P.V. Satheesh: A quiet revolutionary who helped transform lives of Dalit women farmers

Published : Apr 13, 2023 18:42 IST - 10 MINS READ

P.V. Satheesh.

P.V. Satheesh. | Photo Credit: Ashish Kothari

Satheesh (1945-2023) showed how millets could solve the food and livelihood insecurity affecting India’s poorest and most marginalised.

Revolutions are made by two kinds of people—some loud and in-your-face, some unobtrusive and behind-the-scenes. A remarkable example of the latter, P.V. Satheesh passed away on March 19, mourned by several thousand people whose lives he directly touched, and many more who were indirectly inspired by his work.

Periyapatna Venkatasubbaiah Satheesh—communicator, innovator, activist, and much else—was one of the founders of the Deccan Development Society (DDS). I have now worked for over four decades on environment, development, and livelihood issues in India, and I can say with confidence that DDS has been the most inspiring example of how those who have been marginalised and oppressed by dominant society can express their own agency and power.

Having started with a few dozen women farmers, DDS has grown to over 5,000 women and their families, the vast majority of them Dalits and some belonging to Adivasi or pastoral communities. While men are also playing important roles in many of these households, it is the women who are at the forefront of what has been a series of extraordinary revolutions in agriculture, media, and gender relations. And Satheesh has been at the heart of this transformation.

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Born in 1945 in Mysore, Satheesh studied at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and took up journalism. For almost two decades, he was television producer for the official Doordarshan television channel, making programmes related to rural development and rural literacy in undivided Andhra Pradesh. He played an important role in the innovative Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) in the 1970s. Growing tired of the inevitable constraints of official positions, and of journalism that treated people as items for consumption, he quit.

Understanding roots of poverty

In the early 1980s, he and some others moved to the rural parts of Medak district (in present-day Telangana), establishing the Deccan Development Society (DDS) and hoping to help with “poverty alleviation”. However, he soon realised that poverty was less about money and more about lack of basics like food; and that on these issues, there was much he could learn from the local “illiterate” farmers, especially the women. This led him and others to seek a community-led pathway of agricultural transformation that became the foundation of some truly revolutionary decades. DDS was soon converted into an organisation with a central governance role of Dalit women farmers.

Much has been written and spoken on DDS’ many achievements—amongst the first to fight for and obtain land rights for women, the initiation of women-led village-level sanghas federating over 75 villages, the first to start a mobile biodiversity festival (an annual event for over 20 years now), the first to set up a community radio station (well before it became “legal” to do so in India), the achievement of not only food security for 5,000 families but also food sovereignty, and the first (and perhaps still only) official Krishi Vigyana Kendra (KVK) or Agricultural Science Centre that is jointly run by government-appointed scientists and Dalit farmers. It is also the first (and again, possibly only) parallel public distribution system run by these farmers which procures local grains (millets) and supplies at affordable rates to local poor families.

Besides this, it is a co-initiator of a farmer-led, government-recognised organic certification system called Participatory Guarantee Scheme; a producer-consumer link called ConFarm linking over 100 families in Hyderabad with Dalit farmer families; India’s supposedly first millet restaurant in Telangana’s Zaheerabad, the sangam markets (which he called “the market of the dropouts”) to connect rural producers to rural consumers, and national and global networks to promote millets (including the Millet Network of India and Millet Sisters).

For me, the most remarkable transformation achieved by DDS has been that of India’s most oppressed section—Dalit women. The way they have broken through dominant caste and gender stereotypes and hierarchies, and journeyed from being landless labourers (subject to the mercy of dominant caste landlord men) to sovereign producers who can hold their head high while facing any audience, is nothing short of revolutionary. An achievement Mahatma Gandhi would likely have labelled a true representation of swaraj.

But here I will focus on Satheesh. People who worked around him recalled how he seemed to wake up every morning with a new idea. Many of the initiatives mentioned above were his brainchild, though he was also quick to acknowledge that he may have never thought of them without what he learnt from the Dalit farmers. He would scold anyone who called these women “illiterate”, stressing that they were “non-literate” and as intelligent as any “literate” person, if not wiser.

Empowering Dalit women

Vinod Pavarala, Professor and UNESCO Chair on Community Media at the University of Hyderabad, recalls how when he first approached Satheesh to lecture to his students, Satheesh told him to bring students to the villages to learn from the Dalit women. Salome Yesudas, who worked as a scientist at the KVK in Pastapur of Medak district, remembers Satheesh’s insistence on having Dalit women farmers on the Kendra’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and steering its scientific work towards complementing the women’s traditional knowledge rather than displacing it as other KVKs across India were doing.

P.V. Satheesh at a DDS event in 2015, with farmers being honoured.

P.V. Satheesh at a DDS event in 2015, with farmers being honoured. | Photo Credit: Ashish Kothari

Thousands of visitors to DDS have been stunned and inspired listening to not only the agricultural knowledge of women farmers but also by their skills at making movies and running a radio station, both part of what is possibly India’s first Dalit-led media unit, the Community Media Trust. This was an outcome of Satheesh’s firm belief that non-literate women marginalised by dominant society can do anything with a bit of facilitation.

I recall the first time I went to DDS and was unnerved by the fact that instead of me being behind a camera taking pictures of others, I was often in front of one wielded with expertise by a DDS woman!

The memories that the 5,000 members of DDS have of Satheesh could fill several volumes. Here is what General Narsamma, who along with Algole Narsamma have been running the community radio station, said at a memorial function for Satheesh: “I met him as a child, he was a playmate, teacher and guide, and above all a friend for life. We used to fly kites, play colours, share food, he used to cook mutton and delicious foods, and take us to local festivals. He helped us join Pachha Saale (the alternative school set up by DDS), which was set up by children and Satheesh to suit our needs.”

The ‘satyagraha’ approach

I first got to know Satheesh well around the turn of the millennium, when Kalpavriksh began coordinating the process of India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). I invited Satheesh to join the Technical and Policy Core Group that was entrusted with handling the process, involving widespread participation across the country. We had then decided to facilitate biodiversity action plans at local levels (as also state, bioregional, thematic, and national levels), and Satheesh committed to making one for the area DDS operated in.

With hundreds of local farmers and others involved, DDS produced the first of about 100 action plans under NBSAP. Its process involved a mobile biodiversity festival, which I was fortunate to participate in. Satheesh also gifted us all with T-shirts made for the occasion, depicting a diversity of seeds; over 20 years later, I still wear the two I got! Since that first visit, Kalpavriksh and DDS have collaborated on many activities including the initiation of Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence), a national platform to bring together radical alternatives.

As Michel Pimbert, professor at the Coventry University (UK) and long-time associate of Satheesh said in an online memorial recently, Satheesh was a revolutionary in the Gandhian sense. His was a quintessential satyagraha approach, speaking truth to power while trying to persuade it to change. He had no hesitation in working with government agencies in advocating policy and programmatic support to DDS-like work, inviting them to all functions and events, trying to win them over to a grassroots-first approach. But he would also not hesitate to use firm words when necessary, telling them what he thought of perverse or regressive policies, or protesting against the politics and corporate profit-making behind GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or the Green Revolution.

The Vikalp Sangam Core Group with P.V. Satheesh at Pastapur in 2018.

The Vikalp Sangam Core Group with P.V. Satheesh at Pastapur in 2018. | Photo Credit: Ashish Kothari

In the same vein, Rukmini Rao (who worked with DDS for many years and is on its Governing Board) recalls that while Satheesh firmly advocated the centrality of women in agriculture and media, he also persuaded and enabled men to transform into champions of smallholder sustainable agroecology. I remember one visit to DDS in 2015 when Satheesh asked us to visit sugarcane and flower farmers who had shifted to organic, biodiverse methods.

Agriculture and media were not the only domains Satheesh innovated with. His interests, ideas, and actions spanned the ecological, sociocultural, political, and economic. As Kavitha Kuruganti of the Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) recounts in her obituary: “Agro-biodiversity, food sovereignty, women’s empowerment, Dalit rights, social justice, local knowledge systems, participatory development, community media, alternative education and the power of collectivisation were all part of the impressive work he led for over four decades.”

Millets as ‘wonder foods’

Satheesh’s many contributions will last well into the future. One that has taken firm footing, not only in Medak district but in India as a whole and globally, is the recognition of millets as wonder foods that are as relevant today and tomorrow as they were yesterday. He called them the “crops of truth” and showed how they are the solution to food and livelihood insecurity affecting India’s poorest and most marginalised people.

His role in millets being included in the Food Security Act has been acknowledged by civil society organisations who were instrumental in its framing; and as the Appiko movement activist Pandurang Hegde remembered, his advocacy also managed to persuade the State governments of Karnataka and Odisha to include millets in various government programmes including the public distribution system.

Several organisations have acknowledged his role in encouraging agroecology in areas far from India, including Canada and many parts of Africa. Undoubtedly also his work was one of the foundations of India’s advocacy for 2023 to be declared the International Year of Millets by the United Nations General Assembly in 2021; just two years before this, DDS deservedly got the UN Equator Prize for exemplary work on biodiversity-based livelihoods.

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It is ironical that Satheesh was to leave us in the International Year of Millets. But it is likely that he would also have been unhappy with how the millet agenda is being hijacked by governments and private corporations, and instead of a priority focus on smallholder-based domestic food sovereignty, the government’s millet push is putting exports and elite consumption at centre stage.

Were he around, Satheesh will likely have had many caustic things to say about this, perched on his favourite spot outside his very humble house, under a set of lovely trees. It was usually at this throne of his that I met him whenever I visited Pastapur. It was from here that he brought forth his many brilliant ideas, and spoke in his down-to-earth manner to all kinds of visitors. Going to this spot was a pilgrimage and I will make it a point to visit it on my next trip to DDS. I will not be able to hug him physically, but I am sure I will still be able to connect with his spirit, and hear his chuckle as he makes a joke about himself or some crazy government initiative. Like thousands of others, I will miss him, but I am consoled by the fact that he will continue to inspire and guide.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, Pune.

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