Sarath Guttikunda – TEDIndia Fellow

The fourth interview is that of Sarath Guttikunda – Founder of UrbanEmissions.Info, a repository of information and research related to air pollution.

In this interview he talks about his other passions, simple everyday tips for people to help reduce pollution, his role models and more…

Give us a brief introduction about Urbanemissions.info.
I started UrbanEmissions.Info because I wanted to create a one-stop resource for researchers, policymakers, activists, and interested individuals – who are looking for information and news on air pollution related issues – particularly in developing countries. Why developing countries? Most developed countries like the US and those in EU have a high level of understanding and action related to improving air quality. Access to air quality related data in those countries is easily available; however this is not the case in most developing countries. Getting access to data and information is the first step towards improving air quality. By providing access to the available data, methods, best practices, and case studies, we hope that we can begin to make a difference.

One of my favourite books is “State of Fear” by Michael Crichton, where he sends across a message that global warming is a hoax created by the governments to keep people in a state of fear. There is no better person, I know, other than you to whom I can ask this question, “what’s your take on the global warming”.
Michael Crichton is a fine author and a best seller. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been crucial in putting together the science and evidence behind climate change. The Nobel peace prize in 2007 recognized these efforts and there is an increased awareness of the possible impacts of the Climate Change across the world, thanks also to Al Gore’s movie, “The Inconvenient Truth”.

On the other side, we have the skeptical community, denying the trends or claiming lack of enough evidence. However, I believe that this is changing. For example, in May, The Guardian reported that the “US climate change denier James Inhofe joins Al Gore in fight against soot”. This is the same person who said “global warming is a hoax”. This is proof that skeptics are “warming” up.

While the IPCC and the international community are dealing with the negotiations to share the burden of mitigation and adaptation, the true change needs to come from cities and individuals.

You said “the true change needs to come from cities and individuals”, can you list 5 simple everyday tips for people to help in reducing pollution?
1. In the residential areas, garbage burning is the biggest problem. We should recycle what we can and the organic waste should be composted (good for gardens).

2. For short trips, less than 3 km, try to walk or cycle (who can).

3. Conserve energy in the house – no lights or fans when not in the room; wear an extra sweater and save on heating; less use of AC in house and in offices.

4. When possible, use public transport. We have a long road ahead in improving this sector.

5. Try not to waste water – a lot of energy is wasted (in the public sector) for pumping water.

You did your B.Tech , Chemical Engineering in IIT, Kharagpur. Which came first – the chicken or the egg? In your case, Environmental services was what you were interested in and so took chemical engineering OR you got this plan only in college after taking Chemical engineering?
I had an inclination for process design, but things fell in place only after taking Chemical Engineering. The experimental studies in the final year provided some direction and the specialization came in my PhD years. The freedom of multidisciplinary classes and the PhD program egged me to realize the potential for research and support in this field.

What was your inspiration to take up the field of environmental services?
Getting involved with policy at the World Bank – during my PhD years, I observed that the decision making was often backed by science that was either too complicated (somewhat of a black box where you plug in variables and don’t really know what is going on), or not complicated enough and too unidimentional. I also found that people use the lack of information as an easy excuse for inaction. I see my role in the environmental services field as one that bridges this gap – and provides the methods, science based analysis, information and multi-dimensional perspective – to aid better decision making. At times working in the field is frustrating because of the pace of action and multiple layers. It is also extremely satisfying when small steps towards improving our environment are made.

While “bridging the gap”, “pace of action and multiple layers are the frustrating part”. Could you give an idea, for the future and the current environmentalists, how you overcome these frustrations. Are there any other obstacles you face?
While most agree that knowledge gap exists, not much is being done on the disclosure front. For example, Hans Rosling’s gapminder.org was revolutionary in presenting the available minimum public data in an understandable format. In India, we still have some ways to go.
We know what is best for the community, but the replication and scaling up of the opportunities is limited. Currently, we have a lot of pilot projects, not only in the energy and environment fields, but also in others. We need the “do it anyway” attitude, start prioritizing and multiplying the efforts.

Could you tell us about your role models?
A number of people, directly or indirectly, taught and advised me over the years. For one, Dr. James Hansen, a Climatologist. I read his interview about his work ethics and goals, and how he manages a work-life balance, which was very inspiring.

That was the environmentalist Sarath Guttikunda! Now, to get a glimpse of Sarath Guttikunda, What do you do when you are not attending conferences and making presentations? What is the second best thing you like doing / passionate about.
For a profession, my second choice will be “movie critic”. I watch most of the films, especially the independent films from across the world, read about them, and analyze the quirkiness of the writers and directors!!
Linked to the first passion, I enjoy the clean air, as and when and where I can get it. I participate in long distance running and have finished five full marathons. With a group of friends, we trekked in Zanskar and Ladakh for 25 days in August – we hope that this will lead to many more expeditions and treks over the coming years.

That was Sarath Guttikunda for you. One more interview coming up of Asher Hasan, founder of Naya Jeevan.

Cheers
Joseph Sam Jayanth


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