World Needs More Women Policymakers: Shailja Chandra, Educator And Sustainability Expert

Shailja Chandra discusses writing, her work towards creating impactful sustainable solutions, climate action, the evolving education systems, and what makes her function across sectors with excellence.

Bhana Bisht
May 29, 2023 11:20 IST
Shailja Chandra
Shailja Chandra grew up in a home where her education and implying the knowledge gained from it were prioritised above everything else. This shaped her path forward and she went on to become an educator and sustainability and climate resilience consultant. Her pursuit of creative excellence also led her to imply her skills in broadcasting and literature.

Based in Sydney, Australia, Chandra wrote her first book ‘The Moonsmith Gulzar’ in 2021, unravelling the philosophical, emotional, and existential themes in Gulzar's writings about some of the greatest preoccupations of the human mind. PhD in sustainable buildings, Chandra holds almost two decades of experience creating sustainable and climate-resilient built environments and runs a consultancy in the space of energy, environment, and water sustainability.

As someone who dons many hats, she also empowered several Indian Australians via Sydney’s popular radio program Voice of India – 89.7 FM.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Shailja Chandra discusses writing, her work towards creating impactful sustainable solutions, climate action, the evolving education systems, and what makes her function across sectors with excellence.


Shailja Chandra Interview

When did you decide you wanted to get into writing professionally?

Reading good literature makes you dream and aspire about being a good writer. That’s what happened to me too when I fell in love with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina after finishing Year 12. But writing didn’t happen to me until much later when I took some time off from work. I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri during that break and was instantly inspired to pen down some fictional tales. But then work resumed and those stories were left unfinished, characters half-baked. Professional writing didn’t start until I found myself yearning to say something about Gulzar Saab’s effect on me. And then I got a chance of a lifetime to meet him in 2012, which became the bedrock of my first book, a non-fiction on Gulzar Saab’s literary works.


Blending one’s life as an author, sustainability and climate resilience consultant, radio broadcaster, educator, and creative can be thrilling yet consuming. How do you manage to maintain a balance and keep your creative process less stressful? What impacts your growth?

When you put it that way, I really must pause and think how I am doing it! But I must admit that I have been quite effective in finding overlaps and parallels between all these. My creativity, broadcasting, teaching, and consultancy – all these streams flow into and parallel to each other.

For instance, I share a significant part of my consultancy experiences with the students and often talk about climate change and sustainability themes on the radio. Gulzar Saab has been a significant part of my creative thinking, and my radio expression. And in all these, I always bring to the fore the awareness of our larger humanity. In my narratives – whether at work, broadcast, podcast or in my writings – I aim to connect with our collective human condition so that we can see our struggles, pains, and sufferings as a shared condition and not private failings.


How have your travel experiences inspired you to experiment with your work?

Every travel experience breaks the hardened layers within us and makes new ones – be it emotional, spiritual, or experiential.

Travelling to the spiritual heart of Australia, or to the natural heritage such as Great Barrier Reef, or to the historical icons of Fatehpur Sikri or Lodhi Gardens have always made me reflect on their rich heritage offerings in contrast with our anthropogenic effects.


Being in the presence of such travel icons has always reinforced my focus on looking at sustainability from a holistic lens and trying to be the voice – in whatever small way I can – of their muted cries in the face of ongoing developmental activities.

This is perhaps one of the several reasons why in the last couple of years, I have shifted my work focus to taking more projects related to climate change resilience and applying the essence of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It also inspired me to take up a volunteering role with Australian Museum’s new Climate Solutions Centre.

Travel sojourns also inspire me to take note of the incredible cultural or natural diversity that our world has to offer – making me open to new experiences and approaches in tackling climate change and environmental sustainability.


The historic tombs, rocks, coral reefs, or rainforests speak volumes about their rich historical, cultural, or natural heritage, yet they seem disenfranchised and unable to protect themselves against adverse human activities, except when there are strict laws for their protection.

What do you believe is a central element of effective climate change action and what difference do you see in how India handles climate change as compared to Australia?

Action is the central element to effective climate change action. Much has been debated about whether climate change is occurring or not, and if it is because of human activity. But it is time now to act – even if it is based on precautionary principle. I always put forward the same argument to climate sceptics also – that we must act and apply ingenuity, smarts, efficiencies, and effectiveness to everything we do. Doing the right thing is a no-brainer and is undebatable.


I believe that in some regard India and Australia are looking at similar legislative or technological responses to reduce carbon emissions in their industries, energy and transport sectors and urban infrastructure. Innovation is high on the agenda for both nations when responding to the challenges of Climate Change. However, the two nations are starkly different in many fundamental ways, which calls for very disparate social, legislative, fiscal, and environmental responses.

India is highly more populous than Australia and as a result, its health and transport infrastructure can be overburdened and urban areas are more vulnerable to natural disasters. It is likely to experience more disastrous effects of climate change than Australia. India’s dependence on its large agricultural sector also makes it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Many cities in India like Gurugram, are fast-growing and perpetually developing. With such rapid rates of urbanisation without stringent laws to protect the environment, we can see many unplanned, unwanted changes creeping into local water, air, and earth, for e.g., natural courses of waterbodies drying up or urbanisation causing dangerous levels of flooding. Legislative instruments in Australia are much more stringent in comparison.

What actions are most needed to advance gender equality in the context of climate action?

Climate action and sustainable development remain unaccomplished without equality, be it gender or economic equality, or equality for the marginalised segments of society like the LGBTQIA+ community.

The issue of women's empowerment leaves a lot more to be desired than where the world currently is, and we could fill countless pages with long lists of actions. But in the context of climate action, the issue of gender equality is fraught with even bigger and more consequential challenges.

Not only can women play a vital role in the mitigation and adaptation of climate change, but they are also the more vulnerable gender against the impacts of climate change. Therefore, I believe twofold actions are needed – firstly, women are to be advanced in management and leadership positions to influence decision-making. At the same time, decisions and solutions devised by others need to consider and prioritise women’s safety and comfort.

I believe that women instinctively have a sense of risk-taking, an open outlook to innovation and an affinity with the environment, hence they can be great at the helm of social innovation and social entrepreneurship that I mentioned before. We need targeted initiatives to support them in this.

In rural areas in India and many other countries, women have deeper and more hands-on knowledge of managing agriculture and other local resources or managing waste and water, not to mention the day-to-day management and running of households. I believe that some of this needs to be recognised formally and, where possible, converted into paid work in the context of climate adaptation. They need to be involved in local social and environmental initiatives for their unique knowledge and experience, in turn, they can also build new skills and education on local matters important to climate resilience.

A world where women are represented more in climate action decision-making will be more equal with a smaller, ideally nil, gender gap with equal sharing of power and impact between women and men. We are looking at a world where both will be complementing each other as perfect counterparts – addressing different sets of problems and coming up with balancing solutions.

What differences have you noticed in the attitudes towards sustainability in the past few years? What is the importance of local solutions?

I have noticed a growing sense of entitlement and privilege that people are feeling for a sustainable and climate-resilient world – especially the millennials. While this is great, it also risks taking the personal initiative away. A lot of companies now consider sustainability as a business-as-usual rather than an add-on. A large range of products and services now offer sustainability as a basic package that you can opt out from rather than opt-in.

The media has significantly contributed to making climate change an important issue of our times. But this has also affected us in ways that we are yet to unpack fully. One adverse impact of rising climate change awareness is the correspondingly rising mental health issues that young people are experiencing worrying about how it will impact them. I believe immediate attention and intervention are needed to shift their mindset towards resilience and action rather than fatigue and apathy.

How can we get the conversation on climate change rolling as a priority across education systems in our country because it does start with basics too?

I believe that conversations in all aspects of day-to-day life are important – not only in educational systems. Dinner-time conversations and family lounge conversations equally impact shaping how the children think of the problems and can engage in solutions.

The kind of conversation and actions exhibited by parents have an indelible impact on children during early childhood time. So, parents need to think judiciously about their preferences and actions about climate change and sustainability.

Schools that are not rolling out climate conversations need to review this status quo since they are not meeting the expectations and needs of the new generation that is thinking, ruminating and worried about the impacts of climate change and see a safe and fair world as their privilege. These schools are not honing the skills of future leaders in the climate change space, nor are they supporting the cause of gender equality and an equitable world, which gets initiated in such conversations.

Suggested reading: How Architect Medha Priya Became A Strong Representation Of Women In Climate Conversation

#Women Authors #Shailja Chandra #Women climate activists