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Biography | Dr. Ashok Khosla



“The problems of others will inevitably one day become our problems”…..



Isn’t it strange that our world, which has achieved such unprecedented levels of health, wealth and knowledge, is still so overwhelmed with problems that do not seem to have solutions? Half the population on this planet lives in utter poverty, on incomes of less than $2 a day. The global resource base is under threat from our massive addiction to energy guzzling technologies. Alienation, crime, violence and terrorism are so widespread now that they are the main subjects of newspaper headlines. Where are the leaders who will take us out of this mess?

Early on in his life, my father, Ashok Khosla, came to the conclusion that leaders would have to act fast to find solutions to the world’s social and environmental problems in a manner that would deal directly with their root causes, which were largely anthropogenic, the side effects of economic activity. This would require a drastic paradigm-shift in institutional policy and practice, where these leaders would move away from symptomatic, short term curative development strategies to more systemic and preventive ones, which in turn, would lead to cheaper, deeper and more long-lasting solutions.

Many a tipping-point has been reached: peak oil, the rise of global insecurities amounting to terrorism, economic recession etc. The problems of our world are growing and they are growing faster than we are able to take corrective action. Leaders and institutions must choose to make the problems of the poor and of the planet their own; this sense of responsibility in our common future is what our children should inherit instead of just wealth and luxury for some and poverty and deprivation for the many.

A good leader knows how to get results, but a great leader inspires, innovates and multiplies those results many times over. I’d like to think that the values that my father has instilled in the institutions he has built, the discipline and determination with which he has found solutions for our common problems and the inspiration he has given to people to make a difference have a value beyond what is simply measurable.

In 1983, after many years of working with a wide variety of institutions in India and abroad, Ashok Khosla set up Development Alternatives. To contribute to a better life for the people of this world, Development Alternatives has for the past twenty-five years, successfully introduced alternative solutions to the masses for many endemic problems that plague our economies, societies and governments.

The First Step

Ashok Khosla was exposed to the issues of sustainable development over four decades ago, during his time as a graduate student at Harvard University, studying experimental physics. In 1964, Ashok met Professor Roger Revelle, at the Population Center at Harvard. Roger Revelle, who had been the head of Scripps Institute of Oceanography and science advisor to President John F. Kennedy, was a pioneer in applying science to issues of social relevance. This was a meeting of minds and Ashok quickly became a student and collaborator of Professor Revelle and they worked together closely for over a decade exploring the relationships between people, their resources and the environment.

Ashok helped Professor Revelle design and teach the groundbreaking undergraduate course, “Natural Sciences 118”, which eventually led them to jointly publish “The Survival Equation”, the first definitive textbook on the subject. At the time, much of the environmental literature available (for example, authors such Paul Ehrlich and the Paddock Brothers) projected an apocalyptic future, whereas the message of “The Survival Equation” was one of hope. Its view was, that it is certainly true that forces and pressures to destroy the planet’s life support systems do exist, but so does the knowledge to reorient the behavior of economies to prevent this from happening. The course and the book itself, had a considerable influence on the field of resource management and the environment; in fact, “The Earth in Balance”, written by a student of the course, Al Gore, pays extensive homage to this course.


Upon completion of his PhD in experimental physics in 1972, Ashok was asked by the Government of India to establish the Office of Environmental Planning and Coordination (OEPC), the first national environmental agency in the Third World – and indeed among the first dozen anywhere.

As Director of the OEPC, he worked closely with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to introduce a broad range of methodological and institutional innovations necessary for managing environmental resources in a developing country such as India. These innovations included methods for assessing environmental impact and outcome, creating legal and institutional frameworks for pollution monitoring and control, managing the conservation of natural resources and wildlife, guidelines for the preservation of cultural heritage, and creating national institutions for research, training and promoting awareness. Much of Ashok’s early effort was geared to what he called “strengthening the capacity” of public agencies and members of the civil society to bring about the changes needed to enhance environmental quality in the country.

At the time, Ashok was regarded as a pioneer in the emerging field of sustainable development not only in India, but at a variety of international platforms which had been set up to explore the implications of global-social phenomena. He was actively involved in various projects that defined the environmental views and activities of institutions such as UNEP, UNESCO, UNU, the US Academy of Sciences, IUCN and ICSU/SCOPE – all of which had their unique areas of action in a rapidly growing field. He was also a member of the small team that wrote the SCOPE 5 Monograph, the first definitive manual on environmental impact assessment. Ashok played an influential part in many of the early UNESCO Man and Biosphere and IUCN task forces.

Ashok Khosla’s achievements at the OEPC and other institutions included:

Identification and preparation of the first three major environmental impact assessments in India: industrial pollution threats to the Taj Mahal, environmental impact of development projects at Chilka Lake, and impact assessment of a World Bank funded fertilizer plant in Nhava Sheva, Bombay (1973-1975).
Formulation of a detailed environmental management plan for the State of Jammu & Kashmir (1976) and guidelines for its implementation.
Establishing primary funding programmes for the Indian Government to support environmental research, environmental awareness and environmental action in India (1975-1976)
Promotion of a large network of NGOs and community based organizations interested in environmental issues, particularly in rural India.
Responsible for introducing many key environmental issues relevant to the third world to an international community; played a key role in expanding the scope of interest and action for international organizations, as well as introducing them to various tools with which to address these issues.

In 1976, Ashok Khosla joined the United Nations Environment Programme (at its new headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya) as the first Director of Infoterra. Ashok’s primary task was to design and implement a global information system for sustainable development that would facilitate governments and international agencies to introduce environmental agendas into national decision-making. At UNEP, he was also responsible for many other activities, such as setting up the MIS, designing project approval procedures and contributing to various publications like the State of Environmental Reports.

Ashok Khosla’s main achievements at UNEP include:

Design and implementation of INFOTERRA, the global information system of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); building up an active network of more than 10,000 environmental organizations extending over 120 countries (1976-1982) and creating strong working links between UNEP and leading NGOs throughout the world.
Responsible for making internal UNEP programmes more effective and efficient, as well as preparing policy papers on key issues such as the impact of consumption patterns and lifestyles on the environment.
Major contribution to the “World Conservation Strategy”, a defining moment in the promotion of sustainable development (1980)

Development Alternatives

On his return from Nairobi to India in 1983, Ashok set up Development Alternatives (DA) made possible by $100,000 project grant from UNEP. Ashok’s vision for DA was to create an organization that would make good business out of delivering environmentally sound development. Recognizing that 70% of the people of India lived in villages, the organization felt that the bulk of the actions of industry and the civil society must be aimed at their needs. Thus, by combining the objectives of a civil society organization with the profit-orientation (and management discipline) of a private sector business, DA (though itself a not-for-profit entity) created a fundamentally new niche in the Indian economy for a whole new breed of organization, which can meet social objectives in a scalable and sustainable manner. Such organizations are now known as the “Social Enterprises”.

DA’s major concerns lie with the environment (specifically, the interaction of people with nature), technology (interaction of people with machines), and institutions and policies (interaction of people with people). DA has demonstrated that our choice of technologies, the existing design of our institutions, consumption patterns and production systems must be fundamentally transformed if we want to ensure the long-term ecological security of our planet.

Furthermore, technologies have to be more human in scale, less wasteful in resources and directly responsive to the basic needs of people. In a developing country such as India where economic and social disparities in a society are large, the poor tend to over utilize and destroy renewable resources out of the exigencies of survival and need. On the other hand, the rich tend to over utilize and destroy other kinds of resources, non-renewable resources, often out of greed. Thus, only by increasing social equity – and eradicating poverty – can we truly make an impact on environmental conservation and reduce the threats to the resource base.

DA is structured around three major branches (divisions): Environment Systems, Technological Systems and Institutional Systems. The Technological Systems Branch has a highly innovative R&D facility that develops technologies to meet the criteria of environmental soundness, relevance to poverty eradication, mechanical efficiency and cost effectiveness. The group has done pioneering work in the development and redesign of existing products and processes that use fewer resources, produce less waste and in many cases generate substantial employment and empowerment for their users. Some of these products include machines for: cooking (domestic woodstoves, solar cookers), electricity production (gasifiers), production of construction materials (mudblocks, microconcrete roof tiles, ferrocement channels), weaving machines (advanced handlooms), equipment to produce handmade and recycled paper, as well as other products to promote sustainable livelihoods.

In order to make these technologies available to the masses, Development Alternatives incorporated Technology and Action for Rural Advancement (TARA) a private sector enterprise that manufactures and markets the technologies it makes as well as the services of People First (DA’s civic advocacy organization). TARA, in turn, has created half a dozen special purpose commercial entities / companies to carry out specific tasks:

Decentralized Energy Systems India Ltd (DESI Power), to manufacture, market and deliver renewable energy technologies
TARA Nirman Kendra (TNK), a chain of supermarkets to sell low cost, low energy, local building materials
TARA Franchising (formerly TBRT), to provide franchising services to entrepreneurs selling TARA technologies
TARAhaat Information and Marketing Services, to provide Internet services to village users, enabling them to create sustainable livelihoods and to access information necessary for managing their natural resources
TARAenviro, to introduce green technologies produced anywhere in the world for large-scale industrial and domestic use in India.

All of these organizations respond to various issues of the environment at the grass-root level, where environmental problems are resource based and their solutions lie in access to better and more appropriate technologies, information and support systems.

People First (a subsidiary of DA) has established itself as a premier advocacy organization in India which firmly believes that people must acquire a sense of ownership and exercise responsibility and vigilance for maintaining natural resources, without which, a nation cannot achieve sustainable development or ecological security. To generate such a sense of ownership, our societies require fundamental changes in the existing systems of governance: grass-root communities should be given full decision-making authority over all local resources and institutions. People First acts to influence government policy and create widespread public awareness on issues related to strengthening legislation, improving access to information and creating institutions for grassroots democracy.

Along with the Institutional Systems Branch at Development Alternatives, People First has established the People’s Commission on Environment and Development (PCED), which holds public hearings in different parts of India. PCED has conducted more than 50 public hearings and has a vast statistical database on grass-root governance and environmental issues from every state of the Indian sub-continent.

Another action-oriented subsidiary of the DA Group is CLEAN, the Community Led Environmental Action Network. CLEAN consists of one of the largest networks of Indian school-going children, who are dedicated to improving the quality of their environment. Via CLEAN, hundreds of schools in dozens of cities and towns across India, use pollution monitoring kits designed by Development Alternatives, to measure and analyze the quality of their environment; this program is scheduled to reach virtually every city and town in the country by the end of 2006.

Achievements of Ashok Khosla and the Development Alternatives Group:

Successful introduction and integration of more than 20 new environmentally sound and commercially viable technologies into the market. Visit www.devalt.org for more information.
Activities that have led to the creation of more than a million sustainable livelihoods (jobs) and impacted the lives of some 6 million people, covering several States in India
Reclamation of nearly 25,000 Hectares of degraded wastelands through innovative methods of reforestation, watershed management, recharging ground water and other programmes, serving as models for numerous other institutions spread throughout the nation
Construction of more than 140 check-dams, now replicate in the thousands by other groups in many states of India.
Implementation of more than 600 “sustainability” projects, including rehabilitation of displaced people, environmental impact assessments, environmental management plans, corporate “environment and social responsibility” systems.
Implementation of over a dozen major projects on the resource management practices of indigenous people (e.g. the development of the Common Property Resource Management System)
Development of a fully operational GIS facility (recognized by the Indian Government as one of the best and innovative products for regional planning)
Successful introduction of the first Internet Portal for rural India, “TARAhaat.com” along with a rapidly growing network of cyber cafés / kiosks to provide access to up-to-date environmental information for villagers. TARAhaat won the 2001 Stockholm Challenge Award for “pioneering application of information technology to environment and development”.
Installation and successful operation of several decentralized power stations based on renewable biomass in different parts of India, leading to multiple environmental benefits.

Development Alternatives (including all its subsidiaries) is considered as the premier institution in India for promoting sustainable development awareness and practice, with more than 500 staff operating throughout the country. Worldwide, DA is recognized for both its pioneering innovations in institutional design and for the high quality of its products and services.

Systems and Work Culture

In all of Ashok Khosla’s assignments, both as a manager and as a member of the governance structure, he has brought to the workplace the strongest commitment to systems, nurtured by a total dedication to openness, transparency and objectivity in decision making and information flows. His colleagues, former and current, all testify to the centrality in all the work environments he has created to what he calls the “basic non-negotiables”: integrity, fairness and excellence, attributes that staff members often adopt, internalize and make their own.

It is these personal and professional traits that have helped Ashok Khosla build and guide so many successful institutions at the national and international level.

Other Institutions

Ashok Khosla has taken an active part in the policy and decision making bodies of many of the largest environmental organizations in the world, including the World Conservation Union (IUCN), The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Alliance for a New Humanity, championing the wider issues of environmentally sustainable development. He has devoted a total seventeen years to IUCN governance alone, as a Council member and Commission Chairman, plus seven years on the Board of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and another seven years each on the Boards of the IISD, WWF-India and ANH. Currently, he is also the President of the Club of Rome.