Nature gives us a lot more than what we need. But when we exploit nature for our growing population, our comforts and our ever expanding infrastructure, we become more vulnerable to natural hazards !

Saiteja Pamu, our next pathbreaker, works as Project Manager of the State Project Management Unit of Rebuild Kerala Development Programme (RKDP) with the Kerala Forest Department, a programme conceived to make the state resilient to such natural disasters in the future.

Saiteja talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the most exciting aspects of his job which is visiting, working and spending significant time in the serene and beautiful forests which are otherwise inaccessible for tourism as well as working for something meaningful.

For students, industrialization comes at a cost. Be one of the few on the other side of the table, working towards mitigating climate change, conservation, sustainable development, and other related areas.

Saiteja, Your background?

Hello! I am Saiteja from a village called Teldarupalli in the Khammam District of Telangana. My mother is Asha and my father used to work in a granite quarry. I have a younger sibling currently in M.Com 2nd year. Back then we used to live in a two-room sheet-roofed house.

I completed my primary and secondary education at the local government school. I was good at studies, only studies, and no sports, but surprisingly I won two prizes, one was in a team sport and the other was in a board game. I used to watch TV, especially cartoons. Since I was good at studies my parents didn’t say anything about it and that’s probably the reason I got my spectacles. As far as I remember, apart from books, TV, and hanging out with a few friends, I didn’t have any other activities to talk about.

I don’t remember having a career in mind when I was in school, but I always wanted to be unique. Also, there was nobody in my family well educated enough to guide me nor was there easy access to the internet to get to know things back then. I think it’s okay not to have a goal or an interest in the early stages, but eventually as you grow up and explore, you can figure it out, just like I did.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

As I said earlier, I was good at studies. I was the school topper in my 10th class. Though everyone was happy, I was anxious about what would happen after this, as I didn’t have a clear interest, which is pretty common at that age. I didn’t know what to do. Because of our financial status and based on suggestions from some of my school teachers, my father admitted me to a local intermediate college with mathematics, physics, and chemistry as majors, oriented towards engineering. So, just like many other Indian youths I too joined the rat race. However, thanks to the then government of Andhra Pradesh, they started a university, Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT), Basar, in 2008 (which was four years before i was in 10th class), exclusively for rural meritorious youth. I got admission into that. It was a 6 year integrated BTech programme (residential) right after 10th class with full scholarship which gave access to world-class ICT technology and modern facilities for digital learning. I graduated from RGUKT in Mechanical Engineering (I chose this because I like cars) in 2018. After that, I took the CAT exam for the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM). I got admission into the two years flagship programme of IIFM, the Post Graduate Diploma in Forestry Management (PGDFM) in 2019. At IIFM also, I got a full scholarship (Central Sector Scholarship for Top Class Education, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Govt of India) and completed PGDFM in 2021 with Conservation & Livelihoods Management as my specialization.

I can’t resist bragging about myself that I completed all my education (from Primary to PG) in government institutions with full scholarships and I am working for the government now in a field that is trying to make this planet a better place. We should give back what we take, Ha-ha! It’s this one thing that I feel proud of and unique about myself.

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Though I ended up in engineering, I believe it was kind of different from other regular engineering courses and by joining there I broke the trend for the first time.

In my final year of B.Tech, I got a job offer through placements in an iron refinery in Jharkhand; we were a very small bunch who got campus placements from the Mechanical branch. So, we were all excited and wanted to prove ourselves. However, when we went there, the on-the-ground scenario was worse, like pollution levels, living conditions, etc. I fell ill after a couple of days, probably because i was from a village and staying in a campus which was located in a remote rural area, and was not used to that kind of industrialized life or something else, but that factory experience made me realize that that it wasn’t the place or field that I wanted to spend rest of my life in. After a week or 10 days, I said no to HR and went home. Thanks to my friends, I went home safely though I was very sick. I distinctly remember that I managed to go to the railway station, but I ended up lying down on the platform as I couldn’t walk, somehow they managed to put me on the train and half the way my father came to pick me up. It took almost a month at home to get back to a normal state.

This made me think and inspired me to do something about environmental issues. That was when I came across the Indian Institute of Forest Management, an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Govt of India, and decided to pursue PGDFM, so that I can work on the problems of such sort, to be on the other side of the table. I believe working for mitigating climate change, conservation, development of sustainable solutions, and other related areas is what being on the other side of the table means.

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

Hence, I had decided to join IIFM and I got admission as well, which was great. But I didn’t have any idea about this field. I didn’t know where to start, didn’t know which organizations to work for and had so many questions. Thanks to my friends and professors at IIFM, I started to learn, and things started to make sense. So, it’s important to have peer groups, talk to professors and other relevant persons apart from doing your research, the last one is very important, since after all it is you who should decide. I’m not a very social person, so I prefer to get to know things by myself before approaching anyone. I started reading and referring to all sorts of relevant content. Apart from my course curriculum, I did relevant certification courses so that I could get more information. I guess doing an internship in a relevant field and participating in extracurricular activities which also fell in my interest domain helped me very much. Lastly, my PGDFM qualification from IIFM and the knowledge I gained through various activities were what helped me secure my current job.

How did you get your first break?

No conservation-related organizations came for placements, due to various reasons, the major one being COVID-19. The few environmental organizations that came wanted experienced candidates. I was a fresher then. And the organizations I was trying for, were not selecting me and I was not interested in other organizations.

A few more months were remaining till the completion of our course when the Kerala Forest Department announced that they were going to participate in the placement process, though they mentioned that they would prefer Malayalam speaking people. I didn’t know Malayalam and there were Keralites during the selection process. It’s sort of a dream opportunity to work in a forest department for a conservation enthusiast and on top of that, this was from Kerala, an ideal place to work in forests, moreover, there were no conservation-related organizations that year. Since there was a requirement for Malayalam, I thought I wouldn’t apply, but a friend of mine who was also on the placement committee came to my room and told me to apply. I think I was sleeping at that time, Ha-ha! I asked him what the point was, but still, he insisted on applying. So, I applied.

After a few days, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department also announced that they would participate in placements, I thought it would be a sure shot for me (There were 5-6 offers and only 3 Telugu-speaking persons were available). So, I applied to it with full confidence.  

It was the last day of our campus stay, my train was in the evening. The interview for the Kerala Forest job was at around 11 AM the same day. I was so confident that they wouldn’t select me that I didn’t care to prepare also. We watched a movie the previous night in the common room. The interview went for half an hour or so, it was online. As I had made up my mind that they wouldn’t select me, I just answered plainly but correctly.

Then we went home, waiting for AP Forest’s interview dates. After a week or so, when I was writing my final exams online at home, I got a call from an unknown number. I rejected it as I was writing the exam, they called again and I rejected the call again after which my friend who told me to apply earlier called me, and told me that the call was from Kerala Forest dept. and I should take it. Immediately, I called them back. It was the Deputy CEO of the project calling me to inform me that I was selected. She asked if I was willing to join. I didn’t think twice, I said YES! It turned out the course content was sort of hardwired into my brain. Even though I didn’t stress much on preparing, I performed well in the interview and Kerala Forest also focused on merit rather than the language requirement. 

PS: AP Forest never bothered to show up later.

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

The first and biggest challenge was to convince my family of such a career considering our financial state. One wrong step could ruin my entire career. However, as I was good at studies and proved myself by getting a job, they believed in me and agreed to not push me hard.

The second biggest challenge was financing the course fee. Thankfully, IIFM was also one of the few institutes that many banks would readily accept for giving education loans, all I had to do was secure the admission and I knew I could do this. I easily got the loan without any collateral after getting the admission. Luckily, there is this scholarship also, the institute informed me to apply and I got selected. Yet to receive half of the scholarship though, Ha-ha! Maybe this financial problem got solved by sheer luck.

The COVID-19 pandemic started during the last month of the first year of our PGDFM. Exams were cancelled and we were sent home. Everyone was anxious. The immediate question was what would happen to our summer internships and the other question was placements. Most of the internships were cancelled and the placements scenario was not so desirable.

My initial internship was related to a study of High Conservation Value Forests, Social Forests, and local communities, but it got cancelled as it involves a lot of fieldwork, because of COVID. Later I got an unpaid, “work from home” opportunity related to a study on human-wildlife conflict in India. I got that internship without any interview, maybe because there were no applicants for the job. I gave a very good report at the end. I got an A grade for that. 

There was a long gap between going home because of COVID and starting of the internships and after the internships, starting of the new term. It was a depressing time as I, not just me, had no clue how the future would turn out to be. Everywhere it was COVID, still is, and we were worried about our future. After a few days, I used this time to do some related certification courses and started to write blog posts about environmental and conservation issues. This helped me a lot in gaining exposure to many aspects and learning new skills. This kept me engaged so that I wouldn’t worry about the future and filled me with confidence that I can sail through.

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as the Project Manager of the State Project Management Unit of Rebuild Kerala Development Programme (RKDP) with the Kerala Forest Department in Thiruvananthapuram. 

What problems do you solve?

RKDP was conceived to help Kerala recover from the impacts of the 2018 floods which affected the state in several ways. It’s a flagship programme of the state involving several departments, to make the state resilient to such natural disasters in the future. 

Those floods impacted the forest-dependent people in many ways because of the inaccessibility. Delayed disaster response to these remote places was further multiplied due to the effects of floods. We are now working to stop these things from happening in the future and make the necessary facilities (health, education, and others) easily accessible to these people. Through this, we are working to solve the traditional issues that these people are facing for so many years, such as human-wildlife conflict.

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?

Some of the skills that are needed for this job are the ability to manage and work with cross-cultural teams, work on data analysis, research about issues, as well as some specific skills like socio-economic profiling, conducting baseline surveys, preparing questionnaires, investigating livelihoods-related aspects, forestry and many others. Learning is a continuous process, so, I would say I started to acquire these skills through my course work, extracurricular activities, and still learning from my colleagues and other sources.

What’s a typical day like?

This job is a mix of office work and intensive field work. In-office, I have to prepare documents to track the progress of the work, coordinate with my teammates, and monitor and report the status of work, among other things. The field doesn’t have any fixed timings. In the field, we visit the people in forest areas, talk to them and verify the necessary information, participate in meetings with the regional teams, push the teams for progress, and so on.

What is it you love about this job?

The most exciting thing is that I can visit and spend significant time in the serene and beautiful forests which are otherwise inaccessible for tourism. But the important thing is that I feel I am working for something meaningful.

How does your work benefit society? 

As I said earlier, we are working to make basic facilities accessible to the people living in or nearby forests by bringing them closer to the mainstream society. Other aspects of the project are conserving mangrove forests which act as natural obstacles against floods among other important ecological functions, developing human-modified lands as natural forests which are vital for mitigating climate change, and conserving biodiversity and natural resources.

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

All the work that I have done and currently doing is close to me in one way or another. However, for the sake of this question, I would like to talk about a competition that I led at IIFM. The name of the competition was Bhumika: A Stakeholder Perspective Competition in which we invited the youth to choose from a list of stakeholders who are impacting the environment either negatively or positively and deliver their perspective of that particular stakeholder in terms of environment, social, and conservation issues. This is memorable for me because we got a huge response internationally and we made the youth (who are our future key players) think about these issues that are changing this planet and our way of life. I am hoping that this might have created a chain reaction of spreading awareness among the youth.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

One of our professors used to say that never take any crap that this world throws in your face, you’re unique in your way, good at what you do. Just find out what it is, it may take some time and it’s fine to not have a goal, but eventually you’ll figure out what you want to do because life is a journey and you’ll have multiple things to achieve, and you can’t stop with one goal. Just keep working, give your best, you’ll reach there in time, don’t compare or compete with anyone and this world is brutal, if you stop working and upgrading yourself, you will become irrelevant. Finally, life is a journey to cherish and it’s very short, live it to the fullest and enjoy every moment of it. 

Future Plans?

I want to pursue a career in research in the field of natural resource management.