costs and repercussions of human development. My degree in chemical engineering also helped me realise the amount of pollution that comes with industrial growth. Eventually, it was about finding an avenue to make an impact and for me that was sustainable finance.

Can you tell me about your career so far and work with Sustainalytics? What inspired you to take this role on despite studying Engineering?

My role with Sustainalytics is to analyse and rate publicly listed companies based on their sustainability performance. It involves engaging with companies to understand how they consider environmental and social metrics and integrate it into their business models. The other part involves helping the investment management community make better long-term investment decisions by providing them with relevant non-financial data that can have financial impacts on the companies that they invest in. 

I got inspired by the fact that my research and analysis can have an impact on how money is being used by investors.

The idea behind sustainable investing of how you can use money as a force for good attracted me to this field. By convincing investors that climate change and other non-financial factors can affect their returns, you are indirectly influencing corporations to act responsibly and ethically.

This top-down approach to implementing sustainability coupled with the fact that you are influencing those who have large capital to manage got me hooked to this industry. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

I strongly believe that the only constant is change and one should learn to embrace it. Life is unpredictable and to never take anything or anyone for granted. Kindness and empathy can go a long way in understanding and convincing people. My biggest success for now is being able to work in a field that I enjoy and being able to help those who are looking to get into this space. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to work in sustainability? Has it been challenging?

Sustainability was a new and upcoming field and there were concerns from family members as to what kind of career I could have in this space. I also had friends jokingly tease me about my intentions to save the planet. But I am thankful to my parents for giving me the freedom to do what I liked and believing in my vision.

It was challenging to find jobs in sustainable finance as I had no prior experience in finance apart from some academic coursework. Although my graduate degree was focused in Sustainability and Impact investing, preference was still given to those with a finance background. However, nowadays I see that trend changing with consideration given to those who have knowledge or expertise in sustainability as well.

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

I think living in Europe makes it a lot easier to be more sustainable. Recycling is followed quite diligently. Public transportation is pretty good and locally I travel by cycle to work. Some of the long-distance trains here are powered by renewable electricity. Most of the grocery items in Germany are sustainably sourced and have certification labels that meet minimum environmental and quality standards. From a personal standpoint, I like living a lifestyle that is minimalistic and free from too many material possessions. I have also been trying to invest my savings in sustainable funds and companies. 

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?

I think people in South Asian communities are well aware of the climate crisis, partly because of the several extreme weather events that have affected daily life in those regions. Some of the South Asian countries are still growing at a rapid pace and the key focus should be about sustainable development and adopting a long-term approach. Aligning growth, based on the sustainable development goals and implementing policies aimed at climate change adaptation should be the norm.

I still believe that tackling some of the fundamental issues facing humanity such as poverty, water scarcity and women empowerment will significantly help in solving the climate crisis.

Being carbon conscious on a practical day-to-day basis can be quite costly (e.g. vegan/organic food supplies, general supplies/toiletries, electric cars etc). How can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

I think there are different ways to be carbon conscious depending on a person’s lifestyle and way of life. Some of the cost-effective ways to be sustainable include minimizing food waste, recycling and composting based on local disposal guidelines, and purchasing products that are designed to last long.

If your local city has a good public transport network, try to use them as much as possible to commute. Changing one’s diet to reduce carbon footprint can be hard and it’s a personal choice. However, one can take efforts to buy free range meat or farm meat instead of factory grown processed meat.

There is this misconception that practicing a sustainable lifestyle is expensive, but it’s the simple things like minimizing water consumption, walking or biking to nearby places and reducing impulsive buying that also largely makeup sustainable living.

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

Future generations will be facing the implications of climate change in ways the older generations never had.

However, history has shown us that when humanity is slowly pushed to the brink, it comes up with some of the most innovative and uplifting solutions to not just survive but thrive.

Climate change and sustainability is the biggest challenge of the 21st century and I am hopeful of our ability to tackle this issue. I encourage the younger generations to be aware of the big picture and try to understand how every little action contributes to something large. To try to cultivate long-term thinking and not for short-term gains. 

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

It is a small incident during my mom’s college years. She was preparing for an important exam during which her father had a life-threatening road accident and an emergency operation was required. As she was in medical school, the surgeon performing the operation requested her to participate in the operation procedure and was scheduled to take place a day before the exam. The surgery was successful, and my mother also ended up clearing the exam. I was just amazed and inspired at the level of composure, mental strength and determination to get through that phase.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I generally like to meet new people and listen to their stories and experiences. My communication channels are always open, and I will be glad to help those who are trying to understand ESG and sustainable finance.

Connect with Visvesh on LinkedIn