What is your hopeful message for everyone on World Earth Day, especially now that you understand what it means to be a mother?
It’s a difficult question to answer. When people called the earth Mother, they did so so that people would really see the extent of love. We can put price tags on resources, but the fact of the matter is that Mother Earth is providing everything for free. Unfortunately, our fractured relationship with the planet and nature leading us to a triple planetary crisis – pollution, biodiversity loss and extinction, and climate change.
When confronted with the truth of the enormity of the problems we are going through right now, one often feels very discouraged and helpless. In times like these, the only comfort I can find is that there are many young people around the world who have campaigned to do something about it and not let this crisis continue. As a parent, I hope not only to be able to fulfill my responsibilities to the planet in my consumption and lifestyle, I hope to teach my two children a love of nature and what it means.
You are an actress and a new mother, what is the biggest challenge for you as an active environmentalist?
When I had my child Avyaan I was very clear that when the time came I would make every sustainable choice possible and I have done so. Fortunately, the products are available in the market. They’re not readily available, but they’re more accessible than before. For Avyaan we use diapers made from natural materials without plastic. We managed to identify and bring home glass bottles and everything else we use contains no chemicals. Even the clothes we use are from sustainable brands. Eventually we’ll switch to cloth diapers when he’s dry. We also didn’t buy any plastic toys. Everything he has is made of cloth, crochet or wood. We’ve also asked our friends and families not to give him anything that contains materials we don’t allow. Luckily they respected our wishes and hopefully will continue.
So you’re raising an environmentally conscious baby, that’s almost a superpower in today’s world…
It’s so important, isn’t it? One of the things I aim for is for him to spend time in nature. Take him out into the garden to give him a sensory feel. Let him stand on the wet grass and touch the leaves and flowers, he enjoys bird watching and watching the sunset with me. I hope this contributes to the lasting love he can hopefully develop with the natural world. I read that many years ago and now I’m trying to teach it to my kids.
Tell us about your role as a goodwill ambassador for the environment and what made you decide to become a warrior for Mother Earth? What are some of the values and little lessons you are trying to imbibe in your children – Avyaan and Samaira?
This answer has three parts. First, I was extremely fortunate to grow up in an environment that encouraged the understanding that everything we need comes from nature and we must respect that. And we need to think about the things we throw away and whether they harm the environment in any way. I was taught very early in life never to use plastic, which my mother and I still do to this day. My mom hated plastic, so I set a good example. I was taught not to waste and believed that everything I have came from nature.
One of the people who helped me reconnect with nature was Bittu Saigal. During the time I spent with him in the forest, I learned the magnitude of the problem. I then became a lawyer and started working for the UN where science and data were available to me. All of this knowledge has helped me re-evaluate the way I’ve been living my life. Of course there are many more things I could love to do because it gets difficult when you live an urban life, there are only a limited number of things you can control and change.
As for Samaira, I can’t control the exposure she’s had so far, but she did study environmental issues at school. At home she watches me at work, how I speak and what decisions I make. All of this makes you more aware. Has she given up the usual things she plays with altogether or changed her consumption patterns? Not quite, but I hope we can do it one day. This will be a personal triumph for me. With Avyaan, it’s March of the Penguin or so they say, so hopefully he’ll see, learn, and memorize.
What role does sustainable fashion play in helping the planet?
The fact is that we live in a capitalist world where we are taught consumerism. Something or the other prompts you to consume it. I went through a phase where I made money and had to buy a lot of things. That was until I learned the significant difference between need and greed. It really is our greed that is destroying our planet. This is best seen in how mountains and mountains of clothes have been dumped in landfills because people are throwing away fast fashion because it’s so cheap. As I got older, I realized that if I really want to save wildlife and nature, I need to control my own consumption.
What is the kind of world you want for your children? Her son was born during the pandemic, in the middle of lockdown. What were your fears or hopes?
More than fear, it is hope. I feel great hope and optimism as I see these young people taking on the challenge, looking for solutions and demanding change. I truly believe that this generation born during these pandemic lockdowns will be more caring and compassionate in the way they live their lives.
How do you hope the country moves towards conservation and sustainability?
There are some significant commitments that the Government of India has made on a global scale. The first was the signing of the Paris Agreement, the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals, our Prime Minister made a commitment to the World Solar Alliance on the significant amount of solar power he hopes India will generate. I understand that there are concerns about going fully renewable. Promises are being made for 2050, which I think may be too late, but I understand that the private sector will play a very big role and hopefully deliver on the promise of the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. There are many organizations working hard to develop alternative solutions and drive the necessary changes.
What do you have to say about the dwindling forest cover?
India occupies 2.3% of the global landmass and we also have the second largest population in the world putting pressure on all of our natural resources. It is all the more important for us to protect and preserve all of our forests. As we seek to increase our forest cover, the definition of forest must not be watered down. We need to make sure that when we talk about forest, we include biodiversity and native trees. You can’t call a plantation a forest. We must protect what is left of our forest and continue to expand this forest. Less than 5% of the forest is what we have in the country and that needs to change. This 5% takes care of us, regulates our climate and provides water. Its a lot to do. I keep asking myself why our private sector hasn’t already provided a certain amount of CSR for environmental protection.
What can you say about the efforts people can make to protect animals and their natural habitats?
Everyone should also adhere to our Species Protection Act. Our laws are very strong and we just have to enforce them. Extended producer responsibility makes every industry that contributes to plastic pollution responsible for the waste it generates – whether it’s chocolate packaging or milk cartons – the people who make goods and deliver them in plastic should be held accountable.
While on the one hand the government is signing sustainable development agreements and all states are cutting down forests in the name of development. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s happening all over the country. Unfortunately, this has become a big problem. People perceive environmental protection as obstructionism. Every time civil society has protested against the so-called development – the upgrading of roads, the construction of motorways or coastal roads. When people protested against these projects, this was perceived as a “hindrance”. The fact is that the devastation caused by these so-called “development projects” is significant and it is high time they worked together and put climate change front and center. Look at the devastation that Uttarakhand has endured and yet we keep cutting into the Himalayas. This is nothing short of stupid. Nature keeps showing you that you cannot disregard the balance she needs.
Can you tell us about a book, series or film you saw recently that conveyed a strong message about the environment?
Kiss The Ground was an amazing documentary that I watched and really blew my mind. I recommend it to everyone.
There is a book called The Last Child in the Forest. It examines a nature-deficit disorder that is prevalent among children in urban sectors. Where their total lack of interaction with nature leads to all sorts of issues including mental health. We just have to do these things for the sake of our children.
With summer vacation just around the corner, would you say ecotourism should be a priority over flying to popular destinations?
I would only advise people to venture into one of the many forests in India. There is so much to experience. Please take the time to interact with nature and spend your vacation with elephant, rhino, lion or even black panther. Pick any part of India and have fun.