B.TECH, ENGINEERING PHYSICS, 1995
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL INNOVATION
SENIOR FELLOW AT THE ASHOKA TRUST FOR RESEARCH IN ECOLOGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT (ATREE)
I grew up in Bandra, when it was still a sleepy suburb of Bombay in the 80s. My dad was a physicist with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and my mom was a math and physics teacher at St. Teresa’s High School in Bandra. In fact, she was a gold medallist in Chemistry. So there was no question of ‘you are a girl, you can’t do science’. Both of them encouraged me academically but my father also pushed my boundaries in many other ways. Dad was a hiker, he introduced me to the beauty of the natural world. On Sundays, everyone would be watching the movie on Doordarshan. But dad would take me from Bandra to Juhu Beach on the back seat of his bicycle. He would swim in the ocean while I played on the sand. I think what I learned from my dad was a sense of wonder. And to not be afraid to explore. My mom was more practical and pushed me to achieve in the competitive exam sense. She was the person who was convinced I could get into IIT and even predicted my exact JEE rank to the nearest 50!
My mom died at the end of my first semester at IIT. So my first two years on campus were very challenging and tinged with sadness. I remember, I used to get out of bed at 8 am, just in time to run to my classes. Luckily the Physics department was the closest to H10. I went to classes in a bit of a fog and hence fell behind on the fundamentals. I participated, somewhat reluctantly, in the inter- hostel competitions etc. Always more behind the scenes than on stage - music, costumes, that kind of thing. But even that gives confidence. It helped me as I moved to a more outward, public speaking career later on in life. I think the fondest memories I have are of walks around campus, the late nights at Chinko’s, chatting and eating Chinese food. Many, many, small moments of fun, of learning, of just hanging around. I wish I’d watched more birds on campus; now I have an interest in nature but fewer opportunities, living in a city centre. I had joined the Engineering Physics program but quickly realised my future was not in physics. I wanted to do something more socially relevant. IIT does allow students a few electives and all of mine ended up being in the environmental space. I did my 3rd year project on air pollution modelling and 4th year project on rural electrification using solar energy. Noticing my inclination, my thesis advisors (Prof. Anant Mahajan and Prof. Narendra Shah) took me on a trip to rural Maharashtra. We visited a watershed which had practiced the experiment of stopping rainwater and allowing it to recharge, thereby transforming the villages and farming incomes. The place I visited was Ralegan Siddhi - which is now famous - but not much known back then.
All this confirmed that I definitely wanted to do the ‘science to society’ interface. So when I graduated, I worked for a year with a couple of IITB faculty on various environmental topics, such as looking at the intensity of hurricanes and modelling the gas grid for Southern India. Then I went to Boston University for a Master’s in Energy and Environmental Analysis. The transition from physics to a new area was quite smooth. Subsequently, I worked with PWC and then with Enron, which was bringing natural gas to India. I wanted to make a difference but found myself inside an aggressive corporation, full of wheeler-dealers who were speculators in the energy market. It was not the place for me. I took a 95% paycut and joined the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development. Feeling the need for more domain knowledge, I joined the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources for my PhD. My thesis was around the dynamics of water supply in the city of Chennai, a case study of water resources management in a developing country urban center. Most PhD theses involve lab work, simulations and analysis of datasets. I did actual field work, which was highly unusual. During my postdoc I developed a framework for Stanford’s Global Freshwater Initiative, analyzing the nature and causes of freshwater globally. If things had gone ‘as planned’, I would have been in a university department somewhere in Europe or the U.S. But in 2013, we moved back to India from the US, due to a series of elder care issues in the family. Though a difficult choice careerwise, it also opened up an opportunity to think very differently.
After returning to India, I joined the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) as a Senior Fellow. By 2018, I had written a lot of cutting edge papers but it wasn’t changing anything. Hence, I founded the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation, to translate the understanding of the problem into real world solutions. My work over the last two decades made me realize that science has the answers. But we need to factor in human behaviour and bring people together to achieve impact on the ground. In Bangalore, every major apartment complex is required to treat its own wastewater. You have 4000 decentralized wastewater treatment systems but they aren’t managed well, because there is no incentive for the RWA. So one of the ideas is, what if we were able to create wastewater markets in cities? We’re working with the city of Bangalore to see if the wastewater can be used commercially, so these small-scale scale wastewater treatment plants can become viable. But it requires getting many, many, different actors aligned in the same direction. A lot of the role that I’m playing then is not to push the frontiers of science but to be the backbone, to inject the knowledge and share data to bring these actors together. Similarly, with groundwater depletion, or any other area of water management. I had to learn many new skills, from mediation to communication to design thinking.
I think the first and the most important skill is a growth mindset. When I took on the director position here, I needed to manage larger teams than I was accustomed to. So I worked with an executive coach. And the phrase the coach gave me was ‘holding power with grace’. I really loved that phrase because I was often in rooms where I felt intimidated. When you go to government programs or meet senior academics - all men - they can be very blunt and insulting to your face. I’ve noticed that even in conferences, only women will be asked really tough and harsh questions. ‘Holding power with grace’ means holding your competence, your power. But being graceful and answering with a smile even in those circumstances.
I met my husband at IIT Bombay and got married right after my master’s. My son was born during my 2nd year of PhD but that actually worked out well for me. I had a lot more time and flexibility, I even took him along for my fieldwork. Then, till he was a teenager, I took up projects with an urban focus, so I didn’t need to travel far. So yes, I did make some compromises and adjust a bit but I’m happy I made those choices. Everyone has challenges and constraints. The trick and the joy is being able to say, okay, how do I take the opportunities I have to the fullest and make my life something that’s really meaningful and fulfilling.
70% of my team is female. All very well educated, competent and committed. But they also happily display their feminine side when they come into office. They don’t feel afraid to say, “I’m bringing muffins today” or “I’m going to spend this weekend doing crocheting”. At the same time we have a young girl who rides an Enfield Bullet. So, don’t box yourself into some particular image, or larger cultural narrative. Be true to yourself, be multi-dimensional. And remember, in the social sector, needles on the ground don’t move very fast. So if you choose this path, be honest, be patient.