Profile with Lavanya Rajamani

Lavanya Rajamani (India & Hertford 1996) is a Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, specializing in  international climate change law. She was previously a University Lecturer and Fellow at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. She holds an LLM from Yale University, a DPhil and BCL from the University of Oxford and a BA LLB (Honours) from the National Law School of India University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Lavanya Rajamani: Delhi. I grew up in the south of India but Delhi is home now. One has the usual challenges of living in a big metropolis like Delhi, but it is where my husband and I have made a home with our pug and eight-month old son. It is a vibrant city with a rich, artistic, musical and culinary heritage. I love it here, the winters in particular when old Delhi with its monuments and exquisite street food comes alive.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Lavanya Rajamani: I have always wanted to be an environmentalist. I grew up loving nature. I turned vegetarian at sixteen for ethical reasons and I volunteered with various animals welfare groups and shelters. I knew that I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on our environment, including on our relationships with other creatures that inhabit this planet.

Rhodes Project: When did you become passionate about climate change?

Lavanya Rajamani: I became interested in climate change in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated. I was doing my masters at Yale Law School at the time, and my supervisor, Professor Daniel Esty, steered me toward climate change. The issue of climate change was not as sexy or as high-profile then as it is today, but it was emerging as a serious environmental issue that could have profound implications on human welfare, economic growth, development prospects, and property alleviation.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Lavanya Rajamani: I do academic research that has political salience: I am working on the ongoing climate change negotiations so my work has the potential to have real policy impact. Particularly in countries like India, where there are relatively few academics working in this area, one’s academic work counts for more and goes further. I consult with the United Nations and various governments. I teach. Combining all these different strands makes for an interesting work day. I also travel a lot on work. I realize the irony of this GHG-intensive lifestyle given my work is on climate change, but I travel for a good cause and I offset my emissions. I also enjoy the flexibility to drive my research agenda and structure my schedule. It allows me to strike a healthy work-life balance. I enjoy what I do very much; I’m surprised I get paid to do it. I am also delighted to be part of an early wave of academics trained abroad moving back to legal academia in India. I did (eventually) make good on my promise to the Rhodes Trust India to work in India.

The most challenging part of my job is the glacial pace at which the international negotiations on climate change are moving. There is a foreboding sense that I may be spending tremendous energy and a lifetime of work to bring about change that may ultimately be too little too late. It can lead to a lot of frustration and disillusionment.

Rhodes Project: Do you think that it is going to be too little too late as far as climate change is concerned?

At the moment, given we are in the process of negotiating a future climate agreement by 2015, we have a tremendous opportunity to influence the path that our planet takes in the next century. But, I am not confident that nation states, for different reasons, are going to make the best use of this opportunity.

Rhodes Project: What has surprised you recently?

Lavanya Rajamani: I was pleasantly surprised by the US Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage. I did not expect such a progressive judgment from a largely conservative court.

Rhodes Project: Who inspires you?

Lavanya Rajamani: The women in my family inspire me, especially my mother. I come from a line of strong professional women. My great-grandmother was a Post-Mistress General, my grandmother was an Inspector of Schools and my mother retired as a Chief Commissioner of Income Tax. My mother combines a strong principled character with compassion and generosity. I lost my father early. She was a single mother, but never spared any expense on our education. She encouraged me to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the best decisions of my life. She is also tremendously supportive of my career: when I have to travel on work, she cheerfully looks after my son. She, with my husband, has made it possible for me to keep my foot on the pedal, professionally, even after having a child.

Rhodes Project: What are some personal goals that you have for yourself?

Lavanya Rajamani: I don’t really believe in setting long-term goals for myself. I think setting long-term goals causes one to over-think one’s life. There is much chance and contingency in life and approaching every event in one’s life in an instrumental way can take the joy out of that event. I approach the future looking for the next adventure and prefer to roll with the punches. Professionally, I find this approach works for me because I do what I am truly passionate about, which helps me do it well. That leads to recognition and that in turn to further opportunities. This will eventually lead to the kind of professional destinations I would have aspired to anyway. If you have clearly defined goals, it can lead to a lot of stress if you don’t reach every step along the way at the point you think you should have reached it.

Personally, I have experiential rather than material aspirations. I don’t desire bigger and better cars or houses, but I would love to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda or to watch the wilderbeest migration in Tanzania.

Rhodes Project: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your sixteen-year-old self?

Lavanya Rajamani: I was pretty opinionated at sixteen. I have strong views now too, but back then I was rather more judgmental. I’ve realized that we are all a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies, and I’ve learned to be more tolerant. If I had to talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I would tell her to be less judgmental.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?

Lavanya Rajamani: I enjoy reading; I read two or three books a week. I am discovering a whole world of children’s literature right now. I was a voracious reader growing up, but the range of books that children have today is huge! I find spending time with my son, especially reading to him, tremendously fun and enriching. I like to exercise and am obsessive about my gym routine. I also love cooking and travelling, especially to Africa where there are such vast tracts of stunning, unspoiled natural beauty.

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