(10 September 1928 – 5 February 1999)
A MAN OF THE EARTH
Lakshmi Menon, Bandra, January 2000
I met Winin Pereira in the early 1980s in my search for information as a documentalist. I came upon this lovely house fringed with trees overlooking the sea. Within the house there was as much tranquillity – it did not seem possible to find such peace in the hurry-scurry of Bombay city. Winin himself exuded serenity and calm. This was my first impression and it remained so even years later, despite his troublesome preoccupations including legal battles with the municipality.
I was impressed with the work Winin was striving to do. I marveled at the amount of work he managed to produce with minimum resources and more so at the way he functioned.
His simple lifestyle and his unassuming ways inspired me. I was particularly touched by his generosity – he always had time for people who came seeking information, wanting discussions or his help. I remember the time when I had developed the Akshara Classification system and he offered me the use of his computer to have it keyed and printed out. In the mid ’80s not many NGOs had computers and I was not even sure how to use it. I also knew he was very busy and could hardly afford to have me use it. So I suggested that I use it after office hours. As the computer was occupied often till late in the evening, I would drop by after my early morning walks to work on it. He helped me to format the classification and prepare the alphabetical index, while I worried about taking him away from his work.
He was also generous with the information he collected. But that was so in keeping with his belief that information belonged to people. Still, considering that he spent so much time and energy documenting it, he never said no to a request for information, nor did he charge for the service. He only wanted to be assured that the information was not for commercial use. I remember when I was working on the book Pests at Home: a Consumer Guide to safer Pest Control produced by Consumers International in Penang, I requested information on plants and their common names. He very promptly arranged to collate and send it to me in Malaysia. However he failed to send his bill despite several reminders. Finally I sent him a sum to cover at least his photocopying and mailing expenses.
He was ready to give his precious time even for a young person who was “simply looking around”. My “looking around” in Winin’s office turned out to be a very rewarding experience – in understanding him as a person and his ideology, a lesson in patience, an eye for details, and the importance of accuracy. I was involved in research for one of his publications Tending the Earth. At the time I had to check and recheck the information, the sources with bits and pieces of the news items. The book seemed to go on forever and I found myself constantly updating and revising it. At one point I was irritated with this ongoing research with no apparent end in sight. I remember telling Winin that we ought to have a deadline and stop editing, he remarked: “a deadline would compromise the quality of the publication”. He would not stop till he was fully satisfied with his work.
Centre for Holistic Studies, founded by Winin, is a very rich source of information. I had on several occasions used the Centre and marveled at its information system. This simple system, no doubt developed by trial and error, stored and retrieved information collected from newspapers, periodicals, books, correspondence, etc. On the face of it the method seemed quite crude with newspaper clippings filed in recycled paper envelopes. Despite such seemingly chaotic arrangement, the system in fact actually worked. The information could be accessed and not once did I have to leave disappointed. Winin had devised this information system which was reliable and unpretentious. Since 1990, the system is computerised even as the manual system continues to exist as before.
I would often admire Winin’s energy and enthusiasm for work, his discipline, and his positive attitude. Despite lack of resources he never gave up, never lost hope. He has been a source of inspiration for several people, many of whom have volunteered their time and efforts to share his work and help relieve his burden.
And it was a pleasure to meet Winin even when we did not have work to talk about. I would drop by to meet him in the evenings when he was among his grandchildren on the terrace. We would watch the sea and the setting sun, rueing the environmental damage caused by the municipality which was destroying the mangroves in its grandiose plans to build an esplanade. His family has been equally warm. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered on one of my visits that his wife Melanie used to be my colleague in a local school in mid ’70s.
Winin’s death marks the end of a generation which cherished and upheld values which are now so hard to come by – in particular his value for people and value for the environment, both of equal importance to him. I feel so deeply when I think of Winin, to wonder about what he went through in life, struggling to cope with changing times and yet remaining so steadfast to his beliefs and values. And I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to have known him and be able to share and participate in his work and beliefs.
Winin’s attempts to change the world is surely not in vain. The writings he has left behind will no doubt inspire people and the Centre for Holistic Studies will continue to work towards realising his dreams.
20 January 2000
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Reminiscences – of an old friend
Winin Pereira who died in Mumbai on February the 5th, 1999 lived in Bandra once known as The Queen of Bombay’s Suburbs — a settlement of palms, paddy fields and ancestral agricultural lands. Here he was able to trace his Catholic heritage for at least the last three hundred years.
Winin Pereira trained as an atomic physicist, and worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and with Homi Bhabha at the Atomic Energy Establishment. Increasingly perturbed by the danger posed by India’s uncritical assimilation of Western science and technology, he resigned. This was regarded by the Indian establishment as a betrayal, and he was never to be officially employed again. He turned to development projects in Maharashtra, associated with a number of agencies; but soon became aware of the negative consequences of the received wisdom, including the promotion of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, cross-bred cattle and hybrid seeds. In consequence, he turned away from the conventional developmental path, and spent more and more time in an Adivasi (tribal) area. He had a small farm in Alonde, where he was happiest, learning from those who had lived symbiotically with the forests for millennia without disturbing the ecological balance of the land, of which they regarded their own lives as an extension and an expression.
He began to collect examples of truly sustainable agriculture; and amassed a formidable reserve of knowledge of how things had been done, and how these continued to reverberate in popular memory. Having inherited his father’s distaste for colonialism, he was acutely aware of the continuities between the British Raj and the Raj of the IMF/World Bank/ transnationals which have now replaced it. This, he felt, was made explicit after the Indian government formally embraced the liberalisation programme in 1991.
He got out of the projects he was engaged on, and at his home in Bandra, set up the ‘Centre for Holistic Studies’ (CHS). This was devoted to an analysis of the impact of 500 years of colonialism, and to the recovery of alternative, indigenous social and economic values. He turned to traditional Indian culture, respect for all things, living and non-living, the doctrine of ahimsa and minimal interference in nature. CHS became a resource-centre and library with extensive databases. It offered support, information and encouragement to peoples’ movements fighting unjust development, most recently, to those farmers resisting the Dabhol power project in Maharashtra.
I met Winin in the mid-eighties: it was, for him a lean time. India was more and more committed to industrialism, consumerism seemed to have seized the imagination of the growing middle class, and few people were interested in recuperating what at that time appeared to be decaying traditions of frugality, self-reliance and the kind of modest security which the Adivasis had practised, and Gandhi had advocated. At that time, he felt isolated and disillusioned.
The first time I met him he sat opposite me, as the sunlight, reflected from the Arabian Sea, played in the room, kept cool by the creepers and fish-tail palms that had been planted around the plain house in Carter Road. I immediately recognised someone with whose sensibility and heart there was the kind of sympathy that requires no explanations – those rare encounters of the spirit that give new meaning and hope to our lives. He invited me to stay with him and his family; and without hesitation I accepted. It was a kind of homecoming, this meeting of strangers who, through quite different social and cultural experiences had reached a common understanding. We worked together and I was instrumental in getting some of his work published. His first book, Asking the Earth, appeared in 1990. From him I learned much about India, its colonial history, the destructiveness of an invasive culture of consumerism in a country where the basic needs of more than 40 per cent of the people remain unanswered. Above all, he taught that social justice and respect for the environment are indivisible. If one takes precedence over the other, we fall into, either the uncritical acceptance by Marxists of industrialism, or into the error of a version of deep ecology which is prepared to save the planet even if the people perish. To give equal weight to social justice and to conserving the resource-base of the earth is a very radical project indeed: for this seriously challenges the existing developmental model which requires at the same time ever more extravagant abuse of the earth and growing inequality, all under the grandiose and banner of ‘wealth creation’. Winin Pereira raises issues about different measures of wealth, other forms of justice, fresh definitions of human purposes, new ideas of well-being.
Winin Pereira was himself a curious and contradictory figure. Although he wrote all the time about overcoming the crisis of industrial society, he was not a practical man. I went with him once to the little hut in Alonde. It was extraordinarily beautiful – he could name every tree, shrub and bird; but the food we had taken was eaten by rats because we had failed to secure the cupboard door. Trying to cook something out of a tin over an open fire, we dropped it and went supperless. We laughed at the paradox that we were offering prescriptions for the survival for humanity, yet could scarcely survive a single night on our own. Indeed, without the practical and loving support of his family, Winin’s work could scarcely have been sustained. In the last decade of his life he rarely left his home. He was completely uncompromising, convinced that the existing paradigm would collapse, and that, whatever happened to the people of the West (whom he thought doomed, because of their total dispossession of survival skills by market-dependency), India would revert to traditional village self-reliant culture based upon the land and the local production of necessities. He could be intransigent at times; but was utterly incorruptible, refusing foreign funding, and maintaining a monastic dedication to his work, even though enfeebled by strokes and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. He lived to see more and more people acknowledging the impossibility of the project of ‘globalisation’, which had overtaken the internationalism to which he was himself committed.
Although I could not entirely share his apocalyptic view, nor regard the prospect of collapse of industrial society with the equanimity with which he viewed it, I came to love and respect him. He was a passionate man, ultimately optimistic, despite a certain melancholy. His was a search for just, sustainable and practical forms of development, justice for all those living now and for an indefinite number of future generations. He celebrated people’s knowledge, and what he called ‘liberation technology’ over Western science, and if to some he appeared backward-looking, this was only in order to bring to the future some of the wisdom of the past that was being wiped out by a barren industrialism that only conjured new poverties out of the very wealth that was supposed to emancipate humanity.
Muswell Hill, London
20 February 1999.
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Winin Pereira – A tribute
I feel the need to say something from my own perspective. I first came in contact with Winin in 1990. He had written to me, at the suggestion of an Australian academic, concerning sustainable development. He was a former nuclear physics worker who left this behind to operate a co-operative farm. Our relationship developed from this initial contact. Winin was an important intellectual mentor, comparable to the late Richard Sylvan, Rudolf Bahro and Arne Naess. Winin felt that the Green Web and the Centre for Holistic Studies were on similar roads. I felt this was a kind, but too flattering comparison, which still however inspired me. I always felt the Centre’s work is much more practically grounded than what we are doing.
Winin felt, out of necessity and being rooted in India with all its poverty, that the Center had to pay a lot of attention to social justice. There also seemed to be a focus on collecting and popularizing traditional agricultural practices, which had existed for hundreds of years outside of the industrial capitalist system. (For example, The Ecologist published an article by Winin called “Traditional Rice Growing in India”, March/April 1991.) He also felt that the concern with deep ecology, while understandable for people here in North America, was not so important for India. Winin believed that ancient Indian philosophies had a similar deep ecology ethic and that these philosophies were close to the surface in India among the peasantry. Reading Winin’s writings, because of the anti-Western development trust (Indians should rely on their own traditions and knowledge), kept me conscious of how our industrial growth in the West had negative consequences for what he called the “Two-Thirds World”. One of the booklets published by the Centre in 1990, was called “From Western Science To Liberation Technology”.
Winin was a pre-left bio contact for me. He was one of those contacts through the mail who enabled me to feel a part of something much bigger than myself. So the local isolation became more bearable because of exchanges with others scattered around the world, thinking similar thoughts about the need to end industrial capitalist society, and how to establish a different, more ecocentric relationship to the natural world.
I have quite a thick file of writings by Winin. The following is from an article called “Restoring Our Future”, which is dated January 1990 and is authored by Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook. I am quoting the opening three paragraphs and the last paragraph:
The other day there was a pathetic report in the news about a little girl in Bombay who had never seen a live butterfly. There must be something drastically wrong with the way we have organised our lives – or the way it is organised for us – which has resulted in our exchanging the beauty of butterflies on the wing for a handful of high-tech trinkets.
The interplay between the internal environment (human appetites) with the external one (the planet) requires to be dismantled and reconstructed in a less damaging and ruinous relationship.
Our ancient sages discerned a principle of harmony pervading the entire universe. Each individual forms part of all other life and non-life, one with the earth. This concept requires respect for all that surrounds us, since the individual self merges with the rest of creation. Such a perception can form the basis for a just, sustainable society.
…. If the western system of ‘development’ is permitted to endure, of one thing we can be sure: soon, not only will butterflies vanish, but little girls, too.
Thanks Winin, for what you came to do with your life and what you gave to me and so many others.
Pictou Country, Nova Scotia
Canada, BOK 1PO
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From Winin’s Desk
1. The Browning of Harit Mumbai by Winin Pereira, with illustrations:
a] The Browning of Harit Mumbai: Winin Pereira = http://www.chs-sachetan.org/?p=724
b] Our Carter Road garden in the 1990s – http://www.chs-sachetan.org/?p=696
c] Mumbai in the 1990s – http://www.chs-sachetan.org/?page_id=834
d] Re-Greening Bombay http://www.chs-sachetan.org/?page_id=844
2. 1996 – Winin Pereira speaks on tape recorder about his early years learning and living with adivasis at Alonda, District Thana, Maharashtra.
Transcribed by Barbara Panvel