By SMA Kazmi
Avdhash Kaushal, an eminent crusader of civil rights, liberties and human rights, an indomitable fighter for environmental protection, promotion of literacy, social service, upliftment and safeguarding the rights of tribals, empowerment of women and the underprivileged sections of society as well as a defender of the democracy at the grass root level, died at Max hospital in Dehradun. He was 87 and was ill for the past sometime.
In Uttarakhand, there are many eminent personalities working in the fields mentioned above but none could beat Avdhash Kaushal for his courage of conviction in what he believed and then working hard for achieving those goals. He made a mark for himself as a fighter for the issues concerning the common masses.
I had known him personally since 1998, when I landed in Doon valley and was witness to many of his struggles. I never saw him wavering in his commitment in whatever he believed was right and good for the overall good of the people, society, state and the country.
Born on 29th September 1937, in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, he lost his father at the young age of seven but he struggled and alongwith his studies remained involved in student politics in Meerut college and later Agra University. He was involved in the work and setting up of Nehru Yuvak Kendras and also took up issues which concerned people at large. He would be remembered as a foremost and pioneer of judicial activism in the field of environmental protection. It was on his Public Interest Litigation (PIL), that a Supreme court bench headed by Justice PN Bhagwati gave the landmark order of stopping lime quarrying in the Mussoorie hills in 1985 thereby saving the pristine beauty of the area. Avdhash Kaushal after quitting his job has flung himself whole heartedly in social service and formed Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a non-government organisation to work for the betterment of the society.
The Mussoorie Lime Quarrying case was the first big victory of Avdhash Kaushal and RLEK. Even, earlier, he had fought relentlessly for abolishing the practice of “bonded labour” in the Chakrata area of Garhwal hills. It was due to his relentless efforts that he conveyed the plight of bonded labourers to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 and convinced her for a legislation to ban such practices in the country in 1976. For his pioneering work, he was awarded ‘Padam Shri’ in 1986. He concentrated 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 welfare of the society.
For any visitor coming to Uttarakhand by road would see ‘Blue Star’, a beautiful school at Mohand for Muslim Van Gujjar nomads residing in the forests of Uttarakhand. Kaushal stood by the marginalised community like a rock which faced harassment and discrimination by the forest officials following the implementation of the Forest Protection Act. He fought against forest bureaucracy and even went to jail for the cause of forest dwellers and their rights protected by the Forest Dwellers Act. Since Forest dwellers were unwilling to leave forests, he established 15 innovative primary schools in the remote areas of Garhwal region where young students not only learn computers but are also taught by volunteer English teachers from England and Ireland. He has been working in a sustained manner on the holistic development of the hill communities whether it was education, legal literacy, human health, veterinary health, milk marketing, non-formal adult literacy and children’s education in 100 remote, underdeveloped villages of Tehri, Uttarkashi and Jaunsar regions of Uttarakhand.
RLEK ran the State Resources Centre for adult education for many years and it was the personal initiative to start Human rights course for young students of SAARC countries at RLEK.
The fighter in him egged him to take on bureaucratic and political corruption prevalent in the state without fearing about the reprisal consequences. He fought a long legal battle against the perks enjoyed by former Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand. It was his dauntless courage that finally the court ruled against the perks enjoyed by politicians from public exchequer even after getting retired. Avdhash Kaushal again went to court with a plea that the arrears of power, water, telephone bills and rent should be recovered from these Chief Ministers during the period, they Illegally enjoyed such privileges. The court ruled in his favour much to chagrin of senior politicians of the state.
He was straight forward in his thinking and did not mince words to please anyone. While, on one hand, he fought against the politicians and state governments, he was also at odd with many of his fellow travellers in the field of environment protection regarding development of hydro-electric-projects in the state. He firmly believed that hydro-electric energy was a cheap and essential growth engine in the state of Uttarakhand.
It would be difficult to find another Avdhash Kaushal in the prevailing times who stood with unwavering commitment towards the betterment of poor, downtrodden and marginalised.
Good Bye, Mr Avdhash Kaushal!
(Pic: Vinod Pundir).
(SMA KAZMI is a senior journalist who has worked at Chandigarh, Amritsar, Meerut, J&K, Haryana and Uttarakhand in the past more three decades with The Indian Express and The Tribune. He is based at Dehradun since 1998.)