There has always been a significant information gap between Policymakers who make decisions and the citizens who bear the brunt of those decisions, especially when those decisions are not backed by proper research, data or evidence.

Megha Nath, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Economist, does a lot of research that consists of modelling, data processing, writing (proposal writing, report, newspaper articles, blogs), and finally disseminating the results for policy recommendations that are inclusive and forward looking.

Megha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about applying Economics and Mathematics to build scenarios, make projections, and arriving at data-driven insights that play an important role in restoring nature.

For students, if you like to be a big picture thinker who can connect the dots on ground level data to help the government with effective policies, Environmental Economics would fit the bill !

Megha, tell us about Your background?

Growing up, I ensured I brought back raw materials from the various ecosystems I visited, be it fern-corns and pebbles from the hills or seashells from the beaches, only to fuel my creativity to make presents for my friends and family out of them! Hence, it did not take me long to understand that nature was my true calling owing to my inclination to stay close to nature and my propensity to reuse resources. And, once I grew up to understand the concept of a “career”, I instantly realized Environmental Economics was the subject that would allow me to pursue what I identified the most with, restoring and optimizing Nature.

Environmental Economics allows a person to manage and optimize the use of natural resources (but that doesn’t mean you can escape all the mathematics and statistics that any other stream of economics brings with it).

Hailing from a science-dominant background, my parents were naturally inclined to have me opt for Science as well, but I chose Commerce and went on to pursue a graduation in Economics and Mathematics from University of Delhi. However, it’s only in the third year of my graduation that I learnt of the existence of Environmental Economics as a field of study and began researching its prospects as a career option. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After completing my graduation in Bachelor’s in Arts (Economics and Mathematics) from Gargi College, University of Delhi, I completed my post-graduation in Environmental Economics from Madras School of Economics (MSE), Chennai. However, I did work for a few months in the interim but more about that later.

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

I never had a true vision of what lies ahead of me in terms of a career and more so because I have always considered myself to be the “Jack of all trades, Master of none”. In the face of multiple options, the marginal utility of all the options funnily tends to increase, but at a diminishing rate! Naturally, me choosing the “perfect career” was a gradual process and I would love to share with you a few realizations that dawned on me in the due course of that process. Hopefully, they will provide enough insight to inspire you or at the least help you to be more decisive while making your career choices. 

Realization 1: Right after my graduation, I joined Evalueserve Pvt. Ltd. (Gurugram) as a Business Analyst, and I was one of the few from my stream to have been placed during our campus recruitment drive. My job description entailed crunching data and analyzing revenues of large telecom industries. Of course it sounds interesting and critical and definitely came with perks such as a swanky office and hefty salary like most corporate jobs, but having tried my hands in the field of research during my internship, this job felt pretty monotonous and mechanical and I soon realized that a corporate giant is not my cup of tea. 

Realization 2: During graduation, I had the opportunity to do internships at Think Tanks – Observer Researcher Foundation, NGO – South Asia Foundation and Youth Lead Foundation – YP Foundation. In addition to that, I also worked with a lawyer, a CA and in an insurance company. Didn’t I tell you early on in this interview about me being the Jack of all trades and Master of none? But jokes aside, I enjoyed working at the Think Tank and NGO the most. The work I did there gave me firsthand experience of on the ground research. Think Tanks and NGOs are not very bureaucratic in nature and due credit is given to the employee along with responsibility and accountability, irrespective of age or designation. The nature of the work was such that I could make enough time daily for personal growth by reading. There is scope for more multidisciplinary work in such setups for a beginner. 

Realization 3: As I had mentioned earlier, once I confined myself to the daily grind of the corporate, I was able to think retrospectively and compare it with the internship experiences. I strongly understood that there is a vast contrast between the daily 9-5 routine of a corporate employee behind the desktop and that of a Think Tank researcher. My choice was made at that very moment. The next daunting question was, “What should be my specialization?”. 

Ever since childhood, I have been inquisitive to know a lot more than meets the eye and this is what I leveraged upon to find the answer to my question. 

I was not acquainted with any environmental economist to make a choice the easy way so I banked upon the old school way of reading articles and interviews and I also reached out to professionals via LinkedIn to get an understanding of their daily schedule in their field of work because should I choose their path, I should definitely like what they do on a day-to-day basis else, my work would not be interesting. That apart, I also based my decision on the genre of the books I like to read. 

Once I got talking to people belonging to the same field, I related more and gave me the courage to not look back!

Realization 4: I have always enjoyed Economics as a subject. Despite the advanced levels of mathematics and statistics behind each theory, the subject never frightened me. In fact, I started loving it more as I realized that the brilliant combination of Economics and Mathematics provides a wonderful insight about everything the world revolves around. I felt empowered to build scenarios, make my own projections, arrive at data-driven solutions and implement changes. 

I must say I derive immense satisfaction from the fact that I can practice all the theories I studied so far, in the real world – an inability which is often a common rant for some of my peers in the corporate world.

Realization 5: A quick fact: Amongst all the colleges I had applied to for a postgraduate degree in Economics (ISI, DSE, IGIDR, JNU, MSE), MSE is the only college that offered a specialization in Environmental Economics back in 2012. Naturally, I was most eager to clear the selection process for MSE. When I got the news of making it to MSE, I was excited, but I cannot deny I was quite anxious as well. Environmental Economics was not one of the most sought-after streams as there were reservations about its prospects and range of career choices. I was quite apprehensive about its reach in India. But I did not let these thoughts be a deterrent, instead, I was more driven to do my homework about the subject. I figured out that owing to the rapid changes in earth systems and the pressing issues challenging sustainable development, there is an urgent need for integration of economics into the core of sustainable development and vice-versa. That is when I decided to take the leap of faith and I did not regret my decision one bit as the course kept me enthusiastic for its entire duration.

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 school days, I worked on strengthening my concepts in economics and math. I also Identified my liking towards microeconomics, mathematics. I also used to read op-eds on environmental, socio-economic issues which influenced me quite a bit, especially being aware of activities that happened around UNFCCC and other UN bodies. I enjoyed learning about Equity Markets and tried to understand how macroeconomics worked.

During my graduation, I figured out my strengths and weaknesses in various disciplines in Economics. Public Economics interested me. I read a lot to get to know about global climate change economics. During college I realised that extracurriculars are very important and bettered my communication skills by joining the debate society, headed the placement cell to be abreast with the job market, and supported my programme as a treasurer.

My first internship was at an NGO where I learnt how an NGO’s finances work. I built roadmaps and development strategies for projects, helped the team raise funds, presented in front of government departments for approval, and got my first experience to do field work to collect potter’s socio-economic data.

I also learnt report writing and got exposure to mechanisms and techniques of research. I was fascinated by the daily routine of the mentors in the workshop at ORF (Observer Researcher Foundation). 

I was able to employ my skills in Research and Proposal writing, analyzing data, developing questionnaires, and managing stakeholder engagement.

At my first job at Evalueserve, I learned advanced excel during my job. The tricks and tips are helpful till date.

This is where I learnt that I don’t enjoy a daily life in a corporate office. I didn’t contemplate a lot. I started preparing for Economics entrance exams for masters and worked towards building a research profile.

I enrolled for my masters at MSE. At MSE, my thesis was on: Role of Education in Climate Change Decision Making (conducted primary data collection for different demographics).

Two years at MSE are divided into 4 semesters. Students get one year to do their thesis (3rd and 4th Semester), where enthusiastic students start identifying their research question after their 2nd semester examination. In the 3rd semester we were supposed to do literature review and come with a research questions/hypothesis and build the methodology and write the findings in the fourth. I have always been very intrigued with the fact that why aren’t humans conscious enough towards their basics – the nature, culture, humanity, health and hygiene. Most people respond that they aren’t aware or educated enough. This thought was the first trigger towards my research question. I wanted to understand whether only the aware and educated ones make or influence policy decisions, especially when every country has laws to make everyone accountable and responsible. Despite that Climate Change is not in mainstream policy making. 

I dedicated my 3rd semester to understand the policies and stakeholders involved in policy making of Global warming/ Environment/ Climate Change and understood two things that helped me build my research question.

  1. Climate Change was a luxurious concept in a developing country and hence wasn’t getting the priority it should be getting in policy making.
  2. An ideal situation in an economy is when the vulnerable target group gets sensitized and makes a noise about the issues caused by climate change so that adaptation and mitigation is possible. 

In reality, there is a huge gap in understanding the concepts of climate change, especially among the target group and these gaps cannot be resolved as the policy makers do not get the correct responses. This helped me identify my target audience and then start with a primary survey to understand the level of understanding and consciousness among the farmers (who are the most relevant stakeholders in climate change policy making).

But I managed to narrow down the scope and my thesis highlights to the following:

Substantially and measurably improved climate change literacy/awareness in the society will enable minimisation of climate change impacts by taking informed actions and prepare for changes.

With a view to understand how climate change concepts are conveyed to different audiences, this study was conducted through a primary survey in villages of two districts: Palwal (Haryana) and Nammakal (Tamil Nadu).

Also, one of the other goals was to estimate which form of education would be most effective in reaching the vulnerable target group so that adaptation is faster and easier. By understanding the gap between the source of education and receptor the paper concluded that the best mechanism to disseminate information on climate mitigating and environmental friendly techniques is by direct interaction with the target group which could be done by either screening audio-visual documentaries to the farmers or by directing the farmers to comprehensive action plans such as those prepared by the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA). The paper further provided some pointers for effective implementation of NICRA action plans.

Some of the lessons I learnt were:

  1. Choose a simple topic and aim to find a real solution,
  2. Choose an open-minded supervisor, 
  3. Aim to publish your thesis 
  4. Write articles/blogs to share the process/results.

Again at MSE there were lots of extracurricular experiences that  taught me how to handle pressure, multi-task, manage time well and increased my exposure beyond the subject.

My first role after post graduation from MSE was at the National Center for Sustainable Coastal Management (MoEFCC). Here I Practically got a chance to apply what I learnt in my masters – Economic Valuations in Marine and Coastal Ecosystems. I also got introduced to Resilience Models and how to quantify perception data and further analyse it.

Coastal and marine ecosystems, including mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, sand beaches and dunes, mudflats, salt marshes, estuaries and marine waters, provide a host of services that are of vital importance to human well-being, health, livelihoods and survival. These include ‘provisioning services’ (e.g. food, water, raw materials), ‘regulating services’ (e.g. coastal protection, carbon sequestration), ‘recreational services’ (e.g. coastal tourism) and ‘habitat services’ (e.g. nursery services). The aim of this study is to value, in monetary units, coastal and marine ecosystem services in India. The reasons for doing so are two–fold: i) the destruction and degradation of coastal ecosystems necessitates the accounting for ecosystem service losses in terms of the benefits foregone to human beings, such that appropriate decisions and actions regarding the extent to which coastal ecosystems are to be conserved may be taken; and ii) very few studies exist in the literature that have comprehensively valued coastal and marine ecosystem services in India.

For the book Megacities and their coasts: Risks, Resilience and Transformation, I was involved in the data collection and study design to understand where do Indian Urban megacities on the coast stand. A set of parameters were made on the basis of which each city was to be analysed in terms of government readiness, adequate resources, public communication and awareness, disaster management, etc. to check where each city stands in terms of risk, resilience and transformation. This entailed conducting public surveys, talking to experts, holding stakeholder engagements with state and central government officials, interviewing policy makers to collect perception data through a semi-structured questionnaire. The outcomes were used by an international consortium of researchers and policy makers to build interventions and better regulations to increase resilience of urban megacities around the world. The study began with 6 megacities across various continents to reconceptualise megacities and coasts in an integrated system. 

I next had an opportunity to gain experience with an international NGO in Grant Management, International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). Here, I got introduced to monitoring and evaluations, and methods of experimental economics. In my work I applied my knowledge to a range of ecosystems – Forestry, Agroforestry, Agriculture, Nutrition and Livelihood Missions.

I learnt tools and techniques for carrying out research and various methodologies of experimental economics, conducted randomised controlled trials( one method to do an impact evaluation), Evidence gap map, stakeholder mapping, systematic reviews, meta analysis, developing a theory of change, qualitative analysis using NVIVO

An interesting tool that you must explore is the Evidence Gap Maps (EGM) that 3ie developed. EGMs are a useful tool for development decision makers looking to see what evidence exists to inform policies and programmes. For funders and researchers, these maps show where more investments are needed or where they can avoid duplicating existing research the 3ie site that showcases an interactive online platform that allows users to explore the evidence in a particular evidence gap map (EGM). I supported to build a gap map on forest conversation and agricultural innovation techniques

I took up reviewing assignments once I started getting a hang of the subject. This made me learn beyond my own work.

I am currently working at the Environmental Think Tank, The World Resources Institute.

How did you get your first break?

In 2014 when I was nearing the end of Masters in MSE, I opted out of the campus recruitment drive. I would be lying if I said I did not get jitters as I saw my batchmates sweat it out each day to get hired by a company that would bless them with the big paycheck each month. But I decided to toughen up and remind myself each time why I chose this field and what I wanted to do. A big reason to sit out of the campus recruitment drive was the fact that the companies that showed up were mostly KPOs, analytics firms, consultancies or banks, primarily in search of an analytics profile. Clearly, I didn’t fit the bill. 

A very predictable next step is quite often PhD, which is a great advice and I too had it on my mind! But I was not in favor of pursuing a PhD immediately after my post-graduation as I felt the need of practical exposure to be able to correlate the theoretical applications of economics into policymaking. I was open to exploring the possibilities of doing a fellowship or working for a Think Tank/Government Research Wing and even interning with a professor on a specific topic. I wrote to researchers/professors and applied to openings listed on DevNet, Devex, NGOBOX, UNjobs, and the likes. This phase was an eye opener as I realized, quite contrary to popular belief, there is a huge demand for environmental economists in ever sector – government, research or corporate, the only challenge being the number of available/vacant positions for an environmental economist is much less than that for an MBA graduate. 

After the grueling phase of job search that lasted almost two months, I got a lead of an interesting role as a Junior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, Chennai which is a research wing under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India. The nature of my work there allowed me to apply valuation techniques (something that I had learnt in my third semester) to manage the Indian coastal and marine ecosystem in a sustainable manner. 

What were the challenges that you faced? How did you address them?

In my initial years, the lack of guidance and acquaintances was quite frustrating. Finding out the correct opportunities was even more of an ordeal. What really kept me going was my undying zeal to explore, as I earnestly believe and operate on the principle that “Exploration will lead to success”. True, the trial-and-error method is time-consuming but at the end of it all, you emerge more aware and experienced. A guided and structured pathway will always make life easy and this exercise done by Interview Portal is essential to know where to start from, but you should be able to make your own trajectory like many of my classmates did after their Masters. 

A tip for those who will be applying for graduation would be to be well-versed with subjects like Econometrics, Statistics and Mathematics and to also be familiar with the concept of data science. Knowledge of a coding program would also turn out to be helpful. We must remember that the subject is evolving at a fast rate. I make it a point to keep myself abreast with the latest technologies in industries and enroll myself for short-term courses and workshops. It is imperative that we keep updating our skill sets to suit the needs of an ever-evolving industry. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

Currently, I work as a Senior Project Associate with the Climate Program at World Resources Institute (WRI), India. I transitioned from working as an Energy Mapping Expert with the Energy Program in Bengaluru with WRI. In the last two years, I helped create a data visualization dashboard for the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Ministry of Power and advanced WRI’s research on carbon markets. I previously have built the India chapter for Power Explorer at WRI. 

Data Visualization dashboard aims to create a database to monitor Energy Efficiency and showcase India’s actions to achieve sustainability and helps in informed decision making towards achieving Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) goals. This is a tool for the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Ministry of Power that will explain the energy efficiency landscape of India across industry, building, transport, municipal and agriculture sectors, track energy savings, carbon reduction and monetary savings due to energy efficiency schemes under the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Ministry of Power and showcase the capacity building and new initiatives done by the government across sectors to increase energy efficiency. This tool will help increase transparency and efficiency in policy decision making. 

Power Explorer will meet that need by bringing together extensive data sets and visualisations that enable you to explore the current state of the power sector at global, national, and individual power plant level. The platform will contain information on all types of power generation, regardless of fuel type, from large-scale traditional power plants to distributed renewables to energy storage. By tracking all forms of power generation and providing centralized data and visualizations, Power Explorer will show structural shifts to clean energy in the power sector over time, identifying patterns and pathways toward a more sustainable and energy-secure future.

In the last few years, I have worked in several sectors, including power, coastal and marine ecosystems, forest conservation, agroforestry, agricultural innovation, nutrition, water, carbon markets and energy efficiency. My research uses economic valuation, market simulation, impact evaluation, stakeholder mapping and consultations. Hereby, I support multilaterals, funding organizations, think tanks, government departments and understand how social development and the environmental ecosystem operate. As part of my work, I have supported ministries and think tanks to develop data tools for evidence-based policy making. I also supported Indian Society for Ecological Economics (INSEE) as managing editor to launch their first Journal – the Ecology, Economy and Society in 2018 and review economic valuation papers for the Elsevier Editorial System. Apart from the research, I have recently taken social entrepreneurial initiatives to build a business model and roadmap for policy implementation to utilise wastewater in urban spaces in India and received seed funding for accelerating its implementation. 

What problems do you solve? 

Environmental economists study or develop policy recommendations relating to projects that impact ecological and socio-economic events on the local, national, and global economic scales. In simple words, Environmental Economics gives you a good combination to be a thinker, a critical reviewer as well as an implementer. For instance at a macro level they may analyse the price of carbon for an industry or an economy in order to combat carbon emissions through market-based mechanisms or suggest to the government and companies the optimal share of renewable energy use by conducting a cost-benefit analysis. At a micro level, they may also run sophisticated environmental modelling programs to analyze the electricity consumption patterns of a state or many districts under a state. Based on these analyses, they may develop cost-effective and sustainable policy recommendations, and communicate them to policymakers through reports and presentations.

As my job, I have had to build an idea from scratch to prove whether it works well or not. A typical day for an Environmental Economist can’t be generalized. It depends on the type of stakeholders you are engaging with or type of ecosystem you are dealing with or even the type of target group you want to impact. 

But I can categorize the activities broadly:

One has to do lots of desk research that consists of modeling, collecting and cleaning data, writing (proposal writing, report, newspaper articles, blogs), and coming up with a result dissemination plan for policy recommendations. Most of your days may go into secondary research. Those are days when you are on the laptop or with books and reading a lot. 

You have to be a thinker and someone who can join the dots. For instance, when an Environmental Economist needs to assess the costs and benefits of various interventions/policies/regulations that affect the environment or natural resource stocks, they need to understand the ecosystem, research the current scenario and understand the history to be able to build further into the policy systems by assessing the correct tools and techniques. 

Field work (this is my favourite) – This is when you go to investigate your problem or implement the intervention or measure the outcome/impact on ground.

Stakeholder engagement – This can be at different stages of the project; convincing funders or collaborating with local agencies or gathering expert advice from others in the field or disseminating the findings. Stakeholder engagements are communicating through interviews/ write ups/ events. 

Caveat: Depending on your project and project funding you may have a travel intensive job or a job profile where you are close to nature or in more remote locations. For example, a forest certifier may visit forests for audits but a researcher working on building a systematic review on forest conservation may just have a full-time desk job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The core question at the heart of sustainable development is how to allocate the finite resources of our planet to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. An environmental economist gives a measure to the publicly available goods and services. Whether it’s by evaluating the marine or coastal ecosystem to establish a case towards its conservation and protection that formulate into policies at a national or international level or it’s giving choices to the government to either put a carbon tax or introduce a carbon trading market or other interventions to reduce the share of the country’s emissions. 

I have worked with multilaterals, funding organizations, think tanks, government departments as a consultant and well understand how the entire social development and environmental ecosystem operates.  Apart from the research, I have taken social entrepreneurial initiatives to build a business model and roadmap for policy implementation to utilize wastewater in urban spaces in India. I have also supported ministries and think tanks to develop data tools for evidence-based policy making. 

I would more specifically answer how an environmental economist working in a think tank or research wing of a government department contributes to the society: As mentioned earlier an environmental economist works with professionals of various fields to solve multi-disciplinary issues and helps in applications of environmental issues that may include renewable and non- renewable resources, pollution, global climate change, international trade, and environmental politics through economic techniques. 

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

After following a structured manner of working in the corporate and maintaining a well-defined timetable as a student, I entered the world of Research & Academia. 

Freshers in a corporate undergo a rigorous training and have multiple orientations and workshops that help them get familiarized with the processes which they are expected to work on independently soon after. While freshers in the research field do get mentorship, they are mostly expected to figure out life by themselves. And, if you ask me, I love this process much better as I strongly believe in the ‘learning by doing’ principle. But that should not scare you because the world of research gives you ample time to familiarize yourselves with the tools and techniques you are expected to use for the tasks. 

I will cite an example to elucidate the contrast I felt when I started working as a Junior Research fellow at MOEFCC’s coastal and marine ecosystem Think Thank – a complete shift from the role of a Business Analyst in Evalueserve. As a research fellow I didn’t start my first day with an orientation, instead I was told to join a round table conference with the principal researchers to discuss the concept, objective of the study and anticipated outcomes of the work I was to start. The room had the professors who’s papers I read in college and very senior government officials. I was not only supposed to listen and learn the norms and ways of working but were also asked for my opinion on how methodologies can be built to address the problems in the study. This approach gave me eminence, confidence and a sense of responsibility. From Day One, the project felt like my baby and the authority given to me brought great compassion towards my work. This episode gave me the courage to be an initiator and strengthened my leadership qualities. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Choose the area of work that you enjoyed as a child. Well, once you mature, there is a possibility that you mature and develop a wider range of likes/dislikes and may not connect with what drew you the most as a child. But even then, always choose to make a career out of what you really relate with
  • Understand how your daily life would look like because you should always remember that if you love what you do, you will enjoy it even more and grow manifold
  • Continuous improvement and a steep learning curve would be the key for your growth, whichever field you choose as this is the only way you will remain well-informed about your field of study and open doors to opportunities you never knew existed! 
  • Add complementary skills to your resume every 2 years
  • Develop a diverse portfolio in the early years of your career so that you know what it is that you really want to specialize in. In 6+ years of my research experience, I have worked in various sectors – power, coastal and marine ecosystems, forest conservation, agroforestry, agricultural innovation, nutrition, water, carbon markets and energy efficiency. I stick to the tools and techniques I learnt as an environmental economics student, but with each sector you learn many new approaches of research and understand the sectors across that function simultaneously. One can always stick to one sector once you have figured what interests you the most and what you are good at.  
  • Keep yourself abreast by frequently checking consortium/ association sites for ecological/environmental economists such as SANDEE, INSEE, EAERE, AERE, AEA. Use Youtube and Coursera/Edx if you aren’t a reader to learn new concepts. 
  • Get an overview of the subject by reading books/articles around it. You can find books on environmental economics here.
  • Apart from work, learn how to write business emails, learn from your mentors how to carry out conversations with external stakeholders, present your work in a forum where you get external feedback, make a habit to write. Research publications increase your credibility. Aim to take out 2 every year (minimum). 

Future Plans?

My goal is to raise awareness amongst people. I would like to merge techniques and methodologies from behavioral sciences, experimental and environmental economics. However, I am working towards the immediate milestone of supporting the Government in its journey towards building an enabling environment and sustainable growth patterns. To be able to achieve this, I will continue working in the field of research to stay within the purview of my area of expertise and complement it with social and entrepreneurial initiatives in natural resources. I would continue to endeavor my efforts towards strengthening my research and networking skills and be able to impart knowledge to increase social inclusion for a more resilient economy across sectors.