Grassroots Environmental Advocacy
Ranjan Panda shares his experiences of the IVLP visit to the United States and how it shaped his environmental advocacy.
Environmental activist Ranjan Panda works tirelessly to protect Odisha’s waterways. Many know him simply as “The Water Man of Odisha.” Thanks to his work in this field, Panda was selected for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). In 2006, he embarked on a memorable three-week journey across the United States to share ideas and build cultural understanding with American and international counterparts. The theme of his session was “Sustainable Development and Environmental Protection.”
“I was the lone man from India in a group of professionals who joined from more than 20 countries,” recalls Panda. “They were from institutions working on water, environment, energy, climate change—fields in which I have been working. So, it was a good experience both ways—learning from U.S. examples and from the other group members.”
The tour included meetings with government officials, academics, media professionals, community leaders and officials from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, says Panda. In addition to a standard schedule prepared for the entire group, participants had the opportunity to meet specific people from their fields.
“We were divided into five groups by interest areas,” he explains. “I was more into climate change and water, but some were more into technology, for example. We all spent 10 days together in Washington, D.C. and then, the rest of the time, we traveled to different cities in small groups.”
Panda enjoyed trips to the Everglades in Florida and to a conservation program at the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. He visited a university and the Cleveland Zoo in Ohio, and had an informative interaction with representatives from the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas. He met with leaders of local citizen action groups, including Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, who was working to collect information on people’s perceptions about climate change. Panda also enjoyed Austin’s renowned live music scene.
The overall experience, including the cultural aspects of the program, surprised him in many ways. Before coming to the United States, Panda admits, he harbored some preconceived notions about Americans as often being self-centered and consumer-driven. However, the interaction with the program volunteers and hosts in different regions provided an added personal bonus to a professionally enriching experience.
“I found a lot of care and fellow feeling from volunteers who assisted us during the exposure,” says Panda. “IVLP gave me a good exposure, both personally and professionally, and it sharpened some of my advocacy skills. I was also able to establish some networks with people from different kinds of institutions.”
The group visited some unexpected venues, including a small business manufacturing products using sustainable practices—the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland.
“Visiting the beer manufacturing company adhering to clean standards offered us a different take on sustainability,” says Panda. “We got some free beer also!” he laughs.
Today, Panda leads two active environmental networks. Water Initiatives Odisha is a grassroots watchdog organization, where volunteer academics, researchers, farmers, students and civic leaders work on water conservation and protection, along with other environmental issues in the state. His other program, Combat Climate Change Network-India, is a national online platform for information and debate on local and global climate change issues.
The benefits of the IVLP continue long past the conclusion of the visit, says Panda. Being part of the worldwide alumni network helps keep him informed about global issues and approaches that impact his work in India.
“The IVLP alumni group is a great resource for enriching your knowledge constantly. The consulates have helped us maintain some of the links by facilitating visits of related professionals to us from time to time,” he notes. “The IVLP experience is continuous and ever-evolving.”
Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.