Following natural instincts

“I don’t look at the environment as a career,” says Kartikeya Sarabhai, one of the foremost environment educators in the country, in a freewheeling chat

August 04, 2018 01:17 pm | Updated 01:17 pm IST

Founder-Director of India’s Centre for Environment Education (CEE), founder of the South and Southeast Asian Network for Environment Education, chair-holder of the UNESCO chair on Education for Sustainable Development and the Human Habitat… Kartikeya Sarabhai has innumerable accomplishments, and is a person of tremendous grace and humility.

What inspired you to become an environment educationist?

In the summer of 1967, I spent nearly a month in Bihar witnessing first-hand the work being done on famine relief. I was 20 years old and this was my first exposure to the problems facing India and the development work being done by the voluntary sector. I wanted to get involved and my father, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, encouraged me to study development communication.

I was instinctively drawn to social development — from issues facing migrants living in the slums of Mumbai to the changing urban environment in Ahmedabad city as it moved into the future — and was struck by the interdependence between society and nature. This realisation made me understand a deep need to educate people about the natural environment within which they lived.

My own interest in nature really began in the 1970s. My elder son was fascinated by planes. But there were only so many types of planes one could see in India. So, he switched his attention to birds in the garden. He would point to a bird and ask for its name. I realised how little I knew and began looking for a book on birds. That’s how I finally got down to procuring Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds .

Birdwatching took us to a WWF camp at Hindolgarh in 1977, where I first met Dr Salim Ali. This led to many more trips and a lifelong association with him.

In 1977, we set up the Vikram Sarabhai Centre for Development Interaction (VIKSAT) at Thaltej Tekra in the outskirts of Ahmedabad. In 1978, I met Romulus Whitaker, who ran the snake park and crocodile bank in Tamil Nadu. When he visited us at Ahmedabad, we went snake-watching at night on the highway! At our Thaltej campus, Rom pulled out two large cobras from a path we walked on all the time. We were captivated.

The excitement of discovering nature with family and friends inspired me to consider ways to engage everyone, especially children, in beginning their own inquiry of the natural world.

How has Environment Education (EE) in the country evolved from the time you started?

Following the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education at Tbilisi in Georgia in 1977, EE came to occupy an important role in India’s overall environment and development strategy.

I was already engaged in a lot of work in the area through VIKSAT, the Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) and Sundarvan, a nature education centre, all of which were affiliated to the Nehru Foundation for Development (NFD), a charitable trust established by my father. In 1984, we founded the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) in partnership with the government. At the time, it was perhaps the only organisation of its kind, not just in the country but even around the world.

The Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that made EE a mandatory subject in schools created massive opportunities in this field and our work expanded manifold. Soon after that, the UN declared its Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14), and CEE hosted the first international conference of the decade with 900 educators from 50 different countries. This culminated in the globally-accepted Ahmedabad Declaration on Education for a Sustainable Future.

EE was not just in the national but even the global limelight and the environment had become a topic of popular public discourse. Unlike before, I’m flooded with invitations to speak about EE on different platforms today!

More than a decade later, many people have cast doubts over the success of EE. Your comments.

The problems facing EE — gaps in teacher training and the need to make its teaching more hands-on — are common to our entire education system. The success of EE does not lie in its study as much as it lies in the tremendous environmental consciousness it has generated in the country. Our EE programmes have led people to take action at the local level.

Do you think EE has led more people to think about environment as a career?

The idea behind EE is to educate people about their natural environment. Whether they choose to make a career in this field was never its mandate. However, armed with a good environment education, even people who have not joined this field can create an impact on it, because nearly every form of human endeavour is tied to the natural environment.

Having said that, the field has certainly expanded. Many more specialised courses have come up in higher education and jobs have been created in areas as diverse as sanitation, wildlife management, forestry and renewable energy. Today at CEE, we get requests for career guidance from students and parents all the time.

Personally, I have not had to look at the environment as a career. I was fortunate to be born in a family where I could pursue it as a passion. But the various institutions we’ve set up, have created professional opportunities for people who wish to pursue a career in this field.

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