Letters from India No 8

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan – Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum – Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Oras Tynkkynen


DELHI -- I, that is Oras Tynkkynen – a 22-year old student of journalism and the third Finnish exhangee – arrived in India on 14th of January. I have been active in different NGOs and movements since the early 90s, but have lately concentrated on working in Friends of the Earth Finland – an organisation I helped to found and co-chaired for two years. My special expertise is climate change and related policies and politics. Back at home I am also busy taking part in politics in the Green Party and as a deputy member of the Tampere city council. For Finnish readers, more information on me is available at www.oras.net.

I will be staying in India for three months from mid-January to mid-April. Using Delhi as my headquarters I will visit Rajasthan, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and probably Bangladesh and the Maldives. I will study how different levels of Indian society view climate change and what kind of changes have taken place in local climates. I will write a report on equity in climate politics for an international workshop by the Centre for Science and Environment and present case studies on the effects of the cyclone in Orissa and the threat a rise in sea levels poses to the Maldives. This work will be utilised in many ways back in Finland

On more general Lokayan issues, I will work on a booklet describing the exchange programme in close cooperation with both Finnish and Indian people who have in one way or another contributed to the programme. I will also select articles from the Lokayan bulletin and translate them for the Finnish audience. Articles may range from the overall analyses provided in the editorials to descriptions of local struggles for justice and ecological sustainability. I will naturally also continue writing the fortnightly bulletin I enjoyed reading so much before coming to India.

As before, an essential part of the programme is learning about Lokayan, social movements and the Indian society in general. Travelling quite extensively and meeting a lot of different people as well as reading insightful books will hopefully contribute to my understanding.

Before continuing to the actual topics of this letter I have to apologise to the reader that this letter is a bit light on substance. This is mainly because a large portion of my first two weeks in India was spent on settling, organising logistics and even feeling slightly unwell for a couple of days. I hope the next issues will be more interesting.

Conservation efforts in Vrindavan

Vrindavan is a town about 100 km south of Delhi in Uttar Pradesh. It is known as the setting for many of young Krishna's famous pranks. Today it hosts numerous temples – many accounts speak of thousands.

Rita and I visited Vrindavan on January 21.–22. to attend the inauguration of a computer training centre for poor students. The centre is a project of Swami Avsheshanand, a Hindu priest considered particularly progressive and radical. We had a discussion with Swamiji and stayed overnight at his Geeta Ashram.

In the not so distant past, Vrindavan used to be covered with lush forests. The mighty river Yamuna washed the many ghats – steps that people use to get closer to the water for ritual bathing – on its river banks. Now little is left of the forests and even Yamuna, polluted and reduced greatly in size, has meandered away from the ghats.

Vrindavan Conservation Project by the Indian branch of World Wide Fund for Nature tries to restore some of Vrindavan's lost beauty. Devendra Sharma, the person in charge of the project, told us about the many activities with which environmental conservation is promoted in the area. The project has planted more than 10 000 trees, given lectures and organised rallies just to give a few examples.

What was particularly interesting was how the project merged the ancient with the modern to promote environmental awareness. Arguments based on science that are commonly used in northern countries might fall on deaf ears as many of the local people are illiterate and uneducated. However, all of them know the myths surrounding the life of Krishna. For instance, it might be difficult to argue for the common people why untreated waste should not be let to flow to Yamuna. Instead of telling about how waste pollutes the water, Mr. Sharma often reminds people of how Krishna killed a water demon residing in the river; preventing Yamuna from getting polluted is thus like killing the demon.

Highlights from the fortnight

Two days after I arrived Rita and I attended a conference on development and governance organised by Rashtriya Vikas Morcha (RVM). The gathering attracted around 60–70 people, most of them men. Much of the discussion was in Hindi, but the speeches given in English were quite informative. Presentations and discussions revolved around the state of democracy and politics in India. Dr. D.L. Seth suggested that fear of the full consequences of democracy had prevailed for the past 50 years and that India was undergoing its third revolution. Arun Kumar, one of the two people Kepa funded to attend the WTO ministerial in Seattle, talked about the poverty of mind: people believe that they cannot do anything without finances from abroad. For a student of journalism like myself, the discussion about the media becoming more commercial and superficial (a journalist from The Times of India stated that generally the media is interested only in the three F's: food, fuck and fashion) sounded very familiar. Many calls for political reform were made, including a practical suggestion that the parliament – instead of the cabinet as is currently the case – should ratify international agreements.

A remarkably more gender-balanced crowd gathered for a meeting of the campaign for a right to information. The government is working on a draft bill that was generally considered to be hardly worth the paper that it is written on. Apart from analysing the many defects of the draft and proposing changes, during the first part of the meeting two key questions were raised for discussion. Firstly, would a lousy bill be better than no bill at all? It was argued that getting a bill accepted is difficult, but amending it later on is even more so, thus a weak bill should not be supported. Secondly, should the campaign concentrate only on the right to information? On one hand it was pointed out that influencing the bill was the most urgent task and achieving even that would be an uphill battle. On the other hand many people argued that the issue should be linked to the wider context, including demands made for good governance and secure livelihood for ordinary people. A gentleman from the audience claimed that promoting decentralised governance – the ultimate goal – and lobbying politicians would be contradictory. Lokayan is in the process of bringing out three issues of its Bulletin on the theme: the first is on the history of the campaign, the second is based on analytical and reflective pieces and the last on the policy-making process and more recent developments.


Two weeks is a very short time to make any conclusions about the exchange programme or Lokayan – not to mention a vast and diverse country like India. I have also found that either due to cultural differences or my personal shortcomings in communication skills the chances of being misunderstood are very high. I am afraid I have managed to offend many people unintentionally while trying to express my feelings and views on different issues.

I have so far not been explicit enough in thanking for the time and energy Lokayan people have invested in making the exchange programme a success and making me feel at home. All the Lokayan people I have met have been very warm in welcoming me to the country, but I believe Rita who is helping me almost 24 hours a day deserves special thanks for her tireless work. Our views on activism and social issues are often surprisingly similar taking into consideration our different backgrounds. It also helps that Rita has experienced the peculiar Finnish society and culture; in many – not particularly good, I would add – ways I am a very typical Finn.

One of the most interesting experiences I had during my first two weeks was visiting a Hindu temple in Vrindavan. A black statue representing Krishna was located in the inner section of the temple behind curtains. The curtains were closed when the god was eating, bathing, sleeping or engaged in any other activity. When the statue was revealed again, the room was astir with excitement. I was right in the middle of a crowd of devotees so I could really feel the atmosphere. It was clear that religion and rituals were very much an integral part of these people's everyday lives unlike in protestant Finland. This may also have interesting political implications I am likely to get back to in the following bulletins.