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Colin Gonsalves: India's Pioneer of Public Interest Law


The Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2003

Colin Gonsalves's father, an engineer from the southern Indian state of Kerela, shelled out his savings to put his son through a five-year program at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Gonsalves began working as a civil engineer, but little did his parents know that he was also well on his way to becoming a lawyer. Gonsalves was drawn to the law through union work and concerns over labor issues and exploitation. In 1979, he started studying law at night school, reading and studying in the union office and on the train to and from Bombay.

One day Gonsalves was arrested while trying to stop the demolition of a Bombay slum. After a couple of similar incidents, he felt he had to tell his father about switching professions. 'He was very proud when he saw me win a case,' he recalled. 'I am glad I managed to shift,' said Gonsalves, founder of the India Center for Human Rights and Law, which has built 12 litigation centers in India since 1983. He has represented children in danger, villagers on the brink of starvation, and prisoners rotting in jails without due process.

Before he graduated from law school, the head of his union asked him to file a case on behalf of 5,000 workers locked out of their jobs. 'It took me three years to get my law degree, but it did not take me three years to go to court,' he said with a chuckle during an interview here Monday. 'No one had checked me out. A nasty employer's lawyer outed me: 'He is not a lawyer, he is impersonating one.' Luckily, I had written myself in as a representative in the papers filed in the court.'

The judge in the case asked him to approach the bench. He admitted he was an aspiring lawyer trying to make a difference. 'All right. Finish this case,' she snapped tersely, calling him into her chambers. 'Get your degree quickly,' she urged sympathetically. Since then, Gonsalves has pioneered public interest law in India by setting up a network of 500 lawyers around the country and is one of its most prominent human rights litigators.

'He is considered a fighter, and it is important to know that his is a controversial subject. He goes up against big forces and interests, like big estate owners. He is a champion of the exploited,' said Venkatesh Raghavendra, who has known Gonsalves for four years and is director of South Asia for Ashoka, an organization that identifies 'social entrepreneurs' in various fields whose work initiates wide reform or significant change.

Ashoka, which operates in 45 countries, selected Gonsalves in 1999 as one of its fellows, paying him a stipend for three years so he could focus on setting up a strategy, build an organization around it and bring his ideas to fruition. 'Colin is credited in large part for putting the whole file of public interest law in the forefront. That is how he has changed the system,' said Carol Grodzins, a managing director for Ashoka.

In response to a petition filed by the Human Rights Law Network, which was founded by Gonsalves, the Supreme Court in New Delhi directed unions and state governments to implement several food security schemes. 'Article 21 of India's Constitution enshrines the right to life, which can be broadly interpreted as the right to food, work and fair wages. Children in school get lunch now,' Gonsalves explained.

'Even if only one-fourth of the order is implemented, it translates into millions all over India, hopefully 10 million. The case began in 2001, and it is not over,' he added, explaining that privatization and the withdrawal of subsidies have left large segments of Indian society unable to afford food or health care. 'We have 3,000 to 5,000 people dying of starvation every year.'

Disability laws, women's rights, domestic violence, child labor and sexual harassment issues have all been revisited by his growing army of public interest lawyers, who act as a front line or the eyes and ears for the India Center for Human Rights and Law. 'They serve as the mouthpiece of Colin's organization and make villagers aware they have human rights,' Raghavendra said. 'Exploiters take advantage of the ignorance of these people. They tell the exploiters: Look, we know what you are doing. We have resolved a lot of these situations like this.'

But when such pressure fails, violations are reported to Gonsalves's litigation centers, which process them and file complaints. 'Very few in India are doing public interest law, so we have grown as a firm, and 70 percent of our cases are public interest,' Gonsalves said. 'There is very little money, and we depend on grants from inside and outside India.' Gonsalves was honored this week by the International Senior Lawyers Project, based in New York and Washington. The group, in collaboration with Ashoka and Piper Rudnick L.L.P., a law firm, is dedicated to assisting international lawyers.