Interview with Damandeep Singh, Director at CDP India

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Damandeep Singh, Director, CDP India. Daman has worked for over two decades writing and researching on environment and development issues in India. He worked as an independent consultant and journalist primarily on environment and climate change issues working with ERM UK, Worldwatch Institute, The Climate Group, Bureau of Energy Efficiency and Suzlon Energy. Prior to that, he was heading Research and Programme Missions Divisions of the National Geographic Channel for five years.

I’ve always been fascinated with National Geographic and what it does. As a 90s kid, I grew up watching the Nat Geo Channel. How was it working with them and what did you do as a Researcher?

Daman: Glad to hear it. I was part of the research team of the Channel and not the Society so there’s a slight difference. And in India, the channel is managed by the Star bouquet of channels. It’s actually now almost entirely owned by Fox/NewsCorp, I believe. Earlier the editorial and the research control was with the National Geographic Society. But the programming and the marketing was with Star in India or Sky in the UK. All in all, it was a great learning experience interacting with the research team in Washington. In India, the focus was mostly largely on marketing and distribution. I was responsible for maintaining the scientific rigour and the integrity because there were very strict standards, practices and processes for research for these programs.

Did you work on a particular subject?

Daman: No. When I joined National Geographic, I joined them to manage their website. This was the time of the dot-com boom everybody thought there was a lot of money to be made in websites but that didn’t go as per plans. Later I got more involved in research and other outreach and mission programs. We did research on whatever was required such as Ganga, so-called witches, tigers in Ranthambore, whatever the programs were about. We made sure that all the facts were in order. National Geographic programs conform to strict fact-checking and sources are all encyclopedic in the sense that whatever fact is quoted in a program it has to be verified and has to be authenticated by at least two high-value sources.

Are there external sources?

Daman: The internal National Geographic source is, of course, the first preference. The other sources ae Encyclopedia Britannica and others that are of academic value. I also ran a program for the mission division that these days would be classified under CSR: An educational program where took National Geographic films to government school children in rural and remote regions of Uttarakhand. This was in the pre-cable TV era and most schools had no electricity. So we actually also had to carry a smaller Genset and a projector. We showed NGC films to school children and even constructed activities around those films. We ran that for about three years 2003 to 2006, after which I moved out of National Geographic and it is now run by my former colleagues.

At the beginning of your career, what motivated you? For example, for me as a kid, as far as I can remember it was mainly these three things – waste, ozone layer depletion, and pollution. So, what triggered you?

Daman: When I left school in 1984 I wanted to study Psychology. Later that year there were anti-Sikh riots in Delhi which were quite traumatic. Being born in a Sikh family we had to shift our home and it was quite difficult at the time. I began reading a lot of newspapers and was attracted to journalism which was shaping how things are reported, how things are perceived. I decided to become a journalist and enrolled in a course with Times of India School of Journalism. I worked as a journalist for about two decades. I started in Times of India where I was on the desk and slowly began reporting on a little bit of politics. I soon got very disillusioned with political reporting because the politicians said one thing one day and within the next few weeks they had completely changed and moved on. At that time I came across a couple of NGOs like Kalpavriksha in Delhi who were working on conservation as well as supporting the tribals in their struggle against the Narmada dam. I met the tribals visiting from the valley in Delhi and then actually travelled in the Narmada valley with Medha Patkar for about a week which was eye-opening. I’d never done anything like that.d I have a great admiration for two women in India who have done phenomenal work to bring out the development issues in India – Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy. Aruna Roy was an IAS officer who gave up her job and started the Right to Information (RTI) moment. The whole RTI act actually came about by the actions of a group called MKSS. Arvind Kejriwal and others actually started out by being part of this movement and then they branched off into politics on. Social movements interested me and then environmental issues. I began writing about wildlife, forests and development issues. It also allowed me to travel and to do that it felt more real rather than report on politics. From the early 90s onward I started concentrating on environmental issues when I became an environmental journalist and that’s how my career progress started.

Did working as an environmental journalist scare you? According to the Guardian, environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world. What kept you going?

Daman: There was trouble then as well but it wasn’t as pronounced as now but it was clear that the government didn’t like it. Kamal Nath, the environment ministry, had me blacklisted from the ministry and their media briefings. The threat wasn’t as real and as big as it was. What kept me going was the belief that you report on underrepresented people and a belief that you would like to see a world better than what it is now. The strength of the people whose livelihoods are/were threatened and their struggles are what keeps you going.

A few years back when I was in college I used to get really angry at people. I would just get so angry at any stranger that I would tell them not to do it. But nowadays reading things like this scares me. Makes me think whether I should speak out or not.

Daman: It is scary and there are a lot of dangers. But you know the point is there are dangers in everything and you’ve got to do what you believe is right.

True. It is always good to hear from people who’ve been through it. It can inspire me and other people who are maybe are as scared as I am or even more.

Daman: No, it actually seems a lot scarier from the outside, not so much when you get in there and you’re in the middle of all it. I used to go as a reporter every year and report on the struggles of people who were affected by the Bhopal gas leak and there one saw a lot of young people who’d given up promising careers to come and work for the victims. Those are inspiring stories and that’s what keeps you going.

You have worked with some of the most prominent consultancies in the environmental field. How does it feel? What were your challenges as well as achievements?

Daman: I moved out of journalism to work in consultancies to try and understand this field a little better. It’s a contract job and you do it but it also tells you how the world is perceiving this and how they’re looking at it from a managerial perspective. You learn how to interact with governments, how to interact with companies, learn what they want to do and what are they looking at. It’s interesting to see how management and marketing concepts are being used to again manage and address environmental issues. I did that for a few years. and of course, there is always a pressure on consultancies like any businesses of revenue generation. But it was good a learning experience and see how these things are being managed here.

One of your internet profiles talks about how you find the shift towards green business immensely exciting and full of opportunities. How’s the Indian market doing in terms of that?

Daman: The Indian market is slowly moving and we’re trying to convince them that there are huge opportunities. Where they’ve seen opportunities like in solar and earlier in wind, the companies have picked up and they’ve moved as they’re now on energy efficiency as well. The government is promoting action through the PAT (Perform Achieve and Trade) scheme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency which is like a cap and trade scheme on energy efficiency. However, there are actually great opportunities for innovators and this is the exciting field and my message to most companies is that this is a whole new world. This is an opportunity when if you move and you innovate you will find a lot of opportunities, estimates say its about $23 Trillion plus, but you have to manage the risk. If you wait for the government to lay the policies or handouts it will take its own sweet time and by that time you may have missed the opportunity. It’s time for risk takers and for people to step up, for instance, on electric vehicles. Here the government is actually coming out with policy, but there were some early movers like Reva car which the Mahindra group took over. They were struggling for a long time. There are other exciting opportunities in the sectors like green buildings, green products which consume low energy and fewer resources. The Government of India for its part has a fantastic program on – the LED lamps. Through a program, it is speeding up replacement of incandescent by providing LEDs through distribution companies. Using public procurement the government brought the cost down from about levels of 500/600 rupees so that now you can get it from your electric utility for about 60 rupees. That kind of program will lead to a lot of innovation. Bulk procurement can spur a demand and bring down prices. There are a lot of opportunities to be had for companies to take bold action actions so my endeavour is to inform them that these are the opportunities that exist and if they want to really benefit from it they need to move quickly. Sometimes there will be government policies, but not in all cases.

You’re right. Everybody should get started and do something and not wait for one stakeholder to take action. Everyone should be working together. Moving on to your work with CDP. How are companies and cities in India when it comes to disclosing their environmental impacts? Are they open to doing it or hesitant?

Daman: They are hesitant but we are making progress but it’s sort of slow. We get about 30% of the top 200 listed companies disclosing the CDP, that’s between 50 to 55 companies every year and then we have another 70 companies that are through the supply chain program. All in all, we have about 130 companies disclosing but that is nowhere near enough on the enormity of the scale that’s required. Increasingly a lot of investors are now demanding that companies show their green credentials. Our main purpose is to make companies aware of what the investors are looking at and to see how companies can meet those demands and to attract better investment because companies need investments. Now investors are also slowly incorporating green criterion in their investment decisions. The whole idea is to make sure that companies are aware that this is what investors are demanding and for investors to actually come out and say to companies that this is what they want. It has to be a two-way process so we try to encourage on both sides to see how we can better spur action on that.

Going by the CDP India Climate Change Report 2017, in 2017, 51 Indian companies responded to the CDP Climate Change questionnaire, of which 43 were among BSE Top 200 companies and three from other benchmark samples to whom CDP had sent information requests. That’s good, right?

Daman: Yeah it’s good but companies need to take action. As we see in the media that despite the U.S. government pulling out, there are over 2700 U.S. companies and cities and universities that have said that no they will align themselves and their targets to meet the Paris agreement. There are people that see value in doing that. Our main purpose is to work with companies so that they see the Paris Agreement and Climate Action will help them do business in a green manner so that they to gain from savings in energy costs, from better markets, from a cleaner image all the while attracting better talent. Those are our criteria.

Apart from not being aware of the benefits, what else is keeping them from doing this?

Daman: Companies need to make investments now which will accrue long-term benefits. They need to put in a little bit of money now to clean up their operations. Also the fact that they have been tied into the old system, for instance, some companies use polluting fuels like petcoke or they use a lot of coal. If they have to convert to cleaner fuels and systems, they need to change systems that cost money. So right now they’re current business-as-usual doesn’t account for that. They need to find a little bit of extra money to make that capital investment which will then they will recover very quickly sometimes even in the next one or two years. But the fact is that firstly they have to be aware of that and secondly they have to have access to that.

That’s where the CDP comes in, right?

Daman: Yes, and we try and fill that gap and try and educate and inform saying this is the action the best companies in the world are taking. You can learn from them.

Speaking of business-as-usual, currently, India is the third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter accounting for 6.65% of the global emissions and is projected to witness an increase of over 85% by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario. Is India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, its climate plan working?

Daman: Yeah, yeah, it’s working! INDC was in 2015 and now that the Paris Agreement is signed its NDC – Nationally Determined Contribution. According to Carbon Tracker, India is one of the few countries that will meet its NDC target. So clearly Government action is working. There are great programs in promoting renewables such as the solar program and others like the LED program I mentioned. Things are moving, but there is need to go beyond as the cumulative impact of NDCs still goes to 2.8 degrees warming by the end of the century. Countries need to tighten their NDCs and take more action. India is well on the way to meeting those targets. But there’s clearly need to do more.

On that, I’m going to wrap up with this last question. A lot of the readers on my blog are not from a hardcore environmental background and some of them are students. What advice would you have for those who’d be interested to walk on a similar path as you have?

Daman: What I like about sustainability, especially as it relates to business, that it is an evolving field. There are few established experts and the field is changing so rapidly where one needs to constantly learn. That I believe, is good for students because it’s a process of continually learning and moving forward. For me, even after two decades I’m still learning and moving along these lines which is quite exciting. I’m sure this would be quite attractive to young people. Also, research shows that the younger lot and students are more concerned about the environment than ever before. They’re looking at sustainable companies and places to work in. Making money is not the sole criteria, and for most, they look at the complete picture. Many feel they might be happier companies that are seen to working to save the environment. It promotes work-life balance and that’s what I tell my colleagues. Often one ends up working on holidays which you don’t really mind as you believe in the higher purpose. Of course, people need to take time off and switch off and do other things. But if you feel that your work is also contributing to a green world, it is a source of tremendous energy and inspiration.

I thank Daman for such a great conversation I learnt so much from! I hope you do too. You can read more about Daman’s work with CDP. Follow him on Twitter: @damandeep.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Damandeep Singh, Director at CDP India

  1. Very insightful interview. Great to know about Mr.Damandeep Singh. He shared many valuable things about environmental reporting and need for conservation. The questions that you posed are very relevant to current environmental issues. It is always great to hear insights from experienced environmental conservationist from India. It gives us with perspective about environmental situation and conservation in India.

    Liked by 2 people

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