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A Conversation With Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani

Climate & Biodiversity | Strategic Philanthropy | Jan 9, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with NatureinFocus Founder Rohit Varma and Kalyan Varma about her thoughts on the importance of conservation, how to reach younger generations, and her love for the environment and a certain black panther in Kabini.

I was born in Mumbai in ‘59 and my childhood was spent in a very urban context. In those days Mumbai was not as dense as it is now, but even then we did not have too much wildlife around. Inside my house, my parents would get rid of any potential wildlife. They would use flit cans and kill every cockroach, ant, and spider. However, all our holidays were spent in my grandparents farm in Dahanu in the northern part of Mumbai, along the coast, among chikoo and mango orchards. It was there that I got to experience nature. In those days, there were no seat belts and we used to drive in an open jeep. It was densely forested all around and we would sleep outside, under a canopy of stars. I think that’s when I learned to not just love nature, but also understand its relevance to human well-being.

As a journalist I did some environmental writing, because Bombay was always tussling with environmental issues. As a reporter for Bombay Magazine, I got to cover some of those issues. Through my work in philanthropy, collaborating with organisations like ATREE, I began to gain a deeper understanding of the issues around biodiversity, conservation, ecology and all the challenges therein for India and the world. Climate change has now ensured that most people are paying more attention to the environment as well. But within the field of conservation, whether we are talking about water, land, climate, or biodiversity, the organisations that have been working on these issues for decades deserve a huge amount of credit for their work.

Telling Stories, Changing Attitudes

There are many environmental organisations in India, some of which do take hardcore positions and clash with each other on certain issues. For example, one of the big issues is that some people believe we can only conserve our forests if we remove human beings from those areas. Others believe that there is no way we can conserve our forests if we don’t have human eyes watching or being a part of it because we are a part of nature. Without commenting on my position on the issue, the point I am trying to make is that civil society organisations working in the environment sector need to come to some kind of common platform, where you can tell your stories without these bitter battles, so that those stories reach the people who have capital that they want to put into this. A common platform would also allow people who would otherwise be confused about what issues to support or how to support them. We need to create bridges between philanthropists and organisations, and make those important stories accessible to more people.

For many years, foreign organisations were funding this space to some extent. While I’m grateful for that, I think it’s now time to draw in some Indian philanthropic capital. For that, we must make sure that we don’t hesitate to reach out to the Indian wealthy. We have to reach out to them without putting ideological barriers over our eyes. Can we do that? Can we open ourselves to tell stories to those who really want to do something but may not have connected all the dots? Each one of us is in our own evolutionary path. I think the time has come to reach out, create spaces, and bring our stories to the wealthy of the country who want to be more philanthropic in the environmental space.

In addition to collaborating with many of these organisations in the environmental space, I have harboured a personal obsession with the black panther in Karnataka’s Kabini forest. I’d been visiting for five years, always searching for Blacky so when I got a call that he was there, I was sure that I would miss him as I have so many other times. But this time he didn’t disappear back into the forest and I finally got to see him. It was quite a moment for me, I actually shed a tear. I was just so grateful to have seen him, he is really gorgeous. But my love for wildlife isn’t only limited to him and luckily for me, India is so blessed – there are so many wildlife sanctuaries one can visit like Tadoba in Maharashtra, Kaziranga in Assam, Ranthambore in Rajasthan, and so many other places in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, and Madhya Pradesh. But personally, Kabini with its trees and wildlife is my favourite.

What must go alongside our fascination with wildlife is the knowledge of our responsibility towards it. How are human beings going to learn to live well on this planet? I think it is our responsibility to introduce nature to young people, especially those who are growing up in otherwise urban environments. We need to get them as excited about seeing a draco, frogs, or even spiders. I found a tarantula in my room the other day in Kabini. The old Rohini would have screamed, but now I understand that the tarantula also has a role to play. We gently took him and put him outside. It’s up to us to share the story about our interconnectedness with younger generations. A tiger cannot survive without everything else in the natural world, including a spider. These large, majestic tigers and lions capture public attention but we need to also communicate the value of all living things. The better we tell our stories, the faster attitudes will change.

The Story of Invisible Water

One of the stories I’m interested in telling is about water. In 2005, I founded Arghyam with the mission of ensuring safe, sustainable water for all. By ‘all’ we don’t just mean humans, but all living species. While we focused a lot on human welfare, lifeline water, and drinking water/public water, we were very aware that our work ties back to rivers and landscapes. We did a lot of work on groundwater management, wetland conservation, drought proofing, and flood proofing with some amazing partners that we have all over India. In the summers, we know what happens in the forests when there is no rain – how dry it gets and how desperate the animals become. One real challenge for India is how to manage its water resources better. We cannot produce more water even if we desalinate, even if we put aside the politics and sustainability aspects of that. So how does one manage, as a country, with the water that we have? I think we need to think hard on this. The forest department also has a role to play in helping the public understand the management of catchments. Through Arghyam we have been able to do a lot of work for the last 16 years with water as it is intricately connected to biodiversity, wildlife, and human well-being.

As individuals, communities, and in our roles as Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar – all of us have a role to play in the conservation of water. At a personal level, we all know that we need to reduce our water footprint. But even then people think, ‘How does it matter if I keep the tap running when I am brushing my teeth?’ Perhaps it actually does not matter because eventually, the system is a kind of an urban cycle. But it does help us to practice valuing water. When we remember to turn off the tap while we are brushing our teeth, if we are lucky enough to have running water, it helps us to understand and mindfully learn about water as a resource. Everything we do to increase our mindfulness in terms of water use helps us to be more successful as a community. Every action that corporations take to ensure that inside their fence and in their supply chain they are being more efficient per unit of production when it comes to water, is helping everybody. Of course, the government has a mandate; it is a lifeline resource. The government right now has undertaken two huge missions on water, and through the Jal Shakti mission, hopefully the lifeline water will be much more secure for people. We already have come a long way in the last few years. But everyone has their own role to play and we should not feel that what we do is never going to be enough. All of us should see that everything we do contributes to a more equitable and sustainable future.

Water is hidden in everything and the things we consume or use has an invisible water footprint. I think the younger generation understands these things more than my generation did when we were young. My generation has a lot to account for. But slowly, as people are telling these stories and being better examples themselves, that consciousness is coming in. That’s not to say that it will be easy. If we look at public spaces in urban India for example, there are very few opportunities to reconnect with nature even if young people want to do so. Perhaps after 2020, we may now reimagine our public spaces. This will not be the last pandemic, nor was it the first. However, it has given us the opportunity to rethink how we connect with nature. During the lockdown, we saw a 30 percent reduction of fossil fuel, albeit for a short while. It bounced back, but because people did not use cars, more people got to walk around their neighbourhoods and breathe cleaner air. I disagree with people when they say this is an elite issue. People living in slums getting clean air is an even bigger issue than people like myself getting clean air. So it did allow us a chance to reimagine what our cities could be. It’s now up to civil society and academia to keep the conversation going, so that we don’t simply revert to being disconnected again.

Staying Curious, Connected, and Committed

I have met so many young people interested in looking for alternative futures, and I think we will see a lot of innovation from them because they are going to inherit a terrible future and they know that. Climate change is already here. I prefer not to be foolishly optimistic, but to have a realistic hope that when people see themselves in a crisis because of the way we are abusing water, land, carbon, etc. they are going to change. Just like people learned to wear masks within one month. We always thought that humans can’t change, but we proved in 2020 that this is not true. So I don’t think we should lose hope for young people. They are going to be at the edge of the environmental crisis and I think they will be forced to innovate out of it, which might mean that they will be less dependent on fossil fuels. I also see a new trend emerging in Western countries, of a post-consumption generation that prefers quality over quantity. In my generation, if we had 100 rupees we would spend that on 10 or 15 things, but this generation is now looking consciously to spend that money in ways that are less abusive to the planet. I hope that these trends are gaining visibility and others may follow.

We also need to start young and schooling and education matters a lot in this regard. In India now, Environmental Studies (EVS) is a compulsory subject, but we must think about how we can enrich what they learn there. How can we give children more hands-on practice? Whether they live in an urban slum or are part of the Jenu Kurubas (honey gatherers) around Kabini, there is going to be wildlife where they are. They just need adults to make sense of it, apart from having time to explore on their own. Learning should be happening at home as well as in schools. And there are multiple mediums for this to happen, including arts and culture. Street theatre and stage dramas, films and documentaries, arts and performances, are all ways through which the story of our interconnectedness with nature and the environment can be told. These stories are important, this is how we can reach children. It’s an ongoing effort and we’re seeing some interesting market interventions coming in. People who can afford outdoor camping enjoy it a lot, they like to go out into the wild. Forest tourism has increased as well. These changes are slow, but they are happening. Our jobs as organisations and leaders who care deeply about the environment is to keep telling these stories, finding new audiences, and reaching as many communities as possible.

My advice to the younger generation is to stay curious. Always keep your mind open and acquire new knowledge about how we are all so interdependent – from the ants and spiders to the germs and bacteria on our skin. Remain curious about that. Once you have that curiosity, you will develop an understanding. So the second thing is to remain connected to the issues that you have understood. I mean that these are all economic, social, political issues of the environment. Don’t hesitate to connect with the economic, social, and political intersections of issues around environment and conservation efforts. Even if it means understanding laws, how they affect you, how they affect the places around you, habitats around you, you must stay connected.

Lastly, once you have become curious and connected, you must also remain committed. This is a long journey. We need perseverance. We cannot be disappointed by two or three things and step back. We have to keep walking to go forward. This is the only planet that we can inhabit, and we know that we need to heal it, to regenerate it and by doing so we regenerate ourselves. So stay curious, stay connected and stay committed.

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