When your work takes you to the remotest locations with sightings of the rarest of the rare animals like the Brown Bear, Goral, Himalayan Ibex, including the elusive Snow Leopard, you can’t help being a conservationist for the rest of your life !

Sajid Idrisi, our next pathbreaker, Conservation Biologist at the Natural Heritage Division [NHD] of [INTACH] , designs and develops solutions for problems arising out of ever-growing urbanization and their impact on nature, heritage and communities.

Sajid talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to come up with integrated solutions for complex challenges related to biodiversity, water, urban environment, cities and climate adaptation in developing countries. 

For students, conservation requires “big picture” thinking to understand all the interrelated challenges. Be open to learning everything relevant to the environmental field, especially the basic fundamentals and modern-day tools and techniques.

Sajid, tell us about Your background?

I was born in a village in the district. Bijnor, West Uttar Pradesh, located right on the foothills of Himalayas. I could see the hills from the rooftop after rains and always imagined how beautiful the Himalayas would be. This, in part, paved the way for what I am doing today. 

For my primary education (3 years), I studied in a Hindi medium school. I was an average student, to be very honest. 

Later, my father sent me to a reputed English medium school, which was twelve kilometers away from our place.  Since I had changed schools, I had to repeat my third standard and faced difficulty since the entire syllabus now was in English. My father worked quite hard and taught me. He also made me attend tuitions! 

Gradually, though I picked up, I had difficulty in understanding Mathematics. Equations and numbers made me crazy! It sounds quite hilarious, but the mathematics phobia still haunts me in my dreams. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

For my higher education, I qualified the all-time highly-rated exam to secure admission in Jamia Milia Islamia, which is quite famous in India. I liked Biology, but it was coupled with Mathematics. There was an option for Computers too. But it was either Biology or Computers. Biology it had to be! 

Parents typically want their children to be either doctors or engineers. My parents wanted me to be in the noble profession of medicine. Though I gave a couple of exams, but again, honestly, I never imagined myself as a doctor! We always know it, don’t we?

I wanted to do something different, beyond the common parlance of Medical and Engineering – choose the unconventional path to success. I consider myself lucky to have got the opportunity to choose!

Since biology captivated my interest, I decided to go for BSc in Biotechnology which was being offered by the Dept. of Biosciences, Jamia Millia Islamia. I qualified for the entrance exam and got the admission for the course. 

This was one of the first turning points of my life! 

The University offered freedom, unlike school and I made some very good friends. There I became punctual, attentive – never bunked even a single session! The abundant atmosphere of the university, teachers and the staff, made the entire experience very wholesome. 

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

During my graduation days I realized that Biotechnology was only a booming name in newspapers and that there were very few jobs since there was no sufficient infrastructure or companies in that area. And those that existed, would only employ candidates with doctorates. Who would, after all, spend thousands on chemicals and reagents and give it to freshers to experiment? The Research & Development Budget accounts only for 0.65% of the GDP in India. Many of my batchmates struggled finding a job even after pursuing Masters in the same discipline and changed their paths to other faculties.

So, I decided not to go for a Masters in the same field, partially because I didn’t like complete lab-based work. 

I came across a new MSc Course in Biodiversity and Conservation offered by Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi [GGSIPU]. I sensed that it would cover a wide range of topics and would cater to wider employment options. I preferred this course since it offered tremendous opportunities in field work rather than just lab-based work. 

This master’s degree was interdisciplinary in nature and my curiosity to study the course knew no bounds! The course had wide ranging subjects such as GIS and remote sensing, conservation communication, conservation genetics, apart from regular plant and animal diversity courses. There were field expeditions to understand the biodiversity and its conservation outside the classrooms. 

For my further journey, I went to Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala [IIITM-K] to pursue M.Phil in Ecological Informatics – again an interdisciplinary Masters degree covering ecology, informatics and social sciences. Due to its innovative and experimental nature, the institution has now been transformed into Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology (KUDSIT) with four key themes required for digital world leadership i.e. Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. 

Here, I learned to apply theories and concepts from different disciplines in solving problems. The course raised a comprehensive consciousness in me and soon I started seeing problems and challenges from altogether different perspectives.   

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

M.Sc. Biodiversity and Conservation programme at GGSIPU required 2-month mandatory internship during second semester and a 6-month long project work during last semester leading to dissertation – across any institution of student’s choice or area of interest. This allowed students to search the institutions and supervisors, pursue them and get the work. The department faculty also helps parallelly as internal supervisors, as few students may choose to work with professors at the department itself. 

The Geographical Information System and Remote Sensing subject captured my interest during my second semester. Ability to see earth and its resources via satellite imagery thrilled me. Together with GIS and its amazing functionalities to do geospatial analysis and make beautiful, representative maps – it was something very interesting to learn. In general, this subject is taught in Geography courses. 

With my growing interest in the subject, I decided to do a 2-month internship in the GIS and Remote Sensing area. Those days, few of my college friends were already studying M.Sc. Geoinformatics at TERI University. They had a full fledged Geoinformatics Laboratory at their University. This helped to find a place for myself. With the support of our departmental faculty, I got the opportunity to do my internship there. During the internship, I learned various geospatial processes and techniques and also got the opportunity to attend one workshop on ‘Digital Image Processing’ – one important component of Remote Sensing for data interpretation from satellite imageries. 

The experience helped to understand the geospatial data, processes and maps generation. Geospatial science has great applications in environment and natural resource management. It’s easy to visualise patterns and changes, mark areas and points of interest, do geospatial analysis and generate informative maps – essential for planning and decision making. This knowledge came handy during my first job which required us to do faunal surveys, understand major species and their habitats, threats and suggest wildlife corridors across selected wildlife sanctuaries. Geospatial knowledge made it easy to collect and analyse data and help my colleagues generate required maps on the GIS platform. 

To do a second internship as a part of last semester leading to dissertation I went to Sikkim where I worked with G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development and lived with a family at home in South Sikkim. I worked on biodiversity assessment and tourism potential of a particular valley there. This was altogether a different experience. I learned to live outside my comfort zone far away from my friends and family, surviving on very simple food. But the beauty of the place and nicest people made the experience wholesome and memorable. All these learnings and experiences prepared me to sail through uncharted waters of the future and made me the person I am today. 

During the same time [2008-2012], I was associated with North East Centre for Environmental Education and Research [NECEER] – A non-government environmental organization based in Manipur started by one of our seniors pursuing doctorates from the same department at University. We started with a few environmental campaigns and publications. 

One of the major initiatives was the ‘Worldwide Save Loktak Lake’ campaign started in order to improve awareness about the lake and its importance for the local communities. Gradually we laid the foundation of one international, peer reviewed journal ‘NeBIO’ covering diverse topics on environment and biodiversity. The journal is still in publication and gives priority to works on Taxonomy, Phylogeny, Biogeography, Biodiversity Conservation, Horticulture, Ethnobiology, Ecology, Environmental Management and Climatology. I worked as an assistant editor helping the team in editing, proof-reading the manuscripts and generating graphics. The process helped to improve my understanding of research and writing. 

How did you get your first break?

After my M.Sc. Biodiversity and Conservation programme at GGSIPU, I got my first job with a reputed wildlife conservation organisation i.e. Wildlife Trust of India, as an Assistant Field Officer wherein I was required to be a part of a project on Faunal Surveys in selected protected areas of Himachal Pradesh. The project was assigned by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department. 

The goal of the project was to survey and understand the presence of major faunal species in selected wildlife sanctuaries of Himachal Pradesh, understand their habitats, major threats, and suggest wildlife corridors. It required us to walk along line transects (drawn with the help of GIS) on local trails and many times on difficult terrains, record presence of wild animals (through primary observation or secondary signs such as footprints, hair, faecal material) with the help of GPS (Global Positioning System – a handheld device which record geospatial coordinates). We got a chance to see Brown Bears, Gorals, Himalayan Tahr, Himalayan Ibex, Yellow-throated Marten including one sighting of the elusive Snow Leopard.

The work also involved interaction with local communities to understand their connection with the forest, natural resources and wildlife. During the process, we learned about their minimalistic lifestyle and challenges of living in mountain regions. The experience transformed me for life – made me more empathetic, minimalist and be grateful for what all I have. 

During the same time, I also worked as Contributing Editor with Down to Earth [One of the most reputed and credible publications on development, environment and health by Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi]. It was a remote freelance work wherein I was required to write articles on current developments in science on the basis of my areas of interest. The reason for joining this work was my interest in science communication and writing. It helped me to hone my writing skills during the early stage of my career.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Since the wildlife surveys required us to walk many kilometers, both in morning and evening in chilly cold weather and live a nomadic life – it was a bit challenging for me initially to spend months outside a city. I tried to cope up, enjoyed it in the process, changed to a desk job and later quit the job within a year. But this experience made me the strongest person both mentally and physically. I prepared myself more strategically for future jobs and went for further studies i.e. M.Phil [2012-2013] 

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

Currently I work with the Natural Heritage Division [NHD] of Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage [INTACH] – a national NGO founded in 1984 in New Delhi with the vision to spearhead heritage awareness and conservation in India. 

INTACH is recognized as one of the world’s largest heritage organizations, with over 190 Chapters across the Country. In the past 31 years INTACH has pioneered the conservation and preservation of not just our natural and built heritage but intangible heritage as well. Headquartered in New Delhi, it operates through various divisions such as Architectural Heritage, Natural Heritage, Material Heritage, Intangible Cultural Heritage, Heritage Education and Communication Services (HECS), Crafts and Community Cell, Chapters, INTACH Heritage Academy, Heritage Tourism, Listing Cell and Library, Archives and Documentation Centre.

The Natural Heritage Division’s unique niche is the intersection of nature and culture with the philosophy that “Nature is the wellspring of culture and if nature thrives so will culture”. With this in mind, the division strives to experiment, learn and create solutions for the problems arising out of ever-growing urbanization and their impact on nature, culture and communities. 

The division has been instrumental in documenting, mapping and executing work on water, rivers, wetlands, biodiversity, agriculture and tourism landscapes of the country. The outcomes and learnings have helped shape policies and decision-making processes by governing bodies. Publications on River Basin management, Urban Biodiversity, Groundwater Recharge and Water Policy of Delhi are few examples among others.  

What is your role at INTACH?

The nature of work requires us to think critically, design solution centric projects with long term benefit to the environment and society and execute them successfully with all the possible resources and skills at disposal.  

What are the skills needed? How did you acquire the skills?

  1. Species identification skills
  2. Research and analytical skills
  3. The job requires high skills in writing, carrying out authentic research and with critical thoughtful inputs. Clear, Crisp, & Concise writing is our mantra! 
  4. Understanding of geospatial tools and mapping.
  5. Knowledge of modern digital tools and software.
  6. Aptitude and strength to carry out field work in arduous conditions across various climate zones of the country. 
  7. Trekking, Walking and Swimming since a lot of our projects require us to be in water – rivers, lakes and wetlands.
  8. Teamwork and interpersonal skills.

I acquired some technical skills during the masters and later through work experience.

What is a typical day like?

If not in the field, the day generally consists of discussions, problem solving with colleagues, a lot of research and writing, mapping and coordination with consultants working along with us. 

In the field, the day consists of a long day commute for field observations – either on land or inside water, doing lots of photography, interaction with local people, making notes and collecting data. 

What is it you love about this job? 

Service. Satisfaction. Freedom. 

Knowing that you are working for nature and generating knowledge that is indispensable for right planning and decision making, provides the much-needed satisfaction at the end of the day. The work gives us opportunities to travel, interact with local people and understand the ground situation. This has made us better human beings over time with an ability to think outside our city silos.

Also, our team and work environment at INTACH is great. We have the liberty to think, put forth our ideas and execute projects with complete freedom under seniors’ guidance and supervision. 

Work no more feel like a daily job nor the office like a typical work place!

How does your work benefit society? 

With increasing population, the ever-increasing demand for infrastructural development is taking place at the expense of natural resources. The processes coupled with non-compliance of the rules are leading to polluted rivers, encroached lakes and wetlands, deforestation, decreased soil fertility, and lowering of groundwater levels. Such unsustainable development will affect all of us – our families, businesses, resources and the earth we are sharing. For instance, growing population in cities will put more demand for land. Easily available areas as dry wetlands and lakes, river floodplains, unrecognized green areas become more prone to encroachment. Later, ground water extraction and sewage disposal to the nearby streams and rivers would further add to the problems. Such settlements being on lying areas would be prone to floods. Therefore, the effects are cascading in nature, eventually affecting human wellbeing and society at large.  

INTACH’s successful projects, guides and publications on the above issues have helped in formulating right policies and work plans as I discussed previously in one of the above sections. Most of our projects are public service projects which do not yield any monetary gain or revenue to the organization but are significantly changing the status quo and showing that solutions and changes are possible. We are showing the way forward through our pilot projects on rivers, lakes, waste-water remediation, urban biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and natural-culture connections. 

With most of our publications and knowledge materials available and open to all, students, individuals and grass root level organisations are getting benefitted and working at their own levels without or with little guidance. 

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

There are many as I have been a part of many interesting and exciting projects on wildlife, wetlands, rivers, and landscapes. But my first field work experience in Himachal Pradesh with the Wildlife Trust of India is the most memorable one. It helped to identify my weaknesses and taught me to work on the most important attributes and skills needed for work and life in general. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Generally, students with a background in Biodiversity Conservation, Natural Resource Management, Environmental Management or any similar discipline face a dilemma due to large diversity in subjects. 

On the basis of their liking of a few aspects of the course or subjects, they narrow down their interest areas in the very beginning and start seeing themselves as future ornithologists, wildlife biologists, botanists, or GIS specialists. 

During this process, they train their mind to look only at the information relevant to their interests and not the other subjects. By doing so, they minimise their chances of getting selected for available positions across environmental organisations.

Although specialization is good, I think one should be open and treat himself/herself as a naturalist or environmentalist in the beginning, be open to learn everything relevant to their field especially related to the basic fundamentals and modern-day tools and techniques.

As I have mentioned earlier to students seeking guidance – No organisation or company looks for specialists in the beginning. They need candidates with a background in natural resources or environment who can contribute through their skills in writing, data analysis, mapping, communication which involves public speaking, media handling etc. They require solution providers and not the candidates with tags of specialization on their heads. All master degrees in environment seem synonymous in the end. Your interests, organisational requirement and work opportunity you get in life, more or less decide your specialisation and path. Be open and flexible in the beginning. Look out for organisations/companies working in other sectors such as planning and development, food, agricultural diversity, communities, culture, heritage etc. They also look for candidates with environmental background. Learn to hunt outside marked territories! The journey may be tough in the beginning, but gradually you’ll start loving your work. 

Also, unfortunately, the environmental sector is the least paying of all the sectors and jobs are limited. Your skills and aptitude for constant learning may get you a good paying job. International organisations and agencies generally prefer to recruit students with Master degrees from universities abroad. After all, brand and quality along with the required exposure matters. In many cases, the name of your institution matters more than the degree. Select your institution carefully for masters.

The placement cells of the universities offering master courses in environment in India are generally not very active. Consultation with faculties and seniors may help in paving the path for jobs. 

Future Plans?

I would like to pursue a Doctorate whenever I team up with a supervisor with similar interest areas and work on addressing questions that would have long term benefit to the environment and society at large. 

Over a period of time, I have realised that most of the problems surrounding developing countries, especially in Asia, are very much of the same nature. 

In future, I would like to work with think-tanks and academicians trying to understand complex problems and striving for solutions with long term vision in areas of biodiversity, water, urban environment, cities and climate adaptation across developing countries.