The People’s Lawyer: In Conversation with Colin Gonsalves

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Colin Gonsalves (Photo: Saffi Ullah Ahmad)

Colin Gonsalves is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India and a pioneer of public interest and human rights law. He has won over 200 mostly precedent setting cases against the Indian government and powerful corporations in favour of poor and marginalized groups. Gonsalves has been described as a champion of the exploited.

In 1989 Colin founded the human rights law network (HRLN), known today as a network of hundreds of lawyers and social activists whose aim has been to further the struggle for human rights and equality through making justice accessible to disadvantaged members of Indian society. Funded mainly through grants from various organisations, his growing army of lawyers regularly litigates on issues of women’s and minority rights, environmental damage, child labour, disability law, land confiscation, sexual harassment, prisoner abuse, human trafficking and the right to nutrition. Giants taken on by the HRLN include the likes of Enron. The HRLN now has a presence in over 20 Indian states where its centres provide pro bono legal services, undertake public interest litigation and run campaigns to spread awareness of human rights.  In addition to this organization Gonsalves also heads the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT).

In 2001 Gonsalves began work on a case which in the face of ever increasing privitisation and withdrawal of food subsidies, aimed to force the central government to implement several food security schemes across the country. He argued that the Indian constitution’s reference to a ‘right to life’ encompasses the right to food, work and fair wages. Also highlighting that as a result of rampant malnutrition 3-5,000 Indians die every year of starvation, Gonsalves and his team of pro-bono lawyers were able to bring relief to over 300 million people following a series of court orders in their favour. The case won him and the HRLN acclaim from former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, among others.

Gonsalves has received honorary degrees and awards for his services from a plethora of educational institutions as well as legal and charitable organizations including the American Bar Association’s International Human Rights Award for his ‘extraordinary contribution to the causes of Human Rights rule of law and promotion of Access to Justice’ in 2004.

Gonsalves was recently in London to receive an honorary doctorate in Law from Middlesex University where I interviewed him.

You originally trained as an engineer, what made you want to become a lawyer?

As an engineer I found I couldn’t be socially relevant; I couldn’t help the social movements in any way. Some of my friends were getting in to appropriate technology (AT) and it was a very indirect and unsatisfactory way of helping peoples’ movements. I was looking for something more direct.

You’ve had quite a remarkable and illustrious career. What would you say was your most memorable moment?

I think the right to food case was probably the most satisfying of all the cases because it impacted on 350million people in some way or another. But I have a sort of memorable moment every week or every day. The people I come in touch with – ordinary working people – strike me as being so extraordinary as compared to the upper middle class and rich who sometimes come to me for their cases. The working people strike me as so compassionate, humane and fair. I think that’s what keeps me going.

What are the greatest struggles that you and the HRLN currently face?

Well the biggest problem is that with the period of globalization a lot of very good young brains have been taken away to the corporate sector and we feel very small in a river flowing against us. We feel very tiny and vulnerable. Support as well, financial and other, is now dwindling. We feel as if we’re fighting an insurmountable battle. Swimming against the tide can be very tiring.

Through your work you have challenged both multinational companies and the Indian government and have often been very critical of the latter’s policies. Whereas proponents of globalization such as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlight India’s phenomenal growth rate as evidence in its favour, you remain a great critic of the process. What troubles you about India’s current economic model?

The phenomenal growth rate is possible only if you do two things; 1) take away the properties of the poor and divert them towards the corporate sector; you take their land, you take their water you take their forests, you take their mineral resources. If you do that it will account for a sizeable part of this growth. Then 2) the resources of the state that would normally flow towards the working people, in health, education, food, transportation, and housing- if these resources that the state would normally spend on the poor are taken upwards towards the middle classes it would also fuel GDP growth. GDP growth is premised on the deprivation of the poor. I suppose if you had growth with equity, the GDP growth would be a much lower, 1-2%; it would be better in the long run.

On what are believed to be the biggest Commonwealth games ever to be hosted, India is expected to spend around £5bn. Whereas some feel these games are an important way of putting  India in the spotlight, others lament that the government is spending an obscene amount of money on a sporting event while millions of its citizens are lacking basic resources. What are your views?

The majority of people feel that the games are very unethical. I would say 70% of people in this country feel it’s a criminal waste of money. They feel very hostile towards the games, very aggrieved at what’s happening. But the media is controlled by corporations so it’s going gaga over the games. We have 70% of our population, 750million people, below the poverty line in terms of food intake. In terms of percentage, the hungry are more numerous now than they were in British period India. The amount that we’re spending on the games could feed the Indians for a year; hungry mothers and children.

With violence in India’s ‘red corridor’ now being a hot topic in the media, in the face of much adversity you and others including Arundhati Roy have spoken out in favour of the ‘Naxalite’ or ‘Maoist’ rebels. You’ve also gone as far as to say that India is in a state of civil war, and has been for a while. These are strong statements, can you elaborate?

I’m a non-violent person. I stand for non-violence; it’s a very important principle. But if you ask me if I understand why people use violence in this country, I would say of course I can. And if you ask me whether people – very large groups of people – feel that the use of violence as a sort of collective self defense against the violence perpetrated by the state and corporations, is justified, I would say they feel a strong sense of justification. And if that is the situation we’re in, things are certainly moving in the direction of a very wide civil war. It has already engulfed many parts of our country and I see it deepening in the next few years.


Survivors of the Bhopal disaster and campaigners were outraged earlier this year at the two year criminal convictions administered to ex Union Carbide India officials, who were in part responsible for the carnage in 1984, and pushed successfully for a reopening of the case. Do you see the victims ever attaining justice?

The cases haven’t really been reopened. Appeals have been filed by all sides, including the accused persons. I don’t see justice ever being done to the victims of Bhopal. We’re very good at camouflaging things, at covering things up and sweeping them under the carpet so to speak, and pretending to do the right thing, but I don’t think justice will ever be done. I think it’s too late already. Even if they were to make a hectic effort it would help only a small amount of the victims. I don’t think there’s any real interest in getting justice done.

What in your opinion are the biggest problems the Indian justice system faces, and do you see any scope for positive developments on the horizon?

The Indian justice system is in a period of very steep decline. Although there are some very fine judges here and there, things have almost come to an end as far as the poor are concerned. The entire working people, which is to say 70% of the population – Dalits (lower caste Hindus), tribal peoples, women, slum dwellers, unorganized workers and so on – all of them fall outside the justice system; they never get to court. They cannot take their grievances to any legal system, and the only time they get tangled up in the legal system is when they are dragged in to criminal law proceedings. There’s an iron curtain between the people of India and the judiciary, and I don’t see things changing any time in the future.

For more of Gonsalves on the harsh realities of human rights in India, click here for a lecture he gave alongside prominent women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes at UC Berkley.

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