The past year was a turbulent one for Greenpeace India. The Indian arm of the global non-profit faced government crackdown and was banned from receiving foreign donations; its staff was cut in half in the resulting financial crunch; and employees accused the organisation of botching the handling of complaints of sexual harassment. Last month, Ravi Chellam, a senior wildlife conservationist, was brought in, as executive director, to steady the ship. Chellam is best known for his research on and efforts to protect Asiatic lions. He began his career as a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund, and went on to work with the Wildlife Institute of India for almost two decades. Chellam later worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, and was reportedly eased out of the organisation due to his support for the Forest Rights Act, which privileges the rights of tribal people to forest land.
Here, Chellam talks to Atul Dev, a reporter at The Caravan, about the allegations of Greenpeace’s past, the possibilities of its future, and its points of engagement with the government.
Atul Dev: How did your decision to join Greenpeace come about?
Ravi Chellam: Over the last 10 years, I have been working with different NGOs—Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE), Wildlife Conservation Society India program, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, Foundation for Ecological Security and finally, now, with Greenpeace India.
For about eight years now, I have been a member of Greenpeace India Society. As things turned out last year, Greenpeace India needed a new Executive Director. The post was advertised. For whatever reasons, the search committee reached out and asked me to apply for the position. They said that they felt I should be a part of the list of people they were considering for the position. A formal process was followed and eventually I was selected for the post.
AD: Given Greenpeace’s has a broader set of interests, do you feel that you may have to diversify your areas of specialisation? Or will the strategy of the organisation now be streamlined?
RC: You are posing the question as a binary. The way I see it, it doesn’t have to be either/or; it could actually be somewhere in between. My taking on this role is definitely going to expand my horizons. But at the same time, I hope it is going to expand and deepen the organisation’s activities in the country.
As part of the interviewing process, I was asked to talk about my vision for the organisation. I focussed on a few issues: one is, of course, the wildlife and biodiversity set of challenges; the other is dealing with the younger generation. A persistent problem that I have come across is that for large parts our education system kills any potential exposure to the environment and real-life issues—we are so bookish and classroom-based now that we lose touch with reality. And the third is the issue of urban problems. The urban space is getting worse by the minute, and since most of our offices are based in cities—we need to be more relevant in our immediate location. These were the ideas that I gave to the selection committee, and these are the things that I would like to bring into operation soon.
AD: How do you see the decisions of the government in dealing with Greenpeace through the last year?
RC: It seems clear to us that government agencies have been trying to shut down Greenpeace, one way or the other, for the past several months. But it isn’t just this government, or just here in India even. If you look at governments around the world in general, they are often intolerant of being challenged, especially when we examine economic growth, or challenge development—both of which are only vaguely defined. What is growth? For whom is this development? What are its costs and who bears them? These questions are seldom probed beyond the rhetoric.
But no matter how government agencies have acted, I think that we, as an organisation, have shown quite a bit of spine and resilience in withstanding those tough times.
We have always shown willingness to engage with the government, and will continue to do so. We have reached out to the ministries. If you are going to talk about development, conservation and human rights, not dialoguing and working with the government is not an option.
AD: What are the issues on which you are engaging with the government?
RC: There is a broad range of issues on which we engage with a variety of government agencies, including our welcoming the announcement of ambitious renewable energy targets, working with the Bihar state government on upscaling and replicating a solar micro-grid and synthetic chemicals-free agriculture, working with the Delhi government on air pollution, and of course, all while continuing to uphold our right to dissent.
AD: How have the events of the past year affected the people within the organisation?
RC: There has clearly been a great impact on the morale of staff, considering the trials the organisation was forced through, and the inevitable reduction in staff that followed. Budget cuts have been forced on us. We are contesting it in court, but as of now we do not have access to our FCRA [Foreign Contribution Regulation Act] account. Our local accounts were also frozen, but we have managed to get these operational again through the court.
For the days the accounts were frozen, we did not have access to them. This is not a nice situation to be in.
The fact of the matter is that people have left us, and with that a lot of talent, institutional memory, and relationships have gone. But the people who have stuck it out have done so largely because they have faith and commitment to the mission of Greenpeace. My message to the employees was to not lose focus by dwelling on the past.
AD: The organisation faced severe criticism for its handling of sexual harassment cases filed by its employees. What measures have been put into place since the charges came forth?
RC: These charges are from the past, and the organisation has paid serious attention to these over the last few months. I formally joined on Monday, 4 January 2016, and in the very first staff meeting that I held on 5 January, the straight and narrow message was that there will be zero tolerance of any forms—any—of discrimination, harassment or bullying. I said that if someone does not understand these terms, please come and talk to me. The organisation has already taken drastic action in response to previous incidents, and put in place a new staff policy to address such issues. We are building more robust systems, including clear reporting channels to address such issues in the organisation. If someone thinks that their complaint is not taken seriously, they can come directly to me—I maintain an open office. The idea is to not allow these problems to fester or persist but to investigate, take decisions based on the findings and to reach closure.
We are also planning to have an experienced expert as a special advisor on these matters, to ensure that the organisation continues to deal with these serious and sensitive issues in a fair, inclusive, efficient and effective manner. I am committed to strengthening processes. As far as internal issues are concerned, this is right on top of the agenda.
AD: Greenpeace’s brand of activism has often been criticised as being theatrical and reckless.
RC: I think that’s unfair. How do we define reckless? A forest is cut down or rivers and lakes are polluted, and that is not considered reckless. In fact, these acts will very often be justified as being part of the cost of development. The forces that are against local communities, the integrity of functional ecosystems and the environment are numerous, powerful and enormous.
Yes, there is a Greenpeace way of doing things. We do see our role in making it impossible to ignore what is, at times, invisible in public consciousness. Often this means going to the source of the problem—hanging a banner on a coal plant's giant smokestack, for example. Other times, it means reminding decision makers that they have greater and more fundamental responsibilities than stock market indices and corporate bottom lines.
AD: You have worked extensively on the preservation of Asiatic lions. Is that something you might go back to now with Greenpeace?
RC: Globally, Greenpeace has a pretty good track record on species conservation, especially as much of this is driven through an ecosystem approach rather than specific species-centric campaigns. Within India, and as an example, our campaign around Mahan has been as much about a terrestrial ecosystem and the wildlife and biodiversity it harbours, as it has been about ensuring that the rights of tribal and local communities are recognised.
That said, I would be floating ideas about species conservation and see if they get traction. To suddenly start something specific on Asiatic lions because of my personal interest would be unfair. My personal interests shouldn’t weigh on the organisation that I am heading.
AD: What will be your priorities as the head of Greenpeace?
RC: Two parts: one is the internal atmosphere of the organisation, and the other is the perception of Greenpeace from outside. It is incredible how easily one can get tarred and labelled as undesirable. I would like to make it clear that I don’t want to be engaging in rhetorical debates about nationalism and development, I am not going to spend time defending myself or the organisation if someone calls us anti-national or anti-development—because these allegations mean little when the fact of the matter is that people in the country are still going hungry and the environment is getting degraded and destroyed.
All I can say is that we mean well for India, for the environment of India, and for the weak and the poor of India. One of the things that I would like to start doing is demonstrate how we touch individual lives with our work, and make these links more visible. For instance, in our ongoing campaign on Urban Solutions, we try and work with resident welfare associations to get some kind of sustainability thinking in one colony at a time. We start by initiating small things like garbage segregation, composting and water conservation. Our campaigns on air pollution, synthetic chemicals-free agriculture and solar snergy are also gaining a lot of momentum and great support.
AD: So you intend to find middle ground with the government in order to work for the weak and the poor?
RC: I did not say that (laughs). That sounds very political. We need to be practical. Standing on a high moral horse or on an ivory tower is nice, but if you want to remain relevant, sometimes you have to find the middle ground without compromising on values. What this middle ground will look like, I do not know at this point. But we will have to cross the bridge, in some sense, when we come to it. One thing is for sure: we are not going to go out and pick unnecessary fights. Our campaigns are for positive solutions, for a better environment, and for a more ecologically sound, sustainable, future for all. And that’s where they shall remain focussed.
The interview has been edited and condensed.