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Miniya Chatterji is the CEO and founder of Sustain Labs, Paris - a Delhi and Paris based company that helps businesses transform their operating models into being environmentally and socially responsible. NT NETWORK sits down with the Saligao-based sustainability expert and author

Creating a sustainable environment

Danuska Da Gama | NT NETWORK

Having moved to Goa close to two years ago, residing and working out of Saligao, Miniya Chatterji’s company- Sustain Labs Paris, is a sustainability incubator for large organisations. The former chief sustainability officer at the $4 billion Jindal Steel and Power company has now taken on Anant National University as a client of Sustain Labs to embed sustainability in the university’s research output, student curriculum, infrastructure, ethics, and everyday campus life.

Born in Jamshedpur, Chatterji completed her bachelors at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went on to complete her PhD and DEA Honors from Sciences Po, Paris, with research fellowships at Harvard University and Columbia University.

The mother of 23-month-old Kaizer, she enjoys writing too.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. Do you believe that leaders of nations are seriously concerned about sustainability, climate change and the impact our planet is facing?

Leaders of which nation is the key question here! When it comes to countries where there are stomachs to feed, that is going to be the priority- and we can’t be thinking about saving the planet when we have poverty. So it really depends.

Q. People have woken up from their slumber and are talking of sustainability today more than before. Comment

Yes, sustainability has become much of a buzz word these days such that it is often reduced to being a cookie cutter marketing gimmick. Or else there is enormous climate anxiety with people screaming and protesting, but these people do not mention the solutions that are indeed working and which need to be amplified. In India, sustainability is almost always about CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and environment protection. The way Sustain Labs works is very context specific to the geography, organisation, and industry we operate within. We look at solving the specific challenge of the organisation that impacts its mid to long term future and its stakeholders such as community, employees, flora and fauna in the environment, customers, and so on. We do not work on CSR. Instead we work on the business model itself, the product, production processes.

It is often rather complex. Sometimes even if an organisation has the infrastructure setup to align production capabilities with long term benefit to stakeholders, the challenge might come from difficulties in changing the behaviour of employees or customers to embrace responsible production or responsible consumption as the case may be. For example, Anant National University minimises and recycles waste. It is the first university campus in India to soon become 100 per cent single use plastic free. We have done studies on water and energy consumption on campus and are working to make it resource efficient. Setting up the infrastructure for all this is in fact far easier than making students, teachers and staff understand the value and adopt the practice of consuming less, always segregating waste, recycling waste, and being resource efficient.

Q. Tell us about Sustain Labs and the work that you do?

Sustain Labs currently has clients in Morocco, Fiji and France, besides India where our client is Anant National University. We are not consultants, but instead we have teams that are integrated in these organisations. This model works because we take on large transformational processes and it requires important strategic decisions that the team within the organisations can roll out. Anant National University was one of the first clients of Sustain Labs and one where I am personally deeply involved.

At Anant National University we have set up a think-teach-do tank called the Centre for Sustainability. The centre is producing reports and papers of thought leadership. My team at the centre teaches as well as develops course work. We work on impactful projects for the private sector as well as government, and get students and faculty members involved in the projects. There are three specific research tracks- one is affordable housing, the second is to find indigenous models of circular economy, and the third is how to make the campus sustainable.

On the first research track, we are publishing an annual city series report on vacant houses in India. India will have added 416 million urban dwellers by 2050, for whom our cities are hard pressed to provide decent housing. One of the problems facing Indian cities is the presence of a large stock of vacant housing. As per the Census of India 2011, around 12 per cent of the total urban housing stock of the country comprises of vacant houses. This creates a paradoxical situation as a sizeable population has no access to decent housing. Goa is a holiday destination and therefore with plenty of vacation homes lying vacant. But in some other cities such as Mumbai or Ahmedabad, there are vacant houses in the middle and lower income group residences. What are the reasons and solutions? This area is very under researched.

The other report we will be coming up with is about industrial symbiosis in industrial estates. My team is researching if companies are creating value out of each other’s waste in industrial estates in India. What we find is that there are a lot of informal networks that make this happen to a certain extent. And thus we want to document this and present a framework for policy and corporate action.

The third research track is about building sustainable campuses, starting with our own campus at Anant National University. We are rolling out various measures to do so via research, academic curriculum, infrastructure, and we are taking the learnings from here to other organisations. For example Anant National University is helping the 509 Army base in Agra to manage its waste. The university will be open to advising more companies, schools, universities, on how to become sustainable campuses.

Q. When it comes to inculcating habits to create sustainability and reverse environmental damage, what problems do you see in Goa and how can we address them?

Goa is a tourist destination with large numbers of people moving in and out of hotels and Airbnbs. Some establishments are ‘eco-hotels’, whereas every hotel and Airbnb must be an eco-hotel. Any hotel or resort, big or small needs to be mindful about its waste. Waste minimisation, waste segregation, and waste management must be mainstreamed in Goa and not just done by some.

Also, there is a colossal amount of construction and real estate development going on that I have witnessed in the last one and half year living in Goa. The manner in which this is done needs to be more efficient. Whether, it is the use of water or the kind of material being used, there needs to be a balance with the eco system. We need to be in sync with nature when we build. I am happy to help in making Goa’s development more resource efficient.

Q. You’ve worked in domains of education and health for women in India through the Stargazers Foundation. Have seen any change since then?

I think it’s both a yes and a no. Literacy rates have really improved. Since the time of Independence, there has been tremendous focus on higher education and that is progressing very well. The last few years have also seen private universities that have come up alongside the IIMs, IITs and other universities.

But, when it comes to primary education there is still much lacking. From primary to secondary school the dropout rate is 40 per cent which is very high! And for girls the dropout rate is even higher. Also, if you look at the money spent on the education of a girl child and boy child it’s not proportionate. Further, there is anything in the range of 11 million to 18 million children who are on the streets of India. What are we doing about them? They don’t have an education at all. The problem in New Delhi and Mumbai is huge and I am trying to get the private sector on board. The range is vast because these kids are not documented.

Then there’s a whole issue of the education quality being offered. How do you make sure that the children of India are growing up learning how to question and make their own choices? This is even more pertinent when it comes to how girls in India are being educated in school, at home and by society. Of course the society and government of the land also need to make sure that these kids can implement their choices. If not then it will only lead to frustration.

Q. Take us through your trials and challenges?

There’s nothing extraordinary about my life. Every challenge I have gone through is very typical of what most girls from middle class homes in India go through. This is why when I see another girl I can totally empathise and understand her challenge, because somewhere in my life I have been through that too.

My parents are wonderful and taught me to think for myself. However they are also a product of the society we live in and so I went through the usual pressure of getting into an arranged marriage that most girls in India go through. I left home when I was 19, funded my own studies, and worked all through.

I left India because I was disillusioned about the society here and I was also less confident back then about my own values. At that time I was happy to get a small scholarship of 624 Euros a month to study at a very prestigious school, Sciences Po in Paris. I approached 30 different companies and trusts to fund my air ticket, because I didn’t want to take money from my parents. The NGO which finally funded my air ticket had three conditions – one, you will forget this ever happened (which I obviously have not); two, you will never contact us again; and third if life gives you the chance then you will help another girl in a similar manner, which really stuck to me.

 In Paris, that year I worked as a receptionist to pay for my rent! The following year I got the French government’s highest paying scholarship to continue my studies in France and I was very comfortable, but since I had already picked up the habit of working and fending for myself, the PhD thesis director sent me off to an address and it turned out to be the President of France’s office. And that was the first formal job I had.

After that things just took its course. I never studied finance, but I got recruited by Goldman Sachs in London, and very quickly was managing a hedge fund. It was the World Economic Forum after that alongside my NGO Stargazers, and post that I returned to India to be in the top management of Jindal Steel & Power. All through it has been tough and competitive. Wherever I worked there were almost always just a handful of women. Yet the challenge is not the gender, but the age, as I am usually the youngest amongst my peers in what I do.

Q. Tell us about the author in you.

I would always write since I was a child. My brother was a great orator and I would write his speeches and debates and when I was about 19, I started writing pieces that were published in two national dailies. It was the editors that time who gave me the chance to write op-eds at a very young age. However after getting into banking I stopped writing as I didn’t have the time. So I quit banking, which was a conscious decision, at a time that I was managing a hedge fund at age 29. I quit because I realised I wasn’t doing things that I truly love and that included writing and I felt I wasn’t creating an impact on lives, which I always wanted to do.

So when I started writing again after quitting investment banking, I delved into the stories that I had worked on for my PhD thesis, and it became the basis for my fictional work, which I never published. But, it was when I moved to India that there was just so much that I saw and felt that I needed to write a book on India. I was both an insider and an outsider, being a daughter of an officer in the Air Force and thus lived in various parts in India as well as in eight countries after that. I could empathise with Indians living in different parts of the country, yet I had a wider perspective and a comparative advantage. Certain things shocked me and compelled me to write. It was my husband Chirag who encouraged me to take the plunge and write the book.

Q. What is your parenting approach with your toddler Kaizer?

My husband and I are very engaged parents, so everything that we do incorporates Kaizer’s best interests. When it comes to choices, we have encouraged him to make his own choices since he was one-year-old. He chooses his own clothes when we shop and now he’s ended up having over 90 per cent orange clothes because he likes that colour clearly. Even when we go grocery shopping he chooses the vegetables and thus is a great eater. So it’s about giving him the ability to choose for himself and giving the child confidence in making choices.

The second most important thing is that I don’t want to put him into an education system that is pressured, so that’s what we’ve been struggling with. I think Goa offers some really good early schooling options which in other parts of the world you would have to spend a lot on. Overall I just want him to be a kind person and that I think is the biggest education you can give a child.

Q. How can companies become more responsible towards sustainability and preserving the environment?

I believe that every organisation, small or big should be social entrepreneurs. That is the crux of what sustainability is all about. You need to make sure that sustainability is followed at every step, through processes followed, the products used. CSR is often not sustainable. But, if social entrepreneurship is embedded in the core – that’s when we will get somewhere. And I am optimistic about it, as we already have some companies doing it and I’m sure it will catch on.

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