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In Conversation With Colin Gonsalves

Ranjani Saigal

An IIT trained engineer turned lawyer, Colin Gonsalves is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Law Network(HRLN),  which is a collective of lawyers and social activists dedicated to the use of the legal system to advance human rights, struggle against violations, and ensure access to justice for all. A not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, HRLN defines rights to include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. It participates in the struggle for rights through its various activities including public interest litigation, advocacy, creating legal awareness programs, conducting investigations into violations, publishing 'know your rights' materials, and participating in campaigns. HRLN collaborates with social movements, human rights organizations, and grass-roots development groups to enforce the rights of children, dalits, people with disabilities, farmers, HIV positive people, the homeless, indigenous peoples, prisoners, refugees, religious and sexual minorities, women, and workers, among others.

Gonsalves spoke to Lokvani about the various issues that the organizations works for and the critical need to support this work

You are a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology. When did you decide to change your career path and become a lawyer?

While my degree was in Civil Engineering social justice was always my passion. When I started working in Mumbai I was appalled at the casualness with which slum dwellers were displaced to make way for large projects. I decided to champion the rights of the slum dwellers and the workers in Mumbai. I worked with Datta Samant a very charismatic leader who had done tremendous work and had a great impact on the trade union movement. For five years I served as a social worker among the working class and slum dwellers and decided that a law degree would be very useful in helping me with my work.  That was the beginning of my law career.

What motivated you to create the Human Rights Law Network(HRLN)?

My initial work was in working with Labor law. Initially I was a high court lawyer. I have branched out into different areas of law including criminal, environmental and others. In 1985 I became a Supreme Court advocate.  I do a lot of public interest litigation. As we were working in this area, we realized the need to create a movement oriented law organization which led to the creation of HRLN.  HRLN was born in 1989. It started in Mumbai but I am happy to say that we have grown by leaps and bounds since and we are now in twenty five cities.

Human Rights violations occur in all countries. In what way is your work in India unique?

While we work on a lot of issues that exist around the globe including police brutality, rights of prisoners etc, we focus a lot on getting basic rights to the poor. The “Right to Food” campaign was one of our signature efforts whereby we were able to contribute significantly towards the consolidation and expansion of the National Campaign on the Right to Food. This is a big step forward since studies show that the malnutrition in India in some parts is worse than that of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Could you describe this effort in greater detail?

India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is the world’s largest and most comprehensive edifice to safeguard national food security. It manages the large-scale procurement and distribution of grain.  In 1997, the PDS requirements became “targeted” and granted different entitlements to households “Below the Poverty Line” (BPL) and to those “Above the Poverty Line” (APL). Today, both BPL and APL households are entitled to 35 kgs of grain per month, but the issue price is higher for APL households. Since the APL rate is beyond the means of most families in that category, the PDS is, by and large, restricted to BPL households. Even more, the amount given is hardly enough to fulfill the basic nutritional needs of a family.

Despite the epidemic of hunger, statistics showed that food production increased in the 1990s, while availability of food declined. In Rajasthan, for example, close to 50 million tones of grain were lying idle in the government’s reserves while nearly half of the rural population is below the poverty line. Even worse, poor storage conditions have caused deterioration of much of the grains. Though the amount of food being wasted far outweighs the amount needed to assure food security, the government continues to pay the expense of storage instead of distributing it to those in dire need.

The court affirmed the right to food as necessary to uphold Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the fundamental right to “life with human dignity.” It decreed that all the PDS shops, if closed, were to be re-opened within one week. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was ordered to ensure that food grains do not go to waste. The states were given the responsibility over implementation of the following schemes: the Employment Assurance Scheme, which may have been replaced by a Sampurna Gramin Yojana, Mid-day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme, National Benefit Maternity Scheme for BPL pregnant women, National Old Age Pension Scheme for destitute persons of over 65 years, Annapurna Scheme, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, National Family Benefit Scheme and Public Distribution Scheme for BPL & APL families. Additionally, issues of chronic scarcity and man-made droughts and famines were highlighted as major areas of concern.
Since the inception of the case in 2001, 427 affidavits have been submitted by the petitioner and respondents and 71 IA’s (interlocutory applications) have been filed. 21 of the main or important orders issued are available here. In a classic example, the combined action of a people’s campaign and the Courts has resulted in positively impacting millions of poor in India. However, much remains to be done to ensure effective implementation of the Court’s orders as well as to combat hunger and starvation.

Does the government have funds to support the implementation of the courts?

It is not a lack of funds but rather a lack of will and understanding. To avoid malnutrition we need to invest 3% of the budget in food rather than the current 1%.  The court’s order can help NGOs hold the government responsible for fulfilling its duty in helping the poor.

How has all the recent economic development and the market economy impacted the poor?

The economic development has been very good for the middle class. Unfortunately the poor have not been touched and they continue to suffer.  I strongly oppose Amartya Sen’s contention that market economy is the way out of poverty. The ground reality is that the poor need a lot of support to rise above poverty. Removal of farm subsidies coupled with market economy has caused a great crisis for the farmers. The party that came to power claiming they will help the poor has done nothing for the poor and farmer suicide rate is on the increase.

Since you feel there is such a big role for government to play, and you feel that governments past and present are not doing the right thing, do you see a role for yourself in politics?

I will continue as part of HRLN to work with government to give people their rights. I do feel that there is a great need for the various people’s movement to come together and have a people’s party that will focus on supporting the needs of the poor. Such discussions have begun to occur.

Were you involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan? Are there other places that you are working on helping get the rights for tribal people?

Large projects like the Naramada Dam are opportunities for politicians to involve themselves in corruption. While the Narmada Dam has had a lot of attention, no attention is being paid to 12 major projects that are underway in Arunachal Pradesh. There is a huge need in the area of rights of tribal people for they are perhaps the most marginalized.

What role do you see for the use of NGOs who are trying to work on issues like food and education?

While I applaud the work of many of the NGOs, what they are doing can never substitute government’s duty to bring about development. For example no amount of non-formal education can serve as a substitute for formal education which is a fundamental right of every citizen.

I would much prefer that people consider supporting efforts to strengthen laws that force the government into doing its job in an effective manner. Only the government has the capacity to make the kinds of investment needed to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

What can NRIs do to support your cause?

We welcome volunteers to intern with us and provide support. Funds to
support the research that is needed to understand the various issues would be very useful as well. We have a magazine called Combat Law. People can subscribe to it to learn more about the cases. Also feel free to check out our website www.hrln.org

Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you.

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