Norma Alvares is a pioneering environmental lawyer and an animal rights activist from Goa. As the founder of Goa Foundation, she has been involved in several PILs, including the first ever PIL filed in Goa, which was to protect the sand dunes in the state. She is the President of People for Animals (PFA), a leading animal support group that works across the country. In this interview, Senior Advocate, founder of Lawyers Collective, Anand Grover speaks to Norma Alvares on her work, the ability of plants to emote and the importance to change the landscape of animal and environmental rights.
Picture credit: Nikhil Roshan
Anand Grover: Your work as an environmental lawyer has led to a lot of changes in the landscape of Goa. Tell us about your work.
Norma Alvares: I began working on the protection of coastal areas in Goa in the 1980s. These areas are governed by the Environment (Protection) Act and the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications, issued by the government from time to time. Permissions to develop properties in Goa were being given out to several large hotel groups by the Government. Although, legal regulations for construction were strict, hospitality groups blatantly violated them so we began our work at Goa Foundation ensuring that the law was stringently being followed. After this, we began to branch out and work on other issues, like preventing construction on steep hills and the pollution of rivers.
Industries tend to use rivers as an easy way to dispose of effluents without treating them, although the law mandates otherwise. We took quite a few industries to Court!
Anand: But Norma, I remember the original order was passed by the Court even before the Environment Protection Act, the Coastal Regulation Zone, or any other proper legal framework existed…
Norma: That’s true, Anand. In fact, Ms. Indira Jaising is the one who I would credit for the very first order that came from the court on this. Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister then, had issued a directive in a letter, saying that there should be no development within 500 metres of the coast. Rajiv Gandhi also issued a directive saying that construction can take place between 200 and 500 metres of the coast under certain conditions. Indira Jaising is responsible for the Court making these directives legally enforceable. I worked on Ms. Jaising on those initial cases, so that’s where Goa Foundation’s work also began from.
Anand: Tell us more about your work on river pollution.
Norma: We took on a couple of industries, including hotels, that were releasing effluents directly into rivers and streams, without treating them, and ensured that they installed pollution control devices, set up sewage treatment plants and so on. As per the law in Goa, construction is not allowed in areas with a slope of 25 degrees or more, but this was not being adhered to. Permissions were still being given by the government for construction in these areas. This kind of construction is hazardous in Goa because the soil is lateritic, which means that it can crumble easily and cause a landslide if severe pressure is put on it. The judges were initially very resistant to enforcing this, but we succeeded eventually.
We have also been involved in litigating around mining violations. Mining is like the holy cow, or the milch cow. While every single petition we filed on mining was admitted by the Court, I was unable to get even a single favourable order, because judges felt that discontinuing mining could lead to economic collapse. So, while they admitted that there was a violation, they would refuse to stop the mining operation. About 20 years after we began working on mining issues, the Justice Shah Commission came out with a report on violations in the mining industry, saying what we were saying, but backing it up with a lot of figures. At this point, we took the matter to the Supreme Court, which finally stayed the mining operations for 3 years. By this time, the situation had gotten so bad that people were breathing just dust, and yet no one was stopping the mining.
I have also worked on enforcing the fishing ban, starting with Goa. Fish typically breed in the monsoon, and the government in Goa reduced the ban from the initial four-month period to less than two months.
Anand: But isn’t fishing in the monsoon traditionally banned in fishing communities in Goa?
Norma: Yes, that’s true, as a matter of tradition people do not fish in the monsoon. This is also because the sea starts getting very rough in the monsoon. Perhaps its nature’s way of telling us to stay away! Communities that fish are also typically Agricultural communities, and monsoon is the best season to farm. So they switch from fishing to farming; they start cultivating the fields and once the monsoon begins to abate, they start fishing again. This is the rhythm of rural society, it’s in consonance with nature. As big business starts in these areas, trawlers begin to want to fish in these areas. They aren’t traditionally fisher folk from the area, and they want to fish through the year. They were the ones who managed to influence the government to reduce the duration of the ban to less than two months. This seems ridiculous once you start to realize that are no fish in the water anymore! When we went to court, a Trial Court in Goa increased the ban to two and a half months. Later, the High Court passed an order which effectively made the ban on fishing in a certain period of monsoon enforceable across the west coast. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Agriculture, which also governs fishers, supported the ban and enforced it across the coastline. The case, which started in tiny Goa, had an impact from Gujarat all the way down to Kerala. We are still pushing for a four month ban, but this is still good. What is amazing is that the fisher folk are the ones demanding the ban now, because fish resources are depleting.
Anand: Goa Foundation has also worked on forest rights in Goa. Tell us more about that..
Norma: As a matter of fact, we are the only group in Goa that works for the protection of forests. Goa is all about the beach, no doubt, but it’s still important for a State’s environmental health to have a good forest. We have been ensuring that both the Government and private forests are protected. The people who own the forest oppose this, naturally, because they believe they should be allowed to build on the land since they own it. We have been working with the government to come up with a plan for providing concessions to people who own properties earmarked as forest.
Anand: What about your work on animal rights? How did your engagement in that begin?
Norma: I think working on animal rights was a natural progression from my environmental activism. Animals are a part of the environment. The environment is not just the trees, rivers and hills; it is also the creatures that inhibit these areas. They are an integral part of every ecosystem. I think it is only natural that animals must be protected as a matter of right. I cannot imagine a world where only humans have a place and other species must make way for human ideas of development; of cities, townships. My formal entrance into animal rights began when Mrs. Maneka Gandhi approached me about setting up an animal welfare organization in Goa. This is when we set up People for Animals, which was the first animal welfare organisation in Goa.
Anand: Tell us more about animal rights in Goa and the cases you’ve worked on…
Norma: The very first case that PFA fought was on bull fighting. Bullfights have existed in Goa, again, as a relic of Portuguese rule. The bullfights popular in Goa are not like the ones in Spain, between a bull and a person, but rather between two bulls, with the winner fighting the next bull. Bull fights usually took place during festivals and were a form of entertainment. On Gandhi Jayanti, a politician, who later became the Chief Minister of Goa, was organizing a bullfight. I thought it was offensive that a bullfight was being held on the day of Ahimsa. We put together a petition, took it to Court, and got the bullfight stopped by Court order. Although our petition was only about this one event, the judge hearing our case looked into the practice of bull fighting, in general. Giving a judgement the day before Christmas, he said that animal fights are directly against the law. The Supreme Court upheld this.
We were initially concerned with the shooting of stray dogs in Goa when we set up PFA. Under Portuguese rule, people used to shoot dogs and cut off their tails and give them to the government. The Government would pay for every tail. This tradition remained in Goa. Essentially, it meant that anybody who thought there were too many stray dogs in an area could shoot them and give their tails to the government. Eventually, government remuneration for the tails stopped, but the shooting continued. We managed to get shooting banned, but the Court also said there must be program to control the stray dog population. Fortunately, the Panjim Municipal Council offered us land for an animal shelter and we started a sterilization programme there.
Anand: The issue of stray dogs is a lot about animal rights and rights of humans. What do you think is a resolution to this?
Norma: Human beings have rights by law, which animals are not given. Humans give themselves rights and then distinguish between themselves and make themselves a class superior to other creatures. Human beings are to extend compassion to animals, by law, but this does not mean an animal can claim the right to life. It’s like a master-servant relationship; a slave doesn’t have rights, he has kindness thrown at him, charity given to him.
The notion of human superiority comes from Judeo-Christian values that put man at the apex of creation, with all other creatures below him. However, in the world as it stands, all creatures have to co-exist and there has to be a place for every creature, no matter how big or small, and whether we recognise its worth in the ecosystem or not. Ultimately, therefore, the conflict is between man and nature, not between man and animals. We need nature to survive, not the other we around. But we seem to have forgotten this a long time ago. We think science can help us overcome anything, but ultimately we also have our own limited space in the world. We need to realize this, as a race, sooner rather than later, and begin to frame and re frame our laws to ensure that all creatures have some space in the world.
Anand: Norma, it is a common belief that the relationship between humans and animals is that of coloniser and the colonised. What would you say to that?
Norma: Colonisers saw people who had a different skin colour, like us Indians who are brown, and decided that they are not fully formed humans and hence inferior. This is, for instance, why they always referred to Negros as ‘boys,’ however old they were. Similarly, many people believe that animals are not deserving of rights or any assertion of their own space in the world; because they do not emote like us, and feel love, grief, sorrow or happiness. Of late, though, science has begun to acknowledge that animals have the same emotions as us. Animals experience the same parent-child bond as humans and they also weep when they are separated from their partners. We don’t understand their emotions because they speak a different language. Once one begins to realize that animals experience the same emotions of sorrow and grief as us, it is difficult to continue to treat them as inhumanely as we do.
Anand: What about plants? Do you think they are inanimate, or do they possibly experience emotion too?
Norma: Recent science experiments show that plants react negatively to people who have ill will towards them and can recognize people who have hurt them in the past. From my own experience, too, I believe that they do have emotions. My maid used to say that my plants grow better when I water them, instead of her.
Anand: As far the rights of animals are concerned, if animals are conferred rights by law, then the philosophical basis of it will have to be situated not in the mould of compassion or welfarism, but rather in a belief that animals have their rightful place on earth because of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, and therefore animals. This would mean acknowledging that human existence is dependent on animals, and therefore they need their own sphere of rights.
Norma: Yes, that’s how I view the place of animals in society, too. Humans need nature to survive, and I don’t see us as any less or more than other animals. I think we exaggerate our worth and the need for our existence at the cost of other life. We would live a much more wholesome life if we coexisted with other species. Why are polar bears not found in India? There are reasons and we can also create reasons as to why a particular species populates a certain area, but ultimately we do not appreciate their worth as part of a larger ecosystem. It is still essential for us to respect them even if we don’t understand their worth in order to live better lives. We also need to limit our wants, which seem to have no limits in today’s world. We are not bothered about what we are destroying as long as we get what we imagine we must have. If we recognize that animals have their own rights, we will know that we need to make some place for them in our world. Today, we don’t recognise that.We believe that we need and are entitled to all the space that this world has. But there is soon going to come a time when nature is not able to provide us with everything we want. In fact, we are already experiencing a shortage of natural resources, like water, for instance. In the long run, we have to recognize that animals, plants, trees, and inanimate objects of nature like mountains, rivers and hills have rights. They have a right to co-exist.
Anand: So, what you’re saying is that animals and trees do not exist only for humans; they exist so that nature can thrive in its fullest. They are not subservient to humans.
Norma: They are not subservient at all. Each thing in nature has its own intrinsic worth. The whole cosmos, which is an integrated network of life and energy, must be maintained if we are to survive. Animals, plants, rivers and mountains do not question our existence. They have their place and they allow us to exist in ours. Only humans want to decimate things. We want to remove a mountain so we can build a road, although we do not know why a hill came up there. I think Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, ‘There is enough for every man’s need, but not enough for one man’s greed’ rings completely true.
Anand: Is it necessary to be a vegetarian to be an animal rights activist? Must one view meat as just a desire?
Norma: If you consider primitive societies, meat was an occasional food item, acquired after a lot of struggle and effort, after outwitting the animal. Today, meat just reaches your plate without your even having to see the animal. You just need to see the finished product and develop a taste. Intensive meat eating is a part of many diets today. That is problematic, not meat itself.
Anand: There are several legislations, particularly in the western world and in most common law countries, including India, that are welfarist towards animal rights. Is it time for this to change?
Norma: India was among one of the first countries to enact a law for animal rights, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. This was welfarist legislation. I think it’s time that we move beyond this, and take a real look at our superiority complex with respect to animals and nature. It’s time that we redraw the contours of our laws to give nature more space.
Anand: Do you have any message or advice to the young students and activists who wish to enter the field of environment law?
Norma: Yes, Welcome! There is a need to understand and sometimes even explain to the judge the fundamental concepts, so study the environment. Also, what I have realised over years is that, always follow up. You will have to make sure that once an order is passed, the lawyer or the activist follows up on the enforcement of such an order.
Norma Alvreaz is a trustee of Lawyers Collective. Anand Grover is a Senior advocate, Supreme Court of India and the article was edited by Shivangi Misra, Legal Officer, Lawyers Collective.