Colin Gonsalves, no relative of mine, is an extraordinary human being. His heart is in the right place and it beats for the poorest of the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized of India irrespective of their caste, creed and colour. No wonder, the senior Supreme Court lawyer and founder of the Human Rights Law Network was recently awarded the prestigious 2017 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. He shared the 3 million kronor ($374,000) cash award with Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Ethiopian lawyer Yetnebersh Nigussie. Gonsalves is a specialist in human rights protection, labour law and public interest law.
The Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation said Gonsalves was cited “for his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India’s most marginalised and vulnerable citizens.” The winner said the recognition “comes at a time when India is going through a dark period and human rights activists are under siege.”
Created in 1980, the annual Right Livelihood Award honours efforts that prize founder, Swedish-German philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull, felt were being ignored by the Nobel Prizes.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, Gonsalves started as a civil engineer but was drawn to law through his work with the unions in Mumbai. In 1979, he litigated his first case, while still in law school, on behalf of 5,000 workers locked out of their jobs. In the mid 1980s, he along with two other colleagues, Mihir Desai and Gayatri Singh, started People’s Law Centre to provide free legal aid. People’s Law Centre was renamed as Human Rights Law Network in 1989. At present it has over 200 lawyers and paralegals operating out of 28 offices across India. These lawyers have engaged in public interest litigation to hold the government to account and secure a broad spectrum of human rights for various marginalised groups in myriad issues, including right to food and shelter. Gonsalves’ clients have included India’s most vulnerable people, such as bonded laborers, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, slum dwellers, marginalised women and the poor.