Engineering, followed by Journalism and Environmental Research might seem like disconnected career choices at first glance, but those decisions make sense when you want to narrate science backed stories to bring environmental issues and concerns to the public domain.

Kavita Upadhyay, Freelance Journalist and Researcher, covers stories related to water, climate change, hydropower projects, and environmental disasters in the Himalayan region (which she belongs to).

Kavita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her 3 month fellowship where she produced a data driven news story on Uttarakhand’s glacial lakes to bring forth the issue of glacial lakes outburst floods (GLOFs), and Uttarakhand’s vulnerability to GLOFs.

For students, your past experiences should define what you want to do next, even if it means going on a completely divergent path from what you had initially planned.

Kavita, your background?

I am a journalist and researcher working in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR). My work involves writing about the region’s politics and the environment – especially, climate, water, and hydropower – related issues – for the regional, national, and global audience.

I was born in Nainital, Uttarakhand – a Himalayan state. I had working parents, who were also involved in activism, be it social movements like Chipko in Uttarakhand, which aimed at protecting locals’ rights over their forests, or the Uttarakhand statehood movement of the 90’s which demanded that Uttarakhand be made into a separate state (Uttarakhand was earlier a part of Uttar Pradesh, but as a result of the movement, was given statehood on November 9, 2000). My parents, and their prolific circle of friends, shaped my identity as a Himalayan resident. My upbringing is one of the main reasons that I decided to chronicle the Himalaya as a journalist and researcher.

In school, I was involved in extracurricular activities like elocution, debating, performing in stage plays, singing (I was a member of the school choir), and playing the guitar (I was a guitarist in the school orchestra). Painting is the most recent addition to the long list of activities that interest me.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied Electronics and Communication Engineering (2011) from Uttarakhand Technical University. The B.Tech. degree was followed by a PG Diploma in Journalism (2013) from the Chennai-based Asian College of Journalism. I recently completed an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (2020) from the University of Oxford, UK.

How did you end up in such an offbeat and unusual career?

Let me begin by stating that my career continues to be in the making. I choose my next step based on my ongoing experiences. A key driver in my career has always been my deep interest in deciphering better the Himalayan geography, its people, and the environment-related issues in the region. I have had no mentors to guide me through my career. There has been a lot of support in terms of encouragement from different people at different stages of my life, but there hasn’t been any key mentorship, which is why, I think, I invariably end up making unusual decisions with regards to my career trajectory.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or, how did you make the transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

I studied engineering, then journalism, which was followed by an MSc. They may look like three disconnected degrees, but are not. My engineering education was sans the people and geographies that are impacted by technology. This gap was filled through journalism, where I could engage with people. In my initial six years of journalism, I was posted as the State Correspondent for Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan, for ‘The Hindu’, and later ‘The Indian Express’. I also reported from parts of Uttar Pradesh. The job involved interacting with people and places, and writing stories that were relevant nationally, be it in the field of politics, the environment, crime, or education, to name a few.

Journalism made me view people, communities, geographies, and events, from newer perspectives, and it was through my journalistic experiences that I identified a deep interest in exploring water-related issues, be it in terms of disasters like floods, climate change-related events, or in terms of issues around contentious hydropower projects. Hence, I decided to pursue an MSc in the subject to deepen my understanding of the field. I did the MSc as an Oxford-Hoffmann scholar, which means that I was fully funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust (WHT). The option to apply for the WHT scholarship was given in my Oxford application form.

Regarding searching for courses and scholarships, a simple Google search based on the field of interest, and the universities world-wide offering courses in that field, is a good starting point. Many universities have details regarding the available scholarships. After identifying the courses and the available scholarships, the applicants can search online (on sites like LinkedIn.com) for people who have done the courses earlier, and have received the identified scholarships in the past, and then write to those people regarding queries, if any. I have traced and approached people online through this process, and people have approached me as well. It works, in most cases.

You also seem to be interested in GeoJournalism. Tell us about it.

GeoJournalism is a type of data journalism that combines elements of reporting with Earth Sciences data. I use it for data visualisation in environment-related stories. It makes the stories more interactive and decipherable for readers. 

In the year 2015, I was awarded ‘The Third Pole Geo-Journalism Fellowship’ by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was a three-month fellowship where I produced a news story on Uttarakhand’s glacial lakes using traditional reporting, QGIS (for GIS mapping), and CARTO (for data visualisation). I collated the available data from researches on glacial lakes in Uttarakhand, along with their sizes, in order to bring forth the issue of glacial lakes outburst floods (GLOFs), and Uttarakhand’s vulnerability to GLOFs. To bring out the importance of understanding GLOF-related hazards, I wrote about a GLOF in the year 2013 where over 4,000 people had died in Uttarakhand’s Kedarnath Valley. In the story I added maps of the Kedarnath Valley, and the glacial lakes in Uttarakhand so readers can better interpret the data mentioned in the story’s text.

GeoJournalism fellowships can be searched for online. Being a part of a group of journalists who can apprise each other of such fellowships may also help.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job with ‘The Hindu’ in the year 2013 through campus placements at the Asian College of Journalism. I was appointed the State Correspondent for Uttarakhand, which meant that I had to report on every important development in the state.

What were some of the challenges you faced in getting your first job? How did you address them?

I can’t recall any challenges in getting my first job, since campus placements are straightforward. Switching jobs can be challenging. A good body of work in my first organisation – ‘The Hindu’ – helped me get my second job, which was with ‘The Indian Express’. I think the challenge while trying to change jobs in journalism is to keep track of vacancies in different media organisations. In my case, I was told about the vacancy at ‘The Indian Express’ by a journalist friend working for the newspaper.

Where do you work now, and in what capacity? Tell us about it.

I use my journalistic and research skills to tell Himalayan stories. Disseminating information about the region I belong to gives me a sense of purpose and fulfilment. 

I currently work as a freelance journalist and researcher, taking up projects related to water, climate change, hydropower projects, and environmental disasters in the Himalayan region. I also work as a volunteer, mainly with People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR), which is a platform dedicated to resource generation for the Himalayan region and dissemination of these (mainly academic) resources.

In terms of the skills required to be a journalist, basic training in journalism can be helpful, but it is not necessary. One can also learn at the job. Other than finding and writing stories, learning photography and videography can help tell multimedia stories. Data journalism is yet another form of storytelling that one can develop their skills in. 

In terms of research-related skills needed for pursuing academic projects, one needs to know how research is done, and how a research paper is written. An academic course can help develop these skills.

How does your work benefit the society?

I write on the environment and politics of Himalayan regions, water-related issues (like disasters from floods), climate change, and hydropower. Environment-related issues in the region are contentious and impact the Himalayan communities the most. My work brings such issues to the public domain. It not only informs people, but also strengthens arguments in Indian courts regarding environmental concerns and environmental governance in the Himalaya.

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

There are several works that come to mind, so, I’m afraid I can’t answer this. I have written a lot on the Himalaya, especially the Uttarakhand Himalaya, and everything I do in the Himalayan geography is important for me. Every story I pursue changes something in me, makes me understand something better. It’s like constructing a building – every brick is important. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to everyone is to always follow your passion – to find where your interests lie, and to pursue those interests earnestly. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to take risks.

Future Plans?

I am a Himalayan storyteller. That’s the summary of my current and future plans. I’ll go wherever my Himalayan stories take me.