Dr. Claude Alvares is a strikingly original critic of western science and technology, a renowned intellectual in the third world. He is based in Parra, a village near to Goa. He edits India’s largest alternative publishing house, Other India Press. Dr. Claude has been in the forefront of environmental struggles and organic educational projects for around three decades. He is author of several highly appreciated books like “Decolonizing History: Technology and Culture in India, China and the West 1492 to the Present Day”, “Another Revolution Fails: An Investigation into How and Why India’s Operation Food Project, Touted as the World’s Largest Dairy Development Programme”, “Damming the Narmada”, “Science, Development, and Violence: The Revolt against Modernity” “Multiversity” etc.

Excerpts from an interview with MUHAMMED NOUSHAD  


Developmental projects have been conventionally antithetical to environmental sustainability. Despite many agitations and campaigns, it goes on in Kerala’s Pathrakkadavu and Pune’s Muthu – Mula rivers and lot many other places. What is fundamentally wrong with our paradigms of development?


Development is an imported idea. I have come to recognise the yearning for development as some kind of disease. Till the idea of “development” was first coined by President Truman in 1949, people did not consider themselves as “developed” or “undeveloped” or “backward”. All our civilisations, especially those of China and India, were very advanced in many ways, as is shown, for example, by the development of the performing arts, including dance, theatre, music, language and extremely sophisticated philosophies. I should also include their cuisine, with a tradition of some 5,000 years. In what sense were these countries undeveloped or underdeveloped I would like to know.


But if development is defined as imitating the development of the European world, which it what it is anyway, despite our claims to be politically and mentally free, then we are importing a disease. More than 200 years of development have not helped the European in anyway to be happier or more contented with his/her lot. There are more unhappy people in Europe and USA today than in India! This is being proven in global survey after survey. Development today has manifest its true face as a consumer revolution, in which and through which spiritually empty individuals with no sense of purpose try to distract their lives with trash, technology, sophisticated toys like mobile phones, some of it looking very glamourous, but trash all the same.


Since our ruling classes are as bereft of any human values as the general population of Europeans and Americans, and are at the bottom of the same spiritual basket, they import their development as well. But modern development has nothing to do with nature. It will always be at the expense of nature. This was not the case in the past, when both development and nature prospered in mutual interaction. So unless we give up this idea that we are deficient, we will never get out of the chains that development will impose on us. Never thought that in 20th or 21st century India, people would kill themselves to register their conviction that they are “backward”!


Environmentalists have often misrepresented impact of issues by not relating them with the ordinary lives of masses: for example reducing the impact of a project into the extinction of a butterfly species or a particular monkey, about which the common people may not necessarily have a reaction or concern. Possible human casualties were not identified or highlighted. You comment. 


That is misrepresenting what environmentalists strive to do. But all said and done, there is a healthy diversity of opinion too among environmental groups. I would not hazard to class them in the same group. Some want only wildlife, some don’t want wildlife, some want development, some don’t want development. The diversity of views is necessary. I doubt anyone would claim that Medha Patkar has not concerned herself with common people: that is the main focus of all her campaigns. Similarly with Mahesweta Devi, or Sandeep Pandey. All environmentalists are concerned about human beings: they yell and scream that we should not destroy the environment because they are worried about what a degraded environment will do to people, especially the next generation of human beings.


Some times, the celebrity activists intervene in certain issues and draw a lot of media attention. At the same time, are they hijacking the struggles from being taken to its destinations?


I have no difficulty with that. A celebrity is a celebrity, they have to remain afloat in the media, they will use any cause or occasion. Despite this, we all appreciate it when a celebrity comes down on Coke or denounces slaughter houses. We get media space. We are not living in a purified world. That type of world we are supposed to encounter only in the next!


Different environmental groups, activists and NGOs are working in India. Don’t you think a coordination of ideas and activities would make the battle more easy and more lovable? Why doesn’t it happen? Or else, is there any ideological rift among them?


It’s not true to say that there is no coordination. There cannot be coordination on all issues, but I can give you any number of examples of close coordination on specific issues. For example, we have had good coordinated work on ship-breaking issues; on sponge iron plants; on mining; on recent moves of the Ministry of Environment to relax or get rid of the CRZ notification, etc.


I do admit that there are ego clashes and groups that should be working together are all working independently of each other: for example, the campaigns against GMOs are a good case of this. But then, more groups working independent is not inherently wrong either. The authorities are left with the impression that there is far greater opposition than if there was a single organisation fighting.


When I see that there are so many operators and dissenters and rioters even within the corporate groups and the MNCs, and the constant bickering even within such groups like the Indian Cabinet or the political parties, I am thankful at least that we NGOs do not as a rule tear each other down or flight bitterly in public. One is grateful for these small mercies.


You’ve been in the activist field for decades. What are your convictions about the efficacy of interventions in a democracy like ours? What kinds of reformations do we need, if any?


This is like asking for my autobiography! I am not inclined to being either a member of a political party or government. I have always tried to maintain my economic independence so that I could be my own boss. That has given my activism the effectiveness it needs. I do not have to disagree with the view that sometimes being a member of government or a political party can also help bring about change or help stop destructive development. But I am not inclined to that kind of functioning.


I firmly believe that people unlinked to government and to political parties should play a greater role in our democracy. We have modified parliamentary democracy now in a substantial way. Even if Parliament or the government decides something, our democracy permits modification of such decisions if we feel strongly about it. Recently, for example, fishing groups were able to prevail upon the Ministry of Environment to drop the species of fish “cucumbers” from a list banned for fishing. This is our model. For example, how rapidly the government of India has been modifying the Special Economic Zone Act simply because it is running into rebellion everywhere! In Goa, where the state had approved 18 SEZs, there is now huge opposition to scrap all of them!


Non-party politics is the essence of India’s democracy. Activists win sometimes, lose sometimes. So does everyone else, even Coca Cola and American President Bush! Everyone does not win or succeed all the time. So activists and civil society should continue to insist on ensuring their independent voice is heard and heeded. That is the essence of Indian democracy, because Parliamentart democracy is now an empty shell and purely formal. More and more, decisions are being made at the street level, as with the closure of Reliance outlets in UP or the closure of Nandigram SEZ.


You’ve been in the team of ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY in its glorious days. Your role in exposing the robbery of Green Revolution is greatly remembered. How do you estimate the present day involvement of mainstream media (including cinema) in environmental issues? Are they sensitive?


I do not venture any comment on the media because these are owned by people interested in profit and not social or environmental welfare. But I do think journalists are great environmentalists. I respect their work. Sometimes they may want to sensationalise, but so long as it is the truth they are sensationalising, I have no worry. NGOs should maintain better links with journalists than they do.


As a member of Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC), what is your experience and impression regarding the environmental awareness of our judiciary and bureaucracy?


Environmental awareness among the judiciary has not faded, though the Supreme Court in recent times has become indifferent. The best decade for environment protection were the eighties and nineties. Some of the High Courts are emerging as “supreme courts” in matters of environment law: they are certainly giving better judgments than the supreme court. But I do not think that the supreme court as an institution can give up environment concerns: that is too well ingrained. But we do need some green judges, and we hope they emerge sooner rather than later.


The bureaucracy is now quite degenerate. Actually, politicians today take most of the public abuse over corruption. However, no corruption is possible without the active collaboration of the bureaucracy. There are far too few bureaucrats that are good environmentalists as well. I’d prefer to deal with High Court and Supreme Court benches any day in preference to dealing with IAS.


What could be said the main achievement of SCMC?


Our main focus was to implement a Supreme Court order dated 14.10.2003 on implementation of hazardous waste laws. I do not know whether we succeeded or not. However, we got a good deal of work done, and we calculated that by the time we had finished three years of work, all the stake-holders had together spent more than Rs.2500 crores in implementing the order.


However, our society, most notably our pollution control officials, our factory managers and owners, have still to take these lessons to heart. So I am not hopeful that the grash push we gave them will be sustained. I found that most of them have the mentalities that we expect of small children in school: behave when the teacher is around; do mischief when the teacher is away. It’s very sad.


Why the Indian civil society is largely inactive and insensitive to ecological issues? Is it merely a question of awareness?


If you think of ecology as tigers and rare species, the public may not be concerned immediately. If you define ecology as including people’s livelihood and their right to a place in nature, to their fields and to their homes, then everybody in this country is hyperactive and overly sensitive. India is still the only country in the world where battles go on daily in some part or the other on livelihood issues, the most recent symbol of which is Nandigram.


The villagers of Nandigram, Singur, etc are ordinary folk. They would hesitate to call themselves environmentalists or ecologists. But in my opinion, so long as they are fighting for their fields and their water or their seeds, they are better environmentalists than the rest of us, because for them it is a matter of life or destitution, whereas for us, it is only a battle lost or a battle gained in nature’s defense.


(This interview was originally published in Madhyamam weekly’s special issue on Indian Activism, on 2nd January, 2008)


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