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Meet Subramanian Ramadorai

Meet Subramanian Ramadorai

Ramadorai, seen here at age 18, grew up as part of a farming community, where values of conservation and sustainability were instilled in him.  He is currently an advisor to the Prime Minister of India.Photograph Courtesy: S. Ramadorai.

A man of vision and integrity, Padma Bhushan S. Ramadorai was among those who positioned India as a powerhouse on the global information technology map as the head of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)

Currently an advisor to the Prime Minister of India in the National Council on Skill Development, he is also uniquely placed to help strategise India’s move away from the climate change precipice. By definition, this will involve a mind-shift away from existing carbon-based strategies of development towards greener horizons. Bittu Sahgal spoke to S. Ramadorai to find out how he is helping to modify national attitudes towards ecosystems and biodiversity, as a strike strategy to deal with the ecological challenges that lie ahead for India.

Let’s start at the very beginning. How did a Nagpur-born techie turn into one of India’s most influential information technology and climate change advocates?

I was born into a middle class family that valued and respected nature. I would even say that we grew up with conservation as a way of life. Being part of a farming community helped my siblings and me appreciate farming cycles and their relationship to the climate. So as kids, we engaged with nature all the time without it being explained to us as being ‘special’ in any way. When we moved to Delhi later in my childhood, having a garden in which we grew plants and trees, and chased birds and butterflies, simply extended this belief. My present interest in sustainability or climate change is not about it being the ‘hot topic’ of our times. My interest comes from what I grew up knowing and understanding, what I practiced, and what I still believe. Old memories and basic beliefs have a way of staying with you!

Tell us a bit more about your early years? What did you dream of doing when you were a child?

As a child, I remember enjoying time spent in the fields with my father and playing with my cousins and friends in the lap of nature. At that time, I dreamed of owning a farm, expanding the family’s work in agriculture, etc. So I would say my early dream would have been to become a successful agriculturist.

Your life path has taken you in another direction, how do you keep in touch with wild nature?

Wildlife appreciation has certainly become a passion for me today and I enjoy visiting forest reserves and national parks both in India and abroad. I find that when we decide to take a holiday break nowadays, visiting a wildlife sanctuary is one of the highest in our list of choices. We have now been to several forest reserves in northern, southern and north-eastern India, and also had a memorable visit to South Africa. Besides the thrill of spotting wildlife during such visits, my family and I really enjoy the overall experience that they offer. From the sunrise, to the sights and sounds of birds and insects, the smells, the whole immersive experience. I grew up seeing a limited number of rather familiar birds and snakes, but now trailing wildlife is a much more fulfilling and memorable pastime.

Will ecosystem services ever find a way to the economists’ calculators?

Yes, and this is exactly what I have been advocating for a while now. Economy and ecology need to go together because the planet’s ecosystems sequester and store the carbon that is released into the atmosphere on account of economic activity. To my mind, ‘building’ economic wealth is not enough. We also need to be accountable, and to be measured on ‘building’ the ecology. This too should be a measure of success, and be accepted as an achievement worthy of recognition. When I speak on the topic of sustainability nowadays, I always refer to ‘Ecological Valuation’ and the need for a ‘Sustainability Index’ to be part of corporate reporting.  In my role as Chairman of the Bombay Stock Exchange too, we have been pushing to recognise companies – irrespective of their size – by their ‘sustainability footprint’ or ‘carbon footprint’. By ‘footprint’, I mean the organisation’s overall impact on, and practices with regard to, land, air, water, energy, waste and carbon. I strongly believe that such measures to evaluate corporate entities will be increasingly adopted in our system.

Will corporations actually internalise such values?

I believe that, over time, people will increasingly wish to transact and do business with companies that have good eco-sustainability practices, in addition to those that build economic wealth. These progressive companies would also be able to attract a different kind of employee pool that believes in sustainability in a big way. In fact, such an approach would even serve as a good ‘market differentiator’ for the practicing company.

You have said that climate change is the greatest threat to our economic, food and water stability. Could you give us broad brush strokes of the steps India needs to take to counter these threats?

I believe that sharing the policy framework around sustainability, as well as the broader sensitising of our people towards nature and sustainability needs to be repeatedly reinforced. Fundamentally, we have to stop believing that waste generation is an inevitability, and that cleaning up the waste is someone else’s responsibility.

How can we achieve this?

We need to work on developing a ‘culture of conservation and of renewal’. How do we generate energy from waste? How do we conserve water usage, or recycle water? How do we use power sparingly and efficiently? These are resources that are in short supply, and are constantly depleting. If we refuse to learn our sustainability lessons quickly, and act accordingly, we could be soon facing one of the biggest challenges of our century and beyond, namely, a fight for a share of our planet’s natural resources.

How much of a role does Indian culture have to play in changing our response to biodiversity loss and climate change?

Traditionally, Indian culture has had harmonious and sensitive ties to nature. From centuries-old village and tribal knowledge, to religious activities that involve worship of nature, to traditional frugality, we have always shown a fair degree of respect for nature. However, this is changing fast, as we become more prosperous as a nation, and consume more due to increasing wealth and higher aspirations. This is not to say that one needs to be ‘anti-progress’ because it puts more strains on the system. We just need to be more conscious of our ‘sustainability footprint’ while on this journey to progress, and be truly sincere to the conservation measures that need to be taken alongside this progress.

Some large corporations advocate geo-engineering for climate solutions. But are the risks not too large and are the results not too uncertain? What is the TCS position?

While ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ are now being commonly used to address climate change issues, there is active debate that these measures may not be enough to prevent irreversible damage to our planet. So climate change engineers are looking at more radical measures such as geo-engineering, which can potentially deliver shorter term results. Given the risks associated with geo-engineering, we find that many projects are still restricted to lab tests and computer modelling. Scientists are still unsure about how the ecosystem will react to these initiatives in the ‘real world’.  Many techniques used in ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘ocean iron fertilisation’, for example, are still in nascent stages of our understanding. Some ‘hot-spots’ for geo-engineering experiments using multiple techniques, and deployments, are seen in the U.S., Canada and the European Union – and in a very limited way in the large emerging economies like India, China and Brazil.

Would this not risk causing more problems than are solved?

I feel that geo-engineering within the ‘laws of the ecosystem’ would be a more practical and acceptable approach – that is, interventions where we are sure, or have a very high probability of not impacting ecosystem inter-relationships. These could include initiatives such as carbon sequestration (e.g. tree planting), carbon capture and storage (often with bio-energy generation techniques), cool roofs (using pale-coloured roofing and paving materials), etc. While geo-engineering radicals may not consider this ‘pure’ geo-engineering, I feel these would be stepping stones to bigger ideas, by better understanding how the ecosystem responds to them. In summary, I would say that in the quest for short term ‘silver bullets’ to address climate change and global warming, we should not create long term problems for our planet’s ecosystem.

What about Information Technology? How can this help us?

It could play a key role in this endeavour, with high performance computing and computer modelling that could carefully mirror ‘real-world’ ecosystem inter-relationships, and well as modelling of large-scale implementations.

You are mentoring some of India’s most credible, qualified climate change specialists. Was it difficult to convince a carbon-dependent system to accept the reality of climate change and its carbon connection?

Any change is difficult, and no change initiative should be taken for granted. Having a credible and comprehensive plan that could be the basis for a detailed set of activities and outcomes on the ground is critical for effecting change. Actual buy-in by a critical mass of ‘believers’, as well as adoption rates, would be a better measure of success, rather than any number of speeches, or smart slogans delivered.

The primary value of eco-sustainability needs to be explained at the grassroot level, and I always encourage people to introspect. For example: Do I recycle waste? Do I conserve water? Do I actively adopt renewables like solar-powered heating? Do I walk more, and use the vehicle less? And so on. I feel that leading by example is very important when we advocate sustainability actions and solutions, and some of us who are deeply committed to the cause, are ready to ‘walk the talk’, rather than only ‘talking the talk’.

Could the skill development initiative by the Prime Minister’s Council prepare individuals to gain employment in the arena of climate solutions?

I think so. Over time, I believe that we will start seeing some of the employment and livelihood aspects of sustainability – namely, skill development, job creation, and youth entrepreneurship coming through. This will happen as we transition into an ‘eco-economy’ as a result of increased public adoption of sustainability for its societal and economic benefits. In emerging areas like renewable energy, organic farming, recycling, reverse logistics, for example, there will be a need for talent resources with new and different skills and capabilities, and with different mindsets.

What about India’s National Solar Mission?

This is vital and will require huge skill development. For India to reach its target of 20,000 MW of installed solar energy, we would need 100,000 trained solar professionals. Under national skills development, we would definitely have a deep interest in the creation of ‘Green skills’ and ‘Green jobs’. By these, I mean jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, jobs that help conserve energy, materials, and water consumption through high efficiency strategies, and minimise, or altogether avoid, generation of all forms of waste and pollution.

I don’t just refer to green-field jobs in new ecologically-friendly industries. I also mean jobs in ‘traditional’ industries that help these industries transition to more sustainable forms of operations. Such jobs would need these new ‘transitional’ skills. And with one of the youngest populations in the world, India has the necessary base to scale up rapidly in these ‘new skill’ areas.

An avid nature-lover, Ramadorai (centre in blue) and his wife Mala gravitate towards wilderness areas as frequently as possible. They are seen here, against the backdrop of the Brahmaputra river, in the Kaziranga National Park.Photograph Courtesy: S. Ramadorai.

You influence policy, work with faculties in academia, sit on the boards of the world’s largest corporations and have been showered with well-deserved honours from the Padma Bhushan at home, to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and many others in between. The city of Qingdao in China has appointed you as their advisor. Are these powerful people who listen to you actually walking the climate talk?

Yes, they are doing so, and this is a good thing. As time goes by, the issues of climate change and sustainability are gathering a lot of momentum. And even though governments are often criticised for not doing enough in terms of policy, and perhaps doing it slowly, there is internal pressure for action building up in most countries.

Today, there is a groundswell of people-to-people connections on the value of sustainability, as a result of active debates and opinions expressed, including those on online communities like Twitter, Facebook, etc. For example, there is increasing adoption of organic farm produce by consumers globally, because there are more and more people who believe today, that it is good for their health, and that it is good for the planet. There is also more recycling being done today than ever before.

I believe that over a period of time, ground-up pressures like these, and many more, will drive more and more action by governments, thereby resulting in increasingly better sustainability policy frameworks.

With every jump in the reach of the Internet, the world seems to be pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. How can the world realistically ‘green’ information technology? What about the issue of toxic electronic waste?

‘Greening’ IT is very possible today, and the good news is that it is increasingly being done around the world. The ecological footprint of IT operations is typically found across two areas, namely ‘IT infrastructure’ and ‘IT services’.

Buildings in which IT staff work, for example, can be made more efficient in terms of energy consumption, water consumption and waste management. Use of renewable energy to power these buildings is an obvious way to augment traditional means. New buildings today can be designed with ‘eco-efficient principles’ from their very inception, and preferably made to conform to green standards such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), even though they may choose not to be certified.

Could the proliferating data-centres across the world actually be greened?

It is true that data-centres are one of the largest contributors of the ecological footprint of information technology. Many existing data-centres were not originally designed to be data-centres, and are therefore inefficient in terms of design. However, these data-centres can be made more eco-efficient through stringent power management, which includes supply-side energy management to identify an optimal energy mix of conventional, captive and renewable energy sources, power usage effectiveness (PUE) and data-centre ‘cooling’ through real-time power dashboards and thermal heat-load models. Other measures too could be used to further optimise data-centre operations through server consolidation, server virtualisation, and storage consolidation to enable more efficiency in energy consumption.

What about the equipment itself?

Procurement of IT equipment too can be driven by energy efficiency standards (certified by Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool – EPEAT), or stringent requirements that the equipment vendors must conform to in terms of health, safety and the environment. From an ‘equipment-life’ point of view too, it is important to ensure that the IT equipment is replaced at the right time so that we continuously improve energy efficiency. Care should also be taken to ensure that ‘e-waste’ is disposed off through authorised e-waste recyclers only, and as per accepted directives such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE).

You have been a passionate advocate of cloud computing as an efficient and environmentally friendly way to deliver and use IT services.

That’s true. Cloud computing, besides its user benefits, is by far the most eco-efficient way of delivering IT services and solutions as it enables the sharing of the IT infrastructure on which the services and solutions are provided, as well as better management of server capacity with demand. For example, a recent study by the company Salesforce.com, to compare the energy and carbon impact of its cloud-based services showed that their cloud-based transaction is – on average – 95 per cent more carbon efficient than when processed in an equivalent ‘on-premises’ deployment.

A man who walks the talk, Ramadorai remains connected with the wildernesses he loves so much. His dedication is mirrored by that of his wife Mala (left), seen here at the Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh.Photograph Courtesy: S. Ramadorai.

If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change?

Enhance Advocacy: I would powerfully influence people through all kinds of channels, to understand, discuss, debate, take positions and practice sustainability solutions that would benefit their lives, as well as our own.

Drive Education: I would see school and college kids, and vocational students take courses that would inform and educate them on sustainability practices. Even develop ‘green skills’ that would help them undertake the ‘green jobs’ of the future, and build a better life for themselves.

Demonstrate business value on the ground: I would open the eyes of businesses to the fact that sustainability practices are not meant to be mandated on them as a ‘cost burden’, but rather that these practices would help their businesses grow profitably, and very much more responsibly. In other words, make them realise that supporting sustainability makes a lot of business sense too.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.


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Bittu Sahgal

February 22, 2013, 01:36 PM
 I have known Ram for several years now and believe that even more than 'environmenalists' the future of natural India lies in the hands and the strong purpose of individuals such as him. While we are certainly more engaged with the nuts and bolts of protecting wild India, in other words the "how to save" aspect of conservation, the vital task of explaining to an apparently non-responsive system "why to save" would be best accomplished by such men of honour.
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