Shrey Goyal's picture

The Development Imperative of Free Speech

Even as the world champions for freedom of speech year on year, rankings such as the World Press Freedom Index continue highlighting the year-on-year deterioration in freedom of information worldwide. As developing as well as developed nations continue this struggle, it is worthwhile to examine freedom of expression and its often-overlooked relationship with economic and social development.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

That a free press and democratic governance go hand in hand is now well established in the development community. Media freedom and access to information have been recognised as contributors to the wider development objective of empowering people, and helping them gain control over their own lives. Journalists all over the world make efforts to hold governments and businesses accountable, shine a light on social evils and malpractices, and serve the public interest, despite being harassed, threatened, or imprisoned.

Journalism is as much about service to humanity as is the medical or teaching profession. The media can be a voice for the powerless, a disseminator of ideas and information, and an engine for political and social change. Correlations between freedom of the press and the different dimensions of development, poverty, governance and peace have been empirically established by economists and sociologists in several studies and reports over decades.

When world leaders vowed to improve the wellbeing of humanity by constituting the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), press freedom, democratic governance and accountability, were not among them. This was about a decade and a half ago, possibly due to pressure from rich, authoritarian regimes, but much has changed since. Information and communication technology have exploded, and while quasi-dictators continue thriving, today’s citizens aspire for more. According to the UN’s own poll of more than half a million people worldwide in 2013, promoting open and responsive government is a top priority, behind only food and health care.

As the MDGs expire this year, inclusion of press freedom in the next development agenda is necessary for the fight against global poverty. The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has already recommended (as one of the goals), the promotion of “good governance and effective institutions” through two necessary conditions: “ensure that people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information,” and “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data.”

Thus, access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, is a prerogative to international development efforts. The post-2015 Development Agenda gives us an historic opportunity to correct this omission in the 2000 MDGs. However, let us not forget that the UN alone cannot be the sole platform for a system of accountability, and that it must be integrated with regional and national action by governments and policy-makers.


Shrey Goyal's picture

The Great Fall: 9/11 and the New Social Contract

The Falling Man - 9/11

“I hope we're not trying to figure out who he is and more figure out who we are through watching that.”

-- Gwendolyn Briley-Strand (sister of Jonathan Briley), 9/11: The Falling Man

Thirteen years ago, Associated Press photographer Richard Drew found himself occupied with work at the site of the World Trade Center attacks, already dubbed ‘Ground Zero,’ a term incidentally originating from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the United States during World War II. One of the photographs by Drew, titled The Falling Man, shows a ‘jumper’ escaping the fumes. The subject of the image is placed perfectly parallel to the columns of the late Towers, symmetrically dissecting both of them. Believed by many to be North Tower restaurant employee Jonathan Briley, the identity of the man has never been officially confirmed.

This photograph has seen thorough examination by social and cultural commentators worldwide, for there is something inherently discomforting about a man jumping from a skyscraper, even a burning one. Why did he jump? No matter what the situation in the building, the fall could not, under any circumstances, have saved him. Hitting the curb at a terminal velocity of between fifty and sixty metres per second, probably head first, is certain to result in death, perhaps immediately. Which could very well be an answer itself: the eponymous falling man is jumping for the comfort of an instant, possibly painless death.

He is away from something, but also towards something: his freedom. Sprinting towards his bodily demise, about fifty four metres closer to it with every passing second. This man may not even know precisely what has happened; leave alone the modus operandi behind it. Nevertheless, he is not going to let it decide his fate. He is going to embrace his destiny, without letting someone else decide the moment and manner that he must die. He is not going to spend his last moments choking on concrete fumes. He’ll breathe free, perhaps freer than he ever before, and in the small metaphorical window that he has, he is going to govern the terms of his death. It is not suicide, but rather, the ultimate act of rebellion.

The attacks, immediately termed ‘9/11’, would go on to redefine the relationship between state and society, including for people who, in another era, wouldn’t even have seen the news of the incident.

9/11 marked the start of the Global War on Terror, the Great War of our time. The attacks resulted in 2,996 immediate (attack time) deaths, including the 19 hijackers, and citizens of over 90 countries. Additionally 1,140 responders and people in Lower Manhattan at the time have since been diagnosed with cancer (whom the US government famously denied healthcare benefits for a decade). 9/11 also led directly to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as well as additional homeland security measures, and was cited as a rationale for the Iraq war, although intelligence organizations and think tanks globally have failed to grasp the latter.

The War in Afghanistan is estimated to have resulted in 3,466 “coalition deaths,” and between 18,000 and 20,000 Afghan civilian casualties. As of 2010, there had been 16,623 Iraqi military and police deaths, and as per a 2008 estimate by ORB International, 946,000 to 1,120,000 civilian deaths ("48% died from a gunshot wound, 20% from the impact of a car bomb, 9% from aerial bombardment…”). I wouldn’t blame you for skimming over the statistics, for that’s all they are now: just a set of numbers. Another number to reflect upon is 5 trillion, a figure that the cost of these two wars surpassed in US dollars a while ago, while we are still counting the dips in the global recession.

9/11 also heralded a U.S. government shift toward Israel’s response Palestinian terror, and it was a crucial step in Israel gaining American approval for military incursions in the West Bank in 2002. This legitimised the further rounds of Gaza war including the most recent one, which, as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports, displaced 25% of the population, and killed a total 2,104 people in the Gaza Strip, including 1,462 civilians, which itself includes 495 children, 253 women, and other such numbers.

A lot else has changed, and 9/11 has resulted in new attitudes and concerns about defence and vigilance worldwide. For the U.S., it brought along policies like the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” (USA PATRIOT Act for short), which prioritized national security at the expense of civil liberties (and in some cases, human rights).

This curtailment of rights extended beyond the American borders, and full body scans, frisking, and a general air of hostility became ubiquitous across transport infrastructure worldwide. Racial and other forms of discrimination were similarly institutionalised as scaremongering took over most of the democratic world. Privacy became a lost cause, and memories of cold war paranoia were revived.

While 9/11 was commemorated last month, this year also saw the centenary of the beginning of the original Great War: the World War I. Every major war since has seen its fair share of remembrance and commemoration, and some accompanying decoration and symbolism. In Britain, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was created at Westminster Abbey, in France La tombe du soldat inconnu was placed in the Arc de Triomphe, and India followed with an eternal flame burning next to a rifle capped by war helmet beneath the India Gate in New Delhi. The British Unknown Warrior even made it to the “100 Great Britons” list as per a 2002 poll. In all of these monuments, the anonymity of the entombed soldier is key, for he represents everyone who fell in service of the nation.

Unlike previous global combats, our current great war has never been formally declared to be taking place between specific nations or armed units. It’s a war that governments have in fact, been fighting against citizens, one in which we have all been drafted (or as my phone poetically autocorrected, “dragged”). Whether consensually or otherwise, we are all soldiers, struggling for our lives while perpetually in combat against an unknown enemy.

It’s about time that we too started celebrating our warriors, and perhaps identify a symbol to mark the graves of the unidentified dead in the war. Not a religious symbol, but one befitting the current collective crisis of faith in our institutions. Let us build our monuments with a powerful image from our time. It could be called an image of despair, of freedom, or simply, of our new found reality.

It was never Jonathan Briley in the photograph after all. It was us. The symbol of this war is not a fallen soldier, but a falling one.

Note: A version of this post was published in The Sunday Guardian on 13 September 2014, and can be seen online at The Great Fall: 9/11 and the new social contract that redefines state and society.

Shrey Goyal's picture

Women in-charge: Battling the Food-Energy-Water Crisis in India

India is the largest user of groundwater (GW) in the world, consuming more than a quarter of the global total. A 2010 World Bank study pointed out that GW supports about two-thirds of our irrigated agriculture, and five-sixths of the drinking water supplies.

Enter the linkages. India uses approximately 230 cubic kilometres of GW every year, and almost 70-80 billion kWh equivalent of energy is consumed annually simply to pump it up for agriculture alone. Most of this energy comes from subsidised electricity/diesel supplies, binding food, water and energy in a vile politicised nexus of mutual dependence. A single sector has thus drained the nation’s power as well as water supply in such an abhorrently unsustainable manner, that water tables have dropped several metres over the years, leading to even greater energy guzzling for the extra depths our pumps have to seek. And now, even growth in agriculture is threatened because of the exhaustion of this neglected resource. I do not condone hyperbole, but we have on our hands a food security, energy security, and water security crises packaged into one catastrophic juggernaut, while climate change is already looking in our direction with its nostrils flared up.

It is nearly impossible to come up with effective centralised solutions for this crisis. A single authority can’t even fathom the task of managing the tens of millions of groundwater extraction structures in the country, especially in the face of the most extreme political and policy challenges. Instead, bottom-up approaches that involve the local community to manage water resources are the need of the hour.

To see such an approach in action, let’s go to one of the most water-scarce states in India–Gujarat –where high saline levels prevent rainwater from penetrating the soil. During climate change induced events such as flash flood in regions with non-porous soils, water logging reduces soil fertility, affecting agricultural produce and ultimately farmer income.

Here, an organisation called Naireeta Services Private Limited (NSPL) has perfected a unique participatory irrigation system called ‘Bhungroo’.

I work with NSPL on the design and other technical aspects of the implementation, and we start off with installation of large underground reservoirs with a local partner, which can provide farmers with much-needed water for up to seven months. The innovation, however, is not just in the technology, but comes from NSPL’s unique natural resource management model. 

In India’s patriarchal society, women in rural areas are often forced to live in the shadow of men. However, as we have come to realise, giving women the upper hand on a critical resource can change this situation rapidly.

Groups of five women are selected to operate the Bhungroo system and repay service and construction costs through increased agricultural income over five years. These women are from underprivileged backgrounds, and are trained and empowered to run and monitor these units, effectively controlling irrigation supply.  Thus, to get even a single drop of water, essential for agri-livelihoods, men now have to approach them for permission to gain access. This has led to a near-reversal in gender roles, with our women members and their households being emancipated from debt traps, gaining land ownership, and participating in local governance as a result of their expertise and influence in agriculture and availability of water.

Once erected, each unit of Bhungroo, with a life span of 30 years, frees 5-10 acres of land from water logging each monsoon, and is giving water for irrigation for at least 20 acres of land in winter. Thus each unit saves five farming families’ land from fertility loss and guarantees cropping for two seasons for next 30 years, ensuring lifelong food security to at least 25 low-income family members, and agricultural income doubling for more than 6 families. Bhungroo thus ensures lifelong food security and doubling of income for marginal and small landholding farmers. The system has seen wide adoption and has received support and recognition from the state government as well as development agencies worldwide (Ashoka, 2012; Pachauri).

In India itself, waterlogging affects 12 states, encompassing 7% of the total national land mass, i.e. nearly 6.7 million ha of land is not cultivable in critical cropping period; A minimum 1.9 million marginal and small landholding farming family members are deprived of food security and sustainable livelihood, and yearly crop loss volume of at least USD 1580M can thus be avoided by use of Bhungroo.

Even though our country and the world at large is facing energy and water challenges of biblical proportions, this may be a good time to stop shoving one-size fits all solutions through top-down mechanisms. We can now reconsider our approach to governance and promote greater local involvement in ownership and utilisation of what are essentially public goods. Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste.






  • Gujarat Ecology Commission (Govt. of Gujarat) & Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (A World Bank Project). “Towards Green Gujarat” Report (Pages 36-40). Featuring Naireeta Services Private Limited & Biplab K.Paul


  • "Biplab Ketan Paul is an extremely Committed development innovator who has done remarkable work in Gujarat. He has the makings of someone who can spread his model of dedication and effective mobilisation of lecal communities far across this country."

-- Prof. R.K. PAchauri (Chairman, Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), "Innovator to the core", Financial Express, January 8, 2006


  • Bhungroo was recognised by the World Bank India Development Marketplace 2007 awards as a pioneer among  ‘Grassroot Initiatives for Management and Protection of Natural Resources’