Interview by Yash Panchal
Prof. Tejal Kanitkar is the Chairperson of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies,Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). She has done M.S. in Mechanical Engineering (University of Massachusetts, USA) and Ph.D. (IIT-Bombay). Her research interests include Economy-Wide Energy modeling for India, India's energy options under cumulative carbon constraints, approaches to climate change mitigation, climate policy, operationalizing equity in climate change, etc. Prof. Kanitkar’s research papers have been published in various journals. She has done projects on various climate change issues.
Awareness of Climate Change and Sustainability Studies through the education industry
I would not quite call it the ‘education industry’. Education, both primary and higher, is an essential foundation for development. In a country such as ours, we face many challenges – e.g. a large section of our population is deprived of even basic necessities, we have very high levels of malnutrition and death caused by illnesses that in this day and age can be easily cured, questions of employment generation and the provision of basic amenities to our people are far from resolved, issues of discrimination based on caste, religion, and gender are very prevalent in our society. In addition, we have to now contend with the issue of climate change both in terms of contributing to its mitigation and adapting to the changes that will take place.
To understand and even begin to overcome these challenges. we need a strong focus on education of the kind that teaches students to ask questions, think scientifically and critically about the world they see around them and try to find ways to overcome these challenges. The trends of the past decade of reducing public expenditure on higher education and promoting private institutions that will be based on a revenue model that requires profitability in the sector is inimical to the kind of education that we actually need. Public education has resulted in making education more accessible in the years since independence. Campuses today are more diverse and generations of first learners are only now being able to access institutions of higher learning. This diversity in the classroom also allows for a more rigorous assessment of the social world and the interventions that are possible and acceptable to address the twin challenges of development and environmental sustainability.
Reduction in the availability of public education may undercut even the small advances that have been made. We need to work towards retaining and in fact enhancing the scope of public education. I am fortunate to be part of an institution like TISS, whose vision statement itself recognizes the fundamental role that higher education can play in meeting the developmental challenges we face today. In recent years, the scope of the education TISS provides has increased both in terms of the courses it offers and the setting up of additional campuses across the country. The faculty here are aware of their duties as teachers in a developing economy and have taken on greater responsibilities in order to increase outreach and provide good education to larger and diverse classrooms. Such initiatives should receive institutional and governmental support.
Overview of the courses being offered in Prof. Kanitkar’s Centre
The Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies is situated in the School of Habitat Studies. Both the School and the Centre are a result of the new directions that TISS has taken to diversify the education it offers. The School offers four masters programs of which one is the M.A/M.Sc. In Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, which was launched in 2012. It will graduate its 6th batch of students in 2019.
The Master’s Program in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies is a unique program designed to equip students to understand and address the intertwined challenges of environmental protection and development confronting the world today. The particular focus of the Master’s program is climate change. The program is structured to achieve the following goals:
- Provide students with knowledge of the scholarship on sustainability and sustainable development.
- Help students critically assess sustainability principles and practices.
- Provide a basic understanding of climate science as well as climate politics.
- Provide students with the tools to evaluate developments in certain key sectors such as energy and water on the basis of their scientific, economic, and technological merits, as well as on their potential to contribute to broad societal goals such as mitigating global warming, alleviating poverty, and enabling equity.
The Master’s Program in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies at TISS is unique in the sense that it has been developed and is taught in a truly interdisciplinary manner. While in many places inter-disciplinarity is taken to mean an aggregate sum of subjects from different disciplines, at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, we strive to bring to the teaching of all subjects an inter-disciplinary understanding, e.g. technical subjects such as energy systems, energy modeling, or climate science, are taught in a manner that includes discussion on both their technical aspects and their political and social underpinnings.
The students of the Program are exposed to courses on concepts and theories of development, perspectives in science technology and society, ecosystems and habitat, introductory courses on sustainability, climate science, climate modeling, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, extreme events and disasters, energy and climate change mitigation, energy modeling, water and sustainable development, environmental and climate change economics, global environmental governance, natural resource governance, GIS and macro data analysis, and sustainable cities. Students are also guided in undertaking comprehensive dissertation work in a particular area or topic in the study of climate change and sustainability. Students also have to do a mandatory two weeks of urban fieldwork and three weeks of rural fieldwork in their first year. The field work is directed at achieving the twin goals of being able to apply the methods of research in understanding real-world problems as well as understanding society in the context of the issues being studied.
We also have a strong research focus at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies. The Centre has a significant footprint in research on climate policy, energy policy, climate change and agriculture, environmental regulation and governance. The strength of M.Phil. And Ph.D. students working with us at the Centre has also steadily been increasing in the past few years. Ongoing projects enable us to work on both the theoretical and practical dimensions of climate change and sustainable development and also inform the teaching of the Master’s program.
Challenges to tackle as the Chairperson of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies
We started this Centre and the Master’s program in TISS when hardly any other academic institute was offering a structured course of study in climate change. We were, therefore, in common parlance, ‘market leaders’ in the climate policy sector. From preparing the course structure to finding teachers to deliver the courses in a manner that fit the vision and mission of the Institute and also prepare students for a labor market that is new and is only now starting to understand the value of such an interdisciplinary education, has been a challenging but enriching process. While all of us bring our own disciplinary expertise to the Centre, both in teaching and research, we are also continuously engaged in a process of study to enhance our knowledge of perspectives from other disciplines. This alongside the fact the subject requires us to keep up with the developments in climate science and relevant technological innovations and the rapidly changing economic and political terrain on which policies are designed means that our workloads are often higher.
We are fortunate to have a group of dedicated faculty who have chosen to take on this task enthusiastically
The main challenge has been that the strength of faculty in terms of numbers and other support infrastructure that can be provided often lags a little behind the interest shown by students (in terms of increased enrollment), and other agencies that fund research. This is, however, not an insurmountable challenge and also confronts many other departments and institutions especially in developing countries.
Prof. Tejal on the difference in the teachings of India and abroad as she herself did her M.S from USA and Ph.D. from IIT Bombay
IIT Bombay is not really representative of the institutes of higher education in India. It enjoys a higher level of Government support and funding and therefore has better infrastructure and facilities for students as compared to what most other institutes in India can provide. The usual differences that arise out of the fact that educational institutions in developed and less-developed countries have vastly differentiated access to resources are there of course, and these will hopefully change gradually. However, in my opinion, what is of serious concern is a fundamental difference in the kind of research that is done in India.
On climate change, for example, a large part of our knowledge is based on northern scholarship and research is also driven by perspectives and ideas that originate in the developed countries where circumstances and conditions of production and consumption are vastly different than in India. This is true both in the natural and social sciences in the context of climate change. We have not devoted the energy and resources required to develop our own understanding, models, ideas, and interventions, that can address issues that are specific to our circumstances. At the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, one of our primary motivations for the research problems we work on and for the graduate program of study that we have developed has been to encourage such scholarship that rigorously and critically engages with a plurality of perspectives and options with a view to concretely address the challenges we face as a developing society.
Views on building a positive culture or climate among the students
TISS has students from diverse regional, social, economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. It would, however, be erroneous to assume that therefore there would be tension and some proactive measures would be required to build a positive culture. Students in the Institute, just as people outside it, are predisposed to co-operating, learning together, understanding the challenges they collectively face as young graduates despite their differences and also understand the differences among them and where these originate from.
An Institute of higher education can produce good research and bright and informed students only if there is an atmosphere of discussion and debate that is encouraged on campus.
TISS has such a vibrant atmosphere that encourages dialogue among students as well as between students and faculty
and this provides a good basis on which a positive culture then automatically develops.
Placement opportunities at Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies
Students from the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies have been placed in a variety of organizations. These include consultancies, government programs, industry, non-governmental organizations, research agencies and think tanks. Some of our students also choose to pursue doctoral studies either at TISS or in other institutes in the country or abroad. We often find however that our graduates are overqualified for the existing job market, or that the job market has not evolved fast enough even though the need to address issues of climate change and sustainable development has been increasingly recognized. However, different opportunities in climate and related work are emerging now and students have a wider array of options to choose from.
Read more about placements opportunities available at
An updated curriculum consisting of best practices of the industry
We have a rigorous program that delivers the most updated knowledge on scientific, technical, and economic aspects of climate change and sustainable development. We also deliver a course on technical skills in which students are exposed to the latest tools that enable environmental analysis. We are also cognizant of the fact that climate action on either the mitigation or adaptation front requires a critical understanding of social, economic, and political structures within which interventions are implemented. The success or failure of such interventions, therefore, are often mediated by these structural factors and our program provides a comprehensive view of the varied interactions and interconnections between the scientific, technological, social, economic, and political aspects of climate change and sustainable development.
The Centre is also actively engaged in research and projects outside the institute through collaborations with other researchers, both national and international. This enables us to receive regular feedback on our ongoing work and the direction of our teaching. We organize an annual conference on climate change every year which is attended by academicians, government representatives, climate negotiators, civil society representatives, national and international research scholars from other institutions, and industry experts. This enables interaction between students and experts in the sector and provides the students with insights into the latest developments in work on climate change. This year (2018), we will have our 9th Annual Conference on Climate Change at TISS. The actual curriculum along with the range of research activities that are undertaken by the Centre throughout the academic year provides a comprehensive education on climate change and sustainable development to students.
Interaction and availability for the students being the Chairman
Being the Chairperson is no different really than being a faculty member, other than a few additional institutional responsibilities. The work culture at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies is not hierarchical at all, so accessibility to students is not a problem. Students at the Centre are active partners in our research and from the senior-most professors to the Ph.D. students to the newest entrants to the Master’s program interact regularly with each other. Faculty members, including me, also travel with the students for fieldwork as well. This gives us a chance to work together for data collection and engage in collective discussions and brainstorming.
Expansion plans for Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies
The chairperson or not, I along with my colleagues will work towards strengthening and expanding the work of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies. In research, there are constantly new areas that we want to explore and existing areas of research that we want to strengthen. This is often a result of both student and faculty interest in particular topics of study, but sometimes a lack of resources restricts us from pursuing all the directions that we can explore. All of us at the Centre try to collectively work towards ensuring that we can transcend these obstacles. We have many ideas on introducing a dedicated M.Phil./Ph.D. program, a series of certificate courses, new electives, and concentrations in our existing program. The plan is to work towards operationalizing these plans and find ways to generate resources to support them.
Advice to the current youth of this country
I don’t know if I can give advice really. Everyone has their own set of priorities and responsibilities that they must juggle.
I do think that we all need to work towards asking the right questions and trying to answer the difficult questions
There are always concerns of finding employment, earning an income, supporting the family, etc. and these are definitely more acute for some as compared to others. It is, however, possible to critically, scientifically, and rigorously understand and analyze the world around us and try to change what is wrong with it, while earning a living. It also makes life a lot more fun.