Environmental Law as a Career Option: Notes from Sanjay Upadhyay’s NUJS Talk [UPDATED]

During the 2nd NUJS Environmental Law Workshop 2013 this February, Adv. Sanjay Upadhyay, founder and managing director of ELDF, the first environmental law firm in India, shared his views on why his shift from electronic engineer to environmental lawyer has been the best decision he made in his life.

The discussion started with a simple question on what is involved in environmental lawyering.

While many may imagine that it involves finding the rarest species of the strangest animal in the remotest corner of the highest hills in India and haggling against the mining company that is going to destroy its habitat, a paradise in essence, for corporate-haters and feel-gooders, Mr. Upadhyay pointed out that it is actually much more complicated than that.

Of course, it may involve all of the above, but it may also involve setting up of electrical transmission lines in a small village in Arunachal Pradesh in collaboration with L&T, representing a resort owner who is affected by the Coastal Regulations or drafting the Environmental Impact Assessment for Tata Steel.

Not exactly the anti-corporate stuff you always thought it was eh?

Mr. Upadhyay then spoke about the ever-present issue of sustainability.

For all our talk on sustainable development, this is how Indian law works – 99% of the environmental laws are about the use of natural resources or of acquisition or conservation and only 1% is about preservation. So much for ‘sustainable’!

The problem of course is not only in the skewed legislative percentages – after all, our legislators aren’t exactly known for their promptness in keeping up with societal changes – but the attitude taken towards environmental law.

Increasingly, green technology is becoming more and more hip, but environmental law is still considered a niche area. And there is of course this persistent thought that concern for the environment and economic development are opposed to each other, giving an NGO v. Multi-national feel to the whole business.

And this is the myth that he wanted us to debunk; to understand that the focus must be on environment protection along with development, a sort of “environmental-developmental law”.

nujs workshop environmental law as a career, sanjay upadhyay

The Arrogant Two

Mr. Upadhyay also spoke about some of the perspectives that people in this field have – specifically two sides.

There are the bureaucrats and the judges and the lawyers who work in air-conditioned offices and drive BMWs to work. They have the arrogance of their formal education and their façade of formality.

And then there are the jhola-walas, your NGO fieldwork guys, who live in mud-huts among the community; and they have the arrogance of practical knowledge, of ‘understanding the people’.

This arrogance leads to these two groups refusing to interact with each other. Mr. Upadhyay railed against this arrogance, pointing to its futility, because it only acts as a hindrance for them to work as a team towards their common goal.

What is needed today, is someone who understands that we – the Santhals in Jharkhand, the Ambanis in Delhi, law students, school kids and the lot – are all in it together.

An environmental lawyer has to work to bridge the gap between the environment field worker and the court, to translate legal language into English (or rather, the vernacular language in this case).

For those of you who have gone to the Sunderbans, or to the Himalayas will understand that standing among the dense mangroves or witnessing the sunrise from the majestic Kanchenjunga is not the same as reading about it.

As Mr. Upadhyay emphasized, environmental law involves arguing for real things which can be experienced with the senses.

Today, environmental law is budding not only in the policy side but also for the corporate sector.

A brilliant question put forward by one of the students was why environmental lawyers, instead of suing corporations for violations after the damage has been done, don’t instead advice companies on how industries can be set up minimising environmental damage in the most feasible manner.

And this is indeed the new trend; as Mr. Upadhyay discussed, with environmental-legal due diligence becoming important, many companies are starting to hire their own environmental law experts rather than depending on law firms.

And the best thing about this field, according to Mr. Upadhyay – you get to travel around the whole world – watch the Niagra Falls and roam through the Amazon jungles – and all for free!

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