Born and raised in New Delhi, Monika considered herself a city girl, although she cherished the time her family spent in their rural ancestral village. “I grew up listening to stories of bravery, compassion, and social justice; they formed my mindset,” she says.
Originally intending to become a doctor, by the end of middle school she realized chemistry wasn’t for her and had to let that dream go. Later, a social work course lit her spark for working with rural communities, but at that time social work wasn’t offered as an undergraduate degree.
“So I needed to find a subject that would suit my interests and give me a breadth of learning in university,” she says. “Geography gave me different perspectives for looking at the world and at the interactions between humans and nature.”
Monika received a BA in Geography from Delhi University in 1989, then went on to receive a MA in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1991. “After graduation I worked for a nonprofit organization that focused on joint forest management before I started a 2-year research program with the University of Edinburg,” she says. “I had the opportunity to live and work in tribal communities. I became part of the family, and was even included in important ceremonies.”
Following that program, a brief stint as a faculty member at the Tata Institute, and a job in another nonprofit organization, Monika felt she needed new opportunities for professional growth. “I started attending international conferences and became a member of the Center for International Forestry Research’s Poverty and Environment Network. Then In 2003 I found out about UBC at a booth at the World Forestry Congress,” she says. “I picked up a brochure, thought about doing a PhD, and then contacted John Innes because his research was similar to my own interests.”
Monika came to UBC in 2007, and completed a PhD in Natural Resources Management in 2015. Her research focused primarily on the people-forest relationship, focusing on cultural and legal aspects of forest management. She carried out field work for her research working with the Tla’amin First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, and the Bhils in Gujarat, India.
“I expected to find a lot of differences between tribal communities in India and First Nations communities here. Instead, I found a lot of similarities. Every time it happened I was surprised! The similarities in belief systems, in culture, even in the ceremonies,” she says.
During her PhD research, Monika kept her options open. “I was unsure about staying in Canada or going back to India, and I even went back for eight or nine months at one point,” she says. Even after receiving permanent residence status in Canada, Monika was still open to staying or going. “But then I got a job in the BC public service, and it was so fantastic I decided to stay.”
Monika is now the Senior Advisor, First Nations Relations, in the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations. She leads a team in the District of 100 Mile House. “My role is to build bridges between indigenous communities and the government, removing inequalities and social barriers,” she says.
Monika sees her diverse background as an asset in her work. “I was brought up in the city, but also lived in rural communities. I was raised in Indian culture, then I adapted to Canadian culture. Even the way I was taught in India and in Canada was different. “So much of my personal history allows me to see things from different perspectives.”
“What keeps me going and interests me most is knowing that I am making a difference, even if it’s small or a drop in the ocean. I feel that I make a positive contribution,” she says.