Living Economy, Living Democracy – by Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva

This lecture was delivered in by Dr. Vandana Shiva in London in November 2007 under the auspices of Jeevika Trust, The Gandhi Foundation’s sister organisation.

“The word jeevika is derived from the word “life” or “life source”. So much in the name of globalization is happening which is not just indifferent to those life processes, but against them.

The large scale takeover of rural land for building construction – supermarkets, hotels and parking lots – is taking away land from farmers. In the corridor from Delhi to Agra there are five new hyper-cities being built. The livestock on that land is the basis of the livelihood of the people. We are building a movement against this process which we are calling the “Corporate Land Grab”. The colonial 1894 Land Act is now being used by the free market, forcing peasants to sell their land. American money, currently so insecure, is looking for security in that peasant land.

India’s stock market index just hit 20,000, and market value is shooting up. But that wealth is being created fictitiously. The women making bamboo mats will never defend that kind of economics in their nation. I started out defending forests in Chipko, and I was struck by the injustice of basket weavers having to pay more for their bamboo than the paper companies. Globalization does not work for everyone.

India is seeing the increased polarization of wealth. The jeevika of rural communities is under threat because the source of their livelihood is ecological wealth. Ultimately humans can only work with what nature has given them – work is a partnership between humans and nature. The issues of poverty and ecology were always the same for me – rebuilding nature means rebuilding people – and if we want sustainability then the resources of the Earth have to stay in the hands of the people.

When I started my work twenty years ago saving seeds it was to defend the livelihoods of the farmers. If the number of seeds drop then there is less biodiversity. Humanity has depended on 8,500 crops to make a living throughout history – producing food, furniture and energy has taken hundreds and hundreds of crops. Today we base our consumption on about eight crops. Monoculture is increasing and the monopoly over that monoculture is increasing.

The word for seed is bija and it has the same root as jeevika – the seed is where life resides; it’s the source of all life. In the hands of companies the seed is a source of death. Because the companies make the seed so it cannot renew, it is reduced to a commodity that the farmers are forced to buy every year.

Nature has given us diversity. After the cyclone of 1998, I gathered the salt resistant rice seeds with the farmers in the area. After the tsunami [in 2004], the scientists said that agriculture in the area would have to be put on hold for five years because too much salt had been washed into the soil, but because we’d saved salt-resistant seed, farmers were able to go on growing crops straight away. That diversity would not be available if seeds were not in the hands of the community – we cannot have seeds in the hands of monopolies.

In 1929 Gandhi wrote an economic constitution. It said that poverty in the world was the result of people being denied access to the resources they needed to work. Natural resources should be available to everyone – the wood, the fish, the bamboo – they belong to us all. This access debate is at the heart of globalization: who controls the resources of the planet?

Navdanya was created in reaction to GATT, which aimed to put a handful of companies in control of the world’s resources. Now companies are getting into energy through biofuels, leaving the goats nothing to graze on – the crops they use for biofuels are just oil berries. We have no deficit of oil-bearing trees but if every one was devoted to producing energy it would not be enough to sustain the fossil fuel economy. This economy is built on the false assumption that we can defeat nature. Food prices have already doubled this year and they are going up further as more land is devoted to producing biofuels. Instead of the land making livelihoods it is now going to run cars.

In Orissa, the steel industry is popping up like pock-marks on the landscape. Do we need that steel? No villager there has a single steel rod in their hut. Steel is being exported – 100% of the material is for export. Why? Because cost-cutting is the logic of globalization. India’s 9% growth rate is hiding destruction. Water from dams is going to steel plants rather than irrigation. Raw material and pollution intensive production is moving to the land which provides livelihoods to the poor – corporations are outsourcing pollution. People talk about the outsourcing of software but the real story is the outsourcing of pollution.

A head of state turns up after talking to five businessmen, he signs a bit of paper and the land is taken away from the people without consultation. The corridor from Delhi to Mumbai is being sold to Japan. There are 1.2 billion people in India – there is no extra land there – but everyone wants to descend there. There is a strong campaign against this corridor, the people and the farmers have protested against it. Our civil disobedience campaign meant that privatization was reversed.

We are defending the flood plains on the river of Delhi. The real estate people just sit there with a map, “Oh yes, there’s a green belt – let’s build there”. The building industry does not understand the flood plain or its role in storing ground water and we will be there to stop its physical construction. Three years ago we had the Bombay floods and the area was too built-up to soak up the water – the result was disastrous.

We need to start distinguishing between those economies that bring life and those that bring death. We’ve got suicidal economies – 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide after the WTO and World Bank’s policies. Why suicide? Corporate seeds aren’t about increasing productivity they are about increasing debt. I call it “Corporate Feudalism” – the corporations are joining with feudal structures we thought we’d left behind after Independence. I’ve sat in front of 2,500 widows in the Punjab, the wives of farmers who have committed suicide. These farmers consume pesticide in the field – “pesticide” ironically translates as “medicine” in our language. The land in that area has turned into a suicide belt. This is the same land where Gandhi started the cotton movement, where he spun for freedom.

We need to give the land back to the farmers so they’ll never have to leave. We need to get them a just price – at present the market price of cotton is one-third the price of production. Our farmers are paying with their lives and the farmers in the UK are facing similar problems.

We can’t deal with climate change without farmers. In any crisis, uniformity is the worst way to respond – diversity is resilience. Secondly, disruption leaves people vulnerable – and they need food to be available during those times. Third, organic farming helps to mitigate against climate change. 200% more carbon is stored in soils that are farmed organically. Yet nobody is talking about how climate change can be solved by organic soils. The floods in Bangladesh saw 2,500 people lose their lives to climate change. Ecological multiples are insurance. In no sustainable economy does everyone do the same thing.

The ecological economy is an economy of renewal where you have six foot of bamboo growing in a few months, or a new goat in seven months. But we’re creating scarcity in an abundant world. Poverty is a human creation – nature doesn’t create scarcity – human systems do. But two processes are making humans more equal: climate change and running out of oil.

But this time brings opportunities as well as challenges. Human beings have never yet been forced to redefine our role as a species on this planet. We have been living off thousands of years of reserves, but now we are running out. Now we are going to have to give back to the Earth. The big shift Gandhi made was to explain that having a lighter footprint on the planet was not to be more primitive, but to be more sophisticated as a species.”

Dr Vandana Shiva is  Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology and Founder of Navdanya Trust

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Categories: Gandhian Economics, South Asia


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4 Comments on “Living Economy, Living Democracy – by Vandana Shiva”

  1. April 9, 2009 at 5:47 am #


    We have some dream to share as regards living democracy. I would very much wish to have your feed back on the same. Could you click and let me have your observations.

    edwin m john


  2. July 27, 2009 at 10:38 am #

    I came across a very interesting podcast on Gandhian Economics which discussed on how even after so many years Gandhi’s views are a source of inspiration to build a contemporary sociey. It talked about terms like swadeshi, Sarvodaya, cooperatives, trusteeship etc and how well it fits into sustainability and ecological economics.
    To know more you can visit following:


    August 16, 2009 at 5:25 am #

    We need Dr. Shiva very much in today’s world where every moment conspiracy is is being plotted against the humanity at large as also against the living species as a whole, by a handful of greedy persons; it is high time Gandhian thoughts were revisited.


  4. September 8, 2009 at 2:14 am #

    I came across a very interesting podcast on Gandhian Economics which discussed on how even after so many years Gandhi's views are a source of inspiration to build a contemporary sociey. It talked about terms like swadeshi, Sarvodaya, cooperatives, trusteeship etc and how well it fits into sustainability and ecological economics.
    To know more you can visit following:


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