Vandana Shiva: ‘We must reclaim land as a commons with shared use rights for both men and women’

Published : Aug 30, 2023 19:09 IST - 9 MINS READ

Throughout her career, Vandana Shiva has championed the rights of small farmers as well as seed and food sovereignty.

Throughout her career, Vandana Shiva has championed the rights of small farmers as well as seed and food sovereignty. | Photo Credit: Ragu R

The noted environmentalist offers candid takes on India’s agrarian crisis, sustainable agriculture, and gender equality in farming.

In the face of India’s agrarian crisis, with farmers weighed down by debt, suicide rates on the rise, and Western seed corporations striving for monopolistic control, the environment activist, Vandana Shiva, noted for her advocacy of organic farming and the safeguarding of native crop varieties, was in Chennai recently to give a lecture titled “Seeds of Freedom”, on invitation by the Prakriti Foundation as part of its 25th anniversary. In an interview to Frontline, she spoke of the need to achieve gender equality in farming and land utilisation. She also addressed critical topics such as sustainable farming, farmers’ rights, and the dynamic changes unfolding in Indian agriculture.

Edited excerpts:

Recently, the Delhi High Court upheld the order of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFRA) revoking intellectual property rights for PepsiCo’s FL2027 potato variety, affecting around 14,000 contract farmers. As a critic of agricultural monopolies, how do you view this decision?

I was involved in drafting the law. The West mainly has seed corporations without a focus on breeding or conservation. In contrast, Indian farmers have a history of seed breeding. One wild plant transformed into 2,00,000 rice varieties. When the WTO was being imposed on us, I was invited by (then Union Minister for Agriculture) Chaturanan Mishra to be part of the expert group for drafting India’s sui generis laws on farmers’ rights.

We needed a law that protected plant varieties while ensuring farmers’ rights. This is the basis under which Pepsi’s claims were rejected. The company attempted to sue Gujarati farmers for substantial sums. When I saw this, I sent my book Origin: The Corporate War on Nature and Culture, which outlines the evolution of these laws. Even in the High Court of Gujarat, the Pepsi case was dismissed, as Article 39 asserts farmers’ rights to save, improve, breed, and sell seeds, and corporations cannot deny these rights.

The noted environmental activist, known for her advocacy of organic farming, spoke on the agrarian crisis in India, the need for gender equality in farming, sustainable farming, and farmers’ rights. | Video Credit: Interview by Siddarth Muralidharan; Camera by Thamodharan Bharath & Shiva Raj S.; Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy & Shikha Kumari A.; Produced by Saatvika Radhakrishna & Abhinav Chakraborty

Is India’s current agrarian crisis solely rural, or does it extend beyond? What factors contribute to it?

India has intentionally maintained an agrarian society. I attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where I observed street children being ousted from the city. The displacement of peasants led me to question why India still had peasants.

Examining historical movements such as the 1901 land rights movement in Punjab and Northwest provinces, it became clear that enacting laws against land alienation secured farmers’ land ownership, preventing dispossession regardless of indebtedness. Thus, the Northwest retained owner-cultivator dynamics, in contrast to landlordism introduced in the East. Remedies like “Operation Barga” corrected these disparities, granting tillers land rights.

Respecting farmers’ rights yielded three benefits. Firstly, the land thrived—India’s farms boasted more trees than its forests, nurturing agriculture. Secondly, unlike the famine-stricken narrative, after British rule India avoided starvation. The Essential Commodities Act and fair support policies curbed shortages, contributing to an equitable rural economy.

Thirdly, if farmers’ incomes are sustained, urban migration and the associated slum expansions are curbed. These aspects highlight that the agrarian crisis extends beyond rural areas, influencing unsustainable cities, water scarcity (with 75 per cent of water allocated to industry), and farmer dispossession.

Farmers today resemble refugees, pushed from rural areas not due to the allure of polluted cities but the impracticality of rural life. When COVID-19 struck and urban livelihoods vanished, labourers embarked on arduous journeys home. This underscores the necessity of dignified, sustainable village life. If we reinstate justice, a return to rural roots becomes plausible.

Also Read | Vandana Shiva: ‘Millets have become forgotten foods’

The UN designates 2023 as the International Year of Millets, highlighting their nutritional value. What role do millets play in India’s agriculture and economy?

We started working on conserving millets since 1987 when I started Seed Saving. In 2015, the United Nations declared the Year of Pulses. This was because pulses are important for nitrogen fixing and proteins. At the same time, I realised how distorted the vocabulary of modern varieties had become. Millets were called “primitive varieties” and “mota anaaj” (meaning “fat grain”). However, the Latin root of the word “millet” means “1,00,000 seeds”. This means that the millet is actually a very nutritious grain.

Since then, my organisation Navdanya has been working to save millets and encourage people to eat them. We call them “forgotten foods” because they have been neglected in favour of other grains. However, we believe that millets are the “future foods” because they are nutritious, sustainable, and resilient to climate change.

I am happy that the UN has recognised millets and declared 2023 the Year of Millets. However, I hope that they will not make the same mistake that was made with quinoa. When quinoa was recognised as a nutritious food, it was imported to world markets and the people who originally grew it could no longer afford to eat it. I do not want to see a world where our poor people are forced to stop eating millets.

The best way to prevent this from happening is to introduce millets into the Public Distribution System (PDS). This would ensure that everyone has access to millets, regardless of their income. It would also help support farmers who grow millets.

You have described millets as a solution to the climate crisis due to their efficient photosynthesis and low reliance on external inputs. Yet, reports of millet crop failures in Uttarakhand due to changing climate patterns emerged. How are millets climate crisis mitigators?

Millets stand as the answer to climate change. They emit no greenhouse gases and grow without chemicals. Contrary to reports, I’ve witnessed millets thriving in varying conditions, including drought and heavy rain. Their resilience, adaptation, and carbon sequestration potential make them vital for climate mitigation. Addressing moisture, not just CO2, is crucial. Native varieties endure climate turmoil and offer a solution.

Are you referring to native millet varieties?

Yes, I’m talking about native varieties of all seeds, with a focus on millets. In some areas from Dehradun to the plains, there’s a trend of planting Monsanto’s hybrid corn, which is heavily promoted. Our research indicates that 75 per cent of this corn is used for animal feed. This year, heavy rains have caused extensive flooding in these corn fields, revealing their inability to handle excess water.

Modern hybrids are tailored for specific inputs, and any deviation can lead to failure. When Monsanto introduced hybrid corn in Bihar, it failed, and Nitish Kumar compensated farmers instead of holding Monsanto accountable. Millets, contrary to some claims, are resilient to climate change.

How is agriculture science structured in India today, and how can technology better ensure food security?

India boasts an ancient culture of agricultural science, going back 10,000 years. Albert Howard recognised India’s fertile soils, rich biodiversity, and farming practices. He emphasised two principles: diversity in crops and the Law of Return, focussing on giving back to the soil. We need to acknowledge indigenous agricultural systems, now recognised as “agroecology” and “regenerative organic farming”.

The prevailing Green Revolution system doesn’t qualify as true science because it neglects the soil’s living nature, promotes monoculture, and lacks holistic thinking. True agricultural science considers relationships between soil, plants, and gut microbiomes. We can’t have a food system oriented toward commodities, biofuels, and animal feed; it must prioritise nutrition and respect life’s interconnectedness.

A 2022 NITI Aayog report indicates that 80 per cent of economically active women in India are employed in agriculture, with only 13 per cent owning land. How can gender-specific interventions address this issue?

In 1991, I reported to the United Nations that most Indian farmers are women, as they are the ones working the land. Private property in farming land was created by one stroke of a pen in 1793 by Lord Cornwallis dispossessing the peasantry, creating zamindari for rent collection. Before that land was a commons, with men and women holding usufructuary rights, not private property rights.

To rectify land issues, we must reclaim land as a commons with shared use rights for both men and women. Women in agriculture should have rights to seeds, water, and land, and policies, like those outlined in a document I helped create for the National Commission of Women, and this should be enacted to ensure gender equality.

You have consistently linked genetically modified crops to farmer suicides in India. In a 2014 article, you highlighted that the context of these relationships drives farmers to suicide. However, public reports, including the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), do not list genetically modified organisms as a suicide factor. Could you explain?

When I refer to genetically modified organisms, I’m referring to a non-renewable, monopolistic technology. In the case of cotton, it’s monopolised by a single company, Monsanto. They illegally introduced Bt cotton to India, exploiting the trade name Bollgard. While we prevent seed patenting, Monsanto bypassed it through trade names and false patent claims.

This was evident in the cotton belt, where I traced the crisis via a seed pilgrimage. Farmers were left with no choice when local seeds were replaced. The highest suicide belt, Vidarbha, saw local varieties stopped by the Cotton Research Institute. Bt cotton’s price surged from Rs. 5-10 to Rs. 1,000 per kilo, making farmers vulnerable to drought and pests. Bt didn’t even control pests.

It is a system monopolising seeds, imposing unaffordable prices, trapping farmers in debt. Agents turned distributors, entrapping farmers into contracts whose terms they did not understand. Suicides occur due to debt, not technology. I analyse technology’s ecological and social implications.

Also Read | Silent tragedy strikes Sri Lanka as hunger crisis looms

In March 2022, you tweeted about Sri Lanka’s debt crisis and supported their move to full organic farming in 2021. Considering the economic turmoil, did you not anticipate the consequences of such a swift change?

As someone dedicated to promoting sustainable farming globally, my focus is on advocating right farming practices that don’t harm the environment or biodiversity, regenerate soil, and reduce greenhouse gases. The context matters. Sri Lanka was already in debt and faced severe challenges due to COVID-19. The sudden decision to halt fertilisers wasn’t a comprehensive organic policy like Cuba’s. It was more about financial savings.

An organic shift should involve training, local markets, and extension officers. Organic doesn’t mean less food. Had a completely organic system been implemented, like in Cuba, the crisis might have been averted.

The fertilizer ban was implemented overnight, but in 2019, President Rajapaksa’s manifesto proposed chemical-free food. Was your recommendation suitable in Sri Lanka’s economic context then?

Sri Lanka has a strong organic movement. Many farmers are successful with local markets and restaurants. However, the crisis can’t be solely attributed to an organic shift. It was a sudden fertiliser ban due to financial constraints.

Farmers’ distress and Sri Lanka’s crisis can’t be simplified into organic versus chemicals narratives. Both have nuances. The narrative of going organic leading to starvation or chemicals in farming saving India in 1965 is flawed. Organic farming’s success depends on its implementation and support.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment