Ashok Kadam

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1999
This description of Ashok Kadam's work was prepared when Ashok Kadam was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .


Ashok Kadam (1999) is crafting a grassroots-driven model to make industrial expansion in eco-zones of the country responsible, planned and environmentally-viable. Recognizing that blanket citizen opposition to industrialization cannot counter the powerful for-profit camp, Ashok Kadam is bringing together local communities, industries and the government to collaborate on win-win models of industrial growth that ensure minimal economic and ecological losses.

The New Idea

Ashok Kadam has developed a unique approach to responsible industrialization that depends on local community participation in planning before a new industrial facility is built. By his design and with his organization's help, rural people evaluate their local environment, develop their own plan for responsible industrial development, and convince other primary stakeholders, and representatives from industry and local government, that their concerns must be incorporated into any new development.

Ashok's conviction that industrialization should not endanger local communities or natural resources has driven him toward a cooperative solution. Recognizing, after a decade of fighting industry, that confrontation yields limited gains, Ashok is uniting industry, government, and the previously overlooked rural population in a collaborative effort to introduce industrial growth that maximizes local rights and minimizes environmental harm. He has created a framework to build the capacity of rural residents to engage powerful industrial and governmental interests. His approach to citizen training and his network of community supporters, government bureaucrats, and even industrial leaders has enabled numerous villages in rural India to change potentially harmful industrial plans into engines of responsible economic growth. Ashok's idea will fundamentally alter the dynamics of industry-community collaboration by providing local people with the skills, tools, and network to engage both industry and government interests as an equal.

The Problem

Across India, industrial growth has come at the expense of local communities and the environment. New industries have displaced residents and damaged the natural resources through unregulated consumption of land and water, particularly in the rich coastal belt of Maharashtra. The citizen sector has remained too weak and unorganized to halt this expansion. Local communities have suffered extensively because of their inability to participate in industrial planning. New industries have caused environmental damage that threatens the region's extensive biodiversity and has forced thousands of people off their lands. Air and water pollution threatens the health of families, has led to large-scale migration, and has driven many people into poverty. In 1989 alone, almost 60,000 people in the Konkan region were forced to leave their homes to escape industrial pollution. Entire rivers have lost all biological life, yet of the 120 industrial plants in Lote Parshuram, for example, only four have any sort of waste treatment facilities.

The government has been unable and unwilling to assist communities in guaranteeing responsible industrial growth, while industry's attempts to help residents are largely charitable and thus ignore the roots of the problem. Therefore, no large-scale, systemic, sustainable program exists to promote collaborative industrial development.

Ashok has spent years promoting local and environmental concerns in Maharashtra, one of the most heavily industrialized states in India, and has discovered two facts about industrial development in India. First, industrial plans do not always have to conflict with local communities; often villages are willing to support balanced industrial growth in their regions, if industries take the time to collaborate with them. Second, rigorous surveys, health analyses, and environmental and technological information presented by local communities can convince industries to develop responsibly. Long before an industry establishes itself in an area, local communities must collaborate to plan a balanced, responsible industrial zone. Effective collaboration, however, requires equal footing for all partners. Small communities in India rarely have the knowledge or training to take on powerful industrial interests.

The Strategy

Ashok has already put his idea into practice around Maharashtra. His organization, Parivartan, educates, trains, and organizes communities to engage powerful industry and government interests on a more equal footing. Ashok's non-confrontational efforts reach out to industries by boosting a company's image and presenting expansion strategies that benefit all interests. The strategies are developed by people who may originally have opposed industrial development. Thus, all stakeholders can be engaged on a more equal platform, with communities playing a new and major role in disciplined, technical, yet responsible industrial planning.

Ashok launched his idea in twenty-two villages in coastal Maharashtra, on lands reserved for industrial development. He is also working with forty-two fishing communities that have been displaced by pollution from the chemical industry's stronghold of Lote Parshuram. His idea has created breakthroughs in the industrial-planning process. For instance, in March 1998, Ashok and Parivartan organized the region's first public debate about industrial expansion, attended by more than 1,400 people, including several industry leaders and the director of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), a powerful regional government agency. As a result, MIDC agreed to significant reforms to improve industrial development and to compensate those harmed by industries in the region.

Within the villages, the key to Ashok's strategy lies in developing the organizational and technical muscle to turn industrial development into an opportunity for increased economic and social development. Parivartan has helped traditional, largely subsistence-level agricultural and fishing communities organize themselves into cohesive local groups. These groups are then trained to provide services to the industrial workers, thereby capitalizing on the incoming industries. For example, villagers in the Azgani region have won milk and stationery supply contracts with two emerging industries in the Lote belt. These communities are learning how to use industry as an opportunity to rise from poverty.

The other major component of Ashok's strategy lies in training local people to develop sound, responsible industrial development plans and to monitor and report problem industries. Parivartan plans to establish "People's Laboratories" in which villagers will learn to use technical tools to gather and analyze information about local environmental and health conditions. Local communities can use this data to propose more responsible industrial development during the planning stages and to monitor industries and hold them to their promises.

In addition, Ashok's organization helps communities use industrial expansion to build up their citizen sectors. The villagers participating in Ashok's program learn about the laws and policies that affect them and the ways in which they can bring about change. As more village groups emerge in the region, Parivartan connects them with each other and with other organizations, such as those for women and youth. The linkages are mutually strengthening and exemplify the potential for citizen-based reform. By encouraging responsible industrial expansion and by using that expansion to improve local well-being, Ashok's communities can thus succeed in creating win-win development.

The next step is to use commitments from government and industry to design a people's development plan for the entire region and ensure that it is implemented in fact and in spirit. As the gains of his collaborative process become more visible, Ashok plans to replicate his activities through community-action organizations working in other regions of India. Eventually, they will be combined into a tight network that can present a cohesive voice for local people.

To ensure a lasting impact, Ashok is also building a statewide network of lawyers to work toward legal and policy changes that will cement his program of collaboration and local capacity-building in Maharashtra. Ashok will expand his organization to become a national resource and advocacy center for promoting responsible, balanced, and collaborative industrial development. He plans to assemble a team of scientists, industry representatives, technical experts, environmentalists, and community-rights activists to assist communities across India.

The Person

Born in the resource-rich Konkan belt of Maharashtra, Ashok Kadam grew up watching the barely regulated spread of industries into the area. Although he did not initially plan on devoting his life to protecting local people and the environment from unhealthy industrial expansion, he felt a responsibility to others. In college, he joined a progressive organization for intellectuals with a social conscience, where he was a full-time volunteer for seven years. This experience, in addition to working with several grassroots groups, gave him a unique perspective in his subsequent work for the Maharashtra State Land Development Bank. He used his position and his passion for helping people to circumvent the bank's entrenched corruption and bureaucratic shortcomings. He developed methods to ensure that the people most in need received the most assistance, and he learned the importance of training poor communities in how to access the bank's services.

By 1992, Ashok realized the limitations of his position and resigned to pursue grassroots work. He traveled across the newly industrializing regions of the state, slowly building a network of community and environmental activists, which developed into the Konkan Sangharsh Samiti (KSS), a regional platform and training center for community action groups. During this period, Ashok discovered the potential for collaboration with industry and government that led him on the path to his new idea.