India: States of resistance

David Barsamian interviewed Vandana Shiva in New Delhi on December 29, 2007.

TALK ABOUT the different resistance movements in the country in terms of fighting the depredations of the Indian state as well as what you call the “corporate globalizers.” Maybe a good place to start would be with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the NBA, which was a rather large people’s movement in central India to resist the building of big dams. How successful or unsuccessful has the NBA been?

WHEN MOVEMENTS start for justice and sustainability and equity, success is not counted in terms of whether they get a dam stopped or if they stop a highway or if they stop corporate agriculture from taking over. Success is counted in terms of how they define the issues of the time. The Narmada Bachhao Andolan was very successful in defining displacement as a key political issue of our time.

Nothing is more important in India right now than movements resisting not just displacement but what I call uprooting, literally taking hundreds of millions of people, removing them from their homes, combining the most obsolete of laws, like the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, with a free market. Surely a forced acquisition and the free market should not go together. But the free market is not free: It uses the most brutal instruments of the state in order to equip those who control the market with more and more of the people’s resources. And Narmada Bachhao Andolan might not have stopped the dams, but the movement for displacement is now the number one issue in the country.

How does that connect with the growth of SEZs, Special Economic Zones?

2007 HAS clearly seen land emerge as the most important economic and political issue in the country. India was a land of small farmers. Our policies were, in short, that with a quarter acre you could make a living. Those policies included land reforms, zamindar abolition; they included paying farmers a just price. All that held together 60 percent to 70 percent of people’s livelihoods on the land.

What globalization has meant is, first and foremost, global capital flight. All the money that cannot make huge returns after the subprime collapse in the real estate market in the United States is landing in India. This is where, by all kinds of deceitful means and all kinds of legal means, they are trying to take over the lands of the poorest of peasants in the world. And Special Economic Zoneshave become the instrument. Hundreds of Special Economic Zones have been approved. Again, it’s a combination of the Land Acquisition Act used by force. The most fertile lands—we’ve done a mapping of this, we have a fat 400-page report on the corporate land grab, as we call it. [The] most fertile lands and lands close to cities, where the speculative factor has the highest return, this is converting the most fertile of India’s lands that provide livelihoods and food security for the country into a real estate casino for global capital.

IN WEST Bengal, which has had for a number of years a so-called Marxist-communist government, Special Economic Zonessparked a revolt and repression from the government.

ONE OF the most controversial Special Economic Zoneswas a zone allocated—because these are allocated, it’s a design of just sitting with paper and saying this piece will be mine—to Salim, the biggest businessman of Indonesia, who financed the dictator Suharto, and was seeking this land as a chemical hub for exports. But behind Salim were the Dows and the DuPonts of the world. And, of course, this is right at the mouth of the Ganga, the Ganges River. Port facilities are available right there. Location was the reason for identifying this zone, except that they forgot that these peasants have had a history of fighting for land, first against the British, then in the Operation Bargar, which distributed land in Bengal to the tillers.

Therefore, in January 2007 there was the first uprising. Every village has the community organized in what are called Bhumi Uchhed committees, committees against the appropriation of land. It’s the most democratic movement I have seen. By March, the police, I believe financed with Salim’s money and CPM (Communist Party Marxist) activists, attacked. More than twenty-five people were killed. After that, there has been no peace in Nandigram. But the special economic zone in Nandigram has been stopped. They’re now trying to take it over to an island called Nayachar in the Bay of Bengal. I’ve just been talking to the fishing community of India to see how we could build solidarity between farmers and fishermen now to defend that land.

But today Nandigram has become a word that signifies the violent economy, which is a partnership between a police state and corporate greed. They think people have no rights; democracy doesn’t count. Three years ago, Mayawati, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, who won her elections because she supported the movements that were fighting the land grab under the past chief minister in Dadri, just outside Delhi—again another very violent episode—came to power saying “I will be with you in your fight for defense of your land rights.” [She] has announced something called a Ganga Expressway, nearly 100,000 acres to be appropriated, the biggest names in the business bidding for it. An expressway from nowhere to nowhere, just to grab the peasant land. Of course, the Ganga has the best soils. This land is the most fertile in the world, and everyone is now saying another Nandigram is in the making.

EARLIER YOU mentioned the term zamindar. This would be large landowners.

WHEN THE British East India Company came here, first, they didn’t know the country. They didn’t realize that you didn’t really have owners of land, you had users of land. The phrase used to be: The land belongs to the creator. All you can do is use it. In addition, they wanted to collect revenues, which is why they were grabbing territories around the world. To maximize their revenue collection, they appointed zamindars, whom they turned into landowners, not just into tax collectors, as a result of which the original cultivator owners were turned into landless peasants. Some of the worst of this phenomenon happened in Bengal, where [Robert] Clive started the rule for the East India Company. Zamindar abolition, getting rid of these very large land ownerships and putting land into small holdings to make India a land of small farmers was a very important part of our independence.

I WAS in Karachi, one of the largest cities in South Asia, and there is a lack of drinking water. Nevertheless, two large islands right off the land mass of the city have been sold to Emaar, a huge Dubai-based corporation. They’re going to build five-star hotels and apartment houses. And the fisher folk that you mentioned earlier are being impacted in Pakistan as well. So it’s not just an India-only issue.

NO, GLOBALIZATION has, in fact, made sure this is a global issue. Africa is seeing its own share of land grab, Latin America is seeing its own share of land grab. The whole excuse of making industrial biofuels to substitute fossil fuels has become a major land-grab issue. We’ve just finished a study on the takeover of common lands in India for planting jatropha [a tropical plant] by industry to run cars while people starve and cattle die.

TALK ABOUT what happened with Coca-Cola in Kerala.

PLACHIMADA, A little hamlet in the district of Palghat, is as scenic and beautiful as any other part of Kerala, which is also called “God’s own country.” I was invited down there in 2002 to celebrate one year of resistance against a Coca-Cola plant. I went in solidarity. I had absolutely no idea that those horrible bottles of Coke or their drinking water, called Kinley, which they pretend to manufacture, was just literally stolen from local communities.

After that visit, I threw all my weight in with the local movement, which had been started by a beautiful 60-year-old tribal woman called Mylamma, whom, unfortunately, we lost a year ago. But before she died, she and the local community had managed to shut down the Coca-Cola plant. This is the first time anywhere in the world that one of the biggest corporate giants was closed by a handful of determined villagers, especially women.

And this is because the Coke plant was depleting the aquifer in order to produce soda? There are two problems with Coke plants, wherever they come up. The first is they mine, literally mine, 1.5 to 2 million liters of water per day. Because of the scale of operations of these companies, they are very, very thirsty. And that meant the groundwater level kept dropping. But it isn’t just that they’re taking out water, but they also put in pollution. And because it’s all a trade secret, nobody really knows where the pollution comes from. But we have done studies on six plants, and every study shows that the same heavy metals start to appear in the water around Coca-Cola plants. The normal water around that area does not have these heavy metals of cadmium and lead, but around Coca-Cola plants heavy metals come. So the water becomes undrinkable. First it goes down, and then it’s undrinkable, which meant that the women were walking ten miles to collect clean drinking water. And that’s when they said, “How much further can we walk?” and they said, “The plant must shut,” which led to a massive national movement, which is continuing. I keep getting information from local grassroots movements because we help the different movements come together. I’ve just had information that in eastern India in a place called Ballia the Coca-Cola plant is going to be shut down, again by local resistance.

WHAT YOU described as the prominence of women activists in Kerala, is that limited to Kerala or is it countrywide?

THE PROMINENCE of women is countrywide.


THERE ARE two things that account for the disproportionate participation by women in any movement related to natural resources, related to life and death. The first is, women have been left, through the social division of labor, to look after basic needs. They’re the ones who fetch the fuel, they’re the ones who fetch the water. That’s why when water disappears or gets polluted, they’re the ones who get hurt and they’re the ones who organize to say “No more.” The second reason is that women, because they are looking after life issues, realize much more intimately when collapse of living systems starts to take place. I call them the canaries of human society. Just like we used to send canaries down in mines, women are the canaries of human society. They rise up one step faster.

WHAT ABOUT availability of fresh drinking water around the country?

ONE OF the biggest problems in years facing us is the disappearance of clean, fresh drinking water. India, after all, has been endowed with some of the best rain. We get the monsoon like you can’t see anywhere in the world. I live in a valley where we get 4,000 millimeters of rain. You can’t even imagine that kind of water. We have some of the most magnificent rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Brahmaputra, the Krishna, the Kaveri. Until fifteen years ago, this country did not know water scarcity. It did not know water scarcity because we were well endowed with water. And even where the rain was not heavy, as in Rajasthan, the culture of water conservation ensured that there was never water scarcity. There were amazing systems of water harvesting that have been documented in a brilliant book, which we have translated by Anupam Mishra called The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan of the culture of water harvests, ensuring that in an area with one-inch rainfall, you can still have enough drinking water, you can still have enough water for your cattle, and you can even grow crops.

The two reasons the water scarcity and the water crisis have grown tremendously is, first and foremost, World Bank lending. The World Bank gave money and said, “Mine the water. Don’t just have shallow wells. It’s primitive technology to only go 10 feet deep. Go 100 feet deep. We will give you the money to give subsidies to farmers to energize all their wells.” Which meant that groundwater started to disappear, which is the freshest and cleanest of water.

The second is the fact that India has become the dumping ground for all polluting industry. I have called it the outsourcing of pollution. Globalization is not just the outsourcing of the information technology industry that we see in Bangalore. It is also the outsourcing of the most polluting chemical industry, aluminum industry, steel industry. All of this is very water-intensive and very water-polluting. River after river is being used as a dumping yard. The only places where rivers flow clean are where there is no industry. Here in Delhi, 22 kilometers of the Yamuna carry 70 percent of the pollution load of the entire river, because the industry set up here is just dumping toxic waste. The entire sewage of the city is being dumped. You cannot make Delhi grow fivefold bigger overnight without turning the river into a sewer, which is why we have this huge movement to defend the Yamuna.

But there is a new problem on water scarcity, which is going to make the water crisis deeper in India. And, in fact, on the 11th of January, with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s Foundation for Universal Responsibility and the Waterkeepers movement of the U.S., Bobby Kennedy’s movement, we in Navdanya are organizing a conference to look ahead to say, if half of India lives on the water that comes from the Himalayas and the glaciers are melting because of global warming, 50 years down the line what will the scenario look like, and prepare for it before disasters start to happen. How do we have to shift agriculture? We can’t afford to grow sugarcane in the Ganges Basin. How will we ensure that people’s survival needs are looked after and the scarce water is not diverted by China up northwards toward Beijing and its other industrial booming towns and in India southward to its industry?

DO YOU see a rising consciousness and environmental awareness in the country?

IN INDIA there is a very high level of consciousness related to natural resources. The consciousness is much higher because people’s lives depend on it. It is not necessarily an ecological perspective, but it is definitely an issue of natural resources, whether it is the issue of land, sovereignty, the movement we are building against the SEZs, or it is an issue of water democracy, the movement we built against large dams, large diversions, and privatization. We were successful in preventing the World Bank from privatizing Delhi’s water two years ago. Paul Wolfowitz’s first visit to this country saw the women and unions of the city bombard the World Bank headquarters. And then I went to meet him, and he was such a nervous man, shaking my hand 30 times over. We gave him a memorandum, and then I gave him a tiny little pot of Ganges water to say, “You might not know this, but in this country we hold water as sacred. Stop messing up with our water.”

SO THAT was a successful—

WE WERE very successful in [fighting against] the water privatization, yes.

YOU MIGHT recall—in fact, I may have heard it first from you—that World Bank official Ismael Serageldin said that the wars and conflicts of the twenty-first century will be around water. Do you still see that as holding true?

YES, BUT I don’t think they will be the only wars. In India, we are seeing wars around land. 2007 has seen, if I were to do a rough calculation, at least a hundred people killed over land issues. Add to it the fact that in tribal areas the land is being appropriated for mines, for steel plants. The world steel manufacturing has descended on India, and all of it is being set up in tribal areas. In Kalinagar, twelve tribals were shot dead when they were resisting. Tribals have been shot dead in Bastar and Chhattisgarh when they are not listened to, and they continue to fight. What else can they do but resort to protection through a gun? Which is why you are seeing the rise of what is called Naxalism in a large part of India. And the more these land wars will grow, the more this violent response will grow.

I have always said, and I said it in my book Earth Democracy, democracy is not just casting a ballot once in five years. That’s not freedom, that’s not democracy. Democracy is the defense of people’s rights and the ability to shape the economies and political systems in which they live. If you can get a handful of corporations and a handful of politicians to ride roughshod over 80 percent of India, you’re not going to have democracy. And the end of democracy means for the state fascism, for the people violent uprising.

THOSE UPRISINGS are not only in Chhattisgarh, as you mentioned, but also in Jharkhand, Bihar, and other parts of the country. New Delhi just describes these people as Maoists, terrorists and revives the old name of Naxalbari, a town in West Bengal, which had uprisings in the 1960s.

I THINK there are very, very dangerous signals, because Naxalbari was a 1960s and ’70s phenomenon. None of the people fighting for their land today have anything to do with Charu Mazumdar.1 They don’t even know who he was. They don’t even know there was a village called Naxalbari. They are merely saying, “If you won’t listen to us peacefully, we will have to defend our lives with weapons.”

One-third of India is supposed to be now under the control of armed struggles. One-third of India is out of the government’s control. How does the government respond? With more militarization. In Chhattisgarh they have created a very ugly phenomenon, and I am absolutely sure the American administration has had a role in advising them, because it looks like the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Tribals have been equipped with arms to fight their own tribal brothers and sisters. The movement that the government is sponsoring—which is not a movement—is called Salva Judum. I call it the Indian Contras. This is leading to such abuse of human rights. Dr. Binayak Sen is the secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties. He is also a very dear friend of mine and my sister’s. He is an eminent medical doctor and is known around the country for his contributions to community health and public health. He did a report on the atrocities taking place in Chhattisgarh. What was the result? He has been thrown into jail as a Naxalite. He’s like me. If it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us.

This started really, I believe, after the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative at that time, used the word “terrorist” for those of us who were on the streets of Seattle. Then they had 9/11, and they expanded the spectrum of terrorism to make no distinction between al-Qaeda and civil-liberties activists, no difference between tribals fighting for their homelands where they have lived through centuries and an assassin who has killed Benazir Bhutto. They wiped out all differentiation. And if the processes continue in the direction in which they are, where no one is making these decisions anymore but the gangsterism of global capital—it has really become a Mafia rule—we are going to see absolute annihilation of any form of freedom and democracy in society everywhere.

WHAT KIND of connections and outreach is being made from, say, well-educated urban dwellers to rural farmers, who are in some instances Dalits or Adivasis, tribals?

THE MOVEMENTS we have built in the last two decades, the movement on seed for example, is one in which people like me, who are scientists, who reach out to the remotest part of the country to rescue seed freedom. The area of central India called Vidarbha—which is the home of cotton (that’s where cotton got domesticated), and is also the home of Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, where he spun cotton to get freedom—is the capital of farmer suicides. We’ve lost 200,000 farmers in suicides with a combination of high cost of the production because of Monsanto’s monopoly on seed and falling prices of cotton because of global trade and the $4 billion cotton subsidies that the U.S. gives to its corporations. The result of it has been farmers being locked into a negative economy, where they’re spending more than they’re earning, and a very high rate of suicides.

Last year I decided we cannot just keep watching, we cannot just keep counting how many farmers die, we have to do something about it. So I went into this heartland of Monsanto’s control and started working with villagers to say, “Why are you going down this path? We will bring you seeds. Break free of Monsanto’s dictatorship.” Five villages broke free. They’re now GMO-free, Monsanto-free. They’ve gone organic. We’re going to be celebrating their first harvest on the 26th of January, which is our republic day, and say, “From a republic of suicides we need to become a republic of hope and a republic of freedom.”

Even on land issues, in February last year the former prime minister, V. P. Singh, the former ambassador to GAAT, and a former member of the Planning Commission, S. P. Shukla, me, and about 50 others who are from the privileged parts of this country joined hands with every movement fighting land grab—the movement in Orissa, the movements in Nandigram, the movements in Raigad, outside Bombay, the movements in Gurgaon and Jhajjar, just outside Delhi, the movements in Punjab—and created a very broad new alliance on land sovereignty.

We’ve just completed a new study to show that when land is appropriated, the people who get hurt most are the landless, because they don’t even get compensation, and the women and the children. And the consequences for livelihoods and hunger on this land grab are huge.

EXPLAIN HOW subsidies of cotton, which you mentioned, impact farmers in India. The U.S. subsidizes large agribusinesses to export cotton to India. The cotton arrives here. Is it more expensive than locally produced cotton or less expensive?

BEFORE THE WTO, India had its own economy—it was a rupee economy—and the U.S. had its economy in agriculture. The WTO became an instrument for U.S. agribusiness to dismantle our import barriers. What does that mean for cotton? When cotton prices can be lowered with subsidies in the U.S. to half the market price and then, because of import restrictions, which are called QRs, quantity restrictions in the WTO language, are removed, that artificially cheap, subsidized cotton gets dumped on the Indian market. It drives down the Indian price. Indian cotton prices have dropped to one-third of what they used to be. Meantime, the costs of production have gone up tenfold because from the same farmers Monsanto is trying to squeeze out 3,600 rupees per kilogram for cotton seeds. So you’ve got a squeeze from corporations on both sides, from the seed end and the trade end.

I’ll give you another example how these subsidies hurt. Soybean oil was never eaten in India. It was never eaten anywhere in the world. U.S. agribusiness, having used soya for cattle feed, then realized that the oil that comes out they could use as a product. Agribusiness is so well organized—it’s Cargill, ConAgra, ADM—they manufactured a crisis in India and got the Indian oil, domestic oil, banned, and flooded the Indian market with soya oil, later palm oil. Then Cargill sells both the palm oil from Indonesia and the soya from the U.S., from the Amazon, from Argentina, the soya price in 1998 was $150 a ton, but behind it was a subsidy of $191 a ton, which means the soya price would have been double that of domestic edible oils. But once it was lowered artificially with subsidies, brought into the country, the mustard farmers could not sell their mustard. The price had dropped to a third. The coconut farmers could not sell their coconut. A coconut used to cost 10 rupees in 1998. It dropped to 2 rupees. You can’t maintain a coconut plantation with 2 rupees’ return.

YOU’VE WRITTEN about how “giant corporations such as Cargill and Wal-Mart carry major responsibility in destroying local, sustainable economies and pushing society after society into dependence on an ecologically destructive global economy.” Give examples of what Cargill and Wal-Mart are doing in India.

CARGILL, OF course, has emerged as a very big player in generating food insecurity in this country. The first level at which food insecurity is generated is when a farmer who was selling their produce and making a living can no longer sell their produce at an adequate price and commits suicide. How much worse can insecurity be?

In addition, by influencing laws and policies domestically also, Cargill and other giant corporations have dismantled our food security system. We had a system by which the state bought produce from the farmers at a regulated price and then made sure that affordable food was available to all people through a public distribution system. The World Bank was used to dismantle this public distribution system. But there are enough hungry and poor people who still need affordable, subsidized food in the country, [so] the government must continue to buy. Cargill coming into the market has meant that they buy up in speculation large quantities of wheat and rice, and then they are driving the prices up. So for the farmers the prices are going down but for the consumer the prices are going up. The wheat price has doubled in the last year on wheat speculation.

The next election in this country will be fought around high food prices. They are taking food out of the reach of the ordinary person. This process has made India emerge as the capital of hunger. It’s not sub-Saharan Africa anymore. India has the largest number of hungry people. Two-thirds of Indian children are today malnourished.

As far as Wal-Mart is concerned, Wal-Mart trotted in after our prime minister and President Bush signed a series of agreements. One of which was the nuclear agreement, over which there have been huge protests. The government nearly fell because it was not democratically decided. The Damocles sword of the nuclear deal is hanging over the elections and the Congress [Party] is partly losing because they’ve been seen as selling out the national interest.

But there was a lesser-known agreement signed on the same day. It was called the U.S.-Indian Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture. It had nothing to do with knowledge. It was about grabbing India’s seed sector, trade sector, and retail sector. On the board of this agreement sit Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Cargill, ConAgra. Immediately after the agreement was signed, the Wal-Mart chiefs started to arrive. Laws were changed. We fought very hard to prevent 100 percent foreign direct investment. They got partial rights but not 100 percent rights. So they have to come with a partner in India. Their present partner in India is Bharti, the company that sells mobile phones and is a service provider. We were very successful in building a strong movement. We called it the Movement for Retail Democracy. The reason I named it the Movement for Retail Democracy was it was being made to look like India, with 40 million people involved in small retail, doesn’t know how to sell things, that we have to be taught retail by Wal-Mart, that we are primitive in retail, and somehow if you put cheap goods into one giant box store, suddenly that is retail.

The language being used was organized versus unorganized retail. We say, our system is hugely organized. To have a vegetable vendor pick up vegetables in the wholesale market in the morning, bring it to our doorstep and he’s my alarm bell, “Tomatoes, potatoes,” to me it’s the most soothing sound when street to street our vendors go up and down. And what could be more convenient? How can driving 20 miles out to a Wal-Mart through traffic jams be more convenient shopping than having a vegetable vendor generate a livelihood for a family and bring you fresh vegetables on your doorstep? Super sophisticated, super organized. So we said, “The difference is not organized versus unorganized; it is retail dictatorship versus retail democracy.”

In six states, as a result of this movement, governments have been forced to say, “We will not allow giant corporations in.” Of course, seeing Wal-Mart, Indian companies like Reliance, try to jump on the retail bandwagon. And we’ve had wonderful statements, with people saying, “Let the giants do the big things. Selling potatoes and cauliflower is a small person’s job. Let it stay as a livelihood option for the small person.” So the retail issue will not go away.

WHAT ELEMENTS in the Indian state are enabling these kinds of agreements to go forward with the United States and other Western countries?

WE CAN identify four market fundamentalists who are in huge power in the country today. Our prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was the one who introduced neoliberal reforms to India in 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and he was made the finance minister. The interesting thing is Le Monde had an article then to say, “Well, Rajiv Gandhi is dead. We don’t know who will be the prime minister.” But the U.S. was already announcing that the finance minister would be Manmohan Singh, a non-politician, not elected, but already announced as the man who would make financial decisions. Our chief of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, spends some time in India, and when he loses out in power goes right back to Washington and sits in the IMF. These are people delegated to India from Washington. They haven’t grown out of the soil of this country in terms of struggling through a political system and a democratic system. Our finance minister, Chidambaram, our commerce minister, Kamal Nath. These are the four players who are making undemocratic agreements behind the people’s back, behind the backs of parliament, constantly getting into trouble with parliament and the people of this country, and yet feeling a billion Indians don’t matter, masters in Washington are more important.

SO THEY’RE able to concentrate power and act unilaterally despite the displeasure of, it seems, a large number of the people in this country.

THE NUCLEAR deal is a very good example of this. The point is, when we made our constitution, we could not even imagine the level of power global capital could have. And therefore, the precautions that needed to be built into the constitution to rein in the executive from excessive commitments to corporations, to the U.S. military, these were not even imaginable, and therefore the precautions aren’t built in. The executive in India has an absolute right to negotiate internationally, and therefore it bypasses parliament. But eventually parliament calls them up and says, “You cannot sell off our sovereignty, you cannot destroy livelihoods.” The conflict between democracy and corporate globalization is very intense. And in this conflict four of five people from the Indian state machinery acting unilaterally are pitted against the entire Indian public and against most of parliament.

I WAS recently in Bombay, and opposite the Hyatt hotel in Santa Cruz there were indescribably poor hovels. So there is that incredible paradox that is always present. Yet in the West, in the United States, India is seen as this great growth area, it’s producing more billionaires than any country in the world today. So it’s all positive and upbeat.

The international media, especially the Western media, have deliberately exaggerated the shining India, India arriving. You just have to see the nonsensical book titles that are coming out. There are two issues behind this.

The first is, every other shining example of the neoliberal philosophy has failed, so they have to grab India as the last, literally, straw. They said the Asian Tigers were going to rise. And what happened to the tigers? Look at what happened to Indonesia. The reason India hasn’t gone down that way is because our past insurances are protecting us, the fact that we don’t have 100 percent capital conversion so far. That’s protecting us. Otherwise the subprime crisis would have translated into a huge crisis in India.

The second issue is, by saying that India is now a land of millionaires and 9 percent growth, they hide the foundations on which this growth is based, they hide the basis on which these millionaires get created. I’ll give you just two examples. The richest man on earth now is Mukesh Ambani, and he grew rich partly because of resource grab and partly because of the stock market, which can inflate your worth hugely. Over the last two decades, as a result of corporate globalization and influences that are leading to privatization, the oil and gas sector of this country, which used to be a public sector—the Oil and Natural Gas Commission of India has done all explorations—all of these explorations have been handed over on a platter to Ambani. Obviously, he will be a billionaire. But whose wealth has he taken? He hasn’t created it. He has appropriated it from the public system.

In terms of the Special Economic Zonesand land grab, the biggest land grabber is Mukesh Ambani. The Special Economic Zonesaround Mumbai, the Special Economic Zonesoutside Delhi are all Ambani economic zones. He is not developing these zones. He is taking land at 200,000 rupees, when the market value is 220 million rupees, and then he’s selling it onward for a billion. He is in this for land speculation, building new luxury townships, renting it out to corporations.

India is being carved out as a haven for corporate investment. In the process, the [people who run] Indian corporations that are playing a role in this are emerging as billionaires, but those hovels across the street from the Hyatt are the people displaced. And we will see a growing polarization between those who are dispossessed and those who have taken possession—it’s no longer a difference between the rich and the poor. It has gone way beyond that. It is now the difference between those who are not being given an option to live and those who are appropriating every resource of this country. Every time I have joined movements on land issues, people have said, “If we don’t have this land, what else is left to us but crime?” So we will see more instability. And what we are seeing today in Pakistan will tomorrow happen in India if we are not able to control this governance through greed that’s taking place and the celebration of greed and corruption on a global level by the media.

I WAS interested in the figure you used, one-third of the land mass is effectively not under government control.

ONE-THIRD of the land mass, stretching all the way from Nepal through parts of Bihar, into Jharkhand, into parts of Orissa, into parts of Chhattisgarh, bits of Madhya Pradesh, into large parts of Maharashtra, the tribal belt, all the way into Andhra Pradesh. That stretch, which is the mineral-rich, forest-rich tribal area of India, is in uprising.

WHAT ABOUT the northeast quadrant of the country?

THE NORTHEAST is beyond government control on many levels. The issue there is also one of resources. The issue there is also the fact that the center, the federal government, is there to appropriate the resources but is not present in a full way to include the tribes of the northeast in the mainstream of India.

HOW MANY people are forced off their farms, leave their land, and migrate to the cities?

WE KNOW the numbers. Sixty-five percent of this country lives on the land. And no matter how much they make the cities grow, at best it will go to 55 percent. The rest will have to live on the land without the land. As far as the displaced people and the refugee crisis into cities is concerned, it is not that people leaving villages can today come to the city, live in a slum, somehow make a living, because the assault on land is in urban areas and rural areas. All financial dailies are reporting at the end of the year the fattest revenues and profits are to be made in real estate. India’s real estate has become the place where everyone is making money. All the international hedge funds, all the international banks are making money out of India’s real estate. But what is that real estate? It is the land of the poor.

So in the city of Delhi all the slums have been violently erased. They won’t go back to the villages. They’re sitting somewhere, hanging around. Not only did the slums get cleared but you had, linked to the Wal-Mart, supermarket culture, an attempt to shut down businesses inside the city. A very artificial issue was created. Suddenly it was argued that residential areas should have no businesses, even though India is a culture of mixed land use and every good city has had to have business and residents together. It creates security, it creates livelihoods, it’s vibrant.

A sealing operation of the most horrendous kind took place. And sealing was really sealing. They would walk right into your place and put a lock on your door. Hundreds and thousands of businesses were shut down. Eventually it was exposed that the judge who had given this ruling had his sons involved in the supermarket investments, and he was flushing out businesses from the town to push them to the outskirts of the city, very much like suburban supermarkets in the U.S.A. But India is a crowded land; India is a land of a billion people. You can’t uproot the farmers and say, “You can’t even come to slums.” You can’t shut down small businesses and say, “Go shop in Wal-Mart.” It won’t work. It’s an unworkable dream.

Unfortunately, big business is so myopic, they’re not looking at the fact that when they take that island outside Karachi it’s going to go when sea levels rise. They don’t realize that—when they change the coastal regulation zone, which has been such an important protection in this country. We shut down the shrimp farms using this law. Hotels and resorts, which were totally destructive of beaches, were closed. And now we’ve got my favorite, Dr. M. S. Swaminathan of the Green Revolution, recommending to government that the coasts are unsafe for the fishermen and they should be moved out one kilometer, but all of the coasts should be opened up for industry, nuclear power plants, ports. So you’re getting this amazing greed with the idea that you can dispossess 80 percent of India and everything will be fine, you can create huge ecological vulnerability and everything will be fine. They’re not looking at the social or ecological consequences of their actions.

SO IN effect what you’re describing is class warfare: privileged groups conducting business over the bodies of people who are not privileged.

I WOULD go further. I would say it’s beyond class warfare. It’s genocide.

CAN YOU explain?

THE TECHNICAL definition of genocide is any deliberate harming of a group by another group, physical harm, economic harm. When we see 200,000 farmers commit suicide, it’s a design. It hasn’t happened accidentally; it’s a consequence of rules of trade liberalization. When millions of farmers are getting uprooted and many of them are being shot dead, it’s immediate killing, but in the long run it is targeting rural livelihoods by design and saying, “You have no business to exist in the future.”

I have written a piece called “India Needs Its Small Farmers,” because from Manmohan Singh to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, they’re repeatedly saying, “The small farmer of India is unviable. Therefore, they must go.” Where will they go, they don’t answer. They must go and they want to clear the way for the Ambanis and Tatas, and, of course, the Dows and the DuPonts, who work with these people. This is physically harming by design. It is extermination of a very large part of India.

DO YOU see civil society rising in response to this?

CIVIL SOCIETY is rising in response. That is why for me the issue of democracy is at the heart of it. Either we will be able to reclaim democracy, open up spaces, control the Ambanis, the Montek Singh Ahluwalias, bring them to social discipline, democratic discipline, or they will define a short-term grab of the resources of this country with a total collapse twenty years down the line.

INDIA HAS a large and growing military establishment. I just spent some time in Kashmir, by the way. There are hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir—I think the number is 600,000—which makes Kashmir the most densely occupied area in the world. What about militarization and the alliances with the United States and Israeli military?

THE ISSUE of the increasing militarization and the intimacy with the Israeli military and the U.S. military have sparked huge protests in this country, both because we would prefer the peaceful way and definitely, if we have to have a military, we want it to be sovereign, independent, and nonaligned.

The issue of militarization has more facets than the military, because the largest chunk of militarization is taking place through what I call paramilitary operations. These are not police and they are not the army, but they are meant to handle civic issues. There is more military action taking place against the Indian people than against any foreign enemy right now. The whole Naxalite issue. Battalion after battalion is being deployed. We’ve just had huge communal conflicts in Orissa, again linked to this displacement issue, because, as I have said in my books, if you appropriate resources and destroy livelihoods and leave fewer opportunities for people, people will get polarized along lines of religion, caste, ethnicity.

The rise of ethnic conflict and fundamentalist religion goes hand in hand with the rise of corporate globalization has a very, very important connection. So when people lose the stability of their lives and are living on nothing, A) they become vulnerable and prey to those who would organize society around fundamentalist religions along caste lines, but, B) people themselves in their insecurity get together along those identities when the economic identity of production and making things disappears. So we are seeing more and more of the paramilitary used. As I was saying earlier, as more and more land gets appropriated and more and more instability comes into society, more and more militarization is an inevitable consequence.

IN EARLY December, a United Nations–sponsored conference was held in Bali on climate change. Its purpose is to replace the Kyoto Protocol. You say that whatever evolves must include ecological agriculture as a climate solution. What do you mean by that?

ACTUALLY, MY next book is on climate change and energy. On the basis of the twenty years of work we have done in Navdanya and, more recently, two years of very intensive research we’ve been doing on it, what we are finding is that ecological agriculture is both a mitigation and an adaption strategy. Mitigation in the sense that it gets rid of use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used in industrial agriculture through mechanization. The large machinery is driven by fossil fuels. Nitrogen fertilizers come from fossil fuels. They are very intensive in energy. They also emit large amounts of nitrogen oxides, which go to create greenhouse gases, which also add to climate change. So industrial agriculture is a recipe for emitting greenhouse gases. Ecological agriculture has none of these emissions.

In addition, when climate does change, because it is changing, you will have more intense drought. When you have more intense drought, your soils that have used chemical fertilizers will have higher rates of crop failure. Soils in which we have returned organic matter will have higher capacity to retain moisture and will therefore not merely help you mitigate but also adapt.

But the most important point, we are finding, is, good, rich biologically diverse agriculture, which keeps putting more and more biological matter into the soil, is not just helping you with food security, it’s not just helping you get rid of toxics, it is, more importantly, turning your soil to a very important sink to absorb carbon.

YOU WRITE in a recent article that global corporations are transferring their pollution burden to the poor of the South. Talk about that and what you call “the socialization of pollution.”

THIS REALLY comes out of the debate taking place around climate change, where you have the privatization of wealth and the consolidation of wealth in huge monopolies, shameless levels of concentration. And then at the end of it we are told the Third World is too poor to have to do anything about it. But between 1992, when we had the Earth Summit when the United Nations framework convention was signed for climate change, and 1995, when the WTO was released, a whole new world structure came to be. So you have basically a globalization of the economy, with most of the polluting, resource-intensive industry moving to countries like India. Look at the aluminum smelters that have got set up in India while aluminum plants have got shut down in Japan. Look at the steel plants coming up in India while steel businesses are shutting down in the United States and England and Germany. They’re not relocating for generosity to India. They’re relocating to save costs, to save in environmental responsibility. And they are part of this chorus—and interestingly, one of the steel plants that was acquired by Tata is called Chorus—that is saying the Third World cannot have emissions regulation.

What I’m saying is, since you have stopped treating countries as an economic and social unit, you have stopped running welfare economies, where the last person is looked after, you have turned everything into a corporate calculus, then the corporate calculus must be the discipline for emissions limits. We cannot have countries with no powers to decide how the economy will be run and corporations making all the decisions, and yet governments having the burden of [dealing with the fact that] India pollutes this much, China pollutes this much.

You cannot have a socialization of pollution with privatization of wealth. You’ve got to have pollution go with the polluter. The polluter must pay. And the limits have to be set not with countries as a unit, because the negotiations in the UN are only around countries. What I’m saying is that if the WTO has given so much power to corporations, now it’s time for the United Nations to say the steel industry will have these limits of emissions, the automobile industry will have these limits of emissions, the power plants will have these limits of emissions. And unless it’s done by economic sector and corporate responsibility is brought into play, we’re going to constantly have this dance between private wealth and social pollution.

THERE IS a notion circulating among some progressives in the United States that there is something called natural capitalism. What do you think of that?

I’VE BEEN a physicist, and I like to look at things as they are. Unfortunately, as they are, global capital is raping the planet. There is nothing natural about it.

AND AN alternative?

The alternative is small communities having resource sovereignty. I have worked in terms of the movements we’ve built—in terms of seed sovereignty, beej swaraj, food sovereignty, anna swaraj, water democracy, jal swaraj, land sovereignty, bhoo swaraj. These sovereignties and freedoms are the bases of an economy that protects nature and is a genuinely natural economy living in the scale on which nature operates and is able to meet the needs of all, including the fulfillment of human creativity.

1 Charu Mazumdar (1918–1972) was Maoist leader of a peasant uprising in Naxalbari in northern Bengal. Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1969, he died in police custody in 1972.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story