Mridula Mary Paul has recently returned from Spiti, where she had been following a team tracking a disease prevalent in feral dogs in the northern desert valley. I don’t quite catch the name of the virus, and my woeful lack of scientific knowledge is about to be laid bare many times over the course of our conversations.
The 36-year-old environmental policymaker is speaking to me from Sahakara Nagar, a nondescript locality on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Here, a cluster of the country’s most prominent environmental organisations, think tanks and non-profits are working to solve pressing questions about India’s way forward.
Remarkably, Paul has no airs about the gravity of her role. When I preface a question with: “As someone who works on effecting systemic and institutional change….”, she laughs and quickly corrects me: “Someone who’s been trying hard to, but has not succeeded!” She works at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), which ranks amongst the top 20 environmental think tanks globally. In November 2019, it was awarded the annual UNESCO Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Conservation for its socially just environmental conservation and sustainable development activities.
This is our third conversation now, and I’ve finally caught her at a loss for words. The offending topic — what she likes to do for fun — has led to a nervous silence on the other end. After some coaxing, I learn that she enjoys a vast range of hobbies, from the predictably millennial (Sunday brunches) to the curiously offbeat (assembling miniature dollhouses from scratch). It’s just that Paul, both by nature and profession, isn’t accustomed to being the centre of the narrative. She’d rather it focus on her work, which spans human rights, environmental law, conservation and development studies, and environmental policymaking. She first dealt with matters related to conservation shortly after obtaining her law degree. “In one case, the industrial waste tank of a public sector company had breached its boundaries, spilling sludge into the surrounding agricultural fields. We stepped in to file compensation cases for the farmers.” Another case she fought argued against the Pallikaranai marsh (a wetland area in Chennai) being turned into a construction site for government-subsidised housing. Over time, she grew increasingly frustrated with the results. “I felt constrained because I was coming in when the damage had already been done. I wanted to be involved at the stages when these kinds of policies are being formed.”
In 2010, after almost three years of practising litigation, she decided it was time for a change and started working with PD Rai, who was then a Member of Parliament (MP) from Sikkim, to better understand policy framing. A defining project for her during this time, was the declassifying of bamboo as a “tree” under the Forest Rights Act. “It was a major issue for the North-East. Although bamboo grows in people’s farmyards and backyards, they required several permissions to cut and transport it back then. They had a very rich resource available but weren’t able to use it for their livelihoods,” she explains. Paul adds that the discussion to declassify it had already begun in some circles because, technically, bamboo is a grass and not a tree. She eventually travelled through Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and wrote a report for the MP based on her findings there.
This report went on to form the basis of a Private Member’s Bill that he introduced in Parliament, calling for bamboo to be removed from the Forest Rights Act. A decade or so later, it became an Act of Parliament. When Paul heard, it didn’t strike her to connect the Act being passed with her extensive research that had laid the groundwork for it. You’d think something as specific as declassifying bamboo would ring a few bells, but her surprise at the positive outcome is a testament to just how rare real gains are in her field.
I’m picking up that no one works in environmental policymaking to get what they want. Instead, they operate on the knowledge that change will take time but is nonetheless worth fighting for.
It’s this ideology that has guided environmental and climate activists for decades as the rest of us have carried on with life as usual. But Paul is optimistic about the new wave of environmental activists. “I find it interesting that young people are getting so involved — and I mean really young, like kids in school,” she says.
“It’s enormously encouraging, what’s happening. This urgency I’m seeing from young people and their movements shows that they’ve understood and imbibed the reality of the crisis in a way that we haven’t yet been able to do.” It’s intriguing to me that Paul chooses to count herself as part of the latter collective. I’d have imagined she’d be exempt by the fact that mitigating the effects of the climate crisis is her literal day job. But she isn’t trying to be humble; in her conception, we all could always be doing more.
I’m about to curl up into a ball of shame thinking about the clothes from a fast fashion brand that came in the mail a day ago; however, Paul promptly reassures me. “It’s better to have 100 people imperfectly following a sustainable lifestyle than only two people who follow it perfectly while the other 98 do nothing,” she explains. “It’s fine, we all do what we can. Sometimes, if that’s what you need for your physical or mental health, then that’s what you need. It’s just about being aware and then figuring out how to make conscious choices with that awareness.”
I wonder what it feels like when your profession has consequences not just for yourself but possibly for the environmental future of a country as well. Does it ever weigh on her? “When I was a lawyer and actively practising in court, people’s lives were directly tied up with the work I did, which did feel like a heavy weight to carry. But in the policy space, you have to learn not to take yourself too seriously. You realise that you’re one tiny cog in this huge system, so you never think, ‘My work is what’s actively pushing things forward’.”
Still, she finds that most of her free time is spent trying to switch her brain — which is usually in constant overdrive — off. She’s a big fan of slice-of-life Tamil and Malayalam cinema (she speaks both languages fluently) and lights up when I mention I’ve been meaning to watch Kumbalangi Nights. When reading, she escapes into fantasy fiction. One of her favourite authors is Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy follows the coming-of-age story of two children in a very specific alternate universe — one based on Oxford University, which also happens to be where Paul spent three years.
While at Oxford, she studied community-based wildlife conservation practices of the Gond Adivasi community in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve. After obtaining an MPhil, she returned to India and began working as the programme director of the Integrated Mountain Initiative. “Its driving purpose was to remedy the situation of the Indian Himalayan states, which contribute substantially in terms of environmental public goods for the rest of the country but are rarely given their due in return,” says Paul. “A number of these states have more than 75 to 80 per cent forest cover, so, in some sense, they maintain the green cover for the entire country. But in terms of development indexes, they rank disproportionately low because they have so many constraints. You require an enormous number of clearances to even build something basic like a school or road.”
It was here that Paul first dived into what she calls policy advocacy. The organisation was headed by retired Chief Secretaries and MPs and MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) from the affected states, and it gave voice to the issue that the development model India is pursuing is leaving the Himalayan region behind. “We were organising these national-level conferences where scientists, bureaucrats and politicians from other states would discuss and identify issues in the development policies,” she says. The time she spent interacting with policymakers made her correct her own common misconceptions.
“Those of us who come from outside the bureaucratic system love to say that bureaucrats don’t want to do anything, that they’re stuck in their ways, or that the forest department is either evil or incompetent. I’ve come across bureaucrats and politicians who are dedicated, committed and genuinely interested in the cause. It’s important to remember that institutions are not monolithic entities — they’re made up of people, plenty of who have good intentions but are operating under many constraints. It gave me perspective on how difficult it is to do their jobs as well.”
For a current project with ATREE, Paul says, “There have been positive responses from individuals within various government departments but no systemic change has happened,” she says. In early March, she had been conducting a series of workshops supported by the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology. The workshops brought together officials from the Forest Department, Revenue Department, scientists and NGOs to address the issue of grasslands (which contain flourishing ecosystems) being classified as wastelands by the government, thus opening them up to green energy projects which are better suited for city roofs.
The problem, as Paul explains, is in what we’ve been taught about conservation and the environment. “When we think of the environment, we think of the wilderness and lush rainforests. But these make up only one type of ecosystem within India. There are many other ecologically rich environments, which may not look rich and green, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth protecting.” During my conversations with Paul, I had to do an equal measure of unlearning. It turns out that demanding clean energy is significantly more complicated when it comes at the cost of precious habitats.
There is a lot to take in, and I feel a sort of uncontrollable helplessness. For someone who doesn’t have access to the same nuanced information, what is there to do? According to Paul, I could start by accepting that not everything is in my hands. “The onus has shifted onto the individual: we feel like if we recycle, we’ll fix the planet. But the accountability of corporations is way higher.” Unfortunately — as much as I would like to hear it — Paul is far from advocating that we can throw up our hands and rely on systemic change. “At an individual level, the reason we’re in this mess is because we’re over-consuming. It’s important to remind ourselves that when we buy the latest iPhone, we contribute to the conversion of something ecologically rich into something else.”
She is resolute in her belief that there is no silver bullet and that we need to drastically change how we live. “There’s also quite a bit of literature on “degrowth”, a movement that encourages us to stop growing, producing and consuming as much. We can’t say that everything will be business as usual and assume that we’ll find the magic solution to conserve the environment at the same time,” she says.
Paul’s words are echoed by author Bram Büscher’s in The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene:
We don’t want to make it seem as though the solution is just in consuming differently or consuming less. We don’t want to approach people as consumers, but as citizens, as political agents, as change agents. Individual actions are important but we hope that people do them in relation to broader things.
So does change begin at home for Paul? “There’s a Vietnamese saying: ‘The Buddha in the house is never holy,’” she tells me. “Because in your own house, nobody really takes you as seriously as you’d like. I think the last people you’ll be able to convince, honestly, are those in your family!”