Electronic Waste doesn’t get much attention when we talk about waste management in general. Perceptions can be misleading though, because, at  the rate at which we are disposing off our old gadgets for new ones, we are creating an ocean of E-Waste that could have serious repercussions..

Pallavi Gulati, our next pathbreaker, works on government projects directly related to the basic services for people and monitors, evaluates progress of major government programs.

Pallavi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the The Interview Portal about doing a project on E-Waste during graduation that hooked her to the concept of circular economy.

For students, sustainability is a vast area that covers several domains including technology. Pick any area that interests you and drive a change.

Pallavi, tell us about your initial years?

I grew up in Delhi and did my schooling at Amity International school, Noida. As a child I was never really interested in studies, specifically the way school education was carried out. Rote learning and expecting students to write everything that has been understood from the year’s learning in a particular subject in 3 hours of one day, felt like an unjust way to examine a child’s understanding. I started questioning the need for a formal education from class 7, but my parents told me that there was no option but to at least complete school till 12th, and then I could choose to study whatever interested me. So I just kept going on and on till I completed Class 12th. I had taken Commerce subjects in 11th and 12th, Accountancy, Business Studies, Economics, Mathematics and English, but Maths remained my mortal enemy till class 12th

What did you study?

After school was over, I was to decide what subjects to pick for graduation. I was certain I wanted to pick up something that is very practical. I visited two Architecture Colleges and a Delhi University College, called Lady Irwin College and instantly developed a liking for the subjects it entailed. I understood that for all the theory subjects, there were labs and we were able to touch and feel whatever we study. That became my number one choice and though the cut off for the course was about 15% lower than the percentage I had scored in 12th board examinations, I took admission in B.Sc. Home Science at Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi. 

Three years of graduation were a dream education for me. The subjects taught as part of the curriculum were very practical and interesting. I studied botany, physics, nutrition, psychology, mass communication, resource management, human development, fabric and apparel sciences among many others. I used to enjoy reading the subjects and what I studied, much of it, I still remember them after 7-10 years. Those 3 years got me interested in learning and reading. 

During my 3rd year of graduation, I undertook a live project under the Vice Chancellor of University of Delhi on ‘Sustainability Design Audit’ of electronic and lifestyle products. The project was based on the products that were, in the recent past, used for many (15-20) years but their life has now been cut short and are now being thrown away much sooner. Through interactions with companies and consumers, we could combine the reasons understood for different products under 2 broad umbrellas, planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. This shook me as I saw that we were moving towards a production and consumption system that will be soon in crisis. To understand this further, I chose my Post Graduate program in Sustainable Development Practices at TERI School of Advanced Studies. This was another course where the pedagogy made the studies very interesting. We were sent to the villages to see how life goes on there, without toilets, without clean drinking water and limited food, limited or no transportation etc. We undertook multiple projects in urban slums to understand their institutional mechanisms and systems. This course geared me up towards working in think tanks, research organizations and other stakeholders in the entire working chain of the development sector. 

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

My parents have been in the development sector for 30 years now. My mother is a Delhi Government school teacher and my father works as a consultant in the sustainable development of micro, small and medium enterprises. Our dinner table conversations would often revolve around what is happening in India and around the world, issues in the country and the possible solutions that can help steer the country on a path of development. They were my key influencers to take up sustainable development as my career. Given my background it never seemed like an off-beat career path but more as another step in life towards a meaningful and interesting career. 

One of the major turning points was the project I did during my graduation on ‘Sustainable Design Audit’ of lifestyle and electronic products. After which I was much more sure that circular economy was definitely an area of interest and which led me to pursue my Masters course in Sustainable Development Practices. 

As a sample, I picked up 5 lifestyle products and 5 electronic products. Some of the products were Mobile Phones, Refrigerators, Washing Machines, Ink Pens (replaced by disposable pens), Textile Products. These products were selected as an outcome of a survey conducted among 200 consumers. The basis of the survey was, products that were used for longer periods of time but are not being used for as long anymore, with varying number of years of usage. 

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

During my post-graduation, I undertook a summer program at IIM Udaipur, which was organized in partnership with Duke University, USA. They had selected a batch of 30, including 10 from Duke University, 10 Indian development sector practitioners and 10 from Indian universities studying/interested in the development sector. In teams of 3, one from each segment, we went to conduct our primary research in villages of Rajasthan where different perspectives from each team member were incorporated to develop a functional model for a particular basic service that came out from the needs of the village. These inter-sectoral, inter-continental discussions on subjects are always very helpful. 

This on field experience, along with my other on-field experiences as part of my post-graduation got me interested in the waste management sector. My Master’s thesis was in electronic waste management undertaken with the German Development Institute (GIZ). During my internship, I conducted primary research with the youth of Delhi, mostly college students, on whether they understand how and where to dispose electronic products, and what are their responsibilities towards the disposal. My results were surprising, as I found out that only 10% of graduate educated youth actually know, in a metropolitan city like Delhi, what needs to be done with their electronic waste. 

I realized that information was never imparted by the companies or education institutions or NGOs working in the waste sector and I felt this was a major gap in the sector. Also because we were already in the middle of an electronics boom in the country, where within a few years, e-waste could become a major environmental hazard. 

This led me to joining TERI, a think tank that works on multiple environmental issues.   

At TERI, my role, as a research associate in the Environment and Waste Management Division was to conduct primary and secondary research. Some of my key projects were assessing the emissions from municipal solid waste management, strengthening water and sanitation related basic services for the urban poor in select urban areas, as well as auditing solid waste management systems for large cities to highlight gaps and share recommendations. I also worked on assessing challenges and opportunities in battery recycling with a focus on India, understanding Indian corporate readiness for carbon pricing, understanding the circularity in electronic waste sector in India, among others. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break at TERI was a result of a series of interviews. My university helped me find the best suited opportunity, I applied and got through. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: A few common challenges in this sector is often a feeling of not contributing enough to the cause one is driven towards. But this was never a challenge for me as much because I understand that small small steps is what is needed to make one’s contribution. This is an area of work that can give immense satisfaction.  

Challenge 2: Other than that, because my father has been in this sector, I really never faced a challenge to understand how to drive things, or if I was stuck up somewhere, I always had a helping hand. 

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I work with the Quality Council of India presently as a Project Manager. QCI is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. I manage projects related to Swachh Bharat Mission, hence my major client has been the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and State governments and my work mostly involves monitoring and evaluation of major government programs. My work involved conducting city level evaluation on the Open Defecation Free status of a city to certify them as ODF or not. Then, I worked on conducting a performance audit of cities in India on their solid waste management. Now I work with the Ministry in a consultant’s role on their Water related project.

Major skills required for my job are efficient stakeholder management, which is practically 50% of my job, managing a team and driving them towards our intended outcome and working on the subject on which assessments have to be conducted. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day at QCI involves responding to queries of various stakeholders of the project, keeping the key stakeholders informed within and outside the organization on the new happenings of the project, keeping abreast with all the latest developments in the field of work, working on the report/research methodology/on-ground survey happenings with the team and giving further guidance for the day or the week (depending upon the kind of activity), keeping updated on the government’s movement on the subject, thinking of new ideas/actors that can be helpful for the research/project work in the sector, and then I call it a day!

What is it that you love about this job? 

I love that this job allows me enough flexibility to work in many creative ways. By design, it gives freedom of operation and freedom of thinking. Another thing I love about this job is the feeling of fulfilment after the day’s work.  

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is directly related to the basic services for people, and working with the government on government projects gives me enough scale to actually see things moving over time. Eg, working on the Swachh Bharat Mission’s sub mission, Open Defecation Free program with the government, QCI was a key partner for monitoring and evaluation with the program. This allowed me to see the situation on the ground and the way cities have progressed within months’ time. The cities developed toilets as per their targets in the cities and maintained them every day. It affected millions of lives as it led to reduction in illnesses, reduction in DALY, more women safety, reduced child morbidity among many others. Another project undertaken with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development was to conduct baseline and end line assessment of Toilets in Delhi on a predefined cleanliness matrix. After conducting the baseline survey, the officials were given a 3-month window to work on the required improvements needed in the toilets. The end line survey conducted showed a 25% improvement in the cleanliness of the toilets.  

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

One of the memorable assignments was working on a project where my team was inspecting the cities from where the river Ganges flows and to assess the system of waste management and sanitation services on the ghats. After we submitted the report to the Ministry, the Ministry called a meeting to communicate the findings to all the commissioners of the 97 towns. This report and findings led to development of timelines to implement the recommendations over a 6-month time frame. A monthly meeting was taken by the Ministry to take updates on the progress. After a few months, real progress was made on the ground, where there were open drains and solid waste would flow through the drains into the river, the city officials started putting meshes to stop the solid waste from flowing and started bio-remediation in the drains. All the drains flowing through the city were counted and regular monitoring was happening. All dumps near the ghats were removed and toilets were constructed leading to drastic reduction in people open defecating on the ghats. This particular project was very fulfilling for me.   

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advice you to explore as many fields of work as possible in college and early years of your job to find your calling and work on what really excites you. Read a lot, pick up the area of education that you find enjoyable, explore the world and don’t try to hold onto any belief so tight that you may not be able to go with the flow. 

Future Plans?

I plan to work in the sector of waste management with organizations working on new and cutting edge solutions and eventually start my own organization and work in all the areas that I find fascinating like livelihood generation, working with artisans on handicrafts, water, sanitation and waste management.