Twenty Questions with Chiteisri Devi: A Lawyer turned Anthropologist and Environmentalist!

Interviewed by Deepakar Livingston, Advocate, Bombay High Court:

Chiteisri Devi graduated from ILS Law College in 2010 with a First Class Degree. Back then; she was one of the most active students at our college. Chiteisri is known for her love towards the Environment. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Anthropology, Environment and Development at University College London.

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She is a true environmentalist who always focused on initiating programs targeting environmental issues that we are facing now. Birds are close to her heart so it is no wonder that her research is inclined towards Birds! She has explored many unique and interesting things in her life and has pursued her passion in all these years. Unlike many of us, her thoughts and actions remained parallel with an endeavor to achieve her ambitions. This is a precise version of her interview although I genuinely believe that a concise interview would not justify emphasizing her personal and professional achievements and interests.  She is a legal researcher, an environmentalist, a traveler, a scuba diver, a blogger, a writer, a debater, a translator, an editor, a photographer and now an anthropologist!!! Truly multi-talented, I must say!

First and foremost question; probably a standard question to everyone I have to ask!

  1. Why did you choose law?

To be honest, Law was not my choice. Back in Class XII, I studied Arts and I imagined myself to be heading for an undergraduate degree in Geography, History perhaps even English Literature. But as I was unsure of what I wanted to pursue, my parents gently nudged me towards Law, knowing it would serve as a strong foundation for my varied interests and in the long-run I would at least have a professional degree to fall back on, in case nothing else works out!

  1. You spent five years of your college life in ILS! How was it; and what impact did it have on you?

ILS Law College can be best described as the phase of my life, which epitomizes ‘Learning through experience.’ It is one those rare schools in India which is well-ranked and well-known but not elitist at its core, and having lived a very privileged and sheltered life until then, am glad I could benefit from it.

Within weeks of coming to ILS and to Pune, I realised one could either take center-stage by simply being proactive and engaging with the various activities it has to offer, or fade-into-oblivion by merely (sometimes barely) attending the three hours of lectures mandated. It was Mrs. Usha Ganesh’s gentle coaxing to us first-years to get involved with as much as we can in the first two years that really spoke to me – she had a wonderful way of motivating us all!

My batch-mates were a competitive lot so there was a genuine fear that I would fall behind in everything. I threw myself into as much as I could to stay busy, even in the first year I took up a diploma course, joined the Environment Cell, the Human Rights Cell and the Editorial Committee. Essentially, I am an introvert but was pulled out of my shell by simply being involved in many activities. By third year, my confidence grew as more peers, seniors and teachers could recognize that I was keen on following-up on some initiatives even when they were seemingly problematic.

There is an eclectic mix of students that come to ILS, with a diverse pool of talents and quirks. While it wasn’t possible to befriend every person in a student body of over 1600 students – there were many students I was able to interact with professionally. Students who were much richer or much poorer, some who did not speak my first language, perhaps people who never understood my humour.  But it was there that I learned that sometimes your best teammates are not your friends!

Also, it was at ILS where I learned how important it was to get to know my seniors.  It was that peculiar place where no amount of money or social élan could get you what you wanted if you were not in the right cohort of the people who could pursue it further for you. ILS taught me that People are important – human potential and capacity is unmatched.No matter how hard one tries – no person is an island!

By fifth year I had developed a knack of figuring out the people who kept their promises, those who would smile at you at first and stab you in the back the very next day, the deadbeats, the reliable …now, within days of being in a new group I have identified the innate strengths and weaknesses of my peers and worked it to my advantage.

Truthfully, there were staff and administration at ILS who were either remarkably helpful or completely aloof to one’s needs –in time I learned that people we meet at different workplaces mirror that, so developing patience and tolerance to individuals unlike you, was a life lesson!

Family Law, Contracts and Public International Law were the subjects that I remember being taught well, but my real learning at ILS happened outside the classroom.

  1. Did you ever, and do you now, want to pursue an LL.M? Do you have any other plans for further study?

Yes, there was a time when I wanted to pursue an LL.M, especially in Environment Law. But I do not wish to pursue an LL.M any longer.

In fact, I planned on taking my BSL degree after 3 years doing the LL.M at either University of Sydney or Australian National University (ANU). It did not work out financially when I weighed out the costs and benefits of the situation. The clear advantage at ILS was that it was subsidized tuition fees for five years and the LL.B was to remain a fallback option anyway.

In hindsight, I am very glad that I did not choose to do an LL.M back then, as I was unaware of Anthropology at the time. I would like to pursue a PhD eventually – that is definitely on the cards as it has been a long cherished ambition.

  1. You are currently pursuing a Masters in Anthropology, Environment and Development at UCL. I am sure you are exposed to a great academic and professional world there. What made you shift to studying Anthropology? Tell us all about your course.

As an individual I am ill suited to be an Advocate. My temperament is akin to those moody and oversensitive people who often get lost in the imagery when describing something. Whilst studying various laws I was eager to understand why x or y law was made, whom it was made for and which community of people is really affected. But unlike many of my peers, I was unable to interpret laws speedily – which is why I never enjoyed mooting as an activity.

So, when I learned of Anthropology as a discipline – I chose to pursue my Masters in it after completing the Young India Fellowship (YIF). YIF introduced me to the subject and the discourse seemed to answer many of the questions to my mind, as it allowed me to focus on the people behind the laws.

I graduated way back in 2010 but chose to pursue my Masters only last year. The four years in between were spent in trying to determine my ‘true calling’ (if it can be called that!) I worked for an Environment NGO, then spent the year at YIF and then worked for a political foundation in Singapore as a researcher for two years. With each year I could clarify and re-think of what to do next – by choosing to follow my instinct, each step helped me realize that I must not rush into pursuing an LL.M just because that was the natural next step in my studies.

Post YIF, I began to examine various different courses in Social Sciences and Humanities in select Universities within London and could work out (albeit backwards) the right course and the right discipline to pursue my Masters.

This Masters has really allowed for me to explore some critical questions on the linkages between people and the environment – it is a yearlong Masters with its core focus on Resource Use Impacts.

  1. Please tell us about your topic for dissertation and your experiences towards making it.

I have chosen to do my dissertation on an aspect that lets me scrutinize a law and policy change and the further impact it has had on a community – the community being Owners, Breeders and Traders of the African Grey Parrot in the city of Mumbai. The aim is to understand why there is a high demand for this bird as a pet in India. It shall investigate a curious phenomenon – why a bird that is native to the Congo in Africa is becoming exceedingly popular as a pet in another sub-continent.  This shall be contextualized in two ways what does it imply for the future of the species and the narrative of bird-keeping in general.

I did my fieldwork in Mumbai earlier this summer and am currently in the stage of writing it up. While I have enough to write a 15,000-word dissertation on this subject, I think I barely scratched the surface in learning about Aviculture in general. If all goes well with this dissertation (Fingers crossed!), I hope to continue studying it via a Ph.D.

  1. Do you intend to practice law in the Indian Courts anytime in future?

Not that I can imagine, with how my career is unfolding. But I never say Never, as often it has been a combination of hard work and just a little bit of luck that brings the best opportunities my way. Who knows, maybe someday if it is necessary!

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  1. You have always been passionate about the Environment and environmental Laws ever since college. You were also the President of Hariyali, the Environment Cell at ILS Law College. During college days, when your peers interned with Senior Counsels, companies and well-known firms, you on the other hand always focused and interned with various environmental concerns or rights groups. You chose to intern with Environment Support Group at Bangalore, Open Space for Communication and Development at Pune, completed two consecutive summer internships with Magsaysay Awardee Shri Rajendra Singh, pursued the Agenda for Survival short course at CSE, New Delhi. When and how exactly did your passion about Environment grow? Is there anyone who motivated you for the same?

The Environment and all things connected to it is a childhood passion, actually. Having loved Nature and Animals for as long as I can remember – my earliest memories are that of chasing after butterflies with a tea strainer in the garden! My grandmother is the person who is individually responsible for nurturing this passion. She is a doctor herself, but back in the day also taught Biology to schoolchildren for many years. With an avid interest in Botany herself –she would teach me the names of all the plants on our street or take me to various parks or places that had flowering trees. As a child I wanted to be on TV talking about animals on either the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. While I loved Biology and sometimes Chemistry, I absolutely loathed Physics, so carrying on with Science was out of the question. So in a way – my passion for the Environment was carried forward when the subject ‘EVS’  (Environmental Science) was introduced to all students irrespective of whether one took Science, Commerce or Arts for the ISC examinations.

Once I began at ILS, my very first internship which typically all first years choose to work with NGOs happened to be at the Environment Support Group in Bangalore I enjoyed working there and loved the idea that I could study Law and continue to study the Environment in some manner or the other. When you have grown up close to Forests, National Parks and greenery in general, you crave for it even amidst a concrete jungle – it reconciled my childhood dreams with reality and I never thought of working or studying in anything else after that!

  1. Another hobby you are passionate about is writing – you were an editor of your school magazine and were on the Editorial Committee for Abhivyakti the magazine of ILS Law College for three years. How did this come about? Would you encourage this activity for young lawyers as well?

Because I am only child, growing up I was an avid reader. Books would always rescue me from boredom and long days spent alone. They fed my imagination and brewed more stories in my brain that I would pen down into diaries and journals. Reading and writing go together, I think if someone is a keen reader then they naturally enjoy writing, especially writing fiction. So the hobby began early – writing essays and stories often serves as a rare outlet to my innermost desires or vulnerabilities. Many of my friends and teachers noticed the way I wrote and would encourage me to publish it, so I do enjoy blogging now and then.

All writing however is not personal or emotional. But, I have observed that critical writing is a much-needed skill for all professionals, and I cannot stress enough how important it is for young lawyers to write. Fundamentally good writing improves your communication skills in general – and in an increasingly connected world – even the rare email that comes your way that is well structured, clear and communicates everything simply and clearly makes a lasting impression!

  1. You were selected for the Young India Fellowship Programme, IFRE & University of Pennsylvania, and Delhi. You were one of the 60 Young India Fellows from a pool of 6000 applications for the post-graduate inter-disciplinary year-long fully funded programme in liberal arts, perspective-building and leadership. What was the process to get through it? How difficult was it? What did they expect out of the Applications?

The Young India Fellowship was a unique opportunity that I heard about through Dr. Jaya Sagade, the former Vice-Principal of ILS Law College back in the summer of 2011.  I had already graduated from ILS and had been working with Paryavaran Mitra, an Environmental NGO in Ahmadabad. YIF had just been announced back then so there was no reference point about what it would be like. The trait that I sometimes possess – insatiable curiosity to choose something unknown, was piqued. It seemed like a calculated risk worth taking to explore the liberal arts. It promised a year of learning and exploring with a full scholarship to those who would be selected.  Life was at a crossroads anyway – so I decided to give it my all.

Back then the selection process was a lengthy application form (15 short essays) followed up with an interview. Some students had a telephonic interview, some were directly called to Delhi for the interview and I was fortunate to be in the latter category – as I am always a nervous wreck on telephonic interviews. My interview lasted about 20 minutes, and a week later I was informed that I had been selected for the Founding batch of the Young India Fellowship. I think it was my proudest moment till date – because all I remember discussing even in the interview was about the Environment, why I stuck it out with Law and what I wished for the state of Environmental affairs in India. Also Sagade Ma’am gave me a very strong blind recommendation, which even my interviewers said – put me at the top of the pile!

I am aware that today – the application process has changed. There were 6000+ applications back then and since, YIF has grown from strength to strength. There are more rounds in the application process and a different structure to the programme now, which has been refined over the years. Am sure the exact details can be found on the Asoka University website – so I shall not delve into them. But I can assure law students that if you are passionate about learning, and especially want to apply abroad for future LL.Ms etc. – do apply for the Fellowship! It puts you in a strong academic environment and has a methodology similar to universities abroad – offering you learning from your peers of different educational backgrounds, different subjects and inspiring people everywhere!

Till date, I have observed that successful YIF applicants are not necessarily just the toppers or insanely talented students – but often those who carry within them a quiet conviction to learn more and then be willingly challenged every step of the way!

  1. Tell us about some memorable experiences that made your year there.

There were three aspects/experiences that I can list out at the top of my head that were unforgettable. This does not imply that it is the best of what YIF has to offer – but were the most distinguishing or fulfilling experiences personally.

  • Unrivalled Faculty: In my opinion, the Young India Fellowship’s best resource is the Faculty they managed to acquire even way back in its founding year. They were simply put, Top Class and had the ability to teach us something new every class without forcing it upon us. I was introduced to both Sociology and Anthropology that year, by great faculty for both – when you learn from the best, it stays with you!
  • Peer-to-Peer learning: Because the Fellowship has other students from different backgrounds and age groups, yet studying the same coursework, there was an equal amount of learning from each other that unfolded. Initially it seemed like some of us wanted to rub each other the wrong way, in time we adjusted to the other person’s styles and mannerisms; but because each one of us was invested in the lessons in some manner or the other – the overall experience (especially in the Group Dynamics and Leadership classes) was very rewarding!
  • For one of the modules – Visual Communication, my group made a film about Bandwalas in Delhi! Having never been able to take a decent photograph on a digital camera before – suddenly I was part of a team with an actual filmmaker and scoping out various corners of Delhi and NCR following weddings! It was surreal – I remember that winter like it was yesterday and learned more about compassion from our unexpected subjects (most of the Band bajaawalas in Delhi are from Moradabad in UP) than any other person I’ve met before!
  1. You were a Research Associate at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Rule of Law Programme, Asia. You were involved in projects concerning Environmental and Climate Change Issues in Asia and other projects concerning the rule of law as perceived by Asian countries. Tell us about the projects.

The Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung is a German political foundation. It was established in post-war W. Germany and named after its first Chancellor to serve as a pro-democracy organization that promotes political dialogue, free media and rule of law across the globe. They have about 80 different country-based offices around the world and five regional programmes – one of which is Asia, headquartered in Singapore. For two years (immediately after YIF) I worked at the Regional Rule of Law Programme, Asia as a Research Associate. It was an excellent opportunity getting to work with an inter-cultural team, as I was the only Non-German or Non-Singaporean at the office. I also got to travel to different countries in South-east Asia to assist in projects relating to the development of environmental law, judicial training and constitutionalism in the region. As I am not at liberty to share the specifics of the projects I was involved in, I shall share my takeaways from the experience instead –

At KAS, I was able to learn a great deal about communication networks, legal frameworks in Southeast Asia and most importantly the Non-profit, Non-governmental and Not-for-profit industry.

  1. A budding Ornithologist?! You did Ornithology (Basic-level) Certified from the Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History, Rishi Valley Education Centre, Andhra Pradesh.
  1. When did you do this course?
  2. How is the course structured?
  3. Is there any eligibility requirement?

Definitely not an Ornithologist – that requires serious commitment and study of the avian world around us! But yes, I have always loved birds and can call myself an amateur birdwatcher!

I found the advertisement for a six-month Home Study course in Ornithology in the Down-to-Earth magazine. The course is open to anyone who is above 17 years of age and has passed a high school level of English. It has a basic evaluation of two assessments – one to be submitted halfway through the course and one after you complete it. Back then, it cost about Rs. 500/- which you had to pay via DD for the books and coursework; am sure it costs more now. It is not a graded course – one just needs to time themselves and complete the assessments required and you are granted a certificate on completion.

I did this course back in my second year at ILS – (Really did a lot to keep myself busy that year!) and it was a welcome break from the other stuff I had to read. Sometimes, I would climb to the top of the Tekri with my book on a Sunday morning and sit to read there while trying to follow the instructions on bird watching it advised. It was so much fun!

Perhaps once I am rooted to one city for a good number of years, I shall take up this hobby more seriously!

  1. You pursued a course called European Union Law, the POROS Project at ILS Law College, Pune. Tell us something about it.

This was back in my second year at ILS when I took up perhaps a tad too many activities to keep busy. At the time, that year was the last year the diploma was going to be available as I heard from my seniors that the administration was unsure if the project would continue. (Which incidentally was true!) So my friend and I signed up for it, as it was inexpensive, offered right at college and would be just once-a-week commitment.  In the end, it became so much more than that!

This diploma offered a history lesson into post-war Europe, an insight into supranationalism and set an outlook into future European politics that makes a whole lot more sense to me here as I now live in London! EU Law proved very useful when I later worked with KAS in Singapore and is strong foundational knowledge for many critical issues facing the European continent today.

  1. You also pursued a Diploma in Geo-politics and International Relations, Deccan Education Society. What was the scope of the course? What subjects were taught?

Ah! Those days! The overenthusiastic second year during ILS had every weekday evenings spent attending the most exciting diploma class around! Everyday we would have a different Professor who was either formerly in the Defence services or linked to the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at the University of Pune. I remember looking forward to the slot of 6.30 – 8.00 pm each evening with great anticipation of what would be next as there never was a fixed schedule of who was to teach or lecture that day.

The subjects ranged from India’s Foreign Strategy, US Foreign Strategy, the Role of International Organisations, Iran, Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, India’s border relations, Global Oil politics … they were wide-ranging. The broad scope was that of how Geography, Politics and Nations interact – so it involved a lot of Geography and maps, a lot of current affairs, numerous discussions on wars, peacekeeping strategies and diplomacy.

I enjoyed it immensely and you can well imagine that it proved very useful later in my work experiences.  It is fair to say – that somehow I found work that could put each of my diplomas to good use!

  1. How was your working experience as a Legal Officer at Paryavaran Mitra (JanVikas Trust) Ahmadabad?

After interning with Paryavaran Mitra for a month in my third year at ILS, I was offered to join them after I graduated full-time. Although, the job was very underpaid, I decided to work with them because the experience it offered was quite unmatched. Gujarat is the most industrial state in India yet here was a seven-member staffed Environmental NGO working on providing relief to victims of pollution and actively participating in Environmental Public Hearings across the state. Through Paryavaran Mitra, I could travel to different districts in Gujarat, which is incidentally is meant to be my native place– although I had never lived there before 2010! There was so much to absorb within and outside the organization that year – I also learned that studying the various Environmental laws and frameworks in India legally, does not prepare for the glaring realities of the state of environment in actuality. It was also here where I fully understood that trying to be ‘an environmental lawyer’ in India shall never be enough – as law alone cannot cope with basic issues relating to governance.

  1. Certified as a Scuba diver from Andaman! How was the whole experience? What was the most exciting part of it? How difficult is it? How long does it take to complete the course and how expensive is it?

Recreational Scuba diving is just amazing! It was something that was on my Bucket List since I was 12, when I first snorkeled in Mombasa, Kenya and witnessed diving as an activity for the first time as well. Obviously I could not afford it back then as my mother and I always carefully budgeted our annual holidays. After turning 21, I wanted to try diving myself so saved up some money for about two years towards it. It is expensive, even though doing a fully certified basic course is probably cheapest in India. A fair amount of Internet research and advice from family friends who knew this diving group went into deciding that Dive India at Havelock Island would be where I would finally learn Recreational Diving. One is first trained on the basic skills required to use the SCUBA (Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) in shallow water, and after several quick exercises and first aid lessons, you are taken straight into the ocean for a dive.

Currently, am qualified to dive with at least one other person always –an ardent desire is someday acquire the skills and ability to dive well even on my own. I have always loved the water – from swimming in ponds close to my home as a child to snorkeling in different countries I have been fortunate enough to visit – so I hope I can continue this avocation too!

  1. You have traveled 28 countries in 28 Years! You have also traveled to 19 states and 3 UTs’ in India! That is indeed great. Which country taught you something that you would hold on to your life forever? If not personal, would you mind sharing that with us? Which would be that country you would love to visit once again?

Ooh, which country taught me something I would hold onto forever – this is easily the most difficult question you have asked me!

I have travelled to different countries for different lengths of time – so genuinely this question does not have a ‘correct’ answer. Countries that taught me something were Egypt, Kenya, Cambodia and Jordan. Egypt showed me that the past has moments worth preserving as they add a rich personal history to both individual and nation. Cambodia – especially the museums dedicated to the Polpot regime was a lesson that one can never take one’s freedom for granted. Kenya was of course a safari worth a lifetime and that is one nation I would visit time and time again if I could. Jordan was like a crossway between the east and the west, with a vibe of the past and the future in one place, perhaps where my overactive imagination found sites of narratives conjured by popular media!

Cities that have taught me lessons well beyond a tourist’s experience are London, Rome, Paris and Singapore. They have offered a more ‘lived’ experience than others – and always makes me introspect life in an urbanscape in India vis-à-vis living elsewhere.

  1. You were passionate about Model United Nations. In fact, in my second year of college, I did participate in a Model UN coordinated and organized by you. However, you seem to be not at all passionate about Moot Courts. Is that correct to say? I think the ‘Outstanding Delegate Award’ in the African Union at the 54thHarvard National Model United Nations Conference, Boston in February 2008 awarded to you would support it more!

Yes, you are correct in deducing that I was not into mooting as much as I should have been. Although Mooting is excellent – especially as that IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) principle sets you up for Life well beyond Moots!

I did do a couple of moots within college diligently, but was more committed to MUN as it was so closely rooted in Geo-politics and International Relations. With Moots, I was more creative with applying the law than I should have been – and sometimes I missed more obvious relevant provisions in the process. The activity is excellent for thinking critically on legal aspects – was just not right for me.

MUN on the other hand proved more enjoyable and while I did not win at MUNs in Pune itself, I was pleased that I could win at HNMUN 2008. Because the Environment can be seen on a local, regional and global scale – it was worth instituting it in ILS within the Environment Cell so that students could think of the Cell as more than just those who clean up the campus every six months! Post returning from HNMUN, most peers and staff could recognize that a few of us would ensure it could become a regular activity even at the Law College. Also, I have strange quirks – like I know all the countries in the world, and all their capitals and wish to travel to all of them someday – so MUN just fit in as an extra-curricular activity I could push forward, as it could serve a professional interest as well as a personal quirk!

  1. What is your opinion about pupils pursuing law and practicing something else except law for their passion and interests demands so?

Firstly, I think it is wonderful that more students today are taking it up out of genuine interest and passion because it a field that is so vital to all aspects of life. But for those students who chose to pursue something else after a Law degree – I hope their parents and peers are not dismissive of them but rather encourage them to mould their area of interest with the Law. That alone makes the individual more unique and attributes a better skill-set, professionally speaking. Truly, there are enough tales, books, movies and people we all know who have success in following their passions – so that ought to always be asserted – whether you are an aspiring lawyer or otherwise!

  1. How helpful has a Law degree been to you in the pursuit of your career?

Although I am technically not a lawyer, the study of Law has been a solid foundation to build a career in the Environment and Development sector. A Law degree opens all sorts of doors – one just needs to find the opportune time to knock!

  1. How does one with similar interests that of you get in touch with you for some assistance from your end?

Do email me directly: chiteisri(at)gmail(dot)com , as I am terribly slow and inefficient at using other channels (FB, Twitter or LinkedIn) – the internet and I share a funny relationship – so I am more in control of just emails for all professional or semi-professional commitments!

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Thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!

 

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