Coping with the CoPs: Loves, Losses, and Lakes

  • 04 November 2022

Distinct formative experiences growing up between the fossil fuel rich Gulf and witnessing daily environmental disasters on the way to school in Bengaluru motivated Tejas Rao (Land Economy PhD 2022) to examine the political economy of international environmental and sustainable development law.

After chairing and winning awards at Model United Nations conferences through high school, and working with members of the United Nations International Law Commission during his undergraduate and postgraduate education, Tejas will be visiting the UNFCCC CoP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt next week and the CBD CoP15 in Montreal, Canada next month. He will contribute to an intensive series of activities starting with the Climate Law and Governance Day 2022 as Manager of the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law.

Tejas spent the first 10 years of his life in Dubai – “where oil was cheaper than water” – before moving to Bengaluru, his hometown, in 2008. There on his daily journey across the city to get to school, he witnessed environmental devastation.

“I grew up with the bubble of luxury afforded by the fossil fuel economy in Dubai,” he says. “And then in Bengaluru I crossed Varthur Lake while taking the bus, and every single day, for seven years, the lake was frothing or catching fire as a result of the continuous deposit of industrial waste. The bubble burst pretty quickly.

“There were village communities around the lake forcibly displaced because of the dangers surrounding them and I started to see the direct human impact of environmental harms.

“My parents knew this would stay in the memory, and they frequently challenged me by asking me questions about possible policy solutions to these issues, that rose in difficulty as I grew older. That was early training for what was to come.”

It was meeting Senior Advocate Menaka Guruswamy as School Captain that got him thinking about how understanding legal structures and a career with the law can drive social change.

These experiences dovetailed at the Gujarat National Law University, where working on the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition and encouragement from his peers fostered his burgeoning love for international law.

Tejas, who completed an LLM in International Law at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge as a J.N. Tata and ERM Group of Companies Scholar in 2021, says: “It isn’t quite obvious at first how passion for a local lake issue links to organisations like the United Nations. However, I saw a frightening symmetry between domestic administrative logjam I witnessed around Varthur Lake and international water disputes.

“Then I was really curious, because if international law is truly international, surely Varthur Lake should be protected somewhere? Naturally, I had to unpack these webs.”

He cites the work of and learning from Professor Eyal Benvenisti, Professor Jorge Vinuales, Professor Surabhi Ranganathan and Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger as key influences in his decision to stay on at Cambridge.

“The thinking here is about pulling back the veil and speaking truth to power,” he adds.

Students in academic gowns walking into their matriculation at Caius

Tejas, pictured front right, at his Caius matriculation in October

He spent a year completing work as a Research Assistant with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and with Dr Rohit De as well as being Graduate Teaching Assistant with Professor Philippe Cullet, before taking up his place at Gonville & Caius College to pursue his PhD Research under the supervision of Dr Markus Gehring as a Nehru Trust and ERM Group of Companies Scholar in October.

Attending the UNFCCC CoP26 in Glasgow and multiple conversations with Dr Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh “set off my inspiration to look at this system through the actors who take decisions that have widespread international impact”.

Five people sitting behind a desk on a stage at a conference with a big screen above them

Tejas, pictured left, at CoP26 in Glasgow

His research mission is simple and clear.

“The international legal system claims to be democratic and participatory, yet continuing opaqueness makes it impossible to engage the public at large,” he says.

“There is a gap between who makes and shapes rules and whom they impact – the same way there is a distance between who causes harm and who feels it.

“I want to understand how communities of practice shape post-treaty rule-making in international environmental and sustainable development law, and how global divides are reflected therein.”

The trials of South Asia are never far from the mind. Tejas volunteers as Operations Co-Lead at Project EduAccess, which helps further inclusivity in higher education institutions by providing free mentorship to learners belonging to marginalised communities in the region.  

“I am deeply humbled and grateful to be here doing what I love, a product of my privilege, and the investment and mentorship of others,” he adds.

“Everyone deserves that opportunity, so by lowering barriers to access, we are hopeful that institutions become more reflective of the diversity of thought and lived experiences across South Asia. The world will be a better place for it.”

Nor are the trials of Varthur Lake far from his thoughts. Building on work his classmates and him led on developing a Karnataka Child Safety Charter through a local Our Safety, Our Voice campaign, students from his alma mater Inventure Academy have pioneered an Our Lakes, Our Voice campaign.

“Between terms, I will go back to Bengaluru for the first time in three years and Varthur is the first place I am going to visit,” he says.

“I am still curious about how what I study is at play domestically, and how stakeholders are coming together around that.”

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