Issue 15

From animal rights to mining bans: Why this Padma Shri awardee is a pioneer to learn from

Ishita Ahuja

While Norma Alvares’ animal rights work is pioneering in its range, she speaks frankly to Ishita Ahuja about what happens after she wins or loses.

“Initially there was disbelief and denial,” explains social worker and environmental lawyer, Norma Alvares, on how the climate change conversation has shifted. 

“Climate change was seen even by our national leaders as some theory from the Western world which had the luxury to think about such matters. But the last few years have brought climate change to the doorstep of every Indian – in the form of unseasonal rain, unprecedented heat waves, very dry climate at times and then floods at another.”

Norma Alvares, president of the NGO People for Animals, has in the past, led a PFA campaign that ended cattle transport by rail. If you can see a green or brown dot on packaged foods in India, it was PFA’s petition twenty years ago, that helps consumers identify vegetarian, from those items which have animal ingredients. Ditto for making dissection optional in biology classes in schools across India. PFA’s website is full of actionable advice and gives a sense of a nascent but growing animal rights movement, rooted in local and Indian realities. The overarching aim remains, an animal welfare center in each of the nation’s six hundred districts. Norma has also been instrumental in getting a bullfighting ban in her native Goa. “[I]t is enforcing the ban which is the problem because the Govt prefers to turn a blind eye to bullfighting in order to get the votes of the young men who want bullfights.” The PFA was then also able to ban the brutal shooting of stray dogs, a common practice in Goa. “We managed to get shooting banned, but the Court also said there must be a 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.

A Padma Shri awardee for social work in 2002, she remains a relentless doer. Currently, she is the chairperson for the Federation for Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), India’s apex animal rights organisation. Earlier this year, FIAPO & ACGS (All Creatures Great and Small, an NCR based animal care centre) led a joint study on 250 fish and shrimp farms across the 10 highest fish producing states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Gujarat, West Bengal, Odisha, along with freshwater farms in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Assam. They found 100% of the fish and shrimp farms in these states had toxic levels of lead and cadmium. All shrimp farms were also found to be releasing this toxic wastewater directly into the nearby canals or estuaries. FIAPO’s hands-on in a variety of ways, for instance, their ‘Learning Animal initiative offers insight into the multiple strategies and tactics used for protecting animals. Practical on-site first-aid programs and timely inputs between the members in their local chapters, or FAPOs as they call them, allow finite resources to be used sensibly and sensitively.

In 1986, Norma and her husband Claude Alvares set up the Goa Foundation, a year later they had filed their first PIL. Battling illegal mining in their home state since 1992, “around 2004, the scale of mining operations expanded massively, and the devastation had become extensive in every mining-related area,” says Norma in an interview with The Better India

Gathering ground evidence from every possible front, be it waste to mine safety, transport hazard to missing consent, it took 18 PILs, a Shah Commission Report on Goa’s illegal mining activity in the Parliament, and moving their cases to the Supreme Court that first got all mining post-2007 banned. Stalling and overriding responses did not deter the Goa Foundation duo. Despite the cancellation of 88 mining leases that Goa renewed again, it is in 2021 that the Supreme Court has ruled that no legacy mining leases can be revived.

Speaking on Goa Foundation’s vigilant focus for decades, Norma is frank, “People come all the time now for help as they have seen the work of the GF. They are also encouraged to come forward and fight for protection of their areas because they know that no one else will fight if they are not bothered.” 

Goa Foundation’s Green Goa Works Environmental Company also set up Other India Bookstore, where Marathi titles and books on organic farming combine readability and depth, with thinking through alternatives. Of the many concerns and activities of the bookstore, “marketing of literature generated by social activists” and collating and documenting “literature on health, agriculture, and education.”

With Diwali approaching, Norma explains what this can mean for animals,“[a]nimals are driven crazy by firecrackers. Dogs are extremely sensitive and in desperation, they simply run blindly to escape the continuous pounding. Many a time [sic] [animals] cant [sic] find their way back. or get run over by vehicles. Thankfully in recent years, there is a decline in the extremely loud crackers, But still, not enough.”

Cutting through the heart of climate change dilly-dallying, she says simply, “We have to protect our environment if we have to survive. However, the people still don’t [sic] seem to care enough to make changes in their lifestyle, it is not that such phenomena did not exist earlier. But now they occur with regularity and that is a clear warning that climate change is at hand.”

Her parting shot, says it like it is, “We will have loads of money, educational skills, and other talents, but without clean air, pure water, and some green around us, what good is all that?”

Cover image is taken from The Leaflet

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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