Building Sustainability in India
The Satya Interview with Ashok Khosla

Ashok Khosla is a long-time advocate for environmentalism, sustainability, and poverty reduction in India. He was the recipient of the UN Environment Programme’s Sasakawa Environment Prize in 2002 for creating sustainable livelihoods to empower people who subsist below the poverty line. He believes strongly in working in cooperation with government institutions to achieve sustainable development and practices, and in 1972 became the founding director of India’s Office of Environmental Planning and Coordination, the first national environmental agency in a developing country.

Khosla is the founder and president of the Development Alternatives (DA) group, a network of organizations in India working on various aspects of sustainable development. Established in 1983, DA is an umbrella to groups that work for transparency in governance, make sustainable technologies and renewable energy available to poor people, and provide Internet access to promote education and provide basic life and survival skills. These organizations boast achievements that include: the construction of low-cost housing and creation of more than 300,000 sustainable jobs across India; the reclamation of some 5,000 hectares of degraded land with innovative reforestation, watershed management and ground water recharge; the development of a fully operational Global Information System (GIS) facility and innovative products for regional planning; and the installation of several decentralized power stations based on renewable biomass.

Ashok Khosla took some time to talk with Rachel Cernansky about the issues that he and these organizations are so successfully taking on.

Can you give an overview of the Development Alternatives group?
The flagship is Development Alternatives itself, which is a think tank. It’s a design organization concerned with what we believe to be the three fundamental issues of sustainability. The first is the relationship between people and machines. Our technology development division designs new technologies for very poor people so they can manufacture and market the basic livelihood products they need—housing, or water, or sanitation, or energy.

The second division is environmental. We’re probably the largest environment agency in India. We work on a variety of issues, like industrial environmental problems, pollution and so on. We develop resource management systems so that people can live with nature, getting the maximum benefits without destroying it. So these are the people-nature issues. We also have an institutions and policy division, which works primarily on the people-people issues: how you design institutional frameworks that work better, institutions of governance, decision-making, economic policies and so on.

Who are the target recipients of the work that DA does?
Our targets are basically small enterprises and villages; sometimes households, housewives who want a more efficient woodstove. We make looms for weavers; we make water-testing equipment and water filters, which can be bought by communities or households. We make a large variety of low-cost housing materials, and machines to manufacture these materials. We sell the machines to small enterprises, then they make and sell materials to the local market.

On the environment end, we work mainly with small, community-based NGOs who need technical support and information on the issues, legal issues and so on. The institutional division works on things like micro-credit and mini-credit. Micro-credit is, in our terminology, usually for households, a small industry that one person or two people might want to do, or a small group. In India we call them self-help groups—like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Mini-credit is for the technology-based enterprises, which need more money than simple household loans. We try to mobilize banks to give money to the enterprises that buy our technology.

Can you talk about the role of technology in all of this?
Our sister organization, TARA (Technology and Action for Rural Advancement), has several subsidiaries. One of them, Desi Power, makes power stations in villages using renewable energy, often using weeds and agri-waste from biomass to convert it into electricity. These small village power stations then sell the electricity in the local community.

Then we have People First, an advocacy organization. It takes the ideas of Development Alternatives, like getting power and introducing more democratic and transparent systems of governance at the village level, and tries to create awareness and changes in policy.

Our most recent enterprise, TARA-Haat, is a massive Internet portal. It’s very graphic and user-friendly, and it’s in the local languages. It supplies villagers with all the information they need—on crops, they can do their e-commerce, they can complain to government when they don’t have water or whatever, they can get healthcare, medical attention, they can get railway bookings, whatever they want. In villages, there’s a great desire to improve their knowledge but there’s not enough schools or facilities, so cyber kiosks can teach them all kinds of things, like language, or computer skills, livelihood skills—anything.

Most poor people in India don’t have computers, so we are setting up cyber kiosks in each village. That’s a massive effort: tens of thousands of cyber kiosks, in the next few years we plan to set up 50,000 of them.

It’s stated that the prime objective of People First is to find reason for failure of governance in India. Have you found an answer?
Well you know, it’s a message that’s not easily heard because people think their government and their constitution are always correct. In America, people have a sense of ownership—the Town Hall is basically where most decisions are made, about schools, about forests, about making roads and bridges and everything else. In India, these decisions are usually made by the federal government, and as long as the local people have no say, then they have no sense of ownership. So we’re trying to get people to stand on their feet and become self-reliant and say, “This is my problem and I have to deal with it.”

What would you say is your most significant accomplishment?
(Laughs.) I’m not sure I have a significant accomplishment—we still have a long way to go. I suppose our major accomplishment would be creating jobs, or the means to create them; or demonstrating that this is not necessarily difficult or expensive. It depends on what your objectives are. In society, in the eyes of most economists and politicians, economic growth is important. But economic growth isn’t very meaningful if half the country that you’re growing is left behind in dire poverty. So we changed our objective. We said economic growth will take care of itself, what we really need to do is put everyone to work.

For example, nobody is developing the kinds of technologies that very poor people need. There’s plenty of research going on—improving cars every year, airplanes, spacecraft, armaments—but there isn’t much money to help someone improve farming or create small enterprises. So if we have any achievement, it would be that we’ve tried to put the problems of the poor on the map. It’s not that people don’t know about the poor, it’s just that they’re not terribly concerned about it; or they express concern but they don’t do anything about it. So we decided we had to do something about it.

And we have to keep our eyes on the ball, which is: how do you eradicate poverty as quickly as possible, and how do you bring back the trees and forests and soils and waters?

That’s quite a challenge.
It’s not a small challenge; I think the forces of society are not geared to solving these problems. But somebody has to do it and our organization has been at it for 20 years and we’re just going to continue to do it.

In your Sasakawa Prize acceptance speech, you posed the question: Is our society so immunized that it needs a St. Francis or a Mahatma Gandhi to arouse our sense of outrage at the inequity and injustice that exists in our world?
Yeah, if you’re going to wait for a Jesus Christ to come down the pike it’s going to take 1,000 years to solve the problem. And that’s not acceptable.

Is there any nation that’s managed to realize the concept of “sustainable livelihoods”?
Well, two or three decades ago these issues weren’t even on the map. I suppose there are nations that by and large have solved the local, basic needs problems—introduced high levels of education and empowerment, like Switzerland. That doesn’t mean that Switzerland is perfect, they have environmental problems too, and a very high standard of living which has a footprint way beyond their own country—it’s very easy to be living well, if you can live off the resources of others. But one does have to look at the wider picture. Then you see that some of this is exploitative and also restricts the options that other people have. There are countries like Costa Rica and so on which are trying to do the right kinds of things, but no country is without making some compromises; there aren’t many countries that have achieved really genuine sustainability.

I suspect people in every country have to question the pattern of development and lifestyles of their own country. It’s true, many of the problems of the world are really problems of affluence—not caused by poverty but by too much—but my concern is India. One can go on complaining about other people, but that doesn’t solve our problem, and I believe that each one of us needs to do our own thing.

Can you give examples of individuals or groups you’ve seen spark improvements in their own lives or villages?
Oh yeah, there are lots of terrific people (I don’t know why they gave me the prize)—there are people who do little things in one single village, with all their life’s devotion and commitment; there are people who do big things, highly dedicated people who’ve given up everything to work for a better country.

There’s an organization in the south of India called Myrada which has a massive presence in several states helping people develop better agricultural practices, develop small industries—like ours. They do a lot of work with people who get displaced, either as refugees, political or ecological refugees, displaced by industrial projects and so on. There are tiny little organizations looking after children in slums, there’s a very interesting organization in Bombay which deals with the problems of street children and pavement dwellers—people who don’t have homes—that kind of stuff.

What’s going through your mind now, with the war on Iraq?
That’s a major black cloud hanging over all of us. It’s a bad situation the world finds itself in, and unfortunately there are lots of decisions being made that are not necessarily going to be good for humanity or for the world. One can understand maybe why these are happening, but frankly we’re heading for trouble that we don’t need. Anything can happen. But let’s hope that not too many people get hurt—what else can one say? We’re at the mercy of forces which seem to be outside our control. But I suppose ultimately the will of the people will prevail, and the people are beginning to express themselves very strongly aren’t they?

How does the media cover the issues in India?
Not well. The media is only interested in selling its products, and seems to think that what sells is the usual, bad stuff—the crimes, the problems, the politicians. And it doesn’t have any space left over to deal with issues that can transform the world. This is a major problem, and we’ve been trying to deal with it.

I’m chairman of a global television network called WETV, based in Ottawa, which started almost ten years ago. It is trying to set up a media system which would project more positive ideas and news. We make programs on the diversity of cultures, on environment, on development, and on issues that would provide a certain amount of uplift and knowledge and improve the ethical basis of viewership. The kinds of things that people ought to see rather than all the junk.

We can make very entertaining films about things people need to know—how to avoid getting diseases and how to develop your communities. There’s a lot of things that people want to know, need to know. We try to do that through WETV. It hasn’t gotten very far, but we still continue.

What can people do?
They can stop reading junk. If they were to stop buying newspapers that only feed war frenzy, sex, murder, and mayhem, then maybe the media would change. That’s what people could do—but they aren’t going to do it.

What gives you hope?
Well I think there are a lot of reasons for hope. I go into the villages and see the incredible energy and vitality of the children, and they are just as smart and bright as anywhere else. What gives me hope is that if they had an opportunity for education like you and I, you’d probably find hundreds of Einsteins out there; and Marie Curies; really smart people. But they don’t have a chance yet. My hope is that soon we’ll be able to give everyone the same chance. And then the world will be a terrific place.

To learn more about Development Alternatives and its sister organizations, visit www.devalt.org. To find out how to access WETV in the U.S, see www.wetv.com; in Canada, WETV is available on the Green Channel. To contact Ashok Khosla, email Akhosla@tarahaat.com.

 

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