Environmental Policies are only as effective as their implementation on the ground. This authority lies in the hands of professionals who ensure compliance with stated laws and literally “save” the planet from serious environmental ramifications !

Hardik Siroha, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Engineer at Haryana State Pollution Control Board, formulates and implements action plans to reduce environmental pollution, curb the use of plastic, as well as works on technologies to reduce water consumption of different industrial processes.

Hardik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the immense challenges that come with playing multiple roles of an engineer, federal agent and prosecutor, in order to ensure that environmental laws are followed, the violators are punished and the community is made aware and knowledgeable about the benefits of an eco-friendly lifestyle. 

For students, our world needs more frontline professionals who can take on the practical challenges of implementing and enforcing policies in the practical world through their dedication and commitment to a cause. If you are one of them, take up a career in Environmental Engineering.

Hardik, tell us about your background?

I hail from a small religious city called Kurukshetra, famously known as the battleground of Mahabharata. My mother is a teacher and is currently a Professor of English Literature at Kurukshetra University, while my dad is a Civil Engineer and served in different ranks in the Public Works Department (Building and Roads).

Right from my school days, I have been intrigued by acting and writing. More often than not, I was selected to represent my school at various competitions. In fact, I actually wanted to be in the field of media and journalism as a kid.

Since I didn’t go to any elite, fancy and overly expensive boarding school, my exposure was quite limited as a school student. Those were the days when only dial-up modems existed and the internet was still a luxury.

In fact, the first time I left my home was for college.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied in the abode of nature, in the hills of Himachal, at one of India’s most beautiful university campuses at Jaypee University of Information Technology, near Shimla. In fact, I feel this experience had a lot to do with me choosing a career that involves protecting nature.

I did my B.Tech in Civil Engineering. However, during my final year, I chose a lot of courses in Environmental Engineering.

During my final year I worked on a project on “Effects of Meteorological Conditions on Air Pollution and Study of Air Pollutant Trends in Shimla” , this project proved to be an untrammelled learning opportunity. While It started off as an Environmental Engineering project, I ended up learning quite a few things about working with Statistics and Data.

The best thing about my engineering degree was that the learning wasn’t only limited to lecture halls and classrooms. We had numerous clubs and committees that organised events across a wide range of spectrum thorough-out the year. Being a member initially and an Editor of the University’s magazine later on, helped me to develop my writing abilities. Being a delegate in numerous Model United Nation conventions (MUNs) made me better at research, presentation and cross questioning.  

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

During my engineering, I got an opportunity to undertake several projects related to the environment that made me understand the significance of working for the environment.

➢ Effects of Meteorological Conditions on Air Pollution and Study of Air Pollutant Trends in Shimla (Capital City of  Himachal Pradesh, India)  

Increasing Air pollution levels in urban areas of Indian subcontinent are adversely affecting the health of inhabiting  citizens. The study involved detailed statistical analysis of ambient air quality and the pollutants like Sulphur Dioxide  (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter  (RSPM). The study consisted of quantitative assessment of the effects of meteorological conditions on local air quality,  primarily focusing upon the above mentioned pollutants. The meteorological parameters involved were Minimum  Temperature (Tm), Maximum Temperature (TM), Average Temperature (Tag), Precipitation and Relative Humidity (R.H.)  

Role: Acquiring the requisite data from different departments like Indian Meteorological Department, Traffic Police  Himachal Pradesh and Tourism Department of Himachal Pradesh. The data collected was then processed using follow ing tools-  

• Multilinear Regression Analysis using XLSTAT.  

• Presentations on Apple Keynote 

• Double axis graph formations on Microsoft Powerpoint

• Data computations for the 10 year data on Microsoft Excel 

Results were then studied for different trends and their corresponding explanations were tried to be derived. In the end,  the multilinear correlation analysis was used to derive two equations which could predict the Sulphur Dioxide (SO2),  Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), and Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter  (RSPM) with a deviation of ± 10 % and ± 26% respectively.  

Title: A Project on the Feasibility of using Pine Leaves as a Reinforcement in Concrete

➢ Pine Leaves gets decayed fast due to presence of cellulose in them, however if cellulose is extracted for them by  simply frying them in a large pan they can be made to last longer. Since it was a small Lab project we didn’t dwell  into the other chemical methods of cellulose extraction.  

Title: Study and Minor Report and on Minamata Disease, Japan  

➢ Minamata disease, which caused ataxia, numbness, muscle control, etc was a result of Biomagnification of mercury  in residents of Minamata Bay. The study showed the ramifications of not considering the environmental impact of  waste disposal and release of affluents without proper treatment. However, the ability of Japan to convert this  whole area into an eco-tourism zone also displayed the ability to turn a hazard into a sign of positivity for the whole  world and a lesson for future generations.  

Post Engineering

For 4 years, I had done my undergraduation in the lap of nature, away from all the urban city buzz. However, once I had to move to Delhi post my engineering, I actually realised the real significance of terms like “air pollution” and “poorly planned urban spaces” etc.

Studying about the ill effects of bad air quality on human health, and experiencing an eye-burn caused by post Diwali smog and pollution first hand, are two completely different things. That made me realise the significant amount of work we need to do to save our mother Earth.

Initially my career plans were to either get into Civil Services, (that too Indian Foreign Service) or to get an MBA from a decent B-School. In fact, before i took up my current job, i even had admission to a few good B-schools. But then, I had this dilemma, of which path to choose. It was a classical Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” scenario. However, i finally decided to work at the ground level, protecting our planet, rather than filling the coffers of already rich capitalist MNCs.

I know I could have lived a way more prosperous and luxurious life in a white collar job, could have partied hard and driven a BMW probably in the next 15-20 years. Yet, in my opinion, no materialistic pleasure can replace the feeling that what you’re doing today would make the lives of future generations better and safer.

Moreover, currently we operate with barely 25 % of the sanctioned strength and we are currently one of the biggest regulatory agencies in the nation in terms of scope of work. So, one needs to upgrade their time management skills to the next level to survive this ecosystem. While it comes with it’s own sets of negatives, it equips you to handle any workplace you might want to transition to in future.

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

After my graduation, i wanted to try for Civil Services once, although i only wanted to take Indian Forest, Foreign Service or Revenue Service and not the so called “covered” generalist cadre. I believe that 21st Century will belong to specialists only, because as a human race, we have advanced to a point where a “generalist” can’t do any pathbreaking work anymore. 

In fact if you look at it, there was a time when most of the Fortune 500 CEOs had an MBA, today most of them have a Science or Engineering degree.

When i was in my preparation days, i realised that i had been on a “consumption” mode only and had let go of my “creative” side, when Unacademy happened. (Note- I never worked full time there, it was an on and off voluntary kind of work). I am of the opinion that if you’re on just a consumption spiral without creating anything, then that’s a bad place to be in. You should consume other’s content for sure as it acts as a source of inspiration and ideation, but mindless consumption, the kind of which we see in the age of Social media and Netflix, hampers your own thinking and analytical skills.

On the face of it, teaching is one of the most dull, boring and lethargic job ; but that’s only because it’s mostly done by the people who are forced to do it out of compulsion, merely as a means to earn livelihood and not out of passion.  I mean no disrespect to one of the noblest professions, but i am not known for sugar coating my words either, some of the people who are in teaching positions are the ones who are there because they don’t have something better to do or work for. Offer them an alternative and they would jump the ship !

I approached my lessons differently, i made a lot of videos on World History, International Relations and Economy. I always tried to interconnect the topics, rather than present them in silos. Any person can watch those videos out of pure curiosity and would feel more enlightened and aware after watching them. They were meant to make people “learn” and not crack any random exam by shoving facts and figures down the throat only to be regurgitated at a later date ! 

In fact, what i did was to put my stand up comedy skills (have been into it in college days, could never continue post it, however, it’s still on my “to do list” to do an open mike) into my lessons. The result was an eclectic mix of information and entertainment that entertained people as well as made them learn !

My creative urge was also the reason for writing for “Down to Earth”, my field experiences enabled me to write articles and pieces which were more meaningful and relevant than someone who was penning their articles sitting in a corporate office in New Delhi or Pune and was writing about air quality of Haryana and Punjab. 

Recently i also penned one for Indian Express and it was widely appreciated by people even outside the environmentalists’ coterie. A lot of people reached out to me on LinkedIn as they were hitherto unaware of the challenges which the implementing agency of all the environmental legislations and Hon’ble NGT (NATIONAL GREEN TRIBUNAL) face on a daily and perpetual basis.

I did my PGDM in Environmental Education through a long distance program while preparing and making videos for Unacademy. I feel that one doesn’t need to salvage his working experience to go for a Post gradation degree or Diploma, especially in contemporary times. The biggest benefit of the Information Revolution for students is that it democratises content consumption, but monopolises the creation. You can choose to study from the best teacher or professor of the world, rather than the ones who are available in your university or college. Infact, for my future courses and degrees, i plan to use Coursera, Udemy, etc to a great extent. I even got my Certification in Environmental Laws from Centre of Science and Environment (nation’s leading think tank on environmental issues) online. 

What were the challenges you faced in your career?

Well!, being a middle class Indian guy, the biggest challenge for anyone, right from the time of schooling, will be the conformity pressure. The pressure is to do the hottest degree bcause it will make you rich and sought after.

As i mentioned, when i did my Class X, i was highly inclined to partake in Engineering. I was also seriously considering a career in journalism or media. However, the Indian education system doesn’t leave you much time for exploring your career interests. Therefore, before i knew, i was enrolled in coaching classes for IIT-JEE and AIEEE, that was the time when we didn’t have a common test  and non IIT colleges used to have a separate entrance tests.  Hastily skipping the basics and learning the advanced concepts straight away costed me dearly !

One challenge which I faced on academic front in my college was my inability to comprehend Structural Analysis courses; upon discussing the same with one of my teachers, I soon realised that the this has to do with the lacunae which I had in my Class XI Physics, especially Kinematics. This, coupled with my far from robust understanding of integral calculus made my freshman year quite difficult. Although I received an “F” in some subjects, I managed to clear my backlog by studying during vacations and taking some help. I even decided to take a summer semester, which, though cut short my summer break, but was completely worth it as I managed to fill a lot of the previous gaps which I had in some of the concepts. At the same time, while some of my technical subjects were posing a difficulty to me, I did pretty well in Humanities and Social Sciences courses. I was on the top of my class in subjects like Organisational Behaviour, Social and Legal Issues, Persuasive Communication, Intercultural Communication etc. Often, engineering students ignore these subjects, but let me tell you that they form an integral part of your personality and add to your oeuvre of those much needed soft skills.

The above episode taught me an invaluable lesson, that whether it’s a skill like music, dance or academics, never ignore the “basics”. If you’re weak over there, those gaps will accumulate over time and would adversely affect you at every nook and corner of your life.

After entering the work force, i realised that regulatory bodies and government agencies aren’t god like, all knowing, ubiquitous  entities. They have their own challenges and contradictions, suffering from their employee’s discontents. As an outsider, and as a citizen, you often feel angst at the workings of bureaucrats, you vilify them, lampoon them on Twitter; but truth is, they don’t have all the solutions either. 

How did you get your first break?

The AEE/SDO in HSPCB is a Group-B post and like any other coveted government job, the completion is pretty cut throat here. If you look at it in terms of probability, the chances of selection of an individual are around 0.14%. You need to be an all time first division student in Civil, Chemical or Environmental Engineering just to qualify to apply to the post. After that, you have a written test and then the interview where you’re grilled by experts on both technical and administrative aspects.

If one wishes to work in the field of environment and sustainability, this is one of the best places to be. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?

Although State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) can do their own recruitment, yet in my state of Haryana, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board does their recruitment via Haryana Public Service Commission.

The nature of work is pretty diverse here, from checking compliance of BioMedical Waste to doing air sampling to filing prosecutions against top industrialists for violation of environmental laws. So, right at the time of recruitment we are tested on numerous grounds, not just on technical knowledge. For example, we need to understand legal aspects to ensure implementation of Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, The Air (Prevention and Control of  Pollution) Act, 1981 and Environment Protection Act,1986  

If one wishes to understand the work of an AEE or Sub Divisional Officer in State Pollution Control Board, think of an engineer, federal agent and prosecutor rolled into one role!

Our other responsibilities include granting consent to establish and operate Industries, coordinating with district administration for various Pollution Control programs and measures as per the Hon’ble  NGT orders, organising Information and Education Communication Activities and Mass Awareness Programs as well as Handling Social Media Portals for Complaints and Grievances like CM Window, Twitter, Facebook,etc.  

How does your work benefit society? 

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that me and my colleagues “literally” save the planet on a daily basis.

We ensure that the water bodies remain clean and the polluted ones are restored, punish the violators, and make the community aware and knowledgeable about the benefits of an eco-friendly lifestyle. 

Our role might include anything from formulating and implementing action plans for reducing the air pollution to curbing the use of plastic, to working on technologies to reduce water consumption of different industrial processes. Whatever we do, in one way or another, benefits the society, if not today, then tomorrow.

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

Solving grievances of the affected public always provides a level of satisfaction that can’t be described in mere words. You have to experience it to know what it feels like.

Another area where I have brought about a change is the manner in which we conduct our IEC  (Information Education Communication) activities. Earlier, they were limited to installing banners in public places and giving speeches at some random government schools.

I have tried to make them more relatable and modern, from doing Radio shows to making short films, to make people aware about how their activities might be unknowingly damaging the planet. I have really made these activities more meaningful.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t get into a job (especially a technocratic one) for the abstract notions of  “power” or  “status”. Do it because you feel you can add something to the organisation or to people’s lives.

Doing a government job is getting tougher day by day, you will feel low and frustrated a lot of times, you will feel envious of your batchmates in big corporates or those working abroad in International Banks. At that point of time, the only thing which will keep you going is the reason for joining this kind of workplace.

So, if you don’t have that “reason” to look up to for your motivation, then please don’t join such an organisation 

Also, academics is the refuge of the weak, it’s for the people who don’t want to get their hands dirty and hence wish to escape in the cocoons of theory and academic knowledge. 

For any engineer, real changes and magic happens in the field, at the ground level.

Future Plans?

I would like to shift to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change or join a translational organisation like UNEP, IUCN etc.