Building Sustainability in
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,
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
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
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
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,
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.