Avdhash Kaushal, Chairman of Dehra Dun-based Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) and one of the country’s most prominent social activists, passed away on 12th July on Tuesday due to prolonged illness.
Born in Meerut and an alumnus of its famed Meerut College, Kaushal began his dedicated career as Coordinator of then, Nehru Yuvak Kendra, in Dehra Dun. Kaushal’s entry into the field of community welfare work first began in the late 1970s when a group of young people undertook development work amongst the backward tribal communities, particularly the koltas in the Jaunsar-Bawar area in the backwards of Dehra Dun. Those tribals had long been denied their fundamental rights owing to the then-existing systemic inequities and injustices. The first task before the group was to empower the tribal populace in general and bonded labour in particular. The group also laid great emphasis on improving the lot of their women. Under Kaushal’s relentless campaigning, the government of India enacted the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act in 1976.
Kaushal came into the national limelight in 1980s when his RLEK took up cudgels against the indiscriminate and unscientific limestone mining then widely prevalent in the Doon Valley. He filed a Writ Petition No. 8209 in the Supreme Court making out a strong case for prohibiting the mining activities. His was the first public interest litigation (PIL) related to environmental and ecological issues. It may be added here that extensive and unscientific limestone mining operations, particularly between 1955 and 1965 had caused much damage to the area’s ecology. The ravages of such uncontrolled mining were acutely felt in the following decade. It involved unrestrained felling of trees that made the hills denuded of greenery and made it prone to frequent landslides.
In its final judgment delivered on 30 August 1988, the Apex court ordered closing down of 101 mines in the Doon Valley. It was then that Avdhash Kaushal and Rakesh Oberoi – the spokesperson of the mining industry participated in a heated debate on this subject on the Doordarshan that was then the only TV channel.
A renowned name connected with environmental protection, promotion of literacy, social service, uplift of tribals, empowerment of women and the underprivileged sections of society as well as strengthening the democracy at the grass root level. His distinguished services to society are of a very high order. Avdhash Kaushal has made his mark as an institutional builder and a man of the masses. In recognition of his standing and achievements, the widely circulated popular publication ‘The Week’ declared him “Man of the Year 2003’ and described him as the ‘rejuvenator of the Doon Valley’, ‘terminator of bonded labour’ and ‘saviour of the nomads’. He was awarded ‘Padma Shri’ for social work in 1986.
He has been working in a sustained manner on the holistic development of the hill communities. Education, legal literacy, human health, veterinary health, milk marketing non-formal adult literacy, children’s education are the major components of this holistic development programme. Perhaps the widely acclaimed his programme was the community empowerment for sustainable development” programme implemented in 100 remote, underdeveloped villages of Tehri, Uttarkashi and Jaunsar regions of Uttaranchal.
Kaushal’s determined drive against the social evil was highlighted by his campaign to end the bonded labour system that was rampant and widespread in the Jaunsar – Bawar area even until the early seventies. Working against heavy odds, Prof. Kaushal successfully organized
the bonded labourers and helped them in obtaining their possessions back. Taking up this matter at the social as well as the judicial level he brought an end to this highly exploitative social system. The struggle resulted in freeing 19,000 bonded workers. Facing grave dangers, and threat to his life, he also fought against trafficking in poor and socially deprived women and rescued many of them from the red-light areas of the surrounding districts.
There were several other public causes that Kaushal took to the judiciary. Among these was high level case of toxic emission in the only Chemical / Cement factories despite the strict regulations by UP Pollution Control Board. Here too the court ordered closing down of such injurious operations. Kaushal is also filed some more public interest litigation cases. One of his recent cases was against providing free accommodation and other facilities to the former chief ministers and to collect market rent of their accommodations as well as the charges of electricity, water, staff etc. Here too, Kaushal succeeded and high court of Uttarakhand directed the state government to withdraw all such facilities to the former chief ministers.
The preservation and protection of Civil Liberties and Human Rights takes many forms and many avatars. There are heroes who fight for these causes. One such person driven by missionary zeal is Avdhash Kaushal who relinquished his post in the Academy of Administration in Mussoorie to devote his time and energies to the betterment of those deprived of their civil liberties and human rights.
He understood that to release them from the shackles of age-old degrading customs that deprived them of their guaranteed liberties, they first of all had to be educated; they had to be freed from being bonded labour at the mercy of the powerful; and that trafficking in socially deprived women had to be ended. All this he did with well thought out plans, but at no small risk to his own life which all such pioneers face against obscurantism.
He has also been active in the area of strengthening the Panchayat Raj institutions and in encouraging the participation of women, tribals and other marginalized communities in self-governance in a big way. His signal service to the cause of strengthening the democracy at the grass root level is shown up in a clear-cut manner in the compilation of the final report on Jurisprudence of Panchayati Raj Institutions. This is for the first time in the country that such a voluminous compilation of the judgements in respect of Panchayat Raj institution in various High courts and Supreme Court of India. In 1995, in keeping with the vision of strengthening the roots of Gram Swaraj he launched a training programme for the newly elected women Panchayat Raj representatives of the Uttaranchal region to empower them by providing information regarding their powers and functions under the new Panchayat Raj Act. The All women Panchayat Raj unit of RLEK, PRAGATI (Panchayat Rule and Gender Awareness Institute) which operates on the mission to enhance the status of women through a process which aims at changing the nature and direction of the systemic forces that marginalizes women and other disadvantaged sections of the society.
Born on 29th September 1937, for about seven years Kaushal served with distinction as a faculty member of the Lal Bahadhur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He relinquished the post at the Academy with a view to concentrating his energies as a full-timer in the cause of the marginalized, deprived and exploited sections of the society. With dogged determination and dauntless daring, he took up and carried out to logical conclusion many campaigns, initiatives and programmes for the welfare of society and the betterment of the environment.
As the Chairperson of Dehra Dun based NGO, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), he has been instrumental in organizing and empowering the long-neglected hill communities of Uttaranchal and the forest-dwelling pastoral nomadic tribe of Van Gujjar. Right from the outset, he has been driven by the motto, “include the excluded” and “reach the unreached”.
Under his guidance and stewardship, RLEK planned and successfully implemented a variety of well-conceived programmes that contributed in a big way to women and children’s health, education, social justice, economic empowerment as well as democratic privileges and human rights of the community. The farsighted vision and meticulous planning of Kaushal have resulted in a large segment of once totally illiterate Muslim Van Gujjars getting benefited by their exposure to 3Rs. Because the socio-economic life of Van Gujjars is intimately associated with their herds of mountain buffaloes, which move along with the community during their annual transhumance, the focus was also directed toward veterinary health and milk marketing groups entrepreneurship. In addition, particular emphasis was laid on forest management skills since Van Gujjars have an emotional attachment to the forest stretches in which they have their dwellings.
The interventions with the Van Gujjar community were initiated in the context of the fact that the community on account of its illiteracy and nomadic way of life was always at the receiving end of the society. In fact, the thrust of the welfare schemes aimed at community started with an innovative educational programme as the key to ensure empowerment of the community in contrast to the conventional approaches, which normally begins with children’s education. Because Van Gujjars were not willing to come out of the forests for the literacy drive being launched, he decided to take literacy directly into the forest dwellings of the community and also to continue the tempo of literacy drive during the annual migration of the community with the volunteer teachers accompanying the community. It is for the first time in the world that a forest academy of this type was set up and barefoot teachers accompanied the community on the move.
He has also established large number of innovative primary schools in the remote areas of Garhwal region. Here children are not only learn computers and videography but also are taught English by volunteer teachers from England and Ireland.
Parallely, he fought for the rights of the villagers in hilly areas to live in peace, cultivate their small land holdings, rear their cattle and have access to water and fuel. He launched a crusade against indiscriminate cuttings of trees and quarrying which had disturbed ecological balance of Doon Valley. After having won the historic environmental battle at the Supreme Court, he decided to harness the energies of the youth to rejuvenate the abandoned mines and denuded foothills. He thus, motivated school students, college students and youth of the region to launch a massive plantation drive to replenish the hills that had been badly degraded by the mines. Not only did children from schools participate in this drive but also even pilgrims who came to the holy city of Hardwar were encouraged to do so. It was a big leap towards the restoration of ecological balance of Sahasradhara springs in Dehra Dun district.
Thanks to his ceaseless endeavours, Van Gujjars nomads were included in the electoral rolls. Kaushal has also been instrumental in upholding the rights of Van Gujjars to stay in the forest through appeals to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
It was the PIL filed by Kaushal in the Indian Supreme Court, which became instrumental in the court directing the states of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Orissa to hold Panchayat elections, which had outlived their five years tenure. This not only violated the constitution of India but also deprived a minimum of 33.3% of women and SC/ST and Dalits for whom reservations had been made by the new Act for their Right to local self-governance.
His influence on the socio-economic and ecological life of Dehra Dun District is quite visible and notable. While women’s empowerment in the area of village-level democracy was put on a firm footing, there was also a crying need to end the drudgery of the hill women and improve their living conditions. For these women, on account of the peculiar social and geographical conditions had to walk a long distance to collect wood for fuel and water for domestic use. Prof. Kaushal put an end to that by introducing the concept of community kitchens fuelled by LPG cylinders in collaboration with the Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd (HPCL). This also contributed to the minimal use of the traditional hearth, which was the cause of respiratory disorders among women. On the social front, these Community kitchens have proved quite successful in breaking caste-discrimination as women from both upper and lower castes have equal access to the facility.
The National Legal Services Authority (NLSA) has also made him responsible for legal literacy drive in the states of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. He hoped to settle the disputes at the community level without taking recourse to police complaints and court cases.
May his kind soul rest in peace, he will be always in our hearts and remembered for his outstanding endeavour for our nation.
(Writer Josphin Singh is a well-known Social Worker)