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Meet Claude And Norma Alvares

Meet Claude And Norma Alvares

Claude and Norma Alvares have been working to protect Goa’s natural heritage and its rightful stakeholders through decades of unrelenting environmental purpose and activism. Photo Courtesy: Norma and Claude alvares.

The best-loved couple of India’s sunshine state of Goa, Claude and Norma Alvares’ decades of social activism have won them powerful enemies, but many more loyal friends. Fiery activists, razor-sharp intellectuals, and supportive mentors, together they granted vibrancy to Goa’s environmental movement. Bittu Sahgal incites them to discuss love, life and the legacy they hope to leave behind.

How did you lovely people meet?

Claude: She was the best, the brightest and the prettiest at Sophia College. She was so good at her studies, her college kept her on for teaching immediately after her B.A. In contrast, she had heard hardly anything good about me, while I was studying at Xaviers. No one in their right mind would have thought she might develop even the remotest interest in me. But things happen, unexpected things happen, and soon we found we were inseparable and longed for each other’s company. At which particular point I cannot reveal because that is a trade secret! But I remember her today, the very first day I saw her, when I went for a meeting at Sophia’s. She wore an immaculate white dress, sprinkled with one-inch black squares. I do not recall now any detail of what my other girlfriends wore when I first met them!

Norma: I remember being warned by my seniors in college against having anything to do with this unruly character. And my curiosity got the better of me.

We were also good singers in our youth. We had this band – four or five of us – and we used to sing on the radio and for shows. One member of our troupe went on to Austria and is now a renowned classical pianist. Claude was the leader of the band. I was its lead singer. Music always kept us close together. I played the piano as well, while Claude could bang on the guitar. Claude could sing romantic songs so soulfully, you actually believed he was singing just for you!

And how did you both escape the rat race?

Claude: Well, we were the idealist types. We both were active in the social service league, went to camps in remote villages, including Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh and Pathardi near Aurangabad where we helped construct roads and things like that for drought-affected villagers. But we also enjoyed dancing like mad. We both attended a learning circle at the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra in Delhi where we spent a week with other youngsters figuring out what was happening to the country (this was around 1972 I think). I remember we were very depressed at the time. Some guy called Subhayu Dasgupta had just published this fatalistic book on how economic growth was never going to be possible in a country as steeped in tradition, and religion as India was. By the time we completed our further studies and decided to marry, the decision to move out and work in some rural area somewhere was part of the deal. So, the week after we tied the knot, we left for Goa permanently. We wanted to go to Bihar! We decided wisely to go to Goa because several of our college friends were there and the transition from city life to village would be easier. Getting out of Mumbai forever – when everyone else was trying to get into the rat race – just meant we were leaving the city to the rats.

You have often been referred to as Yin and Yang, given the way you complement each other and yet, how different you both are.

Claude: I don’t know much about that, but if we were both alike, we would have died of boredom. Extremes attract. Yin and yang is not Goan. Here people would refer to us as ‘Attule-Bittule’, characters in an old Goan fable – where if one was found, the other was likely to be close by. But in most ways, we differ. She is pretty, I am not. She is legal, logical, organised. She can run the Prime Minister’s office. I am still the loveable, disorganised, chaotic, anarchic bum. Now I have improved considerably and I can’t sleep without a bath. She has come around to accepting that a disorganised house does not mean an earthquake. But, when any of us is out of Goa, like most couples in such fortunate relationships, we are unable to go to sleep without talking to each other.

Norma: I think it is the difference in our make-up that holds us together too – that makes life together interesting always. I am the cautious type, I will think a decision through, weigh the pros and cons and anticipate the outcome. To be married to someone of a similar type would mean we might never have got off the ground. Claude on the other hand is impetuous. He is moved by passion and also by anger, at discomfort caused to ordinary poor people by the powerful. He plunges into activism readily, hoping to battle the odds along the way. Which is where I come in, because I am a good steward. I can competently guide the ship in rough seas, so it reaches safe waters. I think that one of the charms of Claude, which made me decide to marry him, is that he could always dream so big!

Norma Alvares was conferred with the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest Indian civilian award at the hands of the President of India, in 2002.
Photo Courtesy: Norma and Claude alvares.

Why are you not in politics?

Claude: Politics is no longer the art of the possible. We should be in politics. We have the ideas, economic ideas, ecological ideas, pro-public, pro-citizen ideas that can form the basis of an active political campaign. But I think we should have done it way back then. But then we had no roots in Goa, since we were Bombay-bred. But this does not mean we have not been political all our adult lives. All developmental wars today are political wars. Everyone who fights a ridiculous development project is being political, even if she is not a politician. So though we have remained out of the Legislative Assembly or Parliament, we often fight to undo executive decisions which we find environmentally unsound. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we lose.

You say that you are not against mining, only illegal mining and that, within limits, mining could enrich every Goan citizen, without damaging the ecology of this paradise on earth? How?

Claude: That is not something too difficult to answer. Mining is a universal phenomenon, associated with humans from the Iron Age. I use a car which uses metal. I have used iron rods for constructing my garage. So I cannot oppose mining. However, I can and should oppose bad mining… mining which ends up illegally filling miners’ pockets… mining that fatally disturbs the environment. I do not know anyone who would disagree with these statements.

After moving the Supreme Court to ensure mining would not restart without severing the links with illegal mining and miners (the industry remained shut for three years), we came to discover that we (and the government) had made a monumental blunder about how we saw the entire business of selling natural resources. Here my colleague, Rahul Basu, made some critical interventions. We looked at what the Supreme Court of India was saying about handing over publicly-owned natural resources to persons for profit making activities. It was saying these natural resources belonged to the people of the state, not the miners, not the government. If so, we began demanding that as legit owners of these minerals, we should be in charge of the sale process and the beneficiaries. The government should not hand out leases. Since it owned the ore, as a trustee on behalf of the public, it should give mining leases to itself, and hand over the job of extraction to miners. After the ore was extracted, it should auction the ore and put all the money earned into a permanent fund. This fund would be managed by specialised fund managers (like the National Pension Scheme), and government should be allowed to use only the interest, that too, after adjusting for inflation, so that the value of the principal remained intact for all future generations to come.

We have now suggested that actually nothing should go to the government. If there is money earned from iron ore sales, it should go to the citizens of Goa in the form of a direct dividend or basic income. We are now getting activists from other mining states to demand likewise. The Supreme Court has already decided that miners will now pay 10 per cent of their earnings into a permanent fund for the coming generations of Goans. So the precedent is available.

Norma what wisecrack did Claude come up with when you got awarded the Padma Shri... particularly since they denied him the honour?

Norma: Well actually, Claude wasn’t even in Goa when the announcement came in the papers. He called me from Bombay early that morning. I was totally shocked at being named for such a prestigious honour. There was a tinge of worry though. The 2002 Gujarat riots had recently happened and I was therefore also embarrassed about receiving an honour from the government of the day. But I realised that activism is honoured only now and then. Most of the time we are termed anti-national. To turn down this recognition of the important role that activists play in society would be a disservice, in this sense, to all my colleagues. I remember saying at a function to honour me that this award, although given to me, was for all activists – environmentalists, animal welfare activists, women’s’ rights activists and so on. The same year I also received the Yashodamini Puraskar from the Goa Government on Women’s Day.

Claude has always shunned awards, for the simple reason that those who give awards are usually, to a great extent, responsible for the destruction and damage to society that we are always fighting against. I think people are afraid to suggest his name for an award lest he turns it down, or worse still, use the platform to assail the giver. Even for the Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award, he gave the phone to me and told me to decide. That was not a difficult decision to make – I knew that an award from Sanctuary is one he would easily accept!

An older picture of the Alvares’ tight-knit family, with their dogs, ducks, rabbits, cow and three sons who have chosen to opt out of the rat race to follow their hearts and minds. Photo Courtesy: Norma and Claude alvares.

Why the Other India Book (OIB) Store?

Claude: Blame it on our idealism and political leanings. One thing we were quite disturbed about was that we could never access good books from any part of the world except the United States and the United Kingdom. That part of our colonial experience just never ended. We therefore set out to create a globally-oriented bookstore that would keep books from Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. The bookstore survived because the customers were there. Now we no longer keep full control over what happens in the bookstore. However, it remains a one-stop shop for people interested in books on organic farming, home-schooling, alternative health, social activism and wildlife. Since we live in Goa, we stock all books with the word ‘Goa’ in them. We also set up a publishing house, which has survived because we published books that people wanted and needed.

Norma: We also wanted to ensure that books from the NGOs – the world we inhabited – could share the same shelf space with commercial publishers. So we actively sourced all publications from the NGOs – many of them were lying in a dusty corner of the NGO’s office, after the initial enthusiasm to promote them wore off. I remember conducting a workshop for NGOs on marketing books – simple stuff like how to price their publications, such that booksellers could get a discount for selling these publications, how to package and post, various postal schemes and so on. Remember, this was in the 1980s – long before the Internet became the easy source for getting books from across the world. About four or five years ago I wanted to close down OIB because I thought our work was done, there were many bookshops somewhat like us, (although none, I think, are exclusively devoted to books from the global South), but our customers – who consider themselves part of the OIB family – protested so loudly that we have shelved that thought for now.

Claude, how did you find yourself appointed to the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes?

Claude: Vandana Shiva was the petitioner before the Supreme Court in the matter of import of hazardous wastes from the industrialised world. The Court decided to set up a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. M.G.K. Menon. Vandana suggested I be appointed as a member. The Court accepted the recommendation. I got stuck in that work for nearly 10 years! It was a great experience working with Menon.

Will we see an updated version of Fish Curry & Rice on the state of Goa?

Claude: Fish Curry & Rice is about Goa’s environment, the fights over environmental issues. In the 70s, the issues were extraction of sand from Goa’s beaches and the pollution from the Zuari Agro Chemicals plant. But every decade, the issues would change, so we had to revise the book entirely. We have brought out four editions over four decades. Vidyadhar Gadgil, who worked on the last edition with me, has now returned to take up the revision for the fifth edition. Things on the ground, however, are getting so bad, we may not have a sixth edition because there may not be much left of Goa environmentally speaking. And the planet itself is now entering the era of climate change.

Will David beat Goliath? Is there hope for Goa?

Claude: We are firm believers in Davids taking on Goliaths, small people taking on the rich and the powerful. Everything good that has ever come out of this country has come from small people. The rich and the powerful can often be dispensed with because they are necessarily a burden on every resource and on society as a whole. In this country we have the strange phenomenon of the Environment Minister and his Environment Ministry actively joining in the destruction of the planet in the interest of promoting big business, the same big business that has been responsible for promoting an industrial model, which is incompatible with the Earth and all life on the earth. So the destructive lobby is indeed very powerful because now they have the government promoting them. But who beat Vedanta at Niyamgiri? So-called uneducated tribals. Who beat Posco? Peasants and gardeners. Who beat DuPont in Goa? Villagers of Kerim. The ordinary Davids of this country will succeed because there are just too many of them!

Norma: Thirty years ago, it was just us, the Goa Foundation, fighting the environmental battle in court. We were called eco-terrorists then by our opponents who routinely said we were trying to take the country back to the Stone Age. The community in the areas where the big projects were happening were not with us – they thought we were preventing their villages from progress and development. But in recent times, as those dreams of prosperity turned to dust, literally, they were forced to deal with noise pollution, dust pollution, water shortages and more. Quite naturally, they themselves turned into activists. Taking a cue from what has happened elsewhere, I see others rising too, to protect whatever beauty and peace they still have, lest it be swallowed up by mega-projects. Activists are springing up everywhere – ordinary people, who thankfully realise they have to pick up the baton and run with it. I am very hopeful indeed, despite the odds. These days I am constantly advising people how to draft petitions, how to argue them before the National Green Tribunal, what sort of information to get under the RTI Act, how it is important to source expertise in the locality – architects, engineers, lawyers – who can help them understand building plans, government notings, how to reply to affidavits and themselves carry their cases forward and win!

Will your sons Rahul, Samir and Milind live in a better India?

Claude: Yes, we believe they will. They haven’t joined the rat race either. They are peaceful individuals, content with their work, which they created for themselves out of their own choices. We have not exercised an iota of compulsion or coercion on these choices. The resulting sense of independent lives is bound to stand them in good stead for a planet whose ecology is entering a climate of intense stress. Living with climate change will demand strong and independent individuals capable of thinking for themselves and coping. If more young people walk out of the rat race, they will change the way the human world needs to be organised. The planet, on the other hand, will take care of itself.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.


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December 21, 2015, 01:39 PM
 Claude and Norma you were magnificent at the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards ceremony. May you both stay blessed forever!
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December 16, 2015, 11:14 PM
 love to see this ! merci