From physics to philosophy
SYDNEY SRINIVAS talks to Vandana Shiva about her long and arduous journey to save the Earth.
It was indeed a privilege for me to be able to interview Dr. Vandana Shiva, recipient of this year’s Sydney Peace Prize. We met at the Observatory Hotel in Sydney on a busy day for her, given that she had half a dozen interviews lined up. Vandana impressed us with her affable nature, both on and off camera. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Sydney Srinivas: You are a Quantum Physicist and have written a thesis entitled “Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory”. So what made you take up “natural philosophy” as you call it?
Vandana Shiva: Quantum theory was interesting to me, and I did not stop because I was bored with it. However, there were many issues that I thought were more compelling and needed attention. The protection of Nature was an urgent issue and had a big impact on me. I felt it was selfish to continue with my intellectual preoccupation in a field like Quantum Mechanics, which would make very little difference to people on the planet. I felt that I was given my life to help others, so I undertook this new venture.
SS: I admire your ability to pursue what you felt was important and win glory for your cause. Many cannot do that.
VS: You have to take risks. At the beginning I had no idea of how it would be. It is easy to not take a stance when you are assured of a pay check at the end of the month.
SS: Are you against the ill effects of globalization?
VS: I am against ill conceived globalization which will have ill effects. The reason why present globalization is wrong, is that it has been designed and defined by multinational companies to help them make a profit. It is based on greed and market grabbing. For them, it does not matter how they make a profit, it does not matter how many people lose their livelihood…we can see this happening in India. Small farmers are losing their farms and the big companies are ready to swallow everything. There’s no reason why a tailor down the road cannot sew your clothes or why our little Arathi down the street cannot sell vegetables. Why should everything be done by Walmart? Why does all trade have to be routed through the five or six big companies? The fact is that ninety percent of the profits go to these companies, whereas the ones actually responsible for supplying them get only ten percent. Fewer and fewer people are able to earn a decent livelihood because of this system.
This is not true of any particular society; this is true of all societies – Indian, Greek and French. We hear everywhere that the closure of shops and small industries are affecting ordinary people. What we need is not corporate globalization, but social globalization. There should be more social interaction and cross cultural exchange, and better understanding of each other. We should be able to trade less of what we produce locally, but exchange ideas.
SS: Tell us about the institutions Navadhanya and Beeja Vidyapeetha.
VS: In 1987, I started Navadhanya. It emerged from the problems in Bhopal. There was a tendency on the part of big companies to control life on earth in the name of patents. That totalitarianism was against my belief that all species have the right to live. I believe in the concept of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam: to see life as a family, not as a property. What the big companies do is a violation of freedom. Farmers had to pay a royalty; they had to sow seeds that came from a particular source. Navadhanya was formed to save seeds and to save freedom. We have 55 seed banks which have proved to be very useful and this concept has been of help to farmers, who sometimes resorted to suicide in desperation. We have been able to distribute seeds in areas hit by the tsunami. I called the project Navadhanya because a farmer on the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had grown nine crops in the area, and he offered me an interesting discourse on the relationship between the nine planets or navagrahas and nine crops or dhanyas, and how the balance in the cosmos has to be maintained by our actions.
Beeja Vidyapeetha began as a school. I teach at a college in England started by Satheesh Kumar, who went on a peace yatra long ago. He was keen that I start a similar school in India. Seeds gave me the inspiration and hence the name. We offer short courses and also have visiting lecturers. I like to call it the University for Earth Citizenship, as that in essence, is what it is for us.
SS: You are trying to bring back into focus some nearly forgotten grains such as ragi and amaranth. Is it because of their nutritional and health value?
VS: The reasons are twofold, to bring back diversity in crops and because they are nutritious. Ragi, for example, has a huge quantity of calcium, and amaranth is full of protein. They also use very little water, and in these days of water scarcity, we should grow more of ragi.
SS: The welfare of women has always been of interest to you. How do you combine this aspect and promote bio-diversity through Navadhanya?
VS: I am a woman. Most of the movements in India, such as Chipko were initiated to protect nature. A woman fights for many issues and she also provides the basic needs for her family. She realises that these basic needs of water and food are a gift of Nature and are being threatened. She realises that she must protect them. That is why all our seed savers are women and we promote the knowledge gleaned from women. In fact, we run a course I like to call ‘Grandmother’s University’, as they are the ones who remind us of foods we have forgotten. We keep the knowledge that they gave us alive through this course.
SS: Mahatma Gandhi has been a source of inspiration for you. How were you drawn into his ways?
VS: I was drawn into the Gandhian way since my childhood, and my whole family was influenced by him too. I wanted to do something like his spinning wheel, which is why I call the seed, the spinning wheel of today. It is a symbol of swaraj and swadesh. When the company Monsanto started dictating terms and imposing their monopoly on seeds, we began a satyagraha because seeds are not their property. They are ours.
SS: What kind of world would make you feel content?
SV: I would like to see a world where bio-diversity flourishes, where there is hope and complete security. I would like to see a world where no child starves or dies of diahorrea. Nature gave us pure water, we humans are polluting it. Let that stop.
Here’s wishing you all the best, Vandana, and may your journey towards a better world, be a successful one.