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Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala run imaginative campaigns to protect the environment, linking advocacy and legal strategies with action-oriented education.

This profile below was prepared when Rashneh Pardiwala was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala run imaginative campaigns to protect the environment, linking advocacy and legal strategies with action-oriented education.


Through their Center for Environmental Research and Education (CERE), Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala bring fresh tactics and new professionalism to India’s environmental movement. One stream of their work is a direct, focused legal campaign to improve and enforce legislation for environmental protection. In this effort, they partner with rural organizations and communities to advocate for new laws and make the most of the laws that already exist. Another campaign supports a longer-term struggle for environmental protection across India through high-quality education. Here, Kitayun and Rashneh push beyond schooling for awareness and help students put their understanding of environmental issues to work, from building plant nurseries to partnering with local protection organizations.

These two environmentalists have pioneered a powerful balance between legal, educational, and advocacy campaigns, resulting in a powerful program whose elements complement each other remarkably well. Without immediate efforts for environmental protection in courts and halls of government, schooling on the topic would be futile, because in a short time there will be little if anything left to protect. Likewise, if the small victories in local battles for protection are to have greater meaning, a nationwide change in thinking is required, which can be obtained only through consistent and rigorous education.


Campaigns for environmental protection often fail because their members—and occasionally their leaders—lack the knowledge and professional skills to secure broad, lasting change. Environmentalists frequently confine their efforts to narrow geographic limits or react to the initiatives of other groups rather than advancing a positive agenda. When they face powerful corporations and government agencies, they are inundated with mountains of scientific data and legalistic paperwork aimed at clouding the issues, and they lack the knowledge and skills to find their way through. Worse, environmentalists in India often find themselves isolated from the people whose lives are most affected by pollution, unable to communicate a compelling message to this crucial audience.

During the last half of the twentieth century, environmental movements made promising steps toward ending this isolation through outreach to India’s school system. However, most schools have resisted the serious curricular change that would be needed for students to develop deep understanding of the natural world. Most environmental education in India is focused on dry textbooks, weighed down with seemingly random data, offering only a series of disconnected personal viewpoints on problems that should be explored from a regional and global perspective. Teachers resent the extra workload from yet another subject in an already overcrowded slate of classes. Curricula from elementary through high school offer little sense of involvement, presenting the environment as an abstract, faraway concept rather than a living system intimately connected to daily activities.

Rigorous, practical education in ecology and environmental protection is rare even for students who pursue higher degrees in environmental science. While they can gain fairly detailed knowledge in the technical workings of nature, these students have almost no chance to develop practical skills. Many students go through years of training without any opportunity to study in the field. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, leading environmentalists are straining onwards with little or no formal scientific training, desperate for professional support.


After struggling for over a decade against two major industrial developments in her home region of Dahanu, Kitayun Rustom resolved to address the weaknesses of India’s environmental movement. Together with Rashneh Pardiwala, she founded the center for Environmental Research and Education in 2002, aiming to push the movement toward higher standards and a solid, coherent set of best practices. For more than three years now, the center has combined litigation with local advocacy and education, reinvigorating work in the field and in classrooms and fostering a sense of ownership over natural resources throughout India.

The Dahanu campaign that marked Kitayun’s entry into the environmental movement also had a significant effect on Indian environmental law; it resulted in a 1996 Supreme Court order supporting the protection of ecologically fragile areas. The order allows for regions that meet certain criteria to be designated and protected by restricting the type and scale of industry that can operate within their limits, by laying down instructions to prevent pollution and by establishing independent monitoring agencies. Technically, anyone can file a request for regional protection—in the state of Maharashtra, a special “green bench” was established in the high court largely for this purpose—but few know that such legislation exists. Even among people who live in the protected regions, knowledge of the program is scarce.

The law was on their side, but it was greatly underused. In response to this problem, Kitayun and Rashneh launched their first major outreach campaign, working with local groups to spread information about the court order, to improve monitoring by local communities in existing protected zones, and to get more areas designated for protection.

Lessons from this effort have informed outreach on a grander scale, particularly in the center’s national campaign for environmental instruction in the schools. This campaign also draws strength from a decision of the Supreme Court, this time in 2004, which requires the national school board to build an effective environmental curriculum at all grade levels, and to make it mandatory for all students. Kitayun and Rashneh have capitalized on the court order by pushing forward a series of proposals and educational materials that make implementation easy and effective for the overburdened school board. These include student readers and workbooks, along with a teacher manual complete with practical activities suited to the particular natural surroundings of each school.

The campaign balances between a sharp focus on environmental protection and a genuine concern for educational reform. The practical activities introduce new techniques to teachers who often find themselves stuck in traditional forms of classroom interaction. The readers and workbooks develop language and analytical skills at each level while inculcating environmental awareness. They have already spread to many private schools: Kitayun and Rashneh hope that their early success will allow the books to expand quickly to state school systems.

The center has used its partnership with the national school board to found a network of student-run nurseries that offer a blend of academic training and employment experience to a wide range of students. While nurseries are traditionally available only to wealthy private schools, Kitayun and Rashneh brought their program to a resource-poor municipal school with no garden, helping the school secure a local park in which their project could grow. No matter the setting, students who get involved in the nurseries increase their investment over time; as they begin to take ownership, their projects begin to stand on their own, needing very little support from the center. The nurseries lead naturally to other good ideas: Students use wet waste from the school as compost in the garden, and link up with recycling agencies for disposal of the dry rubbish.

Expanding on these efforts, Rashneh has established a mentoring program for postgraduate students, bringing them into partnership with rural organizations in ecologically sensitive areas. Through this program, economics and accounting graduates can work through corporate budget proposals; new lawyers can assist with applications to simplify and improve existing legislation on protected areas; and young scientists. Even fashion design students, for instance, can get involved, by working in the textile-rich cultures of tribal people, who are most often the most affected by new industrial schemes. The program gives young professionals valuable practical experience and provides hosting organizations with the data and resources they need to enforce legislation and win court cases.

Through this program, Rashneh hopes to build links of unprecedented strength between young scientists and veteran environmentalists. As the environmental science field expands and job opportunities multiply, more new graduates hungry for experience are approaching the center, asking for the chance to apply the skills they have learned. The state higher education ministry of Maharashtra has recently agreed to jointly initiate a three-month certificate course through teacher training colleges on environmental education for schoolteachers and other educators. The ministry has also agreed to bring the principals of 120 junior colleges in Mumbai together as partners in the program, which will help build momentum for similar work in other states.

Projects on the horizon include school nature camps, a model sustainable school, and educational television programs, along with various talks, papers, and public events. Kitayun and Rashneh are always on the lookout for likely allies, new program ideas, and—above all else—nascent environmental defenders.


Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala talk of themselves as one person in two bodies. They met in 1998, at a critical time in the struggle against a giant seaport proposed in Dahanu. The area was one of only three regions in India designated as ecologically fragile, but the state government had ignored the designation for years in favor of the huge amounts of money offered for the port. The main concern over the port was that it would irreversibly damage the coastal rock shelf and intertidal zone, thereby upsetting fish breeding and species distribution all along the northwest coast of India. Kitayun and another colleague were leading some fourteen organizations of farmers, artisans, fisherfolk and unionists in an effort to stop the port’s construction. Rashneh arrived just on time, performing a landmark marine biodiversity study that was a crucial part of the campaign’s eventual success. Kitayun went to work with colleagues in Gujarat and helped to successfully overturn a plan for a similar port there, and Rashneh went on to complete her PhD, but the seeds of a lifelong partnership had already been sown.

The two founders of the Center for Environmental Research and Education balance each other both in temperament and experience. A tireless and inspiring worker, Kitayun untangles complex issues and brings diverse people together with apparent ease. At the same time, she maintains the unassuming appearance of “a farmer’s daughter, and later a farmer’s wife.” Rashneh keeps the work of the organization firmly grounded in scientific knowledge, drawing on her extensive training as an ecologist. Her interest in nature began in childhood, on walks in the hills with her father. It has blossomed over the years into a vocation, leading her to decline lucrative offers from established institutions of environmental research in favor of the hard but rewarding road of leadership in the citizen sector.