S2E4: Dia Mirza: Celebrated Actor and Eco-Warrior

December 13, 2022
In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks to celebrated Indian actor Dia Mirza.

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In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks to celebrated Indian actor Dia Mirza. The conversation reveals Dia’s deep-seated passion for the earth as inspired by her childhood in Hyderabad; and her tireless commitment to using her voice to champion environmental causes.

Episode Highlights


Makhtar Diop (MD): Hello and welcome to Creative Development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop and I am the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today, I have the great pleasure to welcome Dia Mirza to my podcast. She is a renowned actor, producer and a committed activist and environmentalist. Dia is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNEP, the WildLife Trust of India, Save the Children and the Global Ambassador for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. She has been the face of many pivotal environmental campaigns across India for clean air, clean seas, wildlife protection and climate change.

Thank you very much Dia, it's wonderful to meet you and to hear really about the wonderful things that you're doing. Aside from being an accomplished actor and producer, you are a very well-known environmentalist, social activist and change maker. I read that your childhood in Hyderabad played a big part in this. Let's start by the beginning. Tell us when you were growing up, what made you really be interested in the environment?

Dia Mirza (DM): Thank you Makhtar for having me. I think the beginning is a great place to start because I think it'll give everyone a sense of where I'm coming from and why I have this love for nature. So I grew up as you said, in Hyderabad. In the 80s when I was growing up in Hyderabad there were lots of rocks, old ancient rocks, streams, lots of trees. And then I went to a beautiful school in Hyderabad that had a wonderful hillock inside the school where we would go bird-watching in the mornings, and we would see some beautiful species of birds. And the school was based on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti which essentially encouraged us to form a connection with nature. So a lot of our classes were held outdoors under big trees, we worked the earth, we learned how to make pots and plates with soil and pottery. We worked a lot with our hands and, of course, the mud. We grew vegetables.

The other very interesting conversation that we had regularly at school led to a series of conversations in school about how human consumption, our patterns of consumption, was leading to the degradation and destruction of the natural world. And we were made to become so aware of our own individual consumption at school. I would wait for my pencil to get this short before I asked for a new one. I would never crush paper and throw it away. There was a very deep sense of consciousness that was awakened by the school through these varied conversations.

I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors. My father loved the outdoors. So I spent a lot of time in the outdoors. My mum has a special connection with plants. She's got a green thumb. She loves planting, she loves gardening. She talks to her plants to this day. I learned everything that I know about plants from her. And I think it was their love for nature that really introduced me to my ability to recognize my love for it as well. I mean, I believe every human being is born with that innate understanding that we're connected to the natural world. But maybe growing up in urban centres, sometimes we forget. But I had the privilege of climbing trees, plucking fruits off trees, watching birds build nests, watching seasons change, and really understanding that my life was connected with the natural world.

And I think this foundation, this early understanding and learning about our nature and the impact it has on our lives, and just learning to live with nature and respect nature and love nature was fundamental to my childhood.

MD: That's fantastic. I mean, it's quite impressive because often, the more I discuss with leaders who are impacting so many people, it's clear that things didn't come to them just at the last minute, when it became fashionable, when the theme started to make the headlines in the newspaper. There is something very deep in their histories, their personal history, which lead them to really embrace the topic and embrace this journey. And it's clear listening to you, that this is something that began very, very early in your life. So all this is quite fascinating.

Actually, just for the listeners. Do you know that there is a rhino in Kenya who is named after Dia? So, it shows how she has been impacting people in that community, in the environmentalist community. So, your voice went out of India, across the world, reaches a rhino in Kenya, and reaches us here in the financial world. When you're talking to younger people, who didn't have that opportunity to have the same journey, the same exposure early in their life on these issues, what are you telling them?

DM: I think the first and most important thing that they all need to do is to find a connection with nature. Because in the words of Baba Dioum; in the end we will only protect that what we love. And we will love only that what we learn about. And in order to find that love and discover the need to protect what is good, we need to form a connection with nature. And I’m sure you will agree Makhtar, that the reason why we find ourselves where we are at right now in human history is because of our broken relationship with nature. And I have seen a significant shift in the consciousness and the actions and the behaviors of young people, when we introduce them to nature, when we take them out into the wild, when we take them for beach cleanups. Suddenly they become so aware of plastic, suddenly they want to protect every tree, because we are nature at the end of the day, even though we've built walls, and we've moved away from the natural world - we're the only species that has done that. But the truth is that when we go into nature, we find ourselves and we realize that we are all one, and there's no difference. So that love, that innate understanding and that very apparent reason why we need to protect the natural world, I think surfaces and I encourage young people. I do it with my child. So, he's all of 15 / 16 months old now. I make sure he interacts with nature every day. He walks barefeet in the grass, I point out birds to him, I make sure he's watching butterflies. His window overlooks a little mini sanctuary that I've built, created with beautiful flowering plants. So they attract all kinds of biodiversity. His first word was Tiger! And I think that's the role we can play as parents; introduce our children to nature and ensure we foster a deep and meaningful relationship. And of course, young people respond beautifully to that exposure.

MD: What you say is so powerful. Actually it’s clear that all the big diseases, epidemics that we face recently, being Ebola, being COVID now, is a consequence of the wrong relation we have with nature. We have disrupted the habitat of animals, and now some diseases have been transmitted to human beings with the impacts that we are seeing. We also are more and more conscious of the need to have a circular economy. So it's very, very interesting to hear how, when you were already young, your sanctuary school was teaching you a little bit about the concept of circular economy without using the same word. But in fact, this is what it was in reality. I am passionate about the blue economy because I come also from a country which is at the coast. Actually, originally, my parents come from the former capital of Senegal, which is St Louis, which is a UNESCO heritage site and has been very much eroded by the sea. I was born in Dakar, which is also the capital of Senegal, which is at the sea. And I see some parts of my city which have disappeared because of coastal erosion. And I see also the impact of the misuse of plastic, the intensive use of plastic and the consequence it has. For that reason at IFC here, we are working on developing bonds for companies to be able to recycle this plastic, to have a better use of it. But you have been talking about it for a very long time. And you've been one of the first voices to talk about plastic and marine plastic. Tell me a little bit, how did you come to focus on that?

DM: I was actually on a program called Ganga - The Soul of India, where I had to travel from the source of the river, all the way to sea. It was slow travel, so I was traveling by road through five states in India. And it was quite a life altering experience, Maktar, because the Ganga is a beautiful river. It's a river that is revered and worshiped in the country. It directly impacts the lives of almost 4 million people, and many, many more. It's a river that has inspired culture and tradition and food and everything. And unfortunately, it's also the second most polluted river on the planet. And what hit me really hard when I was traveling along the river was seeing ravines of plastic entering the river in the most pristine environments. So it was where human beings had, you know, reached, there was plastic. And obviously, in these remote areas of the country, there is no system to manage the waste. Nobody's collecting it, nobody’s segregating it. Most of the time, in the smaller villages in the mountain areas, people were burning it, which is terrible. It's toxic for the soil, and the air and the water. And in a lot of places, it was just, you know, flowing into the river and obviously, entering the ocean. This was a source that it was entering the ocean. And this was actually coincidentally the time when I had to go to Nairobi to meet the then director, head of UNEP, Erik Solheim, because I was being appointed as the UNEP Ambassador. And the first thing I said to him when we met was, “What are we doing about plastics?” It's everywhere. Everything that we consume in everyday life is packaged in plastic. Did nobody account for the quantum of waste that would create? And if no one accounted for the quantum of waste that it creates, how long is it going to take for the world to acknowledge that we've done something terribly wrong? So the first thing I discussed with Eric in that meeting was what are we doing about plastics, and he smiled, he said, you know, what, we are working on a campaign called the Beat Plastic Pollution campaign. And India is going to be host for World Environment Day, next year. And you lead this campaign from the forefront, and we will make sure everybody acknowledges the problem. And then once you acknowledge it, it will lead to solutions.

So the first outcome of that campaign in India in that year was our prime minister announcing that India would become single use plastics free by 2022. That was a big promise, and 21 items are on that list that have been banned in the country. Having said that, is the ban truly implementable? No. Is there a definitive shift in people's perceptions and understanding of their misuse of plastic, specially single use plastics? Yes, there is. Not maybe as much as we need. But there is definitely a shift. I started traveling with my metal bottle around this time, and I've been using a metal bottle since. I haven't had a sip of water from a plastic bottle in five years. And now I see so many more people everywhere, at airports, at railway stations, at the gym, at the office, everywhere, in schools carrying their own bottles. So there's a shift, definitely a shift. But the truth of the matter is, we need something called Extended Producer Responsibility, a legally binding document that makes the producers of plastic responsible for the plastic that they introduce into the environment. That's one and then of course, how are they collecting it? How are they managing it? How does it become a part of the circular economy? And then the significant step taken at UN EA this year–which forged an internationally legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024–which is the most significant environmental, multilateral deal since the Paris accord. So there's been some movement. Is it enough to solve the problem? Maybe not. But I really believe in the power of individual choice. So we need to change our behavior, completely recognize the unnecessary plastics and bring the changes that we need to, in our industry, in our line of production and how we do business, how we gift people, how we celebrate festivals, and how we interact with single use plastics every day.

MD: But I can see some progress. A country like Rwanda, in Africa, has managed to ban the use of plastic bag. And when you travel now there you don't see any plastic bags in the street, they have been able to enforce it. So it's a combination of very strong capability to implement policy and a campaign to increase awareness for people, for them to change their behavior. I think the two elements will really help.

DM: I want to share a beautiful intervention. There's this lady who runs a school in rural India. And she basically converted school fees to plastics. She encouraged the schoolchildren to collect plastic, and bring it to her. And she would accept that plastic as school fees. And then of course, introduce that plastic into the circular economy and dispose of that plastic correctly. What a powerful intervention!

MD: It’s a powerful intervention. And I think leaders like you who are really showing the way and and really explaining with powerful words and powerful pictures the way it's affecting us not only tomorrow, but today, and has affected us already in the past, is something that is important. Because it allows us to work on things which are important but are not as exciting maybe, is to find the means to solve it financially.

And what we are trying to do is to use our knowledge, our convening power, to innovate in the financial space. We have created some blue bonds, we have some green bonds, sustainability loans–all this to be able to provide the financial means for people to have this transition.

We talked about environment. We didn't talk about the wonderful work that you're doing as an actress. So we will not end this podcast without talking about you, as a prolific actress, and what you are doing in the creative industries. I know that your own production house, One India Stories, is working on creating content focused on climate and gender. And I'm very interested not only to hear about it, but to see in the future if there is a way for us to collaborate and work in this space.

DM: I really believe that storytelling is one of the most powerful instruments of social change. And I know that I have been deeply moved by documentaries, by films, by stories that I have witnessed that have helped me understand the human face and the human side and the intensity or, the depth of a problem. And it's, you know, it's these stories that have challenged me to think differently and act differently and do better. So stories are powerful. So an area that I'm focused on is what is called edutainment, where I hope to be able to share many stories about inspiring people who are doing great work, then do it in an engaging and entertaining format so that people don't just go away inspired by the story, because it's true, but are also deeply moved by the narrative because of the way it's been showcased. As an actor, I find that I'm in a place of privilege, because I get to choose my parts. And I try and choose parts that I believe can offer perspective, start conversations, get people thinking and feeling differently. And I know that some of the parts that I've played in the recent years have changed me as a human being. And it's very exciting. And I know there is an artistic side to you Makhtar , because I can see that hint of a smile emerging when I'm talking about this. There is nothing more satisfying than being at work that is so deeply entwined with your purpose. And I'm so excited that some of the characters I've played have empowered women and educated men, about gender, and about the environment. And I hope to continue to be able to do this. The tough part about what I do is that there aren't enough people who understand and recognize the significance of such storytelling. So we're always looking for partners high and low. So please let me know whenever IFC is ready to come on board and tell some truly beautiful stories.

MD: Now, I will come to you, and we'll have a chat, and see how we can take it forward. But I truly believe that a picture, a song, can make a huge difference. And that's the way we start by changing the world. All the big social change that occurred in the world were rooted in, cultural activity, in a social activity, being a song, being a march, being a play, being a movie, that's what moves people and makes them - after spending an hour or two watching a beautiful performance - to leave the room and say, Oh, maybe I should be doing things differently. And our job for us is when they make a decision to help them.

DM: There's something that I've been thinking about for some years now. And it's, you know, people like you who have access to so many incredible minds and thought leaders, do you believe the world is going to come together to genuinely and truly act on climate?

MD: I believe so because let me tell you, just before COP 27, I stopped in Kenya, okay. And at some point, more than 20 years ago, I lived three years in Kenya. And I know the importance of wildlife. Kenya is facing the worst drought in the last 40 years. They lost 100 hundred elephants, 100 hundred elephants.

DM: I’ve seen heartbreaking images from Kenya, heartbreaking!

MD: It's heartbreaking for whoever loves wildlife, and has been exposed to that. And people also realize that if they continue disrupting the animal habitat, we will have Ebola, we will have COVID, we will have other types of diseases. So science will help us to address those when they come. But the damage that will have been made to people will be so massive that recovering from it will be very difficult. So I think that there is now really a consciousness that we need to address it quickly. Secondly, the millennials are thinking differently. They’re just thinking differently. For people like me, you know, at my age it's something that I haven't lived as intensively as they’ve lived, but the millennials are living it everyday. And they are very worried about their future and their present. So the pressure on the rest of the society will be only increasing and mounting. The third element is I think that the scientists also are providing solutions which are interesting. Let me give you some examples, a very simple example. Let's take in my country, India also, which is a hot country: if you put reflective paint on a house, we could lower the temperature by one or two degrees Celsius. If we put up UV on windows, it will be the same. So there are some solutions that now can help really, very much adaptation and so forth. So how to make that transition is something that we are working on. But I count on you, Dia, to continue pushing us and to work with you on really expanding the conversation to quarters which are not yet totally conscious of the importance of doing it. But I wanted just to say thank you so very much for being who you are, for providing to the world that wisdom and that commitment to make us be closer to nature and save our planet.

DM: Thank you so much. This was such a wonderful conversation. Thank you.

MD: Thank you for listening to Creative development with IFC. This episode was produced by the IFCs Lindy Mtongana and Manuela Virginia de Souza. If you enjoyed it please share it with your networks and tell a friend.