Showing how sustainable development can work

Showing how sustainable development can work

New Delhi: Development Alternatives, or DA, is one of the pioneers of social enterprise in sustainable development in India, launched in 1983 by Ashok Khosla.

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“Thirty years back, when we started DA, it was one of a kind," says Khosla, 72, who still runs it as chairman. “We aimed to apply good science for social benefit, and at the same time, being low-impact on the earth. Delivery of basic amenities to people can be put into a framework that is commercially viable. That is also the way to allocate resources well."

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DA sets up businesses for local people to run. It develops new products—ranging from cooking stoves to power stations to small dams—that are low-cost and environment friendly, and franchises them to local entrepreneurs.

It also offers services such as education and Internet cafes in villages at cheap rates.

Using the brand name Tara, DA has developed micro-concrete roof tile kits and vertical shaft brick kilns that reduce energy consumption by 55% and emissions by 50%.

Its paper production unit employs 40 workers to recycle paper. Desi Power, the electricity unit, installs mini power stations in villages, fuelled by weeds and agricultural waste.

Tara Akshar and Tara Ganit are systems developed for teaching people how to read, write and count. They have made more than 50,000 rural women literate in less than 18 months, according to DA records.

At Tara Haat, people can buy and sell or send money home at nominal rates.

Tara Haat has helped local entrepreneurs set up Internet cafes in Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It offers them a brand, technical know-how and basic support.

“We research and work in the area of housing and habitat in Bundelkhand (spread over parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh). Lessons learnt here are applied across India," says Zeenat Niazi, 43, senior programme director at DA.

Niazi has been with DA for 20 years. “I joined right after college and have never felt the need to leave. DA provides a peer support system that allows me creative flexibility to do programmes I believe in. To see them being implemented on the ground gives me great satisfaction. And when you see changes happen at the policy level, that’s even more satisfying."

Dr Veena Joshi, senior adviser at the Swiss government’s Development Agency for Cooperation, agrees. “DA has a remarkable enthusiasm for policy-level work. They managed to formulate a rural habitat policy with the government of India, which was a quite an achievement," says Joshi.

Her donor agency worked with DA on a project for micro-concrete tiles in 1994.

“Development Alternatives...has earned international acclaim, particularly in demonstrating successfully that ecological sustainability is not only compatible with poverty eradication and development but in fact the necessary condition for their long-term success," says Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, who has worked with Khosla.

Because DA works in so many areas, Khosla says people often think it has no focus. “But there is tremendous focus. Trees and rural women are the two pillars of DA. We try to solve their problems, directly or in a roundabout way."

He gives the example of an environment-friendly cooking stove DA came up with in its early years to replace the rural chulha. “The rural Indian housewife dies prematurely, (ingesting) huge amounts of horrible smoke," he says. “She has to walk for hours for fuel wood. So the cook stove was a very successful venture of DA."

Khosla’s family has migrated twice, initially from Lahore and later from Kashmir.

Khosla’s father was a diplomat, so he grew up in Europe and attended more than 15 schools.

“But I was always more an Indian than anything else," he says.

In the 1960s, even as large numbers of Indians began shifting to the US, Khosla was among the few American graduates trying to return to India. But before he did so, he helped design and teach the first paper on environment at Harvard University.

“My professor, Roger Revelle, was the first scientist to discover the phenomenon of global warming back in 1964," he says. Revelle features in former US vice-president Al Gore’s famous documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.

The Harvard paper kicked off Khosla’s engagement with sustainable development. He returned to India and worked in the government’s environment policy unit. He later worked for the United Nations Environment Program in Kenya before launching DA.

“The world was just waking up to these issues. I realized early on that the problems of poverty and resource destruction would not be taken care of if we left it to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), governments or businesses, because their primary agenda was something else and hence they couldn’t bring about change on the scale that was needed," he says.


Taking technological developments that the rural poor can afford to villages, without hurting the environment


NGOs, government agencies and businesses are unable to deal effectively with the problems of poverty and resource destruction as their agenda is different


Developing cheap, clean products and services and allowing local entrepreneurs to market them