Colin Gonsalves: Who's India's 'Alternative Nobel Prize' winner?

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The lawyer holding India’s government to account

Indian human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves has been awarded the 2017 Right Livelihood Award "for his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation." DW looks at his struggle to uphold human rights in India.

Indian human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves has spent most of his life defending people who can't defend themselves, including poor minorities, women, children and laborers. 

One of Gonsalves' most prominent cases was presiding over a 2001 legal action in the Indian Supreme Court that put the right to food in the Indian constitution and ensured that hundreds of millions of people would receive proper nutrition.

On Tuesday, the 65-year-old Gonsalves was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. Also dubbed the "Alternative Nobel Prize," it has been given out since 1980 to honor people whose work the award foundation feels is being ignored by the Nobel Prize Committee.

In a statement, Right Livelihood said that Gonsalves was awarded "for his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India's most marginalized and vulnerable citizens."

"India is going through a dark period in terms of poor people who have been subjugated," Gonsalves told DW after the award was announced. "We are exhilarated by this announcement. This is for the other half."

The organization Gonsalves founded in 1989, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), has grown into the leading public interest law group in India, with 200 lawyers and paralegals operating out of 28 offices across India.

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DW News | 26.09.2017

Colin Gonsalves: taking on powerful forces

"Modern Conscience" of India

Seven years ago, Joshua Castellino, dean of the law school at Middlesex University in London presented Gonsalves with an honorary doctorate, saying that Gonsalves and the HRLN were "the modern conscience of India."

"You remain a fundamental part of the struggle to ensure that the vision of the Indian founding fathers, of respecting the dignity and worth of every individual, will one day be realized," said Castellino.

Read more: Tiphagne: Biggest challenge is 'criminalization' of human rights work in India

In 2010, Gonsalves was also given the "Mother Teresa Memorial Award" for social justice in recognition of his contribution to legal services addressing human rights.

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"He has credited his understanding of labor law to his interactions with workers and seeing the world through their eyes," Ruth Manorama, widely known in India for her work in Dalit activism, told DW. In 2006, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.

Ensuring the "Right to Food"

Indien Mädchen leiden an Hunger Symbolbild

Gonsalves' work has helped millions of Indian children avoid starvation

Apart from fighting for the underdog, Gonsalves was also the senior counsel of the Right to Food case in the Indian Supreme Court.

In 2001, public interest litigation on behalf of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was filed in the Indian Supreme Court, demanding that the right to food should be recognized as a legal right to every citizen in the country.

The court accepted the argument that the right to food was a fundamental right apparent in Article 21 of the Constitution.

The legislation provided over 250 million school children their mid-day meals. It gave pregnant women, lactating mothers, adolescent girls and children up to 6 years of supplementary nutrition among many other benefits. It was also the largest intervention anywhere in the world to combat malnutrition and hunger.

Keeping up the good work

Gewinner des Right Livelihood-Awards

Gonsalves was one of four recipients of the 2017 Right Livelihood Awards

Many of Gonsalves' colleagues say that he does a large number of public interest petitions on behalf those who are either too poor or illiterate to take on the cases themselves.

Some of his most prominent cases include the reinstatement of a teacher having cerebral palsy, stays on the demolition of slums, reduction in the prices of essential medicines and the enforcement of sexual harassment law throughout the country.

"It is because of him that over 1000 institutions for destitute children in India have been set up," Raj Kumwar, an Indian social activist told DW.

Read more:Indian women in mental hospitals "treated worse than animals," says HRW


1980: Hassan Fathy

The very first Right Livelihood Award went to Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (right, next to Jakob von Uexkull, who established the prize). He showed how to build for the poor and teach people to build for themselves. Stephen Gaskin, founder of the non-profit Plenty International relief agency, was chosen for "caring, sharing and acting with and on behalf of those in need at home and abroad."


1982: Petra Kelly

Petra Kelly, one of the founders of Germany's Green Party, was the first female laureate. She received the award for "forging and implementing a new vision uniting ecological concerns with disarmament, social justice and human rights." Co-recipients: the Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives, Sir George Trevelyan, Eric Dammann and Anwar Fazal.


1987: Frances Moore Lappe

The jury chose US researcher Frances Moore Lappe of the Institute for Food and Development Policy because she has helped people understand that "all we waste is a sin." The other laureates: Johan Galtung, the Chipko movement, Mordechai Vanunu and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr of the Global Challenges Network.


1994: Astrid Lindgren

The Swedish author, beloved around the world for her children's books, was handed the award for" her unique authorship dedicated to the rights of children and respect for their individuality." Servol, Hanumappa Sudarshan and Ken Saro-Wiwa also won the 1994 prize for their dedication in their various fields.


1996: Georgos Vithoulkas

The 1996 award went to Greek teacher and practitioner of homeopathy, Georgos Vithoulkas, for his "outstanding contribution to the revival of homeopathic knowledge and the training of homeopaths to the highest standards." US economist Herman Daly and the committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia and the People's Science movement of Kerala were also recipients that year.


2002: Martin Green

Australian professor Martin Green received the award for his "dedication and outstanding success in the harnessing of solar energy, the key technological challenge of our age." Burundi's Centre Jeunes Kamenge, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation from Sweden and Martin Almada, a human rights activist from Paraguay, completed the line-up that year.


2004: Bianca Jagger

Alongside Argentinian Raul Montenegro, Swami Agnivesh and the Memorial Society, Bianca Jagger won the right Livelihood Award in 2004. The Nicaraguan-born human rights advocate was honored for "her dedicated commitment and campaigning for human rights, social justice and environmental protection."


2009: David Suzuki

The jury awarded Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki the prize for his advocacy of the "socially responsible use of science" and for helping raise awareness about the "perils of climate change and building public support for policies to address it." The other laureates were Congolese biologist Rene Ngongo, New Zealand peace educator Alyn Ware and Australian obstetrician Catherine Hamlin.


2014: Edward Snowden

Three years ago, American former CIA employee Edward Snowden won the award "for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights." The international jury also chose Alan Rusbridger, Asma Jahangir, Bill McKibben and Basil Fernando as recipients.


2016: Cumhuriyet

The Turkish daily Cumhuriyet won the award for its "fearless investigative journalism and commitment to freedom of expression in the face of oppression, censorship, imprisonment and death threats." The Syrian Civil Defense, Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and Egyptian feminist Mozn Hassan with the Nazra for Feminist Studies organiszation were also laureates last year.

In private conversations, Gonsalves believes that violence and poverty are on the increase in India.

"Discrimination against minorities is reaching a crescendo. All political parties are unified on programs for the enrichment of capitalists and pauperization of the working people. There is no political alternative in sight," Gonsalves said in a recent lecture to law students this year.

A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, Gonsalves started his professional life as a civil engineer but was drawn into the field of law through his work with the unions there.

"He was a civil engineer but law fascinated him and through his work with the mill-workers' union in Mumbai.  He helped out 5,000 workers locked and that was a big victory," Manik Chand, a union activist, told DW.