The seed warrior

April 2017

Despite her formidable prowess in physics, Vandana Shiva did not think twice before dumping her degrees and taking up the servitude of Mother Earth, eventually becoming a world-renowned eco-activist, says Punya Srivastava

Dr Vandana Shiva hardly needs an introduction. For that matter, anyone who has won as many global awards as she has, rarely does. Her honours include the Alternative Nobel Prize, Global 500 Roll of Honour - UNEP, Earth Day International Award (all in 1993), Lennon ONO Grant for Peace Award (2009), Sydney Peace Prize (2010), and The Fukuoka Award (2012).

From being one of the only two girls in an honours programme for particle physics, to leading a 'Diverse Women's Movement' with thousands of women across continents, she has always stood out. What catapulted her into the limelight was her movement for seed preservation, Navdanya, as well as her vehement campaign against GMO food and the monopoly of industrial giants on global agriculture. Today, Dr Shiva not only heads the Navdanya movement and the Bija Vidyapeeth, but also travels across the world, sensitising and informing people about the only way forward for living – organic farming.

I met Dr Shiva at Navdanya's head office in Delhi on a Monday noon. Dressed simply in a pear-green saree, with her trademark huge maroon bindi adorning her forehead, and no other accessory, Dr Shiva radiated an aura of power and purpose. She talks with clarity and passion, effortlessly flowing from ecofeminism to Monsanto, and from Gandhi to seed saving. Various expressions flitted across her mobile face while she recalled her transformation from a physicist to a learner of agriculture, and her eyes crinkled with laughter at the fallacy that spirituality and materialism were separate.

An Einstein fan, Shiva grew up in Dehradun amidst forests and feminism, courtesy her father and grandfather. “I was born in a family where my parents – a forester father and a farmer mother – were committed to giving us freedom. While other parents were looking for suitable grooms for their daughters, my sister and I were being sent to other cities to pursue higher studies,” she said. She went on to acquire an Integrated MSc Honours in Particle Physics in 1974 from the University of Punjab, Chandigarh.

Around the same time, the Chipko movement – the forest conservation movement of India – had started finding its feet in the Himalayan areas of the country, and was propelled by the local, uneducated women of the forests. At that time, Shiva was a part of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). “Since I had grown up in the forests of the Himalayas, I decided to volunteer in the movement whenever I was home for the holidays. And then one day, my sister (Dr Mira Shiva, a well known public figure herself, active in community health care), asked me to inquire what true knowledge was and whether it was divisive in its nature. This made me realise that I was chasing a partial knowledge through science and technology. I was humbled to realise that I may know how to do some calculations of particle physics, but it was those local, unlettered women who had the real, deep knowledge about the natural world that we inhabit,” she said, adding, “I developed a deep respect for indigenous knowledge.”

This was the first profound life lesson for this young lady – to not to be charmed by degrees as “degrees do not create knowledge.” She quit her job in BARC and went to Canada to pursue a Masters degree in Philosophy of Science, and later did her PhD in Quantum Theory from the University of Western Ontario. “I remember my PhD days when I would sleep with the knowledge that I have got a particular theory figured out, and woke up finding that it was incomplete and thinking, ‘Oh no! I will have to redo the whole thing again!’” she said, adding, “Now my work on agriculture is like pursuing 50 such quantum theories simultaneously because there has been so much fabrication in the economics, technology and the science of agriculture.”

Dr Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in her home town of Dehradun in 1982, after working with and learning biodiversity from the women of the Chipko movement. The Bhopal disaster and Punjab's controversial Green Revolution in 1984 made her take up farming. “The violence of the Green Revolution made me decide to commit my life to non-violent farming,” she said. The farm gradually became a sanctuary for 1,500 varieties of seeds, which attracts all life forms such as bees, birds, insects and micro-organisms.

In 1987, she took a pledge to save as many seeds as she could, “because of Monsanto's claim of having ‘created’ the seeds, and laying patents on them.” For the first three years, she travelled across numerous villages, collecting and saving seeds, and talking to farmers. People would tell her how she would never succeed as the task ahead was insurmountable. She recalled how a famous scientist of India tagged her as a defeatist because she dared to take up an agenda ‘that must get defeated as the success surely lay for Monsanto’. “For me, defeat is defined by acceptance of the unethical conquest of life; refusing to take that path is satyagraha,” said Dr Shiva.

Gandhi has been a big influence on her way of living, her parents having been staunch Gandhians. “And yet, intellectual guidance from Gandhi came to me only in 1987; I realised that it is people who make laws, and it is not necessary to obey each one of them,” she said, referring to Gandhi's salt satyagraha. Thus was laid the foundation of Navdanya – Dr Shiva's visionary programme for seed conservation in 1991, aimed at protecting the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade. 2004 saw the commencement of Bija Vidyapeeth (or Earth University) – an international college for sustainable living, in collaboration with Schumacher College, UK.

I asked her what keeps her motivated to pursue this cause, and she smiled and replied, “Annam Brahma.” (Food is God). Her deep conviction in the divinity of food, when cultivated in recognition of the sacredness of the Earth, of the farmer, and of its role in shaping your body and mind – is the sole inspiration that keeps her trudging on what is yet the path less taken.

“And yet, the birth country of this knowledge – India – is going through a deep civilizational confusion, because people have become so alienated from nature and culture, thanks to the Westernised mechanical mindset that believes that nature is dead, non-living,” she said. Dr Shiva observed that the violence we see all around us – against women, against pluralism and diversity, against nature, against democracy – is a part of that failed paradigm of mechanistic knowledge. A failed paradigm creates more externalities and more problems, and that is why India has become the global capital of diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, and recently depression too.

The conversation then shifted towards her journey with Navdanya, and its gradual rise as a frontrunner in the areas of biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, and genetic engineering. “When you work with a very simple commitment to the truth, to the Earth, to the people and to diversity, for every step you take, the next step follows in an organic way,” she observed, adding, “My practice is to respect the farmers knowledge, and facilitate the removal of forcefed notions regarding genetically modified seeds and fertilisers.”

She recounted an incident when she had invited local farmers to her organic farm to observe farming practices. She demonstrated how the use of urea – which is a salt – snuffed out life from the earthworms. The farmers were shocked to the core. One of them said, “Humse paap hua hai. Humein pata hi nahi tha ki zameen ke neeche inke sath aisa hota hai.” (We have sinned. We didn't know that this is what happens with them below the ground.)

“This made me realise that our farmers still care a lot about humanity and prakriti. Once they realise that they are a part of the web of life, they do not hesitate in switching sides,” she explained. Dr Shiva has been striving to make the growth of Navdanya a part of society's strength. “That is why we work with the indigenous knowledge and put all our efforts towards capacity-building of the farmers. Most of the foreign youth that come to the Bija Vidyapeeth are PhD scholars from Yale and Harvard as they have realised that the most important thing they can do today is to take care of the planet, and the most effective way for that is to do organic farming.” Dr Shiva’s involvement with the food movement since the past 30 years has been fraught with numerous challenges. When I asked her what kept her on her toes, she flashed a wide smile and quipped, “While I am deeply aware of the ways the three giant corporates (Monsanto, Dupont and Dow) control the food industry, I choose to focus my actions on taking care of the earth. I wish to see a living India which is not enslaved by a colonial thought process, or by poisonous corporates; where the youth is not looking forward to the next iPhone, but to living a full life. My commitment is to see a jaivik Bharat (an organic India), to see the rejuvenation of our civilisation where dharma was the guiding force, and spirituality and materialism were not separate entities.” She takes her involvement with agriculture and food ethics as life lessons that she was meant to undertake. “I was a very private child, and would prefer to hide in a corner with a piece of paper and a pencil and solve physics equations all day. My sister was the gregarious one. And yet, my life's lesson threw me into becoming more public,” she said. For Dr Shiva, life is a road that continuously forks, requiring you to make choices. “Do I stay at an academic institute, get a cheque at the end of every month, or do I throw myself into the movement and serve this planet with whatever little I have been given? I allowed my heart, my conscience and my mind to open up and took the risk of going beyond my comfort zone,” she said. A grateful planet applauds the choice.

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