Dr Kamal Bawa: The Evolution of a Conservation Biologist


50 mins
Jun 23, 2023


Subscribe to Grassroots Nation: Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Stitcher.

Born in pre-independence India in 1939, Dr Kamaljit S. Bawa grew up in Kapurthala in Punjab, witnessing partition and inspired by the speeches of our country’s founding leaders. It was on a field project to the Northeast of India as a Master’s student that opened his eyes to ‘a whole new world’ and set him on his journey in the space of conservation biology. Dr Bawa earned his PhD from Panjab University in 1967 at the age of 28 and moved to the United States to work as a post-doctoral researcher in ecology. During his time here, he was inspired by a number of scientists and thinkers whose work has been pathbreaking, from Dan Jansen, an evolutionary ecologist, to EO Wilson, who is credited with coining the word biodiversity, to Michael Soule, who is often referred to as the father of conservation biology. In this episode, Dr. Bawa speaks of his time spent conducting research in Costa Rica, his long career at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and his return to India to become the Founder President of ATREE, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, that was established in 1996.

In this episode of Grassroots Nation, Dr. Bawa is in conversation with Hari Sridhar, a researcher affiliated to the Konrad Lorenz Institute, Austria and Archives at NCBS, Bangalore.

Additional Reading:

  • Synchronization of Sexual Reproduction of Trees Within the Dry Season in Central America by Daniel H. Janzen (1966)
  • Geographical Ecology: Patterns in the Distribution of Species by Robert H. MacArthur (1984)
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
  • ATREE’s Edible Insects for Sustainable Livelihood Program
  • The Society for Conservation Biology
  • War and Peace and Conservation Biology by David Ehrenfeld (2000)

Archival Audio used:

  • Raghu pati Raghav Raja ram playing on instrument Taarsehnayi. Bhagta Singh by INSTRUMENTS LOVERS CC BY 3.0
  • Uttarakhand, August 28 Lata and Reni (Nikon) by Anushka Meenakshi, Iswar Srikumar CC BY 3.0
  • Our work with the local Soliga community around BRT by ATREE


Note: This episode is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Readers are encouraged to listen to the show to get the full experience. The transcripts are meant as support documents and may not include inclusions from the day of recording and may contain errors. The audio version is the final version of the show. Ignore the timestamps mentioned. Ignore grammatical errors. 




Welcome to Grassroots Nation, a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, a show in which we dive deep into the life, work, and guiding philosophies of some of our country’s greatest leaders of social change.

Dr Kamaljit Bawa was born in pre-independence India in 1939. He grew up in Kapurthala in Punjab, witnessing partition and grew up inspired by the speeches of our country’s founding leaders. Inspired and in awe of the beauty of nature that surrounds us, Dr Bawa earned his PhD from Panjab University in 1967 at the age of 28, and moved to the United States to work as a post doctoral researcher in ecology. It was here that he encountered some of the key figures in conservation biology. He has worked extensively in the Himalayan region and is a leading scholar on biodiversity conservation. After a long career at the University of Massachusetts in Boston,  Dr Bawa returned to India to become the Founder President of ATREE, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, that was established in 1996. Dr Bawa is the recipient of many prestigious awards for his contribution to ecology and conservation. 

Dr Kamal Bawa is in conversation with historian, Hari Sridhar. 


Good morning, Dr. Bawa. It’s really nice to finally meet you in person and I’m really looking forward to this session. You’ve been a professor of ecology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston for many, many years, and you’ve also been involved, uh, in the ATREE setting up ATREE, and, you know, in the running of ATREE. Uh, how do you trace your own interest in ecology and conservation? How far back would you go?


I think my own interest goes back to my years as a graduate student, especially a master student at Punjab University, Chandigarh.I went to the state of Jammu & Kashmir near Punjab on a field trip that lasted three weeks and really got interested in the plants of the region.    

I had a basic interest in plants at that time, and then later on I did my master’s thesis on orchids of the Western Himalaya. But I really didn’t understand or comprehend the richness of life until in 1962 when I started my work as a graduate student. 


We had started work on trees of Northeast India under a project that was guided by Professor PN Mehra at Punjab University. And I took this train from Siliguri to Darjeeling, a very slow moving train, and that as the train entered the forest in the foothills of Darjeeling, I think that whole world, a whole new world opened up to me.

I have never seen such diverse forms of life, such a great richness of tree species. I was especially interested in trees. Mm-hmm. Anywhere in India before almost every tree I looked at in this slow moving train seemed to belong to a different species. And the train will suddenly stop for no reason at all.

And I’ll get down from the train and you will hear different voices. You see butterflies and birds of different colors, sounds, and it was an amazing world I have never experienced ever before. And of course later on I came to realize that I was going through one of the hottest of the biodiversity hotspots.

And the biodiversity hotspots have been termed in terms of the richness of life. These are extraordinary places in the world which have unique set of species, but at that time, neither the term biodiversity has been coined and the concept of biodiversity hotspots was developed in the eighties, late eighties.

So there was no reference point, and I think that was a moment in life – I  knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.


So this was when you were doing your masters?


First year of graduate students. First year as a master’s student was the exposure to field work in Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of the Western Himalaya for my master’s thesis. 

But when you look at the biodiversity or the richness of life in the Western Himalaya and the Eastern Himalaya, there is no comparison. I mean, you are dealing with richness in terms of the number of species or the type of ecological communities you have.

The differences of factor of three or four, sometimes even eight or 10 for certain groups. And similarly, you know, it’s not, it’s not the richness of life in terms of the plants and animals, but also the richness of life in terms of culture, ethnic groups. Linguistic diversity, which we now all consider as a part of diversity of life on Earth.


So at, at this stage, was it mainly an interest that came out of curiosity or even at that time, was there a concern for protecting these forests and a worry about the future of these forests?  


I think there was curiosity, certainly. But then as I started my work in that region, I will go to various places and I was struck by the fact that these highly diverse forests were being cleared.

First of all, I couldn’t understand why they were being chopped off, why they were being cleared. Later on, I learned it was to replace these forests by plantations and the clearing itself was being done by the Forest Department. So that this complex natural forest can be replaced by plantations of teak or other species.

And then of course, later on, I discovered a few months later that all the trees of cryptomeria japonica, which dominate landscapes in Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalaya, were planted there 60, 70, 80 years ago. For the same reason that we need plantations of trees we need to replace – by we, I mean the Forest Department – need to replace these complex forests with even aged stands of trees that can be easily managed and the wood can be easily utilized for a wide variety of purposes. And I just couldn’t understand the logic of it. Partly I understood, but not at such a massive scale. It was happening and the sort of trade offs associated with replacing natural forests with plantations.

And again, there was no reference point in, in the sense obviously I was witnessing large scale deforestation but it was not until much later in life when I went to Central America and I witnessed the same deforestation, same type of deforestation there though the causes were different. And it was not a, it was only in the late eighties that there was a global concern for the loss of forest deforestation. And that people came to realize what was happening and then I could relate to what I saw about 20 years earlier. 


Dr. Bawa, I wanna ask you a little more about your, um, early life and, in particular, you know, whether in your early life were there particular individuals, role models who played an important role in influencing your interest  in conservation in the applied aspects of ecology?


Yeah, I think my early life was, if I were to describe it in two words, singularly undistinguished. I grew up in a small, dusty town, in Punjab, Kapurthala, beautiful city, but still a dusty town.

I went to school, which was just a very ordinary school. Same thing I can say about my high school.

And, I remember I had to write something for the Pew Scholar in the environment of art, a very brief description. And my first sentence was that I wish I could say that my interest in biological diversity arose because my father or my uncle took me to a museum of natural history.

But that was not to be the case. The nearest Museum of National History was probably 250 kilometers away. And so my interest in biodiversity really occurred, as I mentioned to you, late in my life in sixties. 

I think I was seven or eight, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. And that had a huge impact on my life. I was a great listener to Nehru speeches about India waking up and, you know, and removing tears from the life of every Indian. 


I think that has a great deal of impact in my thinking, in terms of what type of science I will do eventually. And that is one thing I think I would say impact of these two people that played a very, very large role in my work being oriented towards action. 


You spoke about the time when Gandhi was assassinated. What other memories do you have around this time because it was a really tumultuous time in India’s history, you know, any other memories from your own personal life?


In 1947 I was living in Kapurthala. Our house was right on the road, and you can go on the balcony and you can see the traffic downstairs down on the road. And I remember one particular moment that I heard the sound of a truck, and I ran to the window to see what was passing, and the truck was full of corpses that was being driven to the nearby river where the bodies were being dumped. 

I remember very vividly the scenes on the road where these people who were migrating, traveling on foot with nothing but clothes on, with the cart, the lot caravans passing on that road going towards Jalandhar the next town.

And Ludhiana and so on and so forth. And again, I think that had a lot of impression on me in terms of how to, how to build relationships, how to bring harmony, how to build consensus, and how to avoid divisiveness. I, I don’t know, but that’s what I think happened. I think for the rest of my life. That’s what I learned from those experiences.


Do you still, you know, have ties to this part of the country where you were born and grew up?


Yes, I have. I have ties with the Punjab University, you know, my alma mater and my hometown. I like to go there. I have not been there for 20 years , but I like to go there again. I like to visit my school. 


Kamal Bawa’s work and thinking was inspired by a number of scientists and thinkers whose work has been pathbreaking, from MS Swaminathan, the father of the green revolution in india,  Dan Janzen, an evolutionary ecologist, the botanist Peter Raven , EO Wilson, who is credited with coining the word biodiversity, David Ehrenfield from the field of conservation biology and Michael Soule, who is often referred to as the father of conservation biology. 


I remember in an earlier conversation, I, I don’t remember the person’s name, but there was a particular professor in maybe when you’re doing your masters, 


Yeah. I think in terms of the mentorship and inspiration for, for much of the science I’ve done, Dr. T N Khoshoo, who later on became the secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forest, a very influential figure in the environmental movement in India.

And Gladwin Joseph, who was the director of ATREE during its foundational years,really played a critical role in not only shaping my thinking, but also in the success of ATREE.


You spoke about individuals who are, you know, maybe influences, role models. Do you also remember, you know, things that you read? Were there any particular books or that, you know, shaped your thinking or really left an impression at any point during, you know, growing up or even later?


One paper that had a lasting impression on me was a paper by Dan Janzen. But let me give you the context. I had arrived in the US only a couple of weeks ago and I read this paper, Why Do Tropical Trees Flower in the Dry Season by Dan Janzen.

Very simple question. We see it all the time here in Bangalore, in the forest. I saw it all the time in the Eastern Himalayas where I worked for five years. I will time my visits there and I said, why did this question not occur to me? And I started to reflect on our educational system, which doesn’t encourage you to ask questions, to be curious, to be, create a creative.

And I really, I, I, I felt I have been cheated. I have been cheated by the entire system in India, and that had a very lasting effect on me. And, uh, there was a book by Robert MacArthur. Geographical Ecology. Robert MacArthur was a brilliant scientist who worked with EO Wilson, and he died prematurely in forties, uh, because he had cancer.

And in the preface, he writes that he’s recovering, he’s recuperating. and, and I think it was in Maine or Vermont, I don’t remember, but he has no access to the library, so he is writing this book from memory alone. And the book was just fantastic. There are few books I have read in just one sitting, and that was one of them.

And a book you can read in one sitting and a book somebody had written just from memory. And a book that really deals with really pressing scientific issues. It is also probably a foundational book for the discipline of conservation biology. 


So you’ve spent your entire professional life in the US. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, when you started thinking about going to the US and how, how that decision happened?


Well, after my doctorate degree, I went to the US, because I wanted to learn a little bit more about forestry, and there were very good forestry schools in the US. I went to the University of Washington, uh, Seattle as a post-doc, but two years after I have worked there on poplars, our dean, who was leading a really original effort in promoting tropical biology and tropical forestry, asked me if I would work in Costa Rica. He thought I had worked in the tropics of India and that I could bring my perspectives and my experience to some of the things, uh, that the team was doing there.

You know, for most people, Costa Rica is a small country, a very, very beautiful country. But for us, for science scientists who were interested in conservation, It was a, it was a place for action. It was where most of the prominent tropical biologists really gathered, and they were doing their work because for North American biologists, Costa Rica was the place to do work for a wide variety of reasons.

So I then developed a research program to work in Central America. I worked in Central America for a number of years and then would keep coming back to India every four or five years to see if I can get, or if I can resume my work.

But there were bureaucratic hurdles. There were other types of hurdles. It was not until early nineties that I had the opportunity to come here and spend quite a bit of time exploring various possibilities, that I then started to think about  shifting my work from Central America to India.

And, so that was the beginning of, resumption of my work in India. Since the time I sort of finished my PhD work in the Himalayas maybe 25 years earlier.


Give us a sense of what the ecological research and conservation community was like in India at that time, when, you know, you were thinking of coming back


The environmental movement in modern times in a way one can say, started with in early 1960s in the US with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, the Silent Spring. And in the book, you know, there was concern about pollution, air pollution, and water pollution of course. And what the pollution was doing to life around us In early seventies, as we know the Chipko Andholan in India against the logging of commercial logging of forests in India really grew into a global movement against deforestation. 

So I think various movements in seventies and eighties were converging towards the concern for loss of biological diversity. And that is a period when I resumed my work in India and at that time, started to think about having an institution that was devoted to biodiversity, and that is ATREE. And I should mention here, ATREE stands for Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.


Talk a little more about that, you know, at what point you said that you were interested in coming back and working in India, but at what point did you start thinking about it in terms of setting up an organization? And also to talk a little bit about how that happened.


So I was here in early nineties. I was here as a PEW scholar  in the environment. What happens when you are named as a Pew scholar in the environment, you also get $150,000 as a pocket money.


That must have been a lot of money at that time.


That was a lot of money at that time, to do whatever you want to do. Which was very good because I did, I didn’t think that I needed anybody’s approval to do anything. So I came here and consulted with my colleagues.

Earlier in 1987, I was a Guggenheim fellow at Indian Institute of Science. And I had built a lot of contacts, with people like Raman Sukumar and Madav Gadgil, and my colleagues, Dr. Ganeshaiah and Dr. Umashankar. So in the early nineties I talked to them and we set on to do certain things.

And we received subsequently more funding. And frankly speaking, we were flushed with funds in the early nineties. So then we thought that in order to really sustain our work, we needed to institutionalize some of the things we were doing. I also felt that the problem we were dealing with, and that is loss of life all around us, and this decline that really is threatening our own existence, needed a very different type of institution.

An institution that can examine the problem, this very complex problem, problem in all its dimensions, social, ecological, economic, political, and human dimensions. I didn’t feel that in India there was an institution that was addressing these complex problems in a very comprehensive manner.

There were institutions, of course, dealing with biodiversity. There were institutions dealing with forestry. There were institutions dealing with fisheries, there were institutions dealing with oceans. The problem was that these institutions, A, they were strictly science-based institutions B, they were engaged in basic science and C they were largely public institutions and they have very little interest in policy or action on the ground.


I felt India needed an institution that will examine the problem in all its dimensions. It’ll be interdisciplinary institutions bringing together social and natural scientists to generate knowledge that will lead to policy action on one hand and action on the ground on the other hand. And also an institution that will prepare environmental leaders to meet the challenges of 20th and 21st century. And that was the whole concept of ATREE. And that’s, that’s one of the reasons why I decided to set up ATREE. 


You know, you say that you started off as an organization that was mainly doing research and, and from what I know about ATREE, it was research of a fairly fundamental nature, asking questions about biodiversity. And, you know, if you look at ATREE’s profile over time, the kinds of work that ATREE does today is, is, is quite different.

It continues to do that kind of work, but has also taken on a lot of other kinds of work including, you know, direct work in action. Can you talk a little bit about this, this evolution over time in terms of how ATREE has engaged with knowledge and you know, what, what the thinking has been when, as ATREE has expanded its work and taken on new forms of work, and also started to engage with knowledge differently.


I think people have different perceptions about ATREE in terms of the starting, starting point.

Many people do believe that ATREE started as a research institution addressing questions in a very broad sense about biodiversity, about richness of life on earth. But that’s not true. I think the beginnings of ATREE was our sort of a landmark program in Biligiri Rangaswamy Hills also known as BR Hills


Where we started with, with a very comprehensive approach to the issue of sustainability. How do we sustain the use of forests by the Soliga community? And they have been using this forest for their livelihoods, at least in part by harvesting amla honey and other non-timber forest products. So how do we sustain that use while at the same time conserving this critical resource? And the work has social dimensions, the work has economic dimensions, and the work had ecological dimensions.

And I think that was the beginning of our ideas in terms of what type of research will be done  at ATREE. I would say applied research, but very often, you know, one can say applied research can be applied. Research in biodiversity can be interpreted as, as sort of fundamental research because biodiversity itself is, you are addressing the issues of biodiversity to, to address practical problems. but I think action was going to be there right from the beginning. And even now there are debates and discussions in ATREE. I think the knowledge we generate is applied knowledge.

The debate is about how far this applied knowledge can be taken by people who generate this knowledge for action on the ground or to feed into policy. I believe that these are the individual choices people have to make as an institution. There is no institutional mandate. 

I must say here, even our taxonomists, there is no other discipline. And I think for the listener taxonomy is the field of naming and classifying organisms. There is no discipline that is more basic than taxonomy. But even our taxonomist, Dr. Priyadarshan, Dr. R Ganeshan, are so deeply engaged in work that benefits local communities at the sites they are working.

Dr. Priyadarshan’s latest program on edible insects. That is based on the traditional knowledge and the traditional use of resources by local communities, in which his work on that taxonomy of insects is embedded. And I think that’s a very, very good example of how I think other researchers can also use their technical expertise to address very, very pressing needs that come from the local communities, in landscapes in which their work is embedded. 


So ATREE’s work right from the beginning has involved communities and worked closely with communities. I guess that that also partly reflects your own conservation worldview on how conservation should be done. So I wanted to ask you, you know, you, within conservation you have a wide variety of approaches to conservation and a wide variety of perspectives on how conservation should be done.

At one extreme are people who feel that, you know, protected areas, sanctuaries and national parks should be completely free of people, “pristine” in some sense. But there are also people at the, other end of the spectrum that where, you know, they think about these areas as places where, you know, indigenous communities, indigenous peoples have lived for a really long time, and therefore that they should be priority even when you think about conservation of these areas.

I would like to ask you, you know, where do you think you fall on the spectrum and whether your views, your conservation worldview has evolved over time?


I think I never was in the camp that might be called as strict conservationists who believe that people have no place in protected areas. I think especially in the Indian context, I think there are very few landscapes that are not touched by human beings and even those landscapes, I think in these very, very pristine areas, in very remote areas.

Now the evidence is overwhelming. That they have had a human footprint lasting thousands of years, and yet they were able to retain their one might cause pristine nature. There is a consensus now that we cannot make much progress in conservation until we consider people as an integral part of the landscape,

And, so, so I think I, you know,  I don’t want to call it as a new paradigm, but in a way,  I think a new thinking is there, and I believe now there’s a great deal of convergence going on  in this whole sustainability movement. And I also should say that, you know, my own views have evolved in parallel the way, you know, my field has evolved and my field is sustainability science. Conservation is a very important sub-discipline of that sustainable sustainability size. And to some extent, I think ATREE has also evolved that way.


I’m interested in your, your own personal views because, you know, at the time when you were thinking about starting an organization in India was also the time when, you know, conservation biology was born in the, in the eighties.

As a formal discipline and a number of the people who were involved in it during its early days were, uh, people who tended to be strong preservationists, who believed that, you know, areas should be free of humans, um, protected areas. Yeah. And, and, and I was wondering, I’m, I’m just curious because you seem to have taken a very different view from early on, and I was wondering whether there were that came from, you know, people you were speaking to, whe whether it also came from your own personal experiences during your field work in Costa Rica.

What, what were the influencers shaping your worldview around, around this time, your conservation worldview?


I think the field of conservation biology was born officially in 1986. I could be wrong by a year or two, but I think it was 1986 and there was a conference in Michigan, Ann  Arbor. I was at, at that conference. It was a very exciting period and I think right from the beginning. I think there were people who were strict conservationists, but I think there were other people who had a different perspective.

And one of those persons was David Ehrenfeld Who became the founding editor of the Journal Conservation Biology. So the discipline was born, or a new discipline has been officially christened, I say as a conservation biology in 1986 A new journal was formed, called Conservation Biology. I was one of the co-founding associate editors of the Journal working under the leadership of David Ehrenfeld. In late, early nineties. I think the split became very obvious within the conservation movement in the US within the field of conservation biology, and David Ehrenfeld wrote a really, in my view, a very important paper in 2000, I still remember called War and Peace in Conservation Biology. I think the main thrust of that article was that as conservation biologists, mostly we are diagnosing the problem. Our patient is sick, our patient being Earth, earth is sick, and the diagnosis will not lead us anywhere. We have to find solutions to the problem.

And as I mentioned in early nineties, I, we had started this project in BR Hills with the aim of finding a solution to the problem. And so I actually drew a lot of strength, inspiration, and partly confidence that we are on the right track, from that paper. 


IN 1996, THE Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment was founded with a mandate to generate interdisciplinary knowledge for achieving environmental conservation and sustainable development in a socially just manner. In 2021, ATREE celebrated its 25 years of existence. 


I want to stay at this moment when ATREE was being formed to ask you a little bit about what the challenges were at that time in, in setting up an institute. This was, I think in the mid nineties when ATREE was-




– eventually set up. How difficult was it, especially for someone you know, who was a professor in an American university?


The challenges were huge. I think the challenges were huge because as a professor in a university, you are supposed to maintain a very high profile research program.

You have to guide the work of graduate students and engage in teaching and you have to perform service to your institutions, serve on various committees and so and so forth. It’s a 24/7 job as you know very well, to set up an institution, half the world away is not in the job description.

And furthermore, research will take you to Central America to places in, Western Ghats, Himalayas. I had work going on in Sri Lanka, and then of course there is ATREE. All that takes time. So you are away. It’s very tough on your family. I had young children at that time. It’s very tough on them because when you are home again, you are working almost 24 hours at late night, you know, talking to people in India and the same thing early morning and so on and so forth. And yet, research was very necessary, uh, you know, for your own survival as a, as a, in the university. And also survival of the fledgling organization like ATREE, because it was the research funds that was initial source of funding for ATREE.

And it is a research profile you have then that also attracts private donors. So maintaining a research program and research profile is very, very critical. Was very critical in the initial stages, and of course in later stages as well. 


I was wondering if it brought a certain perspective on what India’s conservation issues were, you know, being in an American university in some sense. Did the distance help in looking at India’s conservation problems and also looking at it in a comparative way, because you were also experiencing what was happening in the US you were experiencing what was happening in Costa Rica.

Whether these perspectives were useful in trying to understand, you know, what was happening in India with regard to the environment and biodiversity.


Being in the US and working here, it was very helpful, bringing global perspectives not sort of uniformly, not everything under global perspectives is applicable to India, nor it should be. I noticed we were very parochial in our approach in India. People say, who were working on a certain group of plants or ecosystems in the Western ghats were not taking into consideration, or were not really that much interested in what might be going on in central India or in the Himalaya. 

So there was a lack of sort of a … original orientation. And I think that also helped ATREE  define its pathways that we are not going to be confined to one particular region. and we have people now, who are working both in the Western Ghats as well as, as in the Himalaya, Eastern Himalaya, and some of them are doing comparative work.

And, so, absolutely I think that helped a great deal and it’ll continue to help, I think, as long as we keep an open mind.


One of the things that, you know, your known forest, your ability to build institutes also raise support for institutes, not just ATREE, you’ve also been involved in setting up other, you know, consortia related to biodiversity, larger, larger scale programs related to biodiversity. As the, this podcast is also meant for people who might want to get into these fields in the future and, you know, maybe think of setting up an organization in the future from your own experiences and learnings. What do you think has, you know, sort of helped you be so successful in being able to raise support for these organizations?

What, what do you think are the, are, are the keys to being able to raise support? And I also want to ask you about how you think about, you know, where you get support from, especially for environmental and conservation causes. What might be the ethical dilemmas that come up when you’re, when you’re raising support for such causes?


Okay, let’s – it’s a two part question. Okay. And let us deal with it in two parts. The first question, uh, what would be my advice or suggestions, assuming you believe that ATREE has been successful? And that’s a big assumption. Okay. I would like to think that we have been successful, but I think it’s also for others to judge.

I think you have to have first expertise. You have to be able to demonstrate that you have the expertise or the institution has the expertise. Second, the institution must have a plan to execute what it thinks it needs to be done. And the third is, of course, You know, your ability to show at least some results that you are on your path, you are on a good path to resolve that problem.

And fourth, that, and this is not in order of priority, I should have mentioned first you have to have a good governance system for the organization. You have to have a good board. I think the board is your best ally to develop a successful institution. I would say two things, the board and your internal mechanisms of governance.

And, and with these two things, I think you will be able to attract donors, combined of course with a plan. I think in terms of the ethical dilemmas, there are various views on that. You know, some might argue that all environmental problems are created by capitalism and you can’t go to the capitalists to solve these problems.

There are other views that money has no colour. There are only different shades of green. I would say at ATREE has been very, very fortunate that we have donors who believe in the same ethical values and who share our purpose. That we really didn’t have many of these ethical dilemmas. Whenever we had these dilemmas, the board has guided us, and internally we have had good discussions. So again, relating the two, you know, your internal mechanisms of governance and having a good board. Institution should not depend on one single individual.

And that is the key, I believe for success.


So what, what kind of a leadership style do you bring to your engagement with ATREE? In terms of how involved you are with its functioning on a day-to-day basis? what do you see as how, how you see your role having changed over time and, uh, you know, , what, what, what have you, what are the kinds of steps you’ve taken over time to allow the organization to, to flourish on its own given that you’re away and, you know, trying to engage with it from a distance?


I think I was quite a bit hands on for the first five, six years. would have daily exchanges with the director here, but then later on, I think after that, and that is during the last 15 or so years, or 17, I have been, Ithink, pretty hands off. This is one thing you learn. that you hire a director or executive director and you have to let them do their job.

There are going to be differences of opinion and those differences of opinion are, you know, you cannot have your viewpoint prevailed all the time, not even most of the time. And furthermore, if there are pressing differences, you know, those are better discussed in person rather than anything else.

Second, I think you have to rely on board to make some of the decisions which you feel should be made. By the institution rather than presenting that as your viewpoint.

Third, I think you have to respect what people say at the institutional level. You know, not, not the director, but others. But that I, I would say that the executive director has to listen to them. Not, not, not the president or the, or the, or the chair. Mm-hmm. and, I, I, I think these are the key lessons.

Basically, I think running institutions is all about people. How you manage people interactions. And you learn, and unfortunately this is not a course we just taught and, Which you take as a graduate student in sciences and, uh, and you learn over time and you have to respect other viewpoints.

And this is true for, for, for not ATREE. And I would say for all other institutions, especially civil society organizations, you know? 


So what do you, what do you see as, as your role today in relation to ATREE?


I think my role is, I’m around. If you’d like to have my advice and my suggestions. Just that.


When you look back at your professional journey, what are the contributions that you’re most proud of, which you consider as, you know, the successes. And also I wanted to ask you, are there any regrets? 


I often say if I have to live this life a hundred times, I wouldn’t change a thing. Okay. I will change only one thing. that I’ll be more careful in terms of respecting other people’s views and their opinions. That’s the only thing. 

And I’m, I’m very proud. I’m very proud of, I think my basic contributions to science, to the science of biology, my basic contributions, to field of conservation biology. I take a certain pride, that I was among the group of people who really were a part of this movement in establishing this new field of conservation biology.

I’m very proud of ATREE. I think we have a very unique institutional model, uh, which other institutions are, I think, adapting to and emulating. I’m very proud of our academy, our PhD programs and how the people who are graduating from our doctoral program are bringing new thinking at other institutions throughout the country as a part of their faculties. … And I’m very proud of I should say mention, I should mention our supporters.and it has been just incredible journey.

I would hope that ATREE will remain a flexible, nimble organization. I would hope that ATREE will continue to make impact, much greater impact than it had during the last 25 years. And I would hope that ATREE also will continue to serve as a model for many other institutions. I have strongly believed that India needs ATREE like organizations, And when I say ATREE like organizations, I like to include some other organizations in that category. Nature Conservation Foundation. CSTEP. And there are others, I think, new organizations that are coming up. And, so I think from that point of view, I have a great hope. I think my fear is that the crisis we are facing is so acute and the fact that we don’t have adequate human resources and institutions to deal with that crisis, that we may fall off the cliff. But on the other hand, again, I come back to the hope. My hope is that society is resilience. That’ll be resilient again this time until, you know, we, we wake up and come to realize that we have done a grave danger to the earth and that we have to repair our planet and in this, in the process, repair our lives and repair our heritage, and repair our, and restore faith in future.

I think one thing about India is the individual entrepreneurship. And I think individual entrepreneurship is going to rise to the occasion. And finally I would say technology too will come to our assistance. But I think it’s the human spirit that is going to dominate our way out of this crisis.


Dr. Bawa, I’m really grateful that you took the time to do this. Thank you.


Thank you very much.


Grassroots Nation is a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. For more information go to rohini nilekani philanthropies dot org or join the conversation on social media at RNP underscore foundation. 

Stay tuned for our next episode

Thank you for listening to Grassroots Nation.