Visual Spaces


It’s getting harder by the day for policymakers and university professors of the social sciences to peddle their inherited wisdoms about the development discourse because its severely debilitating outcomes are far too palpable to tip toe around. You can deny climate change but not the sudden floods that devastate or the droughts that parch the land; you can sit in air-conditioned comfort but you will sniff those noxious fumes at some time in your working day and wonder if climate change is more than the shift in temperature when you open the fridge door for another beer.

Development has had its avatars through the decades but its foundational ethos has remained the same: a ‘model’ of growth ‘planned’ by State Power and Capital on behalf of and for, the people who are not in the room; an assumption that Nature has little value other than as a ‘resource base’ for  Development the defining achievement of which is Growth; that this outcome can only be generated by the displacement of those who have for centuries lived in a symbiotic nurturing affinity with Nature’s offerings; that the Nation-State has been mandated to claim ownership of resources that it will exploit for the benefit of its subjects who should not be in the room. 

Development-as-Growth in India has its own yardstick of progress, the GDP the “Little Big Number” as Dirk Philipsen called it; so devoutly have we embraced it that it has now morphed from a measure into the metonym of, Progress. Stack it up, count it, Progres is materialism and so what if Rabindranath Tagore called it “an endless feast of grossness.” Grossness is good! So is Greed ! Count the number of Indian billionaires, poverty is boring, forget the displaced communities, the trees felled, the rivers choked up; growth helps erase memories of a messy pastoral; aim for the swimming pool and nature parks free of wild animals and unwashed tribals.

The pursuit of that ‘little big number’ extracts a heavy price; I’s a Faustian deal and now we are paying for it. Unprecedented floods, uncontrollable fires, the Big Choke on carbon emissions. All we do is buy a face mask; not venture out in wintry Delhi or Pune, breathe shallow, yoga in air-conditioned, air-purified rooms, It’s not only official climate deniers like President Trump; it’s us folk who do not waat to see what is in plain sight, that in our worship of “grossness” we have destroyed more than just the little river condemned to oblivion for a gated community. We have annihilated imagination. For as Amitav Ghosh points out in The Great Derangement, “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” 

The chase for a higher little big number comes with other massive bils. Livelihoods are affected, communities are uprooted and pardoxically employment, that should have expanded, shrinks; the practice of Growth stands almost in inverse proportion to its promise; fewer and fewer savour the feasts of grossness even as its spectacle is meant to enthrall us all.  

It takes darkness to see the stars. In this landscape of erased memory, narcissistic despair, socio-economic inequities and unimagined and unthinkable ecological degradation where we could all become, to use Ghosh’s evocative phrase, “ecological refugees” there are redemptive futures at work.

We are happy to showcase these ‘futures’ as alternatives to the GDP-besotted model peddled for decades. Kalpavriksh’s Vikalp Sangam (Confluence of Alternatives)  is an ongoing chronicle of alternatives from around the country that betokens a better world. The Beacon



here are also myriad attempts at generating and practicing alternatives that provide viable pathways for human well-being that are ecologically sustainable and socio-economically equitable. But they are often small, scattered and unlinked, and thereby not documented enough to be widely known. They have certainly not been threaded together into comprehensive frameworks or visions of an alternative society and are far from reaching a ‘critical mass’ to challenge and change the dominant paradigm.

This is an exhibition from these practiced alternatives that hopes to illustrate the diversity and richness of our lands, rivers, forests, mountains, agriculture and the people who are taking care of them. These are just an initial set of examples and not the full set of themes; more will be added as the exhibition grows and travels. Also, the photographs come from a small group of people, but it is hoped that they are inspiring enough that other people involved with initiatives like these will want to contribute their own creativity – be it photographs drawings, audio or video – and in time create a viscerally compelling volume that captures the spirit of an alternative future.



In Kachchh, a group of organisations are working together on matters as seemingly disparate as pastoralism, resource conservation, rain-fed agriculture and crafts. They have come to realise that everything is connected to everything else.(emphasis added) One of these organisations, Sahjeevan, works with pastoral peoples like the Gujjars and Rabaris in the Banni, advocating for community & habitat rights and securing grassland and water resources on which they depend.
Elsewhere in Kachchh, Sahjeeven’s efforts have conserved local breeds of cattle, allowing communities to earn an income through sale of milk, and to recycle cow-dung as an input in subsistence agriculture. In this it is being aided by the organisation Satvik that promotes organic farming.

A platoon of Rabaris and their camel herds on one of their migrations.

A community meeting of the Gujjars in the Banni landscape, expanses
of which have been taken over by invasives or have turned saline.

Sahjeeven is aiding in resource mapping to help secure grazing pastures
and water holes.

Grasslands and flood-plains still remain, home also to wildlife such as
flamingoes and the great Indian bustard.

Kankrej – a local breed of cattle long adapted
to the harsh climate of Kachchh – has now been
recognized as a unique breed.

A group of Rabaris in the Lakhpat region who returned home after
16 years following the coming of a dairy.

An unfortunate shift however with the coming of dairies is increase
in buffalo-keeping. Buffaloes require considerably more water and fodder.


The Thar region in the western state of Rajasthan, similar to Kachchh in many ways, also has a family of organisations – together called URMUL – with shared beliefs of community-driven development through programmes that are devised, strengthened, sustained and finally owned by the communities.

Weaving Machine
A weaver of Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti – a livelihoods generating community based organisation of desert weavers and part of the URMUL network.

Such programmes are not limited to civil society. Jharcraft – an initiative of the Jharkhand government -attempts to conserve tribal skills of working with bamboo, cane, mud, lac, jute, grass and metalwork among other art and craft forms. It has enhanced or created livelihoods for over 3 lakh families in just 10 years.

Mud artisans of Jharcraft.

‘Dhokra’ metalwork – a tribal art form in Jharkhand with a 4000-year old history.

The ideas of localisation of both production and consumption, are not limited to the ‘cottage industries’, but also to products considered ‘industrial-scale.’ In Kuthambakkam village of Tamil Nadu, the former panchayat sarpanch Elango R. envisions a regional collection of villages to be self-sufficient in producing everything from soap to electric power.

Left to right: Youth working in a manufacturing unit in Kuthambakkam, Tamil Nadu; grain processing mills amongst other applications customarily considered reserved for large-scale industry.

Left to right: Youth working in a manufacturing unit in Kuthambakkam, Tamil Nadu; grain processing mills amongst other applications customarily considered reserved for large-scale industry.

Food and Agriculture

Food is the essence of human well-being. There are innumerable examples in the country of initiatives that attempt not only the conservation of traditional seed and livestock variety, but also to secure all the links in the chain from production based on organic principles to consumption based on local markets.

One of the most creative efforts is of Deccan Development Society (DDS) in the eastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In a globalising world, their objective has been to protect the autonomy of food, from seeds and crop production to the natural resource base on which it depends, and from creating a regional market to employing the media as an education tool. This autonomy is achieved through empowering women’s sanghams or voluntary  village level associations  mostly consisting of dalit women.

Traditional seed variety conserved by the women of Deccan Development Society (DDS).

A mobile biodiversity festival organized by DDS in 2001.

Reaching out through community radio, part of DDS’s programmes.

In Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh, the Timbaktu Collective works with many of the same principles. It began in the early 90s by creating village level self-help groups based on thrift and credit, and since then has gone on to create cooperatives to deal with issues as wide ranging as food production to commons management.

Importantly, both DDS and the Timbaktu Collective have shunned conventional organic certification that is very expensive and perpetuates a ‘license raj’ culture, and have adopted the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) approach that is based on farmer-to-farmer peer review, individual integrity and mutual trust.

Ragi is an important millet in drought prone areas of Andhra Pradesh.

A Timbaktu Collective facility of bottling organic groundnut oil.

Commons management is intrinsically related to food,
recognized by the Timbaktu Collective.

Community Conservation

Forests provide crucial life-support and livelihoods to hundreds of millions of people, supporting agriculture, animal husbandry, non-timber forest produce, and diverse cultures. The threats that these forests face come from both within and without communities, and their conservation is often most effective when the communities that use them are closely involved in their protection.

Jardhargaon in Tehri-Garwhal in Uttarakhand is a pertinent example. Gaining inspiration from the Chipko Movement of the 70s, this village in the Himalayan foothills formed a forest protection committee to deal with issues of regulating resource use of wood and litter and ensuring equitable distribution to all households of the village. The committee members themselves are chosen by consensus in a gram sabha (village council) meeting, and not by a majority vote. In addition, women’s committees were formed to deal with external threats of mining in an area that is rich in limestone.

Hiware Bazar in Maharashtra is another illustration of holistic thinking about the agro-forest complex; with the idea of shramadaan (voluntary labour) and bandi (restraint) at its heart – bandi of nasha (liquor), charal (free grazing), kulhad (indiscriminate tree felling and nas) (population increase).

Left to right: Historical change in Hiware Bazar, Maharashtra as a result of community action.

Women Empowerment

Maati in Sarmoli, Uttarakhand is a collective of about 20 women that first came together as a response to domestic violence. They have since grown into a living example of direct democracy, through participation in local politics, in
management of their forest and water resources, in agriculture based on seed diversity and in complementing their livelihoods with low-impact tourism based on homestays.

At the other end of the scale is Kudumbashree, a mammoth state-led initiative in Kerala that attempts to empower women through a decentralized governance structure from the bottom up (self, neighbourhood, district); and

training, networking and marketing for micro-enterprise set-ups that produce goods locally. While the programme has been exemplary in empowering women, challenges remain in ensuring local sourcing of raw materials and local consumption of products.

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Text and Visuals excerpted with permission from:  Alternatives India. VIKALP SANGAM . Published by Kalpavriksh. Pune. 2016.
Prelude and main title not part of original text.

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