Making a transition from law of the land to law of the jungle is not everyone’s cup of tea and this is probably an understatement !
Our next pathbreaker, Sukriti Kashyap, Environmental Lawyer, made that choice, stepping away from the safe confines of the corporate world to face the grim realities of the natural world. Infact, the difference couldnt be starker, testing a lawyer’s tenacity at every step in relentlessly tracking down violators and defending helpless animals.
Sukriti tells Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about learning the ropes through thought provoking internships that made her realize the power of law and due process in dealing with Environmental Issues.
Sukriti, tell us about your background?
I grew up in Meerut, it is a small town 2 hours from New Delhi. I was lucky to get admission in a good Convent School, Sophia Girls Convent Meerut that gave me the exposure to explore my faculties. I was an active kid, with a lot of energy with a will to do everything. I remember most of the times, my teachers and my parents would discuss ways to stop me from being so hyper energetic.
I guess what I do today, has a lot to do with my childhood perceptions. I remember being brave and not afraid of anything since I was little. I was good at dance, poetry, elocution, skating and science as well. English Literature was my favourite subject, because literature usually takes you to a different world all together. I was investigative, watched Discovery and National Geographic most of the time and most vividly I was clear about the fact that I wanted to do something in the Public Domain. Environmental sciences, animals, plants, and all elements of nature used to calm my soul, but I was not always into building my career in this domain. I loved and kept nature on the highest plethora in my life, but didn’t have the faintest idea that this was going to be my bread and butter.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I am a law graduate and I loved every bit of it. I did my Bachelor’s law degree in International Law from Amity Law School, Noida.
There is no specific study on Environmental Law in undergraduate studies. Environmental Law was one of the subjects I studied and took special interest in only because I was generally into environment anyway. I developed my acumen in this domain later. There are various books on Environmental Laws and Sciences, I suggest everyone should read “The scientific Indian” By Abdul Kalam and “Survive or Sink” by Naina Lal Kidwai. It’s no rocket science for which one needs to do extreme higher studies. Of course I have friends who are specialists and super specialists in this field, but they chose niche areas like marine ecology, waste to energy, bee conservation etc. I have always wanted to work in a multi dimensional area such as environmental conservation, because I believe everything is inter connected, and that’s why I did not do a doctorate or specialization in one aspect of environmental domain! But in no way am I suggesting that you shouldn’t do a specialization; you definitely must if your heart lies in a particular species or area. There is mountain ecology, marine ecology, river ecology, grasslands, biodiversity, butterfly conservation (a trend these days!) and the most important at present, waste to energy, and circular economics.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
As I mentioned earlier, I was clear about the fact that I wanted to build myself as a person who is useful to the world, or rather a person who is into public domain. Law turned out to be a good choice when it came to the fact that I loved literature and I also wanted to create an impact. After a while I chose to study Environmental Law and started taking matters to NGT (National Green Tribunal) and Supreme Court in 2017. Since then I have worked on various statutes like Biodiversity Act, Wild Life Protection Act, Solid Waste Management Act, Coastal Regulations, Animal Protection and Transboundary Pollution cases.
The real turning point in my career choice came in 2017 when I rescued a dog out of natural maternal instincts, and then nurtured her to health and well being. Those few months of intense care and emotional bond with the dog left me with nothing but a strong purpose to work in the field of Environmental Law, Policy, Science, Litigation and every other thread that connects me to my raw original self of working to create a deeper impact.
There were several key influencers who helped me along the way like Mr. M.C. Mehta, Vandana Shiva, Advocate Ritwick Dutta, Jaoquin Phoenix, Neel Ghose and Sukriti Kashyap
Some of my mentors were Doctor Ravi Krishnamurthy, Professor J.S. Nair, Mr. Ashwani Swami and all my learned friends.
Tell us about your career path
I interned with the District Magistrate of Meerut and that experience was the best professional experience of my life. All my friends interned with very good law firms in metros, but I chose to come to my hometown and connect with the real, ground level issues of my city. I learnt the basics of law there, drafted applications in Hindi Language, read FIRs, but most importantly I understood village administration including the panchayat system, agricultural norms, land disputes in rural areas and dispute resolution. Well Job was more of a civil litigation work, where I handled dispute resolution, contracts, corporate issues etc
The DM of Meerut felicitated me for my efforts at the end of my 5 months long internship and it was amazing.
But after that, like any young lawyer, I delved in a corporate job with a high profile career to tell people about how many transactions I have made and stuff like that. Nonetheless, I used to feel empty inside, and I lived in that life for almost a year. I used to work for clients with money at stake and in the evening I would come back and watch discovery and natgeo again. I would feel happy looking at wild animals on TV and that’s how it went for almost a year. I didn’t continue in that life for long because I knew I was always purpose driven and I constantly felt the need to define a higher purpose for myself, that’s when I rescued that life changing dog!
LIFE (Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment) was an internship i did initially in 17′. I still go to NGT and SC, because of matters, but I first went there as Ritwick Sir’s intern. He is one of the most amazing and ethical people on the planet. I suggest everyone interested in this field, must speak to Ritwick sir or go and intern with him once in life. He is a stand alone, fearless man who has been able to knock down most of the violators in our country in legal battles. LIFE- Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment is the driving force behind formalization of National Green Tribunal.
Once you decided that you wanted to work on environmental issues, tell us about your transition from corporate to environmental law
I’d like to believe that I am very blessed and lucky to have amazing friends, and family who never questioned my choices and rather were supportive when I told them I am into Environment more than anything else. I started taking up small projects in my hometown and did a lot of community teaching work. Eventually, I started getting invited to speak in small seminars and I interacted with local farmers, workers, municipal workers, who were very receptive. There is a small group of women farmers who are still my clients and I help them in all their compliance work, they are growing turmeric and bamboo. The most interesting part of my work is, I go to forests and meet forest officers. That’s the most exciting part! I love teaching, interacting and empowering them. I always speak about the issues faced by our forest officers in my every talk. I believe they are surreal heroes with underestimated potential.
So, forest officers are great people! They work in forests and most of the part includes walking through the wild life territories protecting our natural world. Their lives are always at stake, from poachers to wild animals in fact! But they do it because they are passionate and have super powers of patience. Usually, the training involves a knowledge empowerment program, which many environmentalists typically do. In the two day workshop we try to teach forest officers about the most relevant sections of Wild Life (Protection) Act, the Customs Act, Forest Act, Tribal Act. The right application of these laws at the time of framing cases for court proceedings is of pivotal importance.
There is also a transboundary pollution case I am fighting in Hon’ble Supreme Court of India that is very close to my heart since those clients are good tea workers. Today I work on tribal laws, water laws and interact with some of the most elevated souls in the world.
How did you get your first break?
I wrote to a few organizations about my vision towards Environmental Policy reforms and started getting projects.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: No matter how much we say on paper that we have a brilliant life, coming from a classic Indian Family has its drawbacks. My parents freaked out initially, they were not supportive, they didn’t show encouragement and thought I am going to quit because this can’t be a full time activity. But I continued and now everything seems to be working well.
Challenge 2: I do come across a lot of guilty and closed minded people who say discouraging and mean things. I only tell myself to be kind towards such people and allow them to pass since this is what they had to do for survival. It does not mean one should include these people or get consumed by their words and actions. It only means one should be so focused and conscious that any negative energy should not impact the core inner beliefs. I try to practice that every time.
Challenge 3: Corruption is the third challenge I face. At first I used to have a prima facie look at it, but now I am able to see the multi dimensional cause of this problem. It is very easy to be corrupt when the suffering body is a tree or an animal. They will not raise the voice as any human would, so I do come across corrupt bodies that have least amount of dedication to work towards environment and natural world. You will be surprised to know that root cause of corruption is not lust for money, but inability to feel impact. Every human wants to feel important, but when they lack the skill and efficiency to get appreciation, they find the easy way to feel important and hence they move towards corruption. It’s purely psychological. I believe through regular training, empowerment workshops and deep compassionate interactions with officials, bodies and ground task force, we can make a holistic difference in the system.
Where do you work now?
I try to solve problems through policy analysis, nitpicking the loopholes in environmental laws and policies litigation for their consideration. For eg:- We are working on a trivial issue of making veterinary care equivalent to human care. This is a major policy issue and the present day system supports human care doctors more than vets. Vets are treated like second graders in medical domain leading to frustration, demotivation and lack of skill training. We are proposing, through our medico legal policy analysis, to eradicate this problem through certain solutions.
EnviroLegal Collective is a volunteer based group supporting young lawyers to take up Environmental matters. We started by encouraging lawyers in different domains of legal practice to take up an issue to court, and fight it till conclusion, making it a lucrative option to pursue. It’s not a company, it an informal group run by myself and another lawyer Taniya Malik. What prompted me to take up this initiative is the need to get more people into this domain. It is extremely important that we understand that not every case needs to be filed by people like MC Mehta and Ritwick Dutta. New People have to come up making way in order to fight against violations. We can do any work we want, but being environmentally sensitive cannot be an option, it is an implied duty to work on the side of the environment, be in court or in general life.
We keep conducting Empowerment and Training programs for the Forest officers, municipal officers, and agri based groups. We are venturing into circular and green economics and are conducting regular meetings and events for social entrepreneurs.
Circular Economics is a great domain to make your career in. What we first need to understand while buying a product is, we also pay for the packaging, the same packaging that we conveniently dispose off without putting much mind to. This mass production of garbage results in overflow of landfills filled with unsegregated and toxic waste. This issue was brought to light in 2010 by Swedish Govt. and they started importing dry waste from India and other such countries with no administrative control over such activities. They started making products from this waste and selling them as exotic goods. At present we have Saahas Zero waste, Eco wise Management and Rexaw etc., working on door to door collection of waste and then turning the waste into different kinds of goods. A lot of companies have ventured into recycling of PET bottles, Tetra Packs and Polymers.
When economy benefits from the process of creating value from any product that is deemed a waste it can be called a circular economy. It has tremendous scope and is filled with opportunities. Government is taking Public Private Partnership very seriously and all such startups are getting noticed, receiving funds and doing some great work in this domain.
As long as you have passion to support the life giving forces on planet, trust me, you don’t need a degree. But since you are students I must tell you, you must have deep seated passion for nature, a sound degree, fiercely brave heart and presence of mind.
Whats a typical day like?
My day starts at 6:00 am. The first thing I do is I give time to my well being and practice yoga. After breakfast i reach court by 9:30. Then I reach office by 1:00-1:30, and start having meetings, drafting and policy work. The days I go for talks and workshops, I am fully immersed in those experiences and keep my phone away.
What is it you love about this job?
The fact that I am fully aligned with my life’s purpose.
How does your work benefit the society?
I don’t really see my work as my work, I see it as my duty and I ask myself, if not me when who? If I find someone who can, then well and good. But if not, then it has to be me, because I am there! I do it because I can and I should, when I am able to spread this message some people are deeply impacted and the ripple effect takes place. That’s the major win!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I really can’t decide any work that is closer to me because every case, every file, every workshop has been so special. But still if I have to name one, then I should say a case on birds. That case made me travel through some of the most notorious markets where exotic birds are traded. I took that to heart and have been fighting that matter ever since. Every case is deeply close to me but the birds case makes me cry so I guess I can say this case has a deep impact on me emotionally, and we are still working/ fighting the case.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I believe in three principles and I adhere to them
1. Consciousness- All the people in the world lie about success and how it is related with hard work and all, of course hard work is important, but most important is your direction. Define your direction to yourself clearly and stay conscious and alert all the time.
2. Integrity- In order to lead a good life, have integrity. Speak what you mean and mean what you speak, and in case of uncertainty, keep quiet.
3. Compassion- You cannot be selectively loving and call yourself a compassionate person. Have love and passion for all kinds. Love your work, find your tribe, always speak highly of people behind their backs and in case you don’t like someone don’t say anything at all. Make friends and make real friends. Set boundaries and never try to please anyone, even your own parents. Become genuine and love yourself before anything else.
There is no fixed approach to starting a career in Environmental Law, but on a general plane, I think it is very useful to start by doing community work. I will never suggest someone to directly go and start fighting PILs and start doing major things ignoring the small things. I suggest start small.
Charity begins at home: Educate your family members to segregate the waste, use minimum amount of water, install a water meter and check the amount of groundwater wastage and spread these small messages in your localities. For eg:- In my first local workshop we educated household ladies about food and water wastage and its environmental implications. Make presentations and speak in community centers. Ask the local parshad to arrange meetings and give data points to tell your localities how small actions can create big changes. But before anything else, do your home work well, make sure you speak right points, laws and stats. I suggest everyone to read basic laws such as Prevention of cruelty to animals act, water act, and solid waste management act. It gives immense confidence to influence!
Reach out to local NGOs and see how they work. In case they are not working, get behind their back and become the best volunteer ever for them and in case they are working then learn their ways and give suggestions.
File RTIs- This is the strongest tool in your hand as students. Ask the government bodies about funds, Swacch Bharat mission status, their actions on waste segregation, wild animals census report, water quality, air quality, appropriation of funds when highways are being made. Write to ministries, local pollution control boards and enjoy the show.
Update yourself: Keep yourself informed, check Ministry of Environment and Forest website regularly, they keep their updates there, find loopholes and write to local think tanks or ministries itself. Take action.
There is no substitute for bravery! Be brave, be fiercely brave! and hunt down your dream like it always belonged to you.
Keep getting better, best, and then unbeatable for the environment.