Every developmental project, however beneficial it might be to our society, has an adverse impact on the natural environment that surrounds us and protects us !

Akshay Pandirkar, our next pathbreaker, Manager, Environment & Ecology at Tata Consulting Engineers, works to assess the quality and quantity of the impact which a project is going to have on the environment and biodiversity.

Akshay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being inspired by the works of Jim Corbett and David Attenborough through their narrations about nature which led him to a career in Environmental Consulting.

For students, when you work in the field of biodiversity, every moment is memorable, because you go out in the wild and find something new to this world, experience the beauty of nature and most of all, you breathe clean air. Need we say anything more !

Akshay, what were your early years like?

“The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.” – Jim Corbett 

These were the words that ignited my interest in studying nature. Jim Corbett’s writing always kept me engaged. It is not just about the tigers. I remember after reading through his books I used to sit at one place for hours to just watch what the backyard birds were doing. Back then I had no idea as to how I was going to make a career in the field of Ecology & Biodiversity.

I was born and brought up in a city like Mumbai where very few green spaces are available for nature enthusiasts (Later in my career I understood that urban biodiversity is also a good aspect of studying biodiversity). The only opportunity to observe nature at its best was during my summer holidays when I used to visit my village in Ratnagiri. It was then that I started looking at fascinating creatures. My curiosity to explore the wonders of nature grew by leaps and bounds. 

My schooling was in Marathi medium and the only option of careers known to us back then was to either become a doctor or an engineer, and for that, one had to clear the entrance test. After failing to crack the exam, I decided to pursue B.Sc in Chemistry, Botany & Zoology. And when I finally decided that my major would be zoology, It was like, “Oh! you are taking zoology, there is no scope for this subject, it will be very difficult for you to get a job and don’t even think about earning a fortune”. My family trusted me all the way against all the odds. We were a family of four and no one in my family had attended college before. After completing B.Sc, I enrolled for M.Sc in zoology.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

While doing my graduation in Zoology, it was very interesting to learn about the various animals from various regions of the world though it was all on paper initially. One by one, things unfolded and I started visiting places to explore and validate what I learnt.

I did my post-graduation in Zoology with specialisation in Oceanography (science of studying Marine Ecology) which revealed a different world to me.

What were the drivers that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I can say without any doubt that Jim Corbett and David Attenborough have had a great influence on me. They both never failed to fascinate their followers through their narrations about nature.

It is not just one person who influenced or mentored me. I met many people who shaped me into the person that I am today. I would like to mention Dr. Nandini Deshmukh (my professor at grad and post grad level) & Dr. Vinay Deshmukh (an eminent scientist of Indian Marine Fisheries), from whom I learned the basics of this field, have had a life lasting impact on my skills. I would also like to mention Dr. V.V. Singh (Ex-Scientist-in-Charge of CMFRI) from whom I learned professional skills. I believe that we learn from each and every person we meet, from some we learn what we should do and from some we learn what we should not.

I remember after giving my PG exam, I was awaiting the results when I got a call from Dr. Nandini that the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) is looking for a Research associate for their Fisheries Environment Management Department. I appeared for the interview and got selected. I was directly working under Dr. V.V. Singh who is well known for his professionalism. He was very particular about time management and writing skills which helped me improve my time management and writing skills. After CMFRI, I worked with the National Institute of Oceanography. I have been to many places in India to study coastal ecology during my tenure. I was equally mesmerized by seeing the beauty of coastal areas of India and I was equally disturbed by the destruction of that beauty under the name of development.

After working with all the eminent scientists, I started understanding different aspects of fisheries. I thought why not take this up as a career. There were two options, either clearing the ICAR entrance and joining CMFRI or cracking CSIR net, doing a PhD and working towards becoming a Marine scientist. Unfortunately, the ICAR entrance for becoming a Fisheries Scientist is restricted to M.F.Sc. (Masters in Fisheries science), hence I was not a right fit for it. If I were to consider the second option, I would have to wait for a few more years to secure a job. A job was my top priority to support my financial situation. Hence, I dropped that idea as well. It is when I found out that consultancy services are required for various environmental works including Environmental Impact assessment (EIA), I realized that it is the way through which I will be able to implement my knowledge to assess the impacts of development projects and help the developers mitigate them to achieve win-win situations. 

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

I worked for almost 2 years with research institutions like CMFRI and NIO during which my assignments were to go on boat trips to collects samples of fish and plankton (tiny creatures of aquatic habitat which are classified as phytoplankton and zooplankton). After collection, I used to analyze the samples in terms of abundance of species and groups. It was really amazing to see plankton under a microscope. It’s a totally different world out there waiting to be explored. I, with other colleagues, used to spend hours looking through the microscope and discussing the species identification criteria. Another important assignment was to collect biological data of various fish species like their length, weight, gender, stomach content, etc. This helped us assess the impacts on the fishes and the fisheries due to climate change. And of course, the unforgettable experience was the interactions with the local fishermen and farming communities to get their views on the current scenario of fisheries. All these experiences created a strong foundation for my career, which I learned to observe carefully, write with proof and communicate with the stakeholders.

After working for almost 2 years in the research field, I started applying for jobs in consultancy firms where Ecology & Biodiversity expertise was required. I started sending cold emails to various firms stating my interest in the domain of EIA, especially on Ecology & Biodiversity. After almost 150 emails, I finally got a call from an Environmental consultancy in Mumbai who were looking for a fresher. That’s how I got into the corporate world. Along with Biodiversity Assessment, I started working on EIA projects based on MOEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) requirements and helping clients obtain Environmental & CRZ clearance for their developmental projects in the sector of Port, Harbor, jetties, etc.

My approach to joining this field was that I would be able to contribute my knowledge to the field of sustainable development. 

After working for two and half years, I decided to join Terracon Ecotech Pvt. Ltd. which is more focused on nature-based solutions. Here I started working on projects like Biodiversity Impact Assessment, People’s Biodiversity Register, Local Biodiversity Action plan and Ecological profiling which provided me with the exposure to the National and International guidelines, policies, regulations etc. 

Knowledge of this has helped me secure a job in Tata Consulting Engineers wherein I work on projects at National and International level. Recently I achieved an accreditation as a Functional Area Expert (Category A) for Ecology & Biodiversity function by NABET (National Accreditation Board for Education & Training) which is an essential requirement for conducting ESIA (Environmental and Social Impact Assessment) study. I have been working on various projects through which I suggest mitigation measures and recommend measures to improve the ecology & biodiversity of the project area.  

How did you get your first break? 

After working for almost 2 years in the research field, I started applying for jobs in consultancy firms where Ecology & Biodiversity expertise was required. I started sending cold emails to the firms stating my interest in the EIA works and especially Ecology & Biodiversity. After almost 150 emails finally I got a call from a Environmental consultancy in Mumbai who was looking for a fresher. That’s how I got into the corporate world.

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

Challenge 1: Understanding biodiversity challenges is not just about theory; field work is essential. During college days there were financial crunches and I used to work part time for NGOs and National Park authorities to cover the expenses for books, notes and field work.

Challenge 2: Changing a job from research to consultancy was a big decision. Though both are scientific fields, the working environment is totally different. To adapt to the consultancy requirements, I started learning the requirements through blogs, meeting with experts and skill development through books, modules etc.  

Challenge 3: EIA study is multidisciplinary in itself and working in an engineering consultancy in the environmental field adds few more disciplines to it. Keeping yourself up to date is a challenge in itself. I continuously get involved in discussions with experts from other disciplines, may it be civil, infrastructure, power etc. to understand their thinking behind a design and accordingly assess the impacts and provide measures to improve the biodiversity and environment. 

The biggest challenge in this field is lack of awareness, specifically about biodiversity amongst clients, co-workers from other expertise areas and the general public. I believe that in order to tackle this, it is very essential to first understand the connection of our approach/ work/ activity, with the environment & Biodiversity. Once you establish that connection it is much easier for everyone to understand the importance. 

Where do you work now?

Currently I am working with Tata Consulting Engineers as a Manager, Environment & Ecology.

What problems do you solve?

In simple terms, every developmental project has an impact on the environment. To avoid that, rules and regulations are established by the government. I work to assess the quality and quantity of the impact which a project is going to have on the environment and biodiversity. Once that is assessed, I suggest project specific mitigation measures and recommendations to minimize the impact and improve the environmental quality. I also help clients understand the statutory requirements and need of conserving biodiversity. One of the major parts of my work is to assess threats to avifauna and bats due to wind farms.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

As I stated earlier, this work requires a multidisciplinary approach, one needs to keep himself up to date with the latest practices on environmental improvement, all necessary legislations, as well as acquire data representations skills like mapping etc.

What’s a typical day like?

Fortunately, the day is not typical for this job. My job requires travelling to places for studying the biodiversity and environment of the proposed project areas. This allows me to visit places which are rich in biodiversity, to study the flora and fauna. Another part of my job is to work in an office to prepare reports for client meetings, as well as for learning etc. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I am getting to do what I love, spend time in nature, photograph natural beauty and learn new things each and every day. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work helps in sustainable development with a chance to improve the environmental quality and biodiversity. 

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

When you work in the field of biodiversity, every moment is memorable, you go out in the wild and find something new to this world, experience the beauty of nature and most of all, you breathe clean air. But I would like to mention one such work, while I was working with research institutes. During my study of impact assessment in the Gulf of Kutch, I had the most memorable experiences of studying corals, observing & photographing octopuses, whale sharks and thousands of migratory birds.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Just keep learning and implementing the knowledge you have acquired. Frequently assess the need for your skills and new skills to be acquired. Spend time with yourself to see what is that you have in you and how you can make it shine. And most importantly, talk with experts, do not hesitate to ask for help, as they are the ones who have gone through it all. And remember, it is not where you are from, but what you want to achieve defines the future.    

Future Plans?

I plan to keep learning and implementing new knowledge.