GRANT’S DESI ACHIEVER
Professor Shashi Kant:
Forest Economist, Order of Ontario
SAVING THE FORESTS FOR THE TREES
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
World-renowned forest economist Dr Shashi Kant received the Order of Ontario for outstanding achievements in the field of forest resources economics and sustainability management.
The director of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program at the Institute for Management and Innovation, University of Toronto Mississauga, and professor, Forest Resource Economics and Management at the Faculty of Forestry, UofT, professor Kant is recognized as a leading authority in the field.
Professor Kant is the first Canadian to receive the Queen’s Award for Forestry and has a slew of other prestigious awards including the International Union of Forestry Research Organization’s Scientific Achievement Award and the Premier’s Research Excellence Award.
He was an honorary professor at Nanjing Forestry University and a visiting professor at the Zhejinag Agriculture and Forestry University in China.
Professor Kant has authored and co-authored books on the subject and is editor-in-chief and guest editor of several professional publications. He has presented papers at international conferences across the world.
Professor Kant has received grants of over three million dollars to fund his research and been on the selection committee of the Sören Wibe Prize in Forest Economics, the top prize in forest economics. He was invited to speak to the standing committee on Bill 151 and some of his observations became key elements of the Ontario Forest Tenure Modernization Act. He was consultant to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and to the Credit Valley Conservation Authority.
So, a man born to do this work, one might think.
Not really, no, says Professor Kant, sharing the story of how he happened to enter the field that would become his life’s mission, by pure chance.
“After I completed my Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) from BITS Pilani, my brothers were keen I apply for highly-prized government jobs. I was successful in my first competitive examination of the Uttar Pradesh Superior Forest Service, and joined the Indian Forest Service. During the training period where I had to learn botany and geology, not my strong suits, I was sure that I would move to something different soon.”
He credits Girish Chandra Pande, the director of Forestry Training Institute in Uttar Pradesh for a change in his perspective.
“I was posted as a teacher and was deeply influenced by the way he lived his life. I learned what is true love and honesty from him. He made no compromises with his value-system at any cost. He had a M.Sc. degree in Chemistry, but was an authority in so many subjects. I saw how a mentor can change lives.”
Professor Kant’s next posting was as a Forest Economist in Lucknow. It was a very senior position, for which he admits, he learnt on the job.
While there, he developed projects funded by World Food Program and United Nations Development Program, and enjoyed the experience of working with experts from around the world.
After playing a prominent role in establishing a wasteland development program in Uttar Pradesh, he moved to the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, where he was instrumental in establishing the Post Graduate program in Forest Management with colleague like Professor J. K. Das.
“I loved teaching and mentoring young students.”
With this came the realization that he needed to do his PhD if he wanted to continue in the academic field.
He came as a Commonwealth Fellow to the Uof T where he did his Master of Arts (Economics) and Ph. D. (Forest Economics).
“My Ph.D. supervisor, professor J. C. Nautiyal, encouraged me to publish papers. He said, ‘You will write your thesis, get your PhD. What’s next? Decide what you want to do and plan accordingly. If you want to stay in academics, publish papers.’ Seven of my papers were published/accepted even before I completed my PhD. He was also instrumental in developing my interest in spirituality.”
Professor Kant had excelled academically, but all the different accents one hears on Canadian campuses and the weather and the cultural differences took some getting used to.
“I had seen some snow but nothing like our winters here! I landed in Canada on January 1, 1992, and everything was covered in snow. And the public shows of affection – in the parks, on the subway – that was something new.”
His idea was to return to India when his visa expired, but he received an offer from the UofT before that happened.
“And that is how I came to be here, doing what I do. I didn’t start out wanting to do this, but I firmly believe whatever happens, happens for the good.”
Professor Kant has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations and academic institutions in many parts of the world, helping formulate sustainability policies. He was a consultant to the National Aboriginal Forestry Association on Aboriginal Values and Perceptions and believes there’s much we can learn from Aboriginal people.
“There was a time when their inherent knowledge was dismissed, it wasn’t respected enough. Now there’s a recognition of their way of life and their knowledge systems; some space is being created for their values and rights. Some forests are being managed jointly with Native Canadians. City dwellers tend to be distanced from forest/natural issues, but Aboriginal people on reserves have a strong connection to their lands. I learnt a lot from the First Nations people I interacted with over the last 20 years.”
He sees a bright future for sustainability in Canada. Sustainability and making a profit used to be viewed as being in conflict, he says, but since the 1992 Rio summit at which Canada was the leader in pushing for sustainable forestry, the policies have evolved to a great extent.
“The Crown Forest Sustainability Act in Ontario is a good example. We have moved from timber harvesting to managing forests on sustainability principles.”
But, he emphasizes, sustainability can’t exist in isolation, one has to look at all aspects.
“In discussing environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability separately, people tend to focus on one, to the exclusion of the others. My thinking is that we can’t look at these in separate boxes. We have to look at everything with the lens of sustainability that includes all aspects.”
He believes sustainability is achievable through true love.
“True love is unconditional and means respect, balance, and integration of diverse views. If we start by respecting ourselves, then each other, a balance will be obtained around us. Before coming to Canada, I worked with tribal communities in Odisha. They saw their trees being cut down to make way for development and others cutting trees for firewood. A primary school teacher went on a hunger strike to protect forests. Others joined him. The movement was not for personal gain, but inspired by Gandhian principles, it was for greater good. That was true love.”
Commenting on Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Professor Kant says he, too, thinks trees exist in symbiotic relations with each other, forming a community of trees, and he thinks that the same is true for all living beings.
“It goes back to the old Vedic philosophy – we all are the creation of the same creator and we are all connected. With each other, with nature. When you observe anything, there is energy transmission, and that energy connects the object and the subject.”
But how practical is this sustainability-through-love approach?
“In Bhopal, I had co-ordinated a program integrating forest science, social science, and business management. When we started that program, people did not believe that the students of that program would be in high demand. Now that program is one of the top resource management programs. Similarly, when I started the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program at the UofT, people thought no one will come, and if they did, where would they be employed? Now graduates of the program are very well respected for their integrated thinking, and are in high demand. These students are great ambassadors of my value system of love and sustainability.”
Professor Kant is married to Weihua Wang, a banker. Their son Avi is a systems analyst and daughter Avni, a student.
He tells his children and his students to pursue what they love.
“There’s so much stress among young people because they are being told they have to get A+ grades and then get high-paying jobs. But one can get caught in a vicious circle if you chase grades, money and success. I tell them, don’t chase happiness. Instead, start everything you do by being happy. If you do that, you will be positive, your productivity will be high, you will enjoy whatever you do, and you will be successful. And that will bring more happiness!”
And he advises newcomers to let go of their ego.
“We come with expectations. I was at this position back home, how can I take an entry level job here? Well, a job is a job. Do it well and you will move up. It may take time, but believe in yourself and you will get there.”