Your love for nature and involvement in social activism in college can take you only on one path; a lifelong commitment to ensuring that development is delivered with proper consideration to environmental and social justice issues.

Naysa Ahuja, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Lawyer & Independent Consultant, works on environmental governance, legal and institutional assessment, helping projects and governments meet their E&S (Environmental & Social) requirements, as well as safeguarding the rights of indigenous people and other vulnerable groups.

Naysa talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up Environmental Law after being strongly influenced by how commercial and uninformed human activities destroyed pristine and fragile ecosystems, and consequently, the lives of those dependent upon natural resources. 

For students, be curious and keep exploring until you find a job that truly meets your core values, and do not settle for anything less than you planned for yourself. Sometimes, it may take a while, but If you really want to do something, you will find a way to do it

Naysa, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Delhi and acquired most of my formal education in Delhi, including law school. I am from a middle-class, conservative business family. My father runs his business, and my mother is a homemaker. While it took some time to find my interests during primary and secondary school, I actively explored and participated in various extra-curricular activities such as sports, performing arts, music, reading, etc. Initially, I was interested in science and enjoyed biology, environmental science, and physics, but I knew I did not want to be a doctor or engineer. 

After school, I studied English literature, gender and media studies. I was into trekking and nature-based tourism (still am!) and found myself inclined to learn more about the environment human interactions, the environment’s contribution to the economy, and social wellbeing. I wanted to share my learnings with a broader audience, so I tried my hand at environmental documentary filmmaking during college. During this time, I also started getting involved in many social issues and became involved in college-level activism. That inspired me to join the law faculty. While in law faculty, I was part of a Student-led Legal Aid group and was also one of the founding members of the National Campaign for Combating Terrorism, under the support of former President Late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied law at the University of Delhi, followed by a specialization in environmental law from The George Washington University Law School.  I was awarded a prestigious Thomas Buergenthal scholarship from the GW Law School that covered my full tuition to study abroad.

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

I find it odd when my legal career in the environmental sector is considered unconventional when we all humans drink water, breathe air, and create waste. It has very much been part of the legal discourse, even before the Magna Carta. I think it is a lack of awareness in our society about the environment that made environmental law offbeat.

I did not have any role models and people I could look up to when growing up. I had no sounding board for ideas and career aspirations. My pursuit of this career is based on my idealism and belief that there must be someone doing this job. Although environmental law practice is no longer an unusual career nowadays, it was not mainstream. At some point, I remember, someone asked me, “what kind of law do you want to practice?” When I responded Environmental law,’ the person laughed and said, “you are making up a new field of law, right?”. 

Environment, especially the Himalayas, immediate society, and my life experiences greatly influenced me. I saw how commercial and uninformed human activities destroyed pristine and fragile ecosystems, and consequently, the lives of those dependent upon natural resources. 

I have been sensitive to stories of injustice and the inability of the environment and vulnerable people to voice their concerns, been seen or heard. That led me to take up environmental and human rights law. I personally faced considerable gender-based discrimination and violence during my life, which only fueled my interest and belief in law and justice to change the way our society behaves. Particularly in 2005, when the Right to Information Act and Forest Rights Act was passed, I realized the importance of law to enforce principles of freedom and human dignity and shape our future. I volunteered to work at different organizations, conferences, including RTI groups, and Tihar Jail (Delhi) to learn more about the prison reforms and actual implementation of these laws. 

Tell us about your career path

I interned with WWF after law school because the organization’s mission is the conservation of nature. I supported some policy research and communications for a few months and learned about different environmental issues. Then I joined an environmental law firm, Enviro Legal Defence Firm. Here I learned a lot from the Supreme Court’s senior advocate, Mr. Sanjay Upadhyay, who saw my passion for the area and always encouraged me to do more. He is an authority on environmental law in India. He was the first environmental lawyer I saw practicing in this area, so this exposure set my professional standard and expectation of myself high. I worked with him on forest, biodiversity, infrastructure, waste, and tribal laws over the course of four years.

After my master’s, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Lalanath de Silva, an international environmental lawyer on environmental justice and fairness in public administration, which resonated with my values. I conducted legal research and reviewed laws and their implementation from 70 countries. Some of my professors also opened new doors of research and practice for me at later stages in my life and contributed to UNEP’s flagship report on the environmental rule of law. These experiences have helped me establish my independent consulting practice as an environmental law/ governance and social safeguards expert.

Unfortunately, I did not meet a lot of women in this field until I started practicing myself. Now that I know a few, I continue to seek inspiration from them and stay in touch.

I usually took a curious and learning-by-doing approach. I was always ready to take on stretch projects and continue to work on multiple projects, some as part of my job while some for my own learning.

I have reached out to my professors, seniors, and peers to seek their guidance and exchange ideas.

I also applied to many fellowships. Adaptation Finance Research Fellowship was a one-time research fellowship grant where I submitted my independent research proposal, which got accepted. I was awarded a couple of fellowships. They were especially relevant when I had started working, and I knew what I wanted to get out of those opportunities. They certainly helped me get exposure, acquire skills, and build a network of peers in the sector.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job at an environmental law firm through an online application, followed by an interview.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Social and family conditioning has been the biggest challenge. I was born in a family where I was assigned a role based on my gender and was never told that I could do anything beyond that role. My life so far has been to unlearn these early ideas about my abilities/inabilities and forge ahead with new belief systems. It is a continuous process of remembering where you come from and applaud yourself for where you have reached in life. I took care of my mental hygiene as much as possible. I think we, as a society, tend to overlook the importance of mental and physical wellbeing in our professional pursuits and then bring it to our workplace eventually. I exercise, meditate, read, and sometimes seek professional help to manage my stress to build my long-term resilience to work in a demanding and politically-sensitive work environment.  

Challenge 2: Writing and public speaking were other challenges. Lawyers should be concise in their writing and eloquent in their speech. I kept taking on writing and speaking projects and learned that the true value lies in one’s ability to think clearly and articulate in an organized manner. I have continued to publish every year and try not to say ‘no’ or turn down any opportunity to speak about my work, writings, and lectures on my subject matter. I have always enjoyed reading and listening. For inspiration, I read judgments/law reviews/books and listen to influential speakers/podcasts.

Challenge 3: I did not have a mentor/ sponsor who was invested in my growth and success. With no one to share professional insights, some career-related decisions are difficult. I did not know how to network, manage professional relations, which masters program and grad school to prioritize, and even promote my work and achievements. It is particularly an area where we, Indians and especially girls/women in our country, are not good at due to our cultural underpinnings. We are taught to be humble, not talk too much, and bragging is frowned upon. I am still learning to be better at public relations. I maintain my connections by reminding myself of what I bring to the table—whether its knowledge, ideas or simply curiosity—and keep an open mind. I have also joined a few network groups in my sector to meet and learn from other professionals.

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

I am an independent consultant, working on environmental governance, legal and institutional assessment, and E&S (Environmental and Social) due diligence of investment projects.

I help projects and governments meet their E&S requirements. My consulting work with international financial institutions (such as the World Bank), think tanks, NGOs, and universities includes legal research, assessments, reviews, and analytical writing to present gaps and opportunities to ensure fair and inclusive governance of resources in a project or a country. Mainly, I have been working in fragile and post-conflict countries such as Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan, among others, to contribute to the environmental peacebuilding process. I have also been training officials from the government departments on various types of environmental laws and principles, ESG (environmental, social & governance) issues, and advising law schools on their environmental curriculum.

A typical day involves reviewing a lot of documents in great detail, flagging legal and managerial gaps along with policy actions to address them, preparing reports and policy briefs for clients. Other tasks include conducting meetings and negotiations with clients, organizing workshops with stakeholders on social and environmental safeguards issues. I tend to work on the weekends to continue to publish or peer review academic work in the sector.

I do not practice in courts anymore. My work focuses not just on what law is and how it applies to a situation/case but what law could be with policy and institutional reforms.

Some of the skills needed are similar to any lawyer: analytical thinking, diplomacy, detail-oriented, time management, leadership, self-starter, and problem-solving. One must like reading a lot to be a lawyer!

What is it you love about this job? 

The ability to influence the project design and implementation and ensure that social and environmental concerns are taken into consideration and mitigated by the project team and client countries inspires me every day.

How does your work benefit society? 

By ensuring development is delivered with proper consideration to environmental and social justice issues, especially the rights and participation of indigenous people and other vulnerable groups.

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

A consultancy project on participatory forest management in India has been one of the most memorable experiences for me. Part of this two-year project included field consultations and investigations. The fieldwork took me to 8 states and more than 100 villages near forest areas. I gained so many insights into the ground realities of how the law is interpreted, the implementation gaps, capacity gaps, and the impact of my work on several households. I think this project was like a Ph.D. by itself to learn more about my sector, my country, and the people whose livelihood and identity are dependent on natural resources.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be curious, keep exploring until you find a job that truly meets your core values, and do not settle for anything less than you planned for yourself. Help your peers grow with you. Sometimes, it may take a while, but if you really want to do something, you will find a way to do it. And make sure you enjoy and trust the process!