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Ravi Chellam says he does not think development issues and conservation are necessarily at odds with each other. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ravi Chellam says he does not think development issues and conservation are necessarily at odds with each other. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Challenging is a democratic right awarded to everybody: Ravi Chellam

Greenpeace India's executive director and senior wildlife conservationist Chellam on overhauling operations, sourcing funds and pursuing ongoing campaigns

New Delhi: After a year of litigation, corruption allegations, resignations over sexual harassment charges, Intelligence Bureau investigations and more, Greenpeace India has appointed senior wildlife conservationist Ravi Chellam as its executive director. The environmental non-profit is now set to rehaul itself and expand as well as find new sources of funding in the coming months while pursuing its ongoing campaigns, Chellam, who has previously worked with the United Nations Development Programme, among other organizations, said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Are you envisaging major changes in Greenpeace India’s operations?

The answer is probably yes. But if you ask me what are these changes going to be, I will not be able to give you a clear answer immediately, because I am nowhere near fully at the level of knowledge or preparedness needed to really plan something.

We will continue the ongoing campaigns—(related to) air pollution, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. As long as these are legal, there is no need for me to rein any of them in.

In fact, on sustainable agriculture and renewable power, we are working in partnership with the government of Bihar, while on air pollution we are trying to establish a partnership with the government of Delhi. We are working towards creating pilot projects with the state governments like the Dharnai micro grid in Bihar, which the government can scale up.

What about fund-raising?

We will try to ensure more inclusive funding models and move with the times.

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act challenges remain. But a vast majority of our funding is Indian. We use “direct dialogue"—the term used for our fund-raising drives—(wherein) volunteers go to places where other people congregate like railway stations, cafes, bus stands and malls, they begin a conversation and then get people to contribute and support Greenpeace India’s work.

This is clearly a model that works. And if things aren’t broken, there is no need to fix them. Through all the trials and tribulations, our support base has only increased and by now our revenues are also gradually increasing.

But I do feel that we should keep exploring new ways of garnering support without letting go of the core. At the same time, it is important to point out that Greenpeace as an organization has lots of specifications of who they can take money from and how much can they take. They do not want individual donors to have an overwhelming influence on the organization. We typically never take money from governments or corporations. And so within those limitations, we will try to find newer models.

After being a wildlife conservationist, you have now taken charge of an organization like Greenpeace, which is not just about wildlife… Do you feel this will have any impact on the organization?

Yes and no. For the simple reason that I have noticed often people get branded with the species they work with. But in reality that is not the case. My association with Asiatic lions is now of 30 years. But that doesn’t mean that is the only area of interest for me. And as professionals, as human beings, as citizens of this country and the international community, as we grow, our views mature, our outlook enlarges, we become more inclusive in our thinking and we see connectedness.

While there is merit in working on individual species and ecosystems, very often the challenges and the problems come from areas which have nothing to do with wildlife or conservation. They very often are the result of human action in the name of development.

I feel that I have to make a dent or contribution in what is viewed as development.

So I feel without necessarily losing touch from engagement with wildlife, which I will continue to do, if not institutionally at least in my personal capacity, if we can bring in fundamental changes in how we look at development solutions for improving people’s lives, it would also translate to better outcomes for wildlife.

Do you see a great shift in what you have been doing so far and what you would be expected to do as the head of an organization like Greenpeace?

It is my fond hope that we at Greenpeace will include specific wildlife-related issues in our work. I don’t think development issues and conservation are necessarily at odds with each other. Badly-planned development not only creates specific wildlife conservation challenges, it also results in sub-optimal outcomes for people.

Many of the Greenpeace campaigns—be it against the Mahan coal block or Bt Brinjal—have been dubbed confrontational in nature. Do you plan to change that?

We will continue to challenge as and when needed. Challenging is a democratic right awarded to everybody. How this challenge actually plays itself out—the mechanics of it—is not easy to imagine and predict because each situation is different and, therefore, each response would also need to be different. If to ask a question is construed as confrontation then I will have to say, yes we will confront.

My focus at Greenpeace is going to be to ensure that we always strive to be within the framework of the law of the land, but where required continue to challenge the boundaries of that law using democratic means.

As a citizen of India I feel the Constitution of the country is the most important document; the right to dissent is enshrined in it. The arguments so far against the organization’s work have not been fact-based. Bringing in the aspect of “nationalism" is akin to instigating a mob. We are more than willing to debate on facts.

The sexual harassment case raised last year was a bit of a jolt for the organization. How do you aim to address it and other internal challenges?

Human beings are complex in whatever setting you take. And in a large and reasonably diverse organization like Greenpeace, functioning out of nine locations, there are going to be ongoing challenges of integration.

From day one I have made it very, very clear that—both in spoken as well as in written terms—it will be one of my highest priorities to ensure that Greenpeace will have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, harassment and bullying. Right now we are looking at discrimination only in terms of male-female equation, but I have already pointed out to my colleagues that we need to expand that definition to include all forms of potential discrimination.

Is the litigation and bad press of the past year going to have any impact on the functioning of Greenpeace?

It has already had an impact on the functioning of the organization. In terms of impact, well, if you freeze someone’s bank account, you are in obvious trouble.

If the energies of the leaders are diverted towards dealing with lawyers and auditors, simply to furnish information and to ensure the existence of the organization, energies are clearly diverted away from the true mission for which we are set up.

Fighting court battles leaves little time to do anything else. This is a distraction we would like to avoid. We just have to organize ourselves in a way where we don’t lose focus of our institutional mission. It would be tragic if we do that.

I have told my staff, in the first letter to them after I joined, to leave the worrying from the institutional point of view to me. That should in some sense relieve some of the pressure on the people.

I believe while the government is big and powerful, patience and positive engagement from our end can help address some of the concerns if we are not in the wrong. From the legal track record you can see that the courts have been very supportive of our positions, which means the charges against us in the first place were bad in law.

How do you aim to build the morale of the organization and the people working with you?

I have made it a priority to try and visit all the office locations to work with the team (and) appreciate their efforts, within the first six months. I envisage I can build the morale through regular and substantive communication with all the employees. Over the past year, around 140 people have left the organization and at present there are 191 people working with us.

I would also like to believe that given my experience and achievements—whatever little I have—they feel comfortable that there is a person with some expertise at the helm of affairs.

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