Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


RED Conversations Series – “Alternative Futures: India Unshackled”

Pallav Das: Welcome, everybody, to this conversation with Ashish Kothari on his new book, “Alternative Futures: India Unshackled”, which he has co-edited with K.J. Joy. Welcome to Washington, Ashish! This is such a wonderful opportunity for me and for this audience to talk about your new project. “Alternative Futures” is a path- breaking book and it challenges us to think seriously about the future, something we often tend to ignore given the exigencies of the present. But, before we delve into the issues raised by the book, I would like you to take us back to the early days of Kalpavriksh, where, I would think, the genesis of this book lies.

Ashiah Kothari: Yes, that’s true. This book has emerged out of the work that Kalpavriksh has done over the last four decades. As you know, Kalpavriksh was formed as the culmination of a local protest movement against an illegal development project in a forest reserve area in Delhi being undertaken by the local municipality. Delhi, in the late 70s, was beginning to feel the negative impacts of “development” – increasing pollution, traffic, urbanization, concretization and so on. We were particularly concerned about this forest area, which had been earmarked for a development project. This large green area, called the Delhi Ridge Forest, is one of the world’s largest city forests where we, as young environmentalists, would go birding and take short hikes. But, increasingly we began to see that it was being encroached upon and destroyed by urbanization. So this question of ‘What is urban Development?’ or ‘What is Development itself?’ was arising in our heads even at that time, but in a somewhat naïve way.

Chipko Movement was a non-violent protest movement against deforestation in the Indian Himalayas

Subsequently, we also started traveling around India and working with other movements, trying to understand their initiatives and motivations. For instance, many of you would have heard about the Chipko movement, which was fighting against deforestation in the Himalaya back in 1970s. We organized study trips to this area – lived with them, shared their food, attended their meetings and planning sessions, had long conversations with the activists, particularly the women – the movement, in fact, was mostly led by women. And, we began to understand that they were organizing not only against deforestation but were actually challenging a model of development that leads to that kind of destruction of forests, which for them was the source of basic livelihood. Then, we conducted an extensive research study in the Narmada Valley – a 50 day trek along the Narmada River Valley in Central India which has subsequently become very well known for its anti-dam movement. And so, I think in those first 3-5 years it was brought home to us that it is not just about wildlife conservation or tree protection. It is really about, ‘What is our model of wealth’? ‘What is our model of prosperity?’ and ‘What is our model of development?’

Since then we have been doing a lot of firefighting. Helping communities who are struggling against displacement or dispossession by development projects, critiquing government policies which are leading to destructive activities but also increasingly feeling a little frustrated at the constant need to firefight – whether it is a mining project or a dam or a faulty health system being forced upon people somewhere or a questionable model of education being imposed somewhere else. So we’ve become very good at saying, “No, we don’t want this or that.” But, in the last few years I have been feeling, and I think it’s a feeling shared by colleagues not just in Kalpavriksh but also in many other organizations, that we need to go beyond the “no’s” into actually trying to address for ourselves, “what is it that we are saying yes to?” I think it often becomes frustrating and somewhat negativist to just keep saying no. That has led to this search for alternatives. And, in this search, we’re not satisfied by simply saying, “OK, we are going to reduce the use of plastic and we’ll also recycle waste”, but we’re essentially asking, “Is that really enough?”, and, are we challenging the production of plastic and the production of waste in the first place?” And so, the search for alternatives began a few years ago. In fact, personally, it’s also a corrective strategy, intervening in the way we were instructed to think and be as school kids. We were always told not to daydream, be active, be realistic, do stuff. Don’t just sit back and stare up at the sky. And, I feel that this is something that is lacking in our lives today. We do not have the time to have the time, the mental space, the emotional space to sit back and think of, perhaps, “OK, what is my vision for the future?” or “What is my dream for the future?” And, this book actually emerged from that – my own frustration, my own desire to dream. And, then, wondering, why only me? Why not have 50 people dreaming collectively? Let’s see what emerges from that.

PD: Ashish, when you talk of an alternative, how do you define it? And, what is it an alternative to? Historically, we’ve had alternative thinking of various kinds. So, if we focus on the current neoliberal, orthodox model of development, is it a contrast to that, or, is it an attempt at a new way of thinking about the human condition?  Or, is it something that is emerging out of the wisdom and experience of the indigenous communities, who have somehow survived, in some form or another, the onslaught of capitalism? Is it an amalgamation of all three or something altogether different that is on your mind?

AK: Well let’s consider this: these days everybody wants to be ‘eco-friendly’. It’s a buzzword, now. If you go to the mall, you increasingly find products, which are being marketed as being natural or eco-friendly and eco-sensitive. Tourism is now ‘ecotourism’. We were feeling quite dissatisfied with these claims. For us,  they were very superficial responses to devastations that were taking place all around us. The Government of India for instance talks about “inclusive development”, so you see the same forms of violent economic growth but this one says let’s include more people into it. So, we began thinking if that is not what we see as ‘alternatives’, what is? So, it is all of what you just pointed out, but it’s also something more. I think we need to interrogate ourselves if we are talking about alternatives, about what are the structural causes of unsustainability and inequality, as well as exploitation. In the book, we characterize this in some chapters by saying that these structures are ‘concentrations of power’ in the hands of a few: whether it is the concentration of economic wealth in the hands of private corporations, or the concentration of political power in the hands of the State, or the concentration of social power in the hands of men in patriarchy, or the upper castes in India, or some “races”, or humans vis-à-vis non-humans or the rest of nature. So, the alternatives we are talking about are those that can challenge these basic structures of dominance. And, not just remain on the surface where you are pushing perfunctory reforms and “greenwashing” solutions.

Let me show you a couple of examples. Here you have an image on the left of an advertisement from an Indian multinational corporation, which is from 25 years ago. Today, no advertising agency would put up a politically inappropriate advertisement like that anymore. But the model of development is still the same. And we can still see how nature gets displaced every time some development project has to come in. The only thing missing in the picture is the forest-dwelling people! But, even in those days that would have been politically inappropriate. The second one is the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Government of India, advertisement and issued on the Indian Republic Day, 26th January. It talks about the MoRD’s efforts at developing India’s rural areas and villages. Why they thought it appropriate to have an army soldier standing in the picture, I don’t quite know. I asked Jairam Ramesh who was the minister at that time about it, but he just looked slightly embarrassed and did not answer my question. But, it clearly depicts how force is often used in development projects. And again this is not just in India. About 200 activists in Latin America have been killed in the last few years, just defending their territories, waters and land. It’s a global phenomenon because there is that essential violent character to development.

I want to give you these examples because it is important for me that resistance is taking place. Next, is an image from about 25-30 years ago about a large movement against big dams in central India, where people managed to stop two big dams from coming up on the Indravati River, which runs through a substantial part of central India. To me, such resistances are important because, firstly, they slow down the bulldozer of development, and secondly they help us to reflect on the fact that if there are so many people resisting in so many parts of the world, maybe we need to question what we otherwise assume to be the right path. But, we also need to make attempts at meeting people’s needs and aspirations and reducing actual deprivation.

So, I will talk about a couple of examples here. There are many more in the book. This one is also from central India, a village called Mendha Lekha in the state of Maharashtra, which was a part of the successful movement against large dams. It’s a uniquely inspiring story and Kalpavriksh has been trying to learn the lessons of this experiment. After they stopped the construction of the dam, the village realized that they needed to mobilize themselves not just to fight against an external threat but also internally. For instance, people were asking why is it that when decisions are taken by the village, women are not a part of it? Or, some men within the village were cutting the forests and selling the wood outside, depriving others of forest resources, and so on. They reformulated their village assembly 30 years ago and decided that all decisions for the village would only be taken by the entire village community, by consensus – not by the village chief, not by a bureaucrat, not a politician, just the entire village assembly. And, they also then took over all the surrounding forests, kicked out a paper mill that was destroying their bamboo, and also the centralized forest department. They are now practicing sustainable harvesting of forest produce. They earn something like 5-10 million rupees a year, which goes into a central village fund. The fund is then used for water, energy, and livelihood as well as housing security for the entire village. So, that is a kind of ‘alternative’ where you are actually fundamentally challenging state power, challenging development that de-commonises the economy. They also did something quite remarkable and unthinkable in the contemporary neoliberal times – all the private agricultural land of the village community was turned into village commons. Now, there is not a single inch of private property in the village. For them any kind of private property is against the idea of sustainability.

Another example is from south India. As you know dalits are the most oppressed (they used to be called ‘untouchables’) class in Indian society – more than 250 million people. It’s a huge population. And I’m going to tell you about a group of dalit women farmers, who in a way are triple-underprivileged – as dalits, as women in a patriarchal society and as small farmers. These hierarchies are very strong. In the last 30 years after the formation of the Deccan Development Society they have revived traditional agricultural practices, brought back 70 traditional varieties of local seeds, switched completely to organic, collectivized many of their operations, created grain and land banks, and fought for land rights for women which is very unusual in India, and many other initiatives. They have also created complete local food sovereignty. This is again challenging the existing economic and political structures, which force people to be dependent on outside entities for food. These women are saying that for us food and water is crucial and we should have control over them. Remarkably, now they have moved into having their own media operations – community radio stations, filmmaking units, schools and much more.

These are the sorts of alternatives that we’re talking about in this book, and they are present all over the world.

Audience Question: Are these examples being replicated in other parts of India?

AK: We have seen a lot of initiatives come and go and collapse because the forces they are fighting against are very strong. I think when these efforts are very small and don’t really threaten the status quo, they are tolerated. When they start challenging the status quo as for instance the dalit women have done, whether it is the patriarchal status quo or the caste status quo or against the agricultural establishment, then they start experiencing a pushback from the local power elite, as well as bullying and intimidation. And, this is where it becomes very crucial to have resilience through networks so that it is not just one initiative, which is on and operating, but it is linked to another one and yet another one, through civil society and other structures across the country and the world. If one initiative is threatened, you have ten others coming in support. I think that is basically how many of these have survived for more than two generations. So, the civil society networking with movements becomes a crucial part of alternative thinking and practice.

PD: So, Ashish, if you remember in the early days of Kalpavriksh, some of the most trenchant criticism about our stand on development came from doctrinaire Marxists. While the government did consider us a minor thorn in their side, it was the Marxists who were really agitated that we were questioning the notion of development itself. And, now we see there is an emerging blend of environmentalism and the Marxist understanding of resource utilization – the kind of explorations that people like Jason Moore and John Bellamy Foster are doing. While there is disagreement within that school, too, do you think we are coming to a new understanding of resource utilization and the production process?

AK: I would say yes and no. I think a lot of the orthodox left is still stuck in the old interpretations of what Marx said but there is a lot of rethinking in all the ideological positions, so you have the neo-Marxists and the neo-Gandhians and whatever, because of the fact that we are all seeing a common threat. We are seeing that whatever positions we hold are simply not tenable anymore in the face of the incredible force of both neo-liberalism and right-wing religious nationalism and continuing patriarchy, and so on. A certain kind of orthodox Marxist thought, that of the process of industrialization being essential for the society’s evolution is, I think, beginning to breakdown, probably because even their own projections on of how class hierarchies would disappear with industrialization are obviously not actualizing. In fact, in my opinion, class hierarchies are increasing and becoming more rigid. Even the left, orthodox practice of not recognizing spiritual traditions (not speaking of mainstream religions which can be problematic) is beginning to breakdown. So, we have two chapters in this book where we asked people to visualize the grassroots-realities based amalgamation of ideologies propounded by people like Marx, Gandhi, Ambedkar (the person who fought for the rights of dalits-held like a God by the dalit population of India), Tagore, Lohia. So, they have produced really interesting papers exploring the most essential ideas of these great thinkers and practitioners and ultimately concluded that it is possible to do away with the differences they may have had or their followers continue to have.

In that context, for us it is important to say, “How does one learn from grassroots experience?” Forget about the ideologies for the moment. Look at the two examples I spoke about. What is it that those dalit women are saying? What is emerging from their practice and resistance? The central Indian village that is saying we elect our government in Mumbai and Delhi, but in our village we are the government. What is the ideology emerging from that politics? But, then also distilling what is really relevant from these ideologies. So, that is the way we are looking at it, and I am glad that some of the convergence of movements taking place in India, and which needs to take place the world over, is able to leave behind some of the intellectual baggage that unfortunately kept us divided in the past. It is not happening everywhere but certainly in some relevant areas.

Audience Question: Have some of the movements in these villages been able to communicate with movements in the rest of the country?

AK: Yes. For instance when the Narmada anti-dam movement gained ground, it gave rise to the National Alliance of People’s Movements. These groups and movements fighting different kinds of developmental projects started coordinating with each other and also mobilizing together with movements confronting religious intolerance, issues of communalism or caste-violence. So, the attempt is to try and say that we need a broad-based alliance fighting for justice. Whether it is justice against displacement by a project, or injustice by religious intolerance by the majority community or upper caste violence etc. It is in a way a common thread.

Audience Question: Has social media played a role in such coordination?

AK: Well, social media is a relatively new phenomenon, but meetings would happen when people mobilized and gathered for protest marches, for instance.. The first slide I showed you from two decades ago – there were no emails at that time. Yet, letters and postcards were sent and 3000 people landed up. Now, of course it is easier with social media but it has also become more difficult because powerful forces can also capture social media. I am not yet convinced that so-called social media is all good. But, many different forms of communication are used now. NAPM started with an attempt that wherever a movement is initiated or building up, you link up immediately because at that stage it is the most vulnerable. For example, there are about 800 villages across central India that have declared that they will not allow anybody from outside to come into their areas – especially government officers. This is because they have been asking for help from the government for decades but the only thing they are getting is their lands being given away for industries. So, they are cordoning off whole village areas, saying that they are now independent, saying that we are an autonomous region. It’s a bit like the Zapatista in Mexico, or the Kurdish Rojava – saying that from now on we will govern ourselves.

PD: And, they are not part of the Naxalite movement.

AK: No, not at all. Our attempt is to immediately link up with them. And be able to provide that support that they would need if and when the government moves in with armed police, which it is already beginning to do.

Audience Question: I was wondering if we could expand on that and look at the possibility of amplifying these alternatives globally. We are in a city where the development-industrial complex resides, historically called the Washington consensus. What do you think are the best ways to build solidarities with people who struggle with this, of rethinking ‘development’ when we are looking at not just the Washington consensus, but also the flow of money and power that comes from here? What are the best ways for us to reimagine that on a global scale?

AK: A significant number of essays in this book deal with this question, specifically those that deal with economic issues – there are two that talk about localization of economies, there are two or three dealing with rural economies and so on. So, there are at least seven or eight essays that deal with the economics of development…and there is a broad consensus that economic growth is not something that we should be automatically aiming for. A model of development that bases itself on GDP and economic growth as the prime indicators, which is the case with all the countries in the world, except Bhutan, is not acceptable. There are many reasons for this. One being that economic growth even with its own assertions has not delivered what it ostensibly aimed to do – removing people from poverty, reducing deprivation. According to our analysis in a previous book that we did, deprivation has, in fact, increased. 70% of India has some deprivation or the other from basic needs. We’re not even talking about aspirations. Secondly, it is unsustainable. That is very clear across the world – whether it is climate change, or biodiversity crisis, or pollution levels, what we are doing to the oceans – it is very clear that endless economic growth is simply not an option if we want to sustain the world. So, yes that consensus is emerging. There is, obviously, no complete agreement on what is the best economic alternative. So, if we want economic wellbeing and if we want people’s needs and aspirations to be met in some way, there are differing opinions on it – and that diversity is good. But everybody who is looking for an alternative model believes that the focus of achieving well-being must be, “How do we meet basic needs and aspirations”; and not, “How do we increase economic growth and assume that it will meet people’s needs.”  So, it is that fundamental shift which is being talked about by many of the authors.

Audience Question: So, that conversation is not happening here in the U.S. The conversation about consumption, even among people who call themselves environmentalists, is not happening here. It is always about technical fixes…. Basic issues of a finite planet, or per-capita justice, none of those conversations happen here. So how do you initiate that conversation? We talk about “just transition”. But, a “just transition” to what? Then, it’s about renewables. Can renewables actually meet current energy consumption levels? And this has all happened during the course of the conversation on climate change. Energy use has expanded. So, not only are we not going in the right direction but we are streaming in the opposite direction – in a country where per capita consumption has increased in the last few decades. So how do we start that conversation? Some people say that we are starting to decarbonize the economy, by reducing the carbon output. But the deeper question is, what did growth produce? What good did it do to the people who have the least?

AK: There are two issues here. One is the inequality issue, where even in a country like the US, an economic growth model does not solve that issue of equity and justice. But, the other is that it is a myth to say that your GDP is growing but the energy or material consumption is not, because if you look at it, a lot of the US production is outsourced. And it is never accounted for. So, how much material and energy consumption has actually been offshored by the US? So, this has to be challenged. How does one do it? I do not know in the context of the US. But I do know that there are many US’s within India. There are many who have similar consumption patterns as an average middle-class American. And several million people aspire to that lifestyle. The way we try and discuss it in India is by trying to make as many of these people aware of the consequences of their lifestyles as possible. Most of us are not even aware that when we buy a product from the super-market we do not know where it is coming from, what does it do, where it will end up eventually. We have to work towards better ecological intelligence. But that by itself is not enough.

The second is to make the middle classes aware of the devastation being caused by their life style choices. We should encourage children from better off families to visit the places where devastation is happening and show them the link to their lives. And, the third is to significantly build the power of the people from whom we are taking those resources to be able to say no. So, the more countries that the US is exploiting either by taking resources or dumping garbage get empowered to say no, the more the US is going to have to be forced to look at its consumption patterns. Or, at least some people in the US will actually start doing that. And, I think the Environmental Justice movement in the US, from the little I know of it, is beginning to do this. The EJ movement did start with African American communities whose backyards were being taken over for power stations and garbage dumps. And for them, therefore it was initially a NIMBY (Not-in-my-backyard) movement, but as they networked with other movements, it became a not-in-anyone’s-backyard movement. And when you convert a NIMBY into a NIABY you have to start challenging consumption patterns. So, there is that fringe section within the US that is thinking that and we have to link up with them, and find out where are those resources coming from and where is the garbage going from the US, and start linking up with movements there, who can come and talk here and tell the folks here that this is what you are doing with our lives. Recently, we got Ethiopian activists to come and talk to the press in India because Indian corporations are taking over land in Ethiopia. India is becoming a colonizer now, just as China has. And they came and did a press conference in New Delhi, and said that this is unacceptable. India was colonized by Britain, and you suffered enormously and now you are doing the same to us. How does that make any sense?

Audience Question: What happened after that? Did it actually affect anything?

AK: One immediate impact was that because of the media coverage both the Indian and the Ethiopian governments had to issue statements to explain their positions. They, of course, covered it up. But, the fact that they now know that they are being watched does make a difference. Also, because of the series of campaigns around that, a few of the Ethiopians who had been put behind bars for protesting this land grabbing, had to be released due to the international uproar. So, it was a small impact but it did make a difference. And the longer you sustain something like this the more it becomes possible to create meaningful change.

 PD:  So, that brings me to what you have been talking about in your other presentations: scaling out instead of scaling up – the scaling up of the ideas and practices. How is that going to work in terms of scaling out? Because, as you mentioned earlier, if 800 villages have decided to get an autonomous status for themselves, there is some kind of a scaling up or scaling out happening. Can you explain that process?

AK: So, the normal tendency is that when there is something successful, whether it is a village that achieved self-governance, or it’s a fantastic bookshop like this one which does well and then sets up another 5, I think one needs to be aware that it is a corporate model. After you’ve achieved certain success, however you define it, you’re supposed to become bigger and bigger and bigger. Ultimately, the very ideals with which you started something get undermined, because you start having more

Women farmers of Deccan Development Society. Photo – Ashish Kothari

bureaucracies and scales. So scaling out means that a Deccan Development Society here, a Mendha Lekha there and a Zapatista somewhere else, are able to create the basic templates and the lessons by which somebody else can do something similar, but in its own ecological, economic, cultural and political context. It is not a replication. Nor is this particular initiative becoming larger and larger. But it becomes scale up in terms of networking. Now, 800 villages doing this, yes in scale it is large. But, I don’t think they are saying that we will become larger and larger and eventually run the country. They are saying that, villages here and there or towns or neighborhoods use the same principles of autonomy and self-governance and self-reliance and let’s then link up. So, that is the scaling out strategy. Which I think is far more in tune with the values of alternatives than the corporate model, which believes in scaling up.

 Audience Question: Can you explain what you mean by inequality is growing within classes? What are these classes? Is it the urban and rural?

AK: By classes I mean economic wealth. Even within a county, a city, a village, you will find that across the world, inequalities are increasing. Pickety’s work has shown that, recently. In India, for instance, in the last thirty years, what used to be 1% of India, owning 40% of its wealth, it’s now 1% owning 70% of its wealth. In the US, I think it is 1% owning 90%. So that is what I meant.

Audience Question: Have you seen any backlash to this kind of inequality?

AK: There is a huge backlash in India. The fortunate or unfortunate part of it is that in India, there is a very old tradition of fatalism. In saying that if I am badly off, it is probably because I did something bad in my previous life. So there are high levels of tolerance to inequalities and exploitation. People do not lash out or hit back so easily. But, even that level of tolerance is under strain, now.

Audience Question: Is there a reaction among the youth when they are seeing these social differences between their situation and situations of people on the more privileged sides?

AK: Yes, but that is a complex issue. There are youth who might be socially or economically underprivileged like the lower castes. Universities have seen an uptick in agitations, movements, protests, lock downs including against the cut on social spending on education in public universities. So, what happened in the US earlier is happening in India, where the government now wants to get funds from private players. Students have been out on the streets saying we don’t accept this. Education is a basic right and the state needs to provide resources to fund it. So, there is a lot more frustration that is boiling over. Unfortunately, it is not always in a positive direction. It is understandable that when people express their frustration it sometimes comes out in violent ways. And, then, there is also the extreme right wing that is able to exploit these sentiments and deflect that anger. It’s an old strategy to say to the Hindu youth that you are suffering because of the Muslims, or because of the Latinos or the African Americans here in the U.S. So, the big challenge for progressive movements in India is how do you counter the misinformation and wrong messaging because of which that dissatisfaction and anger is sometimes used in very regressive ways against migrants, minorities and so on.

Audience Question: Can you also talk a little about these examples you gave about the 800 villages and the shift towards greater autonomy? And the counter trends, which you mentioned briefly with education moving towards privatization. And the fight about forests, afforestation efforts by bringing in private companies and the new draft forest policy. How do you see that being overcome?

AK: This particular move of privatizing forest land has happened thrice before and on each of those occasions mass protests have stopped it. So, we are hoping that this will happen again. I don’t know if conditions exist for a mass movement at this stage, but even in the last 10 days having been out of India, I am beginning to see much greater mobilization beginning to take place. So, I guess the only way to actually oppose this move is for the forest dwelling communities to simply say no, we are not going to give our forests to the private sector. The civil society also has to support this cause in every way possible, and, maybe, even take it to the courts.

Audience Question: Do you feel confident that this will work?

Communities have become intensely conscious of the ecological value of their land and will not part with it. Photo – Ashish Kothari

AK: I cannot say with certainty but I feel this particular initiative will not be able to go through. Even if it goes through on paper, in actual practice on the ground, it is going to be very difficult for corporations to take over those lands. In Jharkhand, in Eastern India, more than 150 agreements have been signed with various industries for handing lands over, but as far as I know, not a single one actualized. Because communities are saying we will not part with our land. This kind of opposition, however, is not being seen everywhere. In many other places they have been able to dispossess people. But I think the consolidation of movements is good. I am kind of hopeful particularly on this issue. But we need to get much more international support, also. We need global support which recognizes that this move is anti-indigenous people, anti local communities and anti environment. And it’s against all international agreements India has signed on human rights and environment.

PD: A related issue is of that of the governance of the commons – the ecological commons, the economic commons and socio-cultural commons. Now, that you have travelled in South America and Europe and are intensely aware of India – is there an emerging consensus or a thread that is bringing them together?

AK: Common threads are emerging. But, I would say they are still ‘emergent’. They haven’t become that visible yet. And I think one of the objectives of traveling around the world, very aware of my carbon footprint while doing that, is to be able to link up with these movements. And it’s not just me, many other people are doing it. And, I am finding a lot of resonance. For example, the model of alternatives emerging from the Indian grassroots experience and visioning has a lot of resonance with the movements that are bringing back the ancient indigenous ways of living in Latin America – the buen vivir, sumak kawysay and all these movements that have well-established roots, there. Or in southern Africa, the workers movements that are bringing together the spirit of Ubuntu, which is not the spoken software but is a philosophy that says, ‘I am because we are’. The individual is because there is a collective.

What is really crucial is to learn and replicate the principles that are being expressed implicitly or explicitly by these movements. Interacting with people in different parts of the world we see same values and principles emerging as those we have experienced in India and those to me are the common threads. So if we take the rights of nature, in respect for all life forms, so whether in buen vivir, or ubuntu or swaraj, we see that we are a part of nature, we are not separate from it. And, just like we want respect for our lives we also need to respect nature. Or, in the context of cooperation and collectivity and commons, there is a global commons movement, which is talking not just about nature or natural resource as commons, but knowledge also as commons. So the copy-left movement, or the open source movement or the creative commons movement have gained ground. This book is creative commons, so anybody is free to use and cite it and use it in any which way one wants. So, I experience a lot of resonance. We just need to build much more on that. And also need to express this in different ways. A 700 page book is not the ideal way of getting things across to people. It’s one way, but films, audiovisuals, songs, art forms, there is so much more to do. Next year we are going to do an arts confluence in India to get 50-60 artists together to envision alternatives. We are going to hopefully do a fictional book, which is about futuristic fictions of what could be a better world. Stuff like what Ursula Le Guin wrote. So there is a whole lot of these sorts of things emerging. But we need much more.

PD: One of the questions about an alternative is that after it achieves a certain amount of success, how do we ensure that the existing power dynamic does not crush it or coerce it into another direction. Is there a process by which we could do that?

AK: There are two issues in this. First, is the local elite capture. The second is that certain people whose thinking and practices we have always opposed are using our language. So, for instance, right wing also talks about localization. But their localization is to say that this is our territory, no migrants will be allowed in. We are seeing that across Europe and now in this country, too. These are the issues we need to be mindful of. And so, one of the things we do with a lot communities when we try to understand what they are doing and have a dialogue with them, is to say that we are doing transformation – we are doing livelihoods transformation and people are better off economically. What has that meant for the survival of nature in that area? Are we overexploiting the forest or are we also mindful of the fact that the forest needs to survive? We are better off, we are conserving the forest but we have deprived a landless person who used to go into the forest and use it as a resource, so are social justice needs being met or not?

Civil Society involvement is essential for any transformation to be effective. Photo – Ashish Kothari

So, we ask ourselves if we have done transformation on economic democracy and achieved a more localized form of livelihood, how are we doing on ecological resilience, social justice, local governance issues? Is the knowledge about that transformation confined to one small section of the community? Is it just one leader who is retaining everything to himself or herself and then as soon as that person is gone the initiative collapses? So, it is a framework of looking at more holistic, integrated, more cohesive transformation. Now, in actual life, does it work or not? I have seen both situations. I have seen where local elite capture has happened and the initiative has collapsed or it has only benefited a few people, but I have also seen the opposite where there is a deepening of democracy and justice, and I think there are a number of factors involved there. One of it is the mode of leadership or quality of leadership itself. And by leadership I do not only mean one person – it could be a youth group a women’s group. The second is civil society involvement, which helps to create some checks and balances. And that helps bring to the community tools that it may not have had, previously. For instance, a national law, policy or something like that. We don’t go in and say you are wrong because women are not involved in decision-making process, but you enter into a dialogue with the community and say why are the women not here? We ask that in a respectful way. And over a process of 10-15 years, perhaps, it begins to actually transform the gender dynamics. So, I am not saying, therefore, that we are always right. In fact, we also get transformed in the process as civil society actors, researchers or activists. So, I think it is a combination of factors – sometimes even a government policy could help. For example, India has a policy that 50% of the village heads at any given point of time will be women. Now, very often you do come across women village heads but it’s the husbands who take decisions behind the scene. However, it creates an opportunity for a woman to build her capacity, maybe with civil society help to be able to take over that role, eventually.

As far as the issue of localization and what the right wing is saying about it, we have been able to clearly identify the sinister designs behind that. In Europe, the degrowth movement had advocated for what they call open localization, where they say let’s build our own capacities but let’s also welcome migrants who do not have a similar privilege back where they are from. So, I saw splendid examples in Greece, (and Greece is not a very rich country, we all know what has happened there because of the European policies). And, even in the midst of this economic crisis, I visited neighborhoods in Athens and Thessaloniki, which were welcoming migrants, and saying that even if we do not have a surplus, we will make sure that whatever we have, is shared equally, including with migrants. And then you have the ultra rich countries of Europe saying no migrants. So, it is open localization and not xenophobic, closed, exclusive localization.

PD: Are the emerging alternatives being able to influence resistance? Is there an emerging alignment between movements of resistance and the creation of alternatives? And, if it’s not happening, is it because there is something lacking in the socio-political dynamic? In fact, is such an alignment even possible? And if it is, how can we encourage it?

AK: So, just in the last two years in India we’ve had the convergence of movements, which is both the resistance and the alternatives groups coming together and beginning to articulate together on the kinds of futures they want. And this is really crucial because we have seen so many resistance movements succeed in the resistance and then fall back into the same patterns as the people that they fought against – revolutionary governments in Latin America, the Syriza in Greece etc. I think there is an increasing understanding of the fact that you resist, you say no to something, you defeat your enemies, but while you are doing it,

Communities are striving for creative construction of alternatives. Photo – Ashish Kothari

you also have to figure out what is the alternative systems or models that we would like to put into place which will not make us fall into the same trap as the one you fought against. Not nearly enough, but it is happening. One of the processes that we are involved with in this regard is called Vikalp Sangam or the Alternatives Confluence where people who are either resisting or creating constructive alternatives in various different fields of life are brought together on common platforms to share their experiences, visions, visioning, and create possibilities for collaborations etc.

A number of developments are taking place, but for me there are a number of stumbling blocks, too – possibly one of the biggest ones is ego. We all want our territories and we want our name to be there. In India that is a huge issue, possibly elsewhere too, but we need to learn to be wiser when we get together, and kind of leave our personal identities behind. And, then, we are also trying much more to make visible these alternatives. There is a website we started a few years ago, which has more than 800 stories of positive things happening in India. And I always say to anyone who is feeling depressed to go to this website because it will cheer them up. And we have also taken up another initiative called “Radical Ecological Democracy, which Pallav is managing, which is a global website, trying to put up perspectives and stories of what is happening in other parts of the world. We also need to communicate more and make these stories more visible and tell people that these sort of initiatives exist even though they are on the margins right now. This book is also part of that. And there is going to be another book 6 months from now. It is in press right now, 110 short essays of radical alternatives from around the world, which is for me again my source of cheering up when I feel depressed with the state of affairs.

PD: Thank you, Ashish. This has been a fantastic conversation and hopefully there will be many more in the future. Thank you all for coming.

Ashish Kothari is the co-founder of Kalpavriksh.

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