Shibani Ghosh Profile
Shibani Ghosh (India & Corpus Christi 2006) is a public interest lawyer specializing in environmental and access to information laws. She is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Research Fellow (2014-2015) at the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her litigation work and research has focused on domestic environmental law and regulation, wildlife protection and the right to information. Shibani holds a BCL and MSc in Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford, and a BA LLB from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What were significant experiences for you?
Shibani Ghosh: I did two graduate degrees from two different departments, so I was able to experience very different perspectives and different styles of teaching—that was great. At Oxford, you are suddenly exposed to a fantastically diverse student body and the collegiate system allows you to spend time with people who are not from your field. Having spent five years in law school, I had the opportunity at Corpus Christi to meet people studying classics, political science and other areas. I did not have such an opportunity during my law school life.
Another thing that really stands out about Oxford, having lived in Delhi and studied in Kolkata which are two very big metropolitan cities in India, is being able to just ride around on a bicycle and enjoy the many public spaces. That was very nice.
Rhodes Project: You pursued the Bachelor of Civil Law and the MSc in Environmental Change and Management at Oxford. How did these academic experiences fit with your career plans afterwards?
Shibani Ghosh: I always wanted to practice environmental law in India. So, I first went for a master’s degree in law (the Bachelor of Civil Law) at Oxford. Many people who complete the BCL go on to pursue the MPhil in Law and some go for the DPhil. While I was deciding what I wanted to do for my second year at Oxford, my college supervisor, Dr. Liz Fisher, suggested I consider a policy degree, since I was not entirely convinced about pursuing the MPhil/DPhil track. She thought it would fit with my interests in advocacy and litigation. I met with Professor John Boardman, then the Director of the MSc in Environmental Change and Management program, and really loved the way he introduced the course and its interdisciplinary nature. People from all backgrounds come to it, which made it very attractive. The combination of studying law and environmental policy has added to my work greatly.
In India, as a lawyer litigating in courts, additional educational qualifications do not necessarily help you much. Once you have registered with the Bar, some people are of the opinion that you just need to start working as soon as possible and build your practice. But I really wanted to study more and I am glad I did. I don’t think I get better cases because I am a Rhodes Scholar or because I studied at Oxford, but I think the skills that one learns when away at Oxford—like the ability to converse, keep an open mind, build persuasive arguments—are very useful.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your work at the Sustainability Science Program at the Kennedy School of Government, and at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi?
Shibani Ghosh: The Centre for Policy Research is where I have been primarily based for the past five years. It is one of the leading think tanks in India. It is mostly an academic institution and there is a group of us who work on environmental law and governance issues. I was drawn to this institution by the work of Dr. Lavanya Rajamani, who is also a Rhodes Scholar. She is an international environmental law expert, and I joined, in part, to assist her on her research on climate change related issues. Now I do my own independent research and writing on domestic environmental regulation and governance. I just completed a major project on the different principles of environmental law as enunciated by the Indian judiciary, such as sustainable development and the precautionary principle.
Through my work, I met Dr. Rohini Pande at the Harvard Kennedy School who is part of the Sustainable Science Program and part of her work focuses on air pollution in India. They were looking for a lawyer with training in Indian regulation and governance, and so they offered me a fellowship. It was very nice to spend time at the Harvard Kennedy School, and I enjoyed being back in a university environment but without the exam or teaching commitments.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your work at the Central Information Commission?
Shibani Ghosh: The Central Information Commission was set up under the Right to Information Act in India, which is the main legislation enacted 10 years ago in support of the transparency movement. The Commission is a quasi-judicial body. So, if individuals are not able to access information from government bodies, they can file a case with the Commission. I spent a year working at the Commission immediately after coming down from Oxford. I was looking for work in the public interest area. The Right to Information Act was relatively new, and people were still getting used to the idea of greater transparency in government functioning. I worked for one of the Commissioners – Mr. Shailesh Gandhi. He is a super passionate person and I felt I was part of a mission to ensure that the Act was properly implemented. It also gave me the opportunity to see how the government functions from the inside, and gave me this new respect for the government and the kinds of day-to-day challenges involved in governing India. I tell young people interested in public policy and advocacy in India to definitely work in government for a few years if they have the opportunity.
Rhodes Project: What inspired your interest in environmental law? Have you encountered particularly innovative models for addressing the problem of environmental pollution in India?
Shibani Ghosh: I started working with some non-profit organizations working on environmental issues while I was in school. Before graduating from school I decided that whatever I study in college has to be connected in some way to the environment. I was initially thinking about architecture or environmental planning and design. A friend then suggested law school. I got through the law school entrance exams and decided to give it a shot. I pursued my interest in environmental law from the very first year of law school by taking on research projects and internships with that focus.
Many of the cases I have worked on pertain to infrastructure projects and challenges around regulatory approvals granted to them. Often the key issues before the courts relate to the regulatory institutions and how well they are working. For instance, every state in India has a pollution control board which is supposed to enforce laws to prevent water and air pollution. However, they are currently understaffed and under-resourced, and every time a new environmental regulation is passed, more responsibility is placed on these institutions. Yet, there is not much thinking about institutional inadequacies and whether institutions are able to cope with the kind of work that has been given to them. So, addressing environmental problems in India is not just about science or about figuring out who is liable. It is also about thinking about institutions, how are they structured and empowered, and how they should function.
Rhodes Project: What do you imagine the next ten years of your life will look like?
Shibani Ghosh: I want to be a good environmental lawyer. Unfortunately, it is not easy for public interest environmental lawyers in India to win cases. So I want to be a good environmental lawyer and hopefully a successful one! At the same time, I do not want to be a conventional lawyer—I also want to stay involved in research and teaching.
Rhodes Project: What books have been important to you?
There have been some books on environmental movements that have really inspired me. Hugging the Trees by Thomas Weber is about the Chipko movement in India that created a precedent around the world for non-violent protest. This book gave me a background on activism in India, and made me realize that the protests we see today are not a recent phenomenon.
Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life, personally and professionally?
Shibani Ghosh: I am very fortunate to have worked with people, who are extremely passionate about their work and have therefore made me passionate about my work. In the last five years Dr. Lavanya Rajamani and Dr. Navroz K. Dubash at the Centre for Policy Research have been fantastic mentors. A lawyer who practices in courts and is also involved in research and teaching is not common in India. They have been very encouraging and supportive of my work, and I have learnt a lot from them.
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