Welcome to the Archives

The Rock of the Doon Valley

Man of the Year: Avdhash Kaushal

Law is his weapon in his feisty crusade for empowerment

His soft voice and love for the Sufi strains of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan camouflage his battle-readiness. So does his age. At 67, Avdhash Kaushal’s grandfatherly mien-and his occasional torso-turning jigs-draw people to him in droves. He keeps his probing eyes, and fighting skills, for those who have been tormenting the people he so loves. 

Kaushal has brought the hills of Uttaranchal alive to the sounds of empowerment. This passionate environ-mentalist, a Padma Shri awardee-and even while you read this a speaker at the United Nations Information and Communication Technology World Summit in Geneva, where he would demonstrate how the nomadic Van Gujjars of the Shivalik Hills handle battery-powered handsets-is a fighter not afraid to question the system. Not afraid to fight the mighty landminers’ cartel in Mussoorie, and feisty enough to nudge the judiciary to the plight of the unlettered hill folk. He walks one social tightrope to the next no matter how murky the depths may be.

Paradise regained

It was a sultry morning in 1983. Kaushal was glancing through the local newspapers at his home in Dehradun. An avid reader, he would scan eight or nine newspapers every day and on Sundays he preferred reading than taking a bath. A news item on the acute water shortage in Doon valley captured his attention; people of the region were fighting each other for water. “It shocked me that they were stabbing one another for something that was in abundance in the valley,” said Kaushal. “I knew this had to be stopped at any cost.”

He worked relentlessly on the problem, consulting other environ-mentalists, hydrologists and social workers until he found the cause of the shortage: deforestation of hills and aquifier zones by limestone mining. There were 141 mines in the Dehradun-Mussoorie belt. Kaushal knew he had to put a stop to the quarrying in the eco-fragile zone.

It was a gigantic task. “Here was one man pitted against a powerful army of mine owners who had all the wherewithal to fight me,” recalled Kaushal. “My friends and well-wishers warned me that fighting the mining cartel would be a risk to my life. But I had made up my mind.” His positive approach for the things he undertakes, say colleagues, and the way he goes about it with unflinching faith is Kaushal’s trademark. His fight led to the filing of a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Supreme Court on July 14, 1983, seeking a complete ban on quarrying. It was the first environmental PIL in the country.

The even tenor of his life was upset. “Threats from mine owners became frequent,” said Kaushal. “For three years my house was a virtual police station. My wife, Prabha, and three children had to move house twice. That is when we decided that running away would not help, we had to stay and fight.” Kaushal won his crusade when the Supreme Court, after an intense legal battle, banned quarrying in the valley in 1986.

His work did not stop there. Kaushal knew that stopping mining was not enough. He undertook a massive afforestation programme with the help of 30,000 schoolchildren from the valley. They planted more than four lakh saplings on the bald hill slopes. The result is there to see as Kaushal took us around Sahastra-dhara, 11 km from Dehradun, where lush vegetation and the cool, pure breeze made us shiver in our woollies. The suave and charming six-footer, Kaushal, is formidably active; climbing rugged and steep mountains with ease.

We meet Daulat Singh Negi, a local, who is overwhelmed to see Kaushal again. “The greenery in Sahastradhara is Kaushal’s gift to us,” said Negi. These denuded hills have become green, we get good rain and the wildlife has begun to come back.” Indeed, paradise regained.

Four chapatis and some dal

Rewind to 1972, when Kaushal had relocated from his hometown Meerut in Uttar Pradesh to Dehradun and founded Nehru Yuva Kendra, to mobilise youth towards environment conservation. While passing through the Jaunsar region of Gharwal, he met a frail woman carrying wood. 

”She was fumbling so I reached out to help her. I asked her how much she earned for her back-breaking labour,” said Kaushal.

“Four chapatis and some dal,” she answered. On further probing he found out that she was a bonded labourer who had never earned money. She was not alone, there were thousands like her in the region. “Their plight came as a rude jolt to me and I decided to work among the Jaunsari tribe,” said Kaushal. “My motto has been to reach the unreached and include the excluded lot with me.” He fought for the hapless souls with unflinching faith and the persistent efforts led to the passing of the 1976 Bonded Labour Abolition act.

Visitors to the Jaunsari tribe would lure away the daughters of families for a small amount only to sell them off in the red light areas in cities. Kaushal helped nip the practice.

Sajjo, a bonded labourer in Lakhamandal for 15 years, sees Kaushal as his saviour. “I don’t know how much my forefathers had borrowed from Nandsingh’s (his landlord) family, but when I grew up I was taken as his labourer and then my wife and children too worked for landlords in the area,” said Sajjo. “We never received wages but were given two meals a day. Then, Kaushal came to our village and distributed pamphlets denouncing bonded labour. One fine morning Nandsingh told me that I was free. For me, if God exists, it is Kaushal.” He is one among the 19,000 bonded labourers freed in the area. Today, in Jaunsar bawar region, bonded labour has been completely eradicated.

Besides this, Kaushal’s efforts brought a 10-km long water canal to Lakhamandal which eliminated the water problems of the villagers. Kaushal’s work is never done, though. No sooner has one problem been solved, he moves to another. “I always dreamt of a Utopian society,” says the post graduate in Economics and Public Administration and a former faculty of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. “When young I was told that until you aim for the stars you won’t reach the sky. It is quite satis-fying that our efforts didn’t go in vain.”

The birth of RLEK

As work among the hill people grew, Kaushal knew that he could not go on single-handedly. So he founded RLEK (Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra), a Dehradun based-NGO, with a mission to empower indigenous groups, marginalised people, women and children so that they can claim their rights and entitlements under the Constitution. RLEK, operating in the 13 districts of Uttaranchal, was formally registered in 1989 and functions with the help of a 150-strong young and zealous force.

Its projects are funded by the state, the Centre and the United Nations Development Programme. His elder son Parveen, formerly in the Indian Navy now helps Kaushal in his work. His second son, Jay Sheel is a Major in the Army and daughter Pratima is in Delhi.

RLEK ensured effective parti-cipation of women in the panchayat elections held in the hill state last year by imparting pre and post poll training, apart from helping them in team building and organisation skills.

The empowerment programme was so successful that women form 42 per cent of the panchayats in Uttaranchal. Ten women and nine men were elected as pradhans, while 139 others became panchayat members. Another seven women contested for the block development council.

While women power was growing by leaps and bounds, efforts were on to improve living conditions. Women habitually collected wood for fuel from the forests. Kaushal put an end to that by introducing the concept of community kitchens fuelled by LPG cylinders in collaboration with Hindustan Petroleum. This mitigated the use of the traditional hearth which was the cause of respiratory disorders among women.

Surprisingly, these kitchens have proved quite successful in breaking caste-discrimination as women from both upper and lower castes have equal access to the facility. Any woman from the village can use the cooking range by paying for the cost of LPG consumed in cooking. The manage-ment of the kitchens is by the SHGs (self help groups) formed by RLEK.

On the other hand, RLEK has given direction to many who were idle. Kripa Ram Bhutt, a general layabout, joined RLEK as a field staffer and found the work incredibly satisfying. Of course, there are obstacles to working with tribals who view you with suspicion. But Kaushal’ s support has been their strength. “He stands by us in all our woes,” said Anmol Jain, another RLEK worker.

Man for the nomads

It was time for Kaushal to move on, and this time he focused on the Van Gujjars, a nomadic tribe, inhabiting the forests of Shivalik Hills in Mohand district. When the government planned the 825 sq. km Rajaji National Park on the fringes of the range in 1992, it threatened the migratory life of these nomads. There was a tug of war between the Gujjars and forest officials, as the nomads refused to leave their winter abode.

They erected tents at the park entrance and laid siege to the busy Delhi-Dehradun highway in protest. Kaushal’s intense lobbying compelled the state government to protect the Gujjars and they were ultimately allowed to enter the park.

RLEK went ahead with a community forest management programme which involved the functional participation of the Van Gujjars in managing the forests. This ‘quiet and vulnerable tribe’ has since become vocal and no longer fears government machinery. In fact, they have formulated a 10-point agenda which includes a demand for schedule caste status and reservation for the community.

Kaushal and his team took science and technology to the Gujjars and trained them to use 75 battery-operated wireless handsets, provided by the ministry of telecommunications.

The Van Gujjars are the only nomadic community in the country to use this technology. This quick mode of communication has been useful in tracking poachers, illegal wood contractors, controlling forest fires and other natural calamities besides helping the nomads in medical emergencies.

“The wireless operates through three base camps and one central station covering the entire habitation of the Gujjars. Some RLEK vehicles are also fitted with the sets for quicker access,” said Kaushal. The Gujjars have also been trained in paramedics to treat minor ailments like fever and dysentry.

Is Kaushal’s empowerment of the Van Gujjars the end of his battle for the vulnerable? Not for this simple man who loves his aloo puri and kachauri and classical music. “Good music elevates my spirits and recharges me for my next assignment,” said Kaushal.

Also believe Ruchi, his daughter-in-law when she says: “He is a tough fighter who believes in the dictum: ‘a quitter never wins and a winner never quits’.

Interview / Prof. Avdhash Kaushal

I want to reach those who are unreached

What makes you lock horns with so many people and get involved in litigations?

It’s not that I want to fight every-body. I can’t see poor people being victimised. I always want to reach those who have remained unrea-chable. These poor people are not even aware of their rights and how laws can protect them. So I just take law to them. That gets me into litigations.

Did you study the legal aspects in cases like the Van Gujjars?

Yes, whenever we file a litigation we make a comprehensive study of the matter. In the Van Gujjars case, I studied all the provisions of the Forest Act and laws associated with it. Our team also studied the constitutional provisions related to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In the Mussoorie limestone quarrying case, I studied all the environmental laws and only then did I file the PIL.

How hard was it to fight the cartel of mine owners?

I made law my most pertinent weapon to deal with this cartel. Courts do not differentiate between the rich and the poor; they just go by evidence. We had concrete evidence to prove that open cast mining in the region was wreaking havoc. Truth, which matters most, was with us.

You keep jumping from one problem to the next. You took up an environmental problem in the valley, then it was the Jaunsari tribe, the women empowerment programme and subsequently the Van Gujjars.

I don’t believe in spoon-feeding. I try to empower the weak and then let them fight their own battles. There are many challenges to deal with, so I keep moving from one to another.

What are your future plans?

Today, we are working in the field of education; there are so many pockets in Uttaranchal without schools. Because of geographical isolation children have to walk 12 km on tough, hilly terrain to attend school. So many parents don’t send their children and the dropout rate is high. We are now taking schools to them (see pg 25). It’s a daunting task and calls for great energy and time. Let it be over first, then I will take up something else.

Rural revolution

RLEK’s community empowerment programme, which runs in 100 remote villages of the Gharwal region under the United Nations Development Programme, has revolutionised the lives of villagers. Some of the major problems it addresses:

  • Poverty. Women of Bhatwari village deposit Rs 20 to 30 in a community-run bank managed by the villagers themselves. Anyone in a crisis can avail of loans on an interest rate much lower than charged by local moneylenders.
  • Self help groups (SHG), managed mostly by women, promote savings and credits among villagers, act as pressure groups to deal with social issues like promoting health and education. They have organised anti-liquor movements, save seed programmes and girl child programmes.
  • Members of SHG are trained in traditional agricultural practices, micro credit, community health and panchayati raj.
  • SHG is involved in income generation activities like food processing (making pickles, jams, sauces) dairy and poultry.
  • Each village has a cadre of para professionals-para-vets, para-health workers, plumbers, carpenters and horticulturists-who fulfil local needs.
  • Villagers are trained and encouraged to participate in local self government.

The mobile forest academy

How do you teach pastoral nomads-who move to the alpine forests of the Himalayas in summers and the Shivalik Hills in winters-modern education without disturbing their social and cultural ethos? Kaushal, certain that the Van Gujjars would not attend schools, decided to take the schools to them.

Around 350 volunteers lived among them in the dense forests. They climbed rugged mountains, ate meagre food and shared dwellings, to take education to them. The result: 21,000 Gujjars can read and write.

“We were often duped by forest officials and money lenders,” said a tribal leader under the adult education programme . “Now we can add and subtract and know how much money we have to get from a trader who buys our milk. We can negotiate the rates too.”

The team designed and developed text books-like the book Naya Safari(New Journey) which contains couplets-suited to their culture. Classes are held under the trees or near their deras (dwelling units).

Literacy has made the tribals conscious of their rights. Their horizons have expanded with some of them attending seminars in Brazil, Sweden and Denmark. RLEK was awarded the Unesco literacy award in 1998 for its outstanding commitment to literacy.

Kaushal opened two schools for children with buildings resembling deras and their traditional dress as uniform. The children read Hindi, mathematics and English. A unique feature: parents can sit in the class to monitor their children. Those not able to attend these schools are taught by teachers who stay with the Gujjars. Around 200 such informal educational institutes run in various parts of the Shivalik Hills. Now call them the neo-literate nomads.