For his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India’s most marginalised and vulnerable citizens.

Acceptance Speech – Colin Gonsalves

On behalf of the Human Rights Law Network, India and also on behalf of the civil society organisations that struggle together with us in India for the protection and expansion of human rights, we thank the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for this recognition. I congratulate my co-awardees Robert Bilott (USA), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan) and Yetnebersh Nigussie (Ethiopia) and look forward to becoming good friends with them.

We in India are going through one of the darkest periods in our history. We call it kalyug, a period of despair where the forces of evil rule. Human rights are being curtailed on an unprecedented scale. Journalists have been killed for writing against the State. Right to information activists have been shot dead for applying for information. One thousand NGOs have been deregistered. Slums have been bulldozed and tribals evicted at gun point from their lands. Clandestine surveillance has become the norm. There is fear everywhere. On the economic rights front, government and international data shows that India has become the hunger capital of the world with over 700 million people living below a poverty line of two dollars a day. That we receive the Right Livelihood Award today is therefore, for us, particularly significant. It gives us courage to go ahead regardless of the magnitude of the challenges facing us.

With the support we received from our partners – and I am happy to see some of them here today – the Human Rights Law Network and other legal aid groups sharpened a legal tool called Public Interest Litigation into a powerful weapon to be used on behalf of the poor for their liberation. Making a sharp departure from western jurisprudence which largely recognises only individual rights, public interest litigation made enormous strides consolidating collective rights and bringing tangible relief – as in the Right to Food case – to millions of people below the poverty line. Hundreds of these cases were fought and won, resulting, for example, in death sentences set aside, policemen engaging in extrajudicial encounters prosecuted, drug prices capped and sexual harassment criminalised. All this was done by a vibrant alliance of peoples’movements.

We now dream of taking this movement forward to countries governed by constitutions such as the nations of Africa, South America and Asia. Our constitutions and legal systems are similar. Learning from each other, we can take access to justice for working people to new heights and achieve practical results with huge impacts. All this is hoped to be done within the structure of a Centre for Constitutional Rights which will be a low budget high outreach institution combining social activism with high academic content. I have decided to dedicate a part of the award money towards this end, the remaining part will be reserved for the legal defence of human rights defenders.

Before ending I would like to recount what a heroic human rights defender – Sardar Jaswant Singh Khalra – said to his friends a few days before he was abducted by the Punjab Police and executed. He asked his friends not to worry about his safety. He said he was like a diya (small lamp) in an ocean of darkness. He said if everyone became a small lamp we would all be brighter than the sun!