For Abhay Chawla, a self-made man, environment is his religion and existentialism his philosophy. Breaking off from a career in electronic engineering to move closer to the realm of nature, this man has positivism guzzling out of him. A post graduate in Rural Development, he has 13 years of professional experience in the IT Industry and has trained over 2,500 corporate executives in companies like Nestle, GE and Pepsi.
He has been a National Consultant with UNDP for a ‘Green City’ project in Gurgaon. He was awarded for excellence in the field of Environment and Information Technology by the District Administration of Gurgaon in 2000.
He is actively involved in the Health and Environment sector having worked on projects in primary health, disability and sanitation for over three years in over 700 villages in Haryana through his NGO-gurgaonharyana.com. He has worked with several schools in the area of environmental causes for over four years. A visiting faculty at the University of Delhi, he tastes the change himself before he preaches it.
He believes in working at an individual level, the reason why he is not a household name; taking it slowly, molding attitudes and mindsets in places where he is often shrugged away with an indifferent attitude.
In an interview enquiring his outlook on environmentalism and environmental activism, he opens up about ‘green politics’ and how he sees the world greying their lands. Excerpts:
(Don’t forget to catch glimpses of his garden reflecting ‘best out of waste’ endeavor at the end of the interview.)
1. Tell us about how all this started; a shift from electronic engineering, what sparked your interest and concern for the environment?
Electronics and environment are not mutually exclusive. It was not that you leave electronics and move into environment. I was always very passionate about environment.
2. Who inspires you the most in your work?
The people around me and my education inspire me the most. If education is to make you better and better would mean sustainable, and you live on this planet, then how can you not be environmentally inclined.
3. Many people today witness how once green, untouched land is being transformed into concrete suburbs and shopping malls at a rapid speed. The effect and impact are overwhelming; how do you think this development is affecting the human mind? Does the lack of free, wild, untouched nature have a negative psychological impact on how we feel, think and behave as individuals throughout our everyday life?
Of course. When your worldview does not encompass everything that nature and humans have to offer and you look at what only humans offer, then you would miss out the larger picture and there is no bigger teacher than nature.
4. Some people have spent their whole life in vast cities and never been in real contact with wild forests. How do you think the ever-increasing urbanization is affecting the interest and understanding of nature in general?
As said above, we have shrunk our world view. With no contact with nature, our empathy levels reduce as well as are awareness. We are like horses during a marriage ceremony, looking straight without realizing there is so much that nature has to offer.
5. After global warming became a worldwide phenomenon stressed by mass media, there has been a growing interest in turning environmentalism into a “green lifestyle.” Do you believe this has had an overall positive effect on environmentalism action in general, or is modern green awareness fading out into just another social trend?
I’d say it has done a bit to both. Some have taken to environment action while some use it as a social trend. The ones who take it as an action are benefiting immensely and so is the planet. But as the ones with an action are a numerical minority, we don’t see large scale changes surfacing.
6. It’s become popular among corporations to produce products labeled “green,” something that seems to have sparked a recent consumer interest in this field. Is there a danger in equating environmentalism with the consumption of “green products”?
What is the problem? At the end of the day whatever makes things more sustainable is good. Humans have to understand that they are fallible and if they want this planet to exist so that future generations can call it their home, we have to make processes and life sustainable or what they say “green”.
7. Is democracy an adequate political mechanism for gearing society towards ecological sustainability, or do we need to find an alternative? Is there perhaps an inherent failure in the democratic process that prevents long-term planning from becoming popularized?
No democracy is fine. It generates competing ideas as well as an environment for those ideas to be tried and tested. If people who are a part of the democratic process have no vision, why blame it on democracy?
8. Do you mean to say that people in our democracy lack the will and the vision to support nature and to bring sustainability?
By people I mean both ordinary citizens and decision makers. Democracy gives power to numbers to implement their agendas through representatives. So if I live in an area where I choose my representative and if I and my representative have no vision regarding sustainability or environment, I will suffer because of pollution and
degradation of my environment. Look around, areas where people or their RWA’s have vision and sensibility, those will be green. The rest will have garbage littered around etc.
9. What are some effective ways of communicating the ecological issue to consumption-oriented “soft-environmentalists,” who’d rather promote a superficial economic reform–and actually enabling them to “get it”?
What is the history that the future generations will read? Or will there be future generations.
10. Why is there no talk of nursing traditional tribal-hunter-gatherer lifestyles that in the past have enabled people to live harmoniously with the environment for centuries to counter this trend?
We have moved from there. These thoughts about ideal traditional humans will not work. What will work is that wherever we are and where we are going, how to make the journey better for all.
11. What is the most difficult and the most creative thing you have done to help the Earth?
Most difficult has been the break step with the urban thought process of ultra consumerism and “I don’t care attitude”. The most creative thing I have done is to export the concept of environment and recycling to many students who I believe will take the concept forward.
12. For confession’s sake, what is the most polluting thing that you do?
Use a private transport; use an electric geyser (cannot afford a thermal one).
13. Many people logically realize we need to do something about the environmental problems, but inevitably feel helpless as lonely individuals when considering the powerful financial and political interests that seem to control how most of our society works. What is your advice to those who want to help and do something constructive for the environment? Is there hope for action on an individual level or do we need to be a part of the system to change it?
Individual is the most powerful and an individual changes everything. Haven’t you read the story about this rural girl who walked out of her husband’s house as it did not have a toilet? The whole village got around to constructing one in their homes!
If we feel unaccompanied, then either we are too weak or too shy to admit our strength. Who can stop anyone from doing anything in a democracy? What is required is conviction.
14. How would you define environmental activism to your readers? How far has it travelled in the Indian context and how far can it proceed? Do you see any hiccups which pose a threat to the very idea of sensitizing individuals on “green issues”?
Activism can be at individual level and at organizational level. Individual level is when you change some things or processes at your and your family level while organization involves your area, district, state and nation.
Any change is problematic but before you ask anybody to change, you have to change first, see its problems and find solutions for the same before advising others. A ‘neta’ approach does not work.
15. How do you picture the state of our environment ten years from now?
I am hopeful that with more young people involved, the understanding for need for sustainability will be realized. I see a sustainably sound environment. Oh, yes I do!
16. A message for our readers.
Nature is god and allows us to thrive. If we don’t take care of our environment, there would be nobody to read about the great things we aspire to do.