Sustainability and Development should go hand in hand. But that is a challenge for a developing country like India where a population of more than a billion compete for scant resources.

Hamsa Iyer, our next pathbreaker, works at Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited, where she conducts research on Green skilling and Green Collar Jobs at the national level. 

Hamsa talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about  the enjoyment of discussing and debating various policies that enable environment protection and the passion of wanting to build a better society. 

For students, some careers aren’t just careers that are defined by a 9 to 5 job. They are based on your beliefs and conviction about bringing a change, however small it might be !

Hamsa, what were your initial years like?

I was deeply influenced by the cartoon series Captain Planet as a child, and it often left me wondering what we are doing to keep this planet green. I was a passive student in school, did not aim for academics but loved reading about different things. 

Soon, I realized that the unexplored space of environment and development became a core area of interest – how people respond to situations, how does natural resource exploitation lead to poverty – what are the complex situations in this case? 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

So post my 10th, I took up Arts, did a Bachelors in Economics and Statistics. Subsequently I took up Urban and Rural Development as an area of interest for my Post Graduation at School of Development & Planning, Pune.. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

One major event in my personal life – my parents’ divorce got me to think about how lopsided the world is especially when you see stark realities of gender inequality. There’s very little done today to bridge this gap. I’ve been fortunate to meet some pretty amazing people – who believe in small steps that account for some big changes in society’s temperament to enable equity. 

There’s a lot of inspiring work around us. Ordinary people are doing simple things. Early on, I met a young student who was helping us conduct field interviews in Malayalam – and she was aspiring for education to break the cycle of early marriage in her faith and community. Look at waste pickers today and see that their force is collectively bringing a voice that’s demanding segregation from everyone – that’s super inspiring. There are groups of citizen movements across cities that are talking in municipal corporations and state/district courts – pushing legislative and electoral powers to make more citizen centric plans/budgets/reforms. It’s this kind of ordinary people who are bringing the much needed shifts in our society.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My career started as a documentation consultant for India Water Portal. The portal was commissioned by the Knowledge commission for having a one stop data on all information related to water. I travelled a lot in a year – visiting farmers to citizen experts to passionate officers in government institutes. 

Sanitation and Waste Management have always been close to heart topics, so from there I stepped into a more focused research role with Observer Research Foundation – a public policy think tank in Mumbai. Here I worked closely with MCGM officials on enabling small changes in wards on waste segregation. 

From there, I went to work with RPG Foundation, a CSR wing for RPG group of companies – looking at implementation of projects and building collaboration with Government. I looked after a public park which is themed on biodiversity – the entire space is a combination of educational + experimental design – so everyone takes something different back home. Here, I got to practice natural farming methods, bringing down maintenance costs and had loads of fun experimenting sustainability measures in a public space. 

I was about a year and a half in the team, when the opportunity of taking the lead for Digital Literacy came up. The idea of this project was to use digital literacy as an enabler for daily work and access to e-governance facilities in communities. A model of this was already running. I was asked to scale up nationwide with partner organisations. Within 5 months, we put together 7 national centres and had trained over 3000 people in the course. When I headed these projects, a lot of work goes at the back end in terms of budgeting, project visioning, designing: these things are critical and useful to making the project work on ground.

My approach has been cumulative. The work I did with IWP spilled into the work in the CSR space – the interactions with people helped bring great levels of experiments to the public park space. The collaborative efforts with the government as an approach continues to stay on in my current role with Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited, where I am looking at Green skilling and researching into Green Collar Jobs at the national level. 

I have always known intuitively that I longed to work in the development space – this has led to me to work with non-profits and social enterprises. 

How did you get your first break? 

I was the recipient of SEWA scholarship (a fully funded tuition scholarship) at Indian Institute for Human Settlements (iihs), Bangalore. My first job with IWP was through a campus placement through them. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:

The social sector space is not very organized professionally. There is a need to align in terms of better HR policies, social security and salaries. There are established organisations, but these sometimes can be far out of reach.

What helps in this situation is to have friends who are working in the sector – and to negotiate salaries, accordingly. One should not hesitate to ask to be paid for skillsets that one brings to the table. Also, researching about the organization aids in this negotiation. 

Challenge 2:

It’s very important to stay networked and upto date on sectoral changes. Just like IT or Medicine – even social sector sees a lot of changes – specially in policies and implementation strategies. 

Challenge 3

Because the sector is very dependent on funding, sometimes layoffs or contractual nature of hiring is considered normal. It helps to financially plan early, and to have self-paid medical insurance very early on the years. 

Where do you work now? 

I work with MKCL – Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited. I am researching on the possibility of enabling and scaling Green skilling and leading a team of 5 passionate researchers. We enjoy discussing and debating on various policies that enable environment protection. What I love is the passion each person brings to work, and how the work is interconnected, and not in silos. As an organization, MKCL is committed to providing services to the last mile. It is empowering and fuels the passion of wanting to build a better society. 

Local economies have a huge deal of dependency on natural resources. Be in mines, springs, ground water recharge – all of this has a direct or indirect connect with nature. An impact of our dependency is visibly seen in resource exploitation for commercial production leading to more natural resource damage. This is the space where we will need more people to work on – as it is critical for our survivial. The jobs that are aligned to restoring and rejuvenating the planet are Green Collar Jobs. In essence these jobs exist, but are not mainstream or are not the focus of corporate bodies. With sustainability now becoming a term beyond compliance in organisations, this is going to change – for that the cadre of people we need to bring in workforce will have to be re-engineered and learning methodologies will have to be integrated for a quicker turn-around time. That’s the focus of our research.

How does your work benefit the society? 

Today, across the world there’s a lot of momentum on climate change and the work that has to be done on environmental conservation. We’re standing at a milestone where we need to be more local in our efforts to make the larger picture better for not just India, but also others on this planet. For example, if we were to look at the waste dumped in our oceans – and we had to do something about it – it just doesn’t benefit the coastal communities of our nation – it also benefits other communities.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Udaan Biodiversity Park project was one of a kind. I was heading the project, and I built capacities of everyone – from the ecologist to the on ground staff of mavshis and mali. What has stayed with me – everyone loves green, they express this kind of green solidarity very differently. For example, in my conversations with the Garden Department I always talked about the need for native plants. But the mavshis who were maintaining the park would sing to the bees and birds – and that always left me in awe of how we all contribute to the larger picture. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It helps to meet people and get an idea of the work that is being done in the sector. Being passionate about what you believe in is appreciated across all levels. The social sector is portrayed as a charity sector – but there’s a lot of concrete work that’s happening. Inclusion of data based decisions, learning leadership skills are useful – so it’s good to learn them as we go. 

Future Plans?

Right now, I’m hoping to build something on the skilling front with my team. It’s a new space, and there are lots of learnings waiting for me. ☺