Dia Mirza: “Environmental Degradation and Climate Change Impact Each One of Us”

In an exclusive interview with Cosmo Ed Nandini Bhalla, the actor, producer, social activist, and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador raises her voice to call for environmental justice.

Long before the urgency of ‘sustainability‘ pierced its way into our everyday lexicon and collective consciousness, Dia Mirza was practising and preaching it. 

Archived newspaper reports swirling around the Internet will tell you that in 2010, the former Miss India Pacific had adopted two leopard cubs—Ashoka and Naks—at the Lucknow zoo. (A noteworthy detail is that the cubs‘ mother had been rescued in Mirzapur, and named ‘Dia of Mirzapur‘ by the forest staff.) Nearly a decade later, a baby rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya was also named ‘Dia Mirza‘, and a delighted Dia (the actor, not the rhino) took to Instagram to post a photograph of her namesake, urging followers to do their bit to conserve wildlife.

Over the years, the Thappad actor has used her voice and influence to spread awareness about the perils of plastic, the need for greater mindulfness in matters of consumption and climate change, and why it is so important to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Her work as the brand ambassador for the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) includes drawing attention to the danger—and suffering—faced by several animal species. Her long-standing support of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also features a compelling ad campaign that shows Dia dressed as a bloodied snake, imploring people to give up wearing and carrying animal skins. And in 2018, she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by UN Environment (alongside custodians like model Gisele Bündchen, singer Ellie Goulding, and Alibaba Chief Jack Ma). 

Dia‘s appointment with the UN gave the actor greater impetus to use her social media assets for change. Her Instagram feed is brimming with stirring messages, urging her Followers to rethink their environmental choices. Occasionally, the said Followers are also treated to photographs of majestic elephants, often in regards to securing safe elephant corridors (“Just the thought of being near an elephant makes me happy,” Dia said in a post from 2018). 

Dia Mirza

Pant-suit, Ekaya; necklace, Jet Gems

Nandini Bhalla: How have the last few months been for you?

Dia Mirza: “The last seven months have given me the opportunity to spend quality time with my mother. It’s been wonderful, eating mom’s food every day, playing Scrabble and carrom with her... But I realised, soon enough, that while this ‘pause’ was wonderful, there was a lot to be done. So, I made a conscious decision to engage in more social work and mobilise support for NGOs. I also used my Instagram platform to launch a series of conversations called Down To Earth With D, to drive information on sustainability. On most days, I practise yoga daily, and do something called ‘earthing’, where I walk bare feet in the grass. I enjoy spending time in the garden, watching birds, and it’s been interesting to shoot remotely, do your own hair make-up, be directed by your director over a call. I guess that aatmanirbhar is a term that applies here [laughs]. 

Emotionally, this has been a time for introspection, a time of realisations and actualisations. I remember being asked, several times over several years, about where I saw myself in 20 years. I don‘t think any of us could have imagined that the future included a global pandemic, turning our lives around and compelling us to ask some very important questions of ourselves.”

NB: You have made so many significant contributions to the fight against environmental injustices. When did you first discover your passion for wildlife and the Earth?

DM: “This understanding, that our life is connected to nature, started early for me. I was educated in a school called Vidya Ranya, which means ‘forest of education’. It was a school based on the philosophies of J Krishnamurthi. My mother is a huge nature lover; you can ask her for the name of any plant, any tree, and she will know it. And her father, who was a professor of astronomy, taught her the names of constellations. So I grew up in an environment that fostered a strong, abiding relationship with nature. We would climb trees, pluck fruits... I remember going rock climbing, sailing, and swimming in the lake. These are not experiences many urban kids have today. 

The alarm bells for climate change had started to ring in the ‘80s. And during my foundation years at school, many of the conversations were centred around a need for responsible consumption. We were taught how to compost, and many of the classes were held under big trees, Shanti Niketan-style. We would spend a lot of time in neighbouring villages, to interact with farmers and farm children. So value, consciousness, and empathy were deeply nurtured. 

Very early in my film career, I started working with several NGOs that were supporting cancer care for children and women. And I would talk to the doctors, trying to understand the cause of the illness. Why was cancer growing exponentially in the country? Why were so many children being born with heart defects? Why were there so many asthma cases? And the answer was unanimous, across the board. It was because of environmental degradation; because of the quality of soil that our food was being produced in. There were chemicals in our food, and pollution in the air and water. I was like, ‘So why aren’t we doing something about this?! Why isn’t this data being made available freely, and why isn‘t mainstream media focusing on environmental news more?’ At that time, I’m talking 15 years ago, there was so little spoken about these issues. And that’s when I took it upon myself to be a bridge in some way, between scientists and conservationists and biologists, and mainstream society. And I decided to use every platform accessible and available to me, to do so. 

I think one of the most integral part of being a conscious and responsible citizen is understanding that silos don’t exist. Each life on Earth is connected, and environmental degradation and climate change impact each one of us. So, I started working with people like Bittu Sahgal, who I pursued doggedly because I had to convince him that somebody from such a commercial industry genuinely cared about nature and wanted to help. Then I began working with the Wildlife Trust of India and Vivek Menon. Later, The United Nations Environment Programme got in touch with me and asked me to be an ambassador, and it has been amazing to advocate for such powerful campaigns and achieve success in getting through to people. I’ve benefited tremendously from these partnerships, because I have learnt so much from these organisations and, in many ways, that has helped me alter my lifestyle, my understanding of life and my craft, and the choices I make.“

Dia Mirza

Shorts-suit, Aroka; bracelet, Jet Gems; shoes, Oceedee 

NB: What are some of these choices and changes—big and small—that you have made?

DM: “Firstly, you become aware that every thing you consume comes from the Earth. And you need to be mindful of how you use these resources. When I was filming a show called Ganga: The Soul of India, I travelled from the source of the river to the sea, and it is the most beautiful journey one can embark on. I was learning about the historic and cultural relevance of the river, and alongside, I was talking about the environmental impact on the river and how that affects human lives. The river feeds a million people and more. But as I travelled, I saw huge amounts of plastic...in the most prestigious river! Wherever there were tourists or human settlements, you’d find large amounts of plastic, and I began thinking about how we don’t even have the infrastructure to collect, segregate, and deal with this waste. It just exists, and it has nowhere to go. It will likely get burnt, polluting the soil or the air...or it will just lie there for thousands of years. It was then that I started to notice plastic everywhere I went. And one of the first changes that I made in my own life was to reduce the consumption of plastic at home. This was well before we did a massive campaign called Beat Plastic Pollution. Simultaneously, there was an awakening taking place all over, because Afroz Shah had decided to clean up Versova beach. And in other parts of the world, people were taking these alarming photographs of sea turtles with plastic straws stuck in their snouts, and then there was this statistic saying that by 2050, there would be more plastic in the oceans, than fish. So, all of this got me thinking about what can I do in my everyday life, to reduce my consumption of plastic. The one item we use unthinkingly is our toothbrush. So, I did some research and discovered that there were bamboo toothbrushes available, which I ordered immediately. Then I replaced my regular earbuds with bamboo earbuds and began carrying my own bag to the stores—I have this stylish, foldable bag that‘s always in my handbags, so no matter when I want to shop, I never have to accept a plastic bag. I also learnt that regular sanitary napkins are mostly made of plastic, so I made the switch to compostable, biodegradable alternatives.

Oh, and starting last year, I have replaced all gifting with growing trees. So, a friend or colleague will receive a beautiful certificate on their birthday, and trees will be planted in their name. We’ve already managed to grow over 8,000 trees!”

NB: We know about the great work you have done with PETA. What do we need to do more of to live in better harmony with wildlife?

DM: “The first thing we need to do is understand that this planet belongs as much to them, as it does to us. And that they need a right of passage and they deserve the right to exist. I would be truly grateful if more people supported organisations that protect wildlife, because we have the largest number of ranger deaths in the world—the people working in wildlife protection are incredibly vulnerable to all kinds of mafia and they do not have enough people supporting them. We urgently need that to change.

In a country like India, with such a dense population, there is ridiculously high pressure on our natural resources—for timber, for sand, for all the things you want to build cities. There was a time when India had a free flowing forest, uninterrupted forest sector with 60-70% forest cover, and this was less than a 100 years ago. Today, we have less than 20% ‘forest cover’, of which just 5% is dense forest and that’s what‘s feeding our rivers, Nandini. Which is why it is so important for us to help those who are protecting what is left, and also galvanise and mobilise industries, corporates, and individuals to take notice and make changes. There is some work that the government is doing, and they talk about growing lakhs and lakhs of trees...but I have no idea where they are growing them because I haven‘t seen them!”

Dia Mirza

Blazer and trousers, both Suket Dhir; earrings, House Of Bior

NB: It musn’t always be easy Dia, learning about all the suffering and not seeing change come fast enough... 

DM: “Yes, it can be frustrating on many days. I can’t even begin to tell you how heartbreaking it is to see a wild species go extinct within your lifetime, or how little some people are willing to do and how their decisions directly impact our children, their lives, and the security of their future. It can make you very sad on some days, but I find strength from children and being part of the solution, because I don’t know if I would have been able to deal with the pain that I feel if I wasn’t a part of the solution. There’s strength in knowing that at least you’re not waiting around for somebody else to do something... At least you are using your life and your time to contribute and make some difference.

The thing that upsets is irreverence. Especially when I hear politicians say all the right things, but when it comes to making decisions or policies, doing the opposite. Nothing angers me more than that. It’s like a blatant lie. You can‘t say that you care about the environment and people‘s health, and in the same instance, privatise coal mining or incorporate strange ideas of what is acceptable environmentally. It is disturbing, and it happens all over the world...we are just mercilessly killing and we seem to be okay with it.”

Credits:

Creative Direction: Zunaili Malik

Hair: Hiral Bhatia;

Make-Up: Divya Chablani;

Styling: Pranay Jaitly and Shounak Amonkar at Who Wore What When;

Production: P Productions