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Activists and academics can work together says Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari

Ahead of his Earth Talk at Schumacher College and the launch of his new book, India Unshackled, Ashish Kothari, founding member of Kalpavriksh and former chair of Greenpeace India, answers some quick questions.

Raised in an activist family, the son of Rajni Kothari, one of India's foremost political analysts, Ashish is a staunch advocate of protecting the natural environment.  In the 1970's he was part of a group of students that petitioned the then prime minister, Moraji Desai, not to reintroduce the export of rhesus monkeys for experiments in the US.  They also staged a series of demonstrations to prevent real estate development on forests in the heart of Delhi which were successful and lead to them gaining 'protected' status. This was when the environmental action group Kalpavriksh was formed. He has been highly critical of the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, one of the largest dams in the world, for its threat to communities and the ecological and environmental impact.

As chairman of Greenpeace India - can you tell me about one or two of your current projects with Greenpeace?
Greenpeace India has for some years been reconfiguring itself to be not only an organisation campaigning against ecological destruction (with a focus on coal, GMOs, and a couple of other key issues), but also one that works actively on alternative solutions. So while it helps local indigenous communities in east India to resist coal mining and thermal power stations, it also sets up a solar micro-grid and a sustainable agriculture initiative in the economically poor state of Bihar, to demonstrate the feasibility of ecologically sustainable energy and livelihoods.

What is the biggest difficulty you face in that role?
Greenpeace India has faced an all-out attack by the Indian Government due to its strong dissenting voice. It has survived because of its large supporter base which makes if financially somewhat independent, and because of the relatively free Indian judiciary, which has stayed govt actions trying to shut us down. Today it constitutes an important inspiration for Indian civil society, to continue the Indian tradition of dissent from those in power when they do anti-people things.

You have described yourself as an activist – tell me what you are most proud of achieving?
It is not only I, but in association with many other individuals and organisations, we have been able to bring ecological issues into a public discussion, and have gotten better at challenging the madness of today's model of development; increasingly, we are also improving our search for and communication on viable alternatives that are equitable, just, and sustainable. Additionally we have shown that it is possible to combine activism with research and evidence-building, rather than the conventional divide between academia and activists.  I'm also happy that the way we have designed Kalpavriksh as an organisation, we are able to show that consensus, non-heirarchical decision-making is possible in the civil sector.

How did India Unshackled come about?
For the last few years I've focused on the search for radical alternatives, through a process we coordinate called Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) in India; and increasingly also linking similar explorations in other parts of the world. In 2012 a colleague Aseem Shrivastava and I wrote a 400-page book on the impacts of economic globalisation in India, and radical alternatives to it. Continuing from this, I wanted to challenge some of India's most active activist-academic-practitioners to envision a dream future in their own areas of experience, and then show with real examples how we could try to get there. So the idea is to unshackle our minds from the fetters of false 'realism' and pessimism, and help unshackle India from the chains of neoliberal development and democracy, patriarchy, casteism and statism.

Was there one essay in particular which revealed something you had not previously been aware of?
Very many of them! My co-editor and I deliberately went way out of our comfort zones, into arenas we have little or no experience in, including sexualities, arts, crafts, language, and minorities. We also connected the authors with each other, so in all it was a wonderful mutual learning experience.

What do you hope the book will achieve?
We hope it will create interest in the youth to consider futures that are different from what the mainstream rat-race is telling them are the only options, and will also enable a dialogue amongst different strands of progressive thinking and action. Who knows, it may also generate some interest amongst politicians and bureaucrats; though for us it is much more important that it facilitates the struggles of people's movements against destructive development and towards sustainable well-being.

How has it been received so far?
Early days, but in the 4 book releases we have had so far in different parts of India, a wide range of activists, academics and others have come and engaged in discussion. But we will really know the response from a wider section only after a few months of events and review articles.

Ashish Kothari is speaking ahead of his Earth Talk at Schumacher College on Wednesday, January 24 at 8pm.