Vandana Shiva positions herself as a seer who, as a lecturer and adviser on the ‘agriculture of the future’, manages to reap millions of dollars from American universities, Italian regional authorities, and those countless fans ready to snap up what ever she puts before them.
Her most recent “triumph” was the official opening of the International Show of Organic Agriculture in Bologna, Italy on September 7, an event widely covered in the national press. Even a cursory glance at those accounts of her enthusiastic reception gives one some insight into the reason for her success: other people’s willingness not to insist upon hard truths. This can be the only possible explanation for the fact that Italy, once home to the most prodigious advances in Western science, is now welcoming with open arms the spokesperson for a Brahminic doctrine which, in its own homeland, has forced millions of peasant farmers to adopt primitive agricultural practices that result in them falling victim to famine, disease and usury.
The heterogeneous source material we use in writing history can be assessed comparatively – striving for the most balanced reading – or it can be used in a more selective fashion, in order to support pre-defined ideas, creeds or political beliefs. There is no doubt that the ambassador of New Brahmanism falls into the second category in her use of historical sources. Nonetheless, her theories still maintain their hold over enthusiastic disciples, who appear unable to see that those ideas lead to famine.
True, one could point out that India has been subject to famine for centuries. When, in the year 1001CE, Muhmad, Lord of Ghazni, swept through the passes of the Indian Kush to punish and enslave a people of idolaters, he laid the foundations of a Moghul dominion over the subcontinent that would be almost unique in its combination of avidity, cruelty and corruption – exemplified by such figures as Shah Jahan and Aurangheb, the most powerful in a succession of despots. In order to amass the funds needed to build the largest mosques in the East – and to fund the massive armies that were to attempt the conquest of the entire continent – those great Moghuls forced Indian peasants into a endless state of famine; and any who rebelled again this state of affairs were crushed – literally (beneath the feet of imperial elephants).
Later, famine in the name of the Prophet was replaced by famine in the name of Her Britannic Majesty. When, using methods that were practically indistinguishable from piracy, the first English merchant-adventurers seized rich cities on the coasts of India, Great Britain itself was the centre of world advances in agriculture (progress that provided the nation’s navy with the high-quality salted beef that was almost as necessary for its marauding enterprises as gunpowder and cannon). However, the vice-regents that subsequently ruled the subcontinent in the name of Queen Victoria would do absolutely nothing to encourage progress in Indian agriculture. They themselves were British aristocrats, owners of the best-farmed estates in the world – yet though they had first-hand knowledge of modern agronomy, their activities in India were inspired by a different logic. There were strict orders from London that it was opium they should be producing.
The flourishing opium trade with China was something that the British had inherited from India’s Moghul rulers. However, China itself was taking steps to prohibit a commerce that drained its silver resources and stultified wide sections of its population. Acting upon that ban, a zealous imperial official had a cargo of the drug burnt at Canton harbour, little thinking that this slight to the property of Her Majesty would unleash all the jingoistic fury of the then foreign minster, Lord Palmerston. With his usual flair for playing to the gallery, he sent an admiral of proven ruthlessness – Lord Elgin – to bombard the city westerners then referred to as Peking; the massacre of civilians would, it was supposed, quickly oblige the emperor to sign a treaty that required his country to acquire astronomical quantities of opium. (Jack Beeching, The Chinese Opium Wars, 1975) This duly happened, and by force of arms Queen Victoria became the greatest drug trafficker in history.
With the practicality for which they are much appreciated, the British were also quick to see the advantages on maintaining within India the caste system that had served the Moghuls so well as they plundered the country’s resources. In the countryside this meant a clear distinction between the rayat, peasants who enjoyed no property rights at all, and zimandar, land agents working for the aristocracy. The latter squeezed every last drop of blood from the former in striving to obtain the highest possible production of opium for China, cotton for the mills of Manchester and tea for the sitting-rooms of the entire British Isles (Deepak Kumar, Science in Agriculture. A study in Victorian India, in Science and Technology in Indian Culture,1984); the starving peasants were even forced to load cargoes of wheat onto ships bound for London and Bristol. It can be no surprise, therefore, that the advent of independence raised the possibility of massive famine: India’s entire agriculture had previously be geared to production for export, with peasants being allowed solely a tiny plot of land to grow the rice that fed their family.
That fearful possibility was avoided thanks to the actions of a woman: Indira Gandhi. Whilst Parliament quibbled over ethical, religious and philosophical reasons for banning the introduction of western agricultural technology (which the British had been careful not to make widely available in the country), she invited the future Nobel-winner Norman Borlaug to visit the country. When he explained that wheats developed to defeat famine in Mexico could produce 3-4 times more than those traditionally planted by Hindu farmers, Gandhi pushed aside opposition from Parliament and ordered her minister for agriculture, Mr Subramaniam, to purchase western seeds created in Mexico. It was the gift of the U.S.A.’s remaining war stocks that averted the potential catastrophe which loomed as a result of the rainless monsoon season of 1965. But over the next two years – almost equally poor in rainfall – the Borlaug seeds would be prodigiously successful: during the third harvest after their introduction the school year had to be cut short because farmers simply had nowhere to store the abundant crop and needed to use village classrooms as granaries (Antonio Saltini, Storia delle scienze agrarie, vol. VII, pagg. 594-607)
Since then the Indian population has increased fourfold, and – whatever ingenious arguments might say to the contrary – the reason why millions of people have been spared famine is the introduction of those Borlaug wheats and the rice varieties that were developed, using his selection procedures, at Los Baños in the Philippines (varieties that have now spread throughout Asia and tripled or quadrupled production in favourable conditions).
Given these phenomenal agricultural achievements in the subcontinent – with a prodigious increase in daily calorie intake – it is sad to note that various sources suggest that the rate of agronomical advance in India has slowed. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, it was the neo-Brahmins who took power, re-asserting their ancient prestige and violently opposing the use of western science in agriculture. Paradoxically, a country that was happy to obtain the atomic bomb and ballistic missiles is now turning its back on advances within the science which made it possible for India to increase its population without falling victim to famine on a biblical scale.
The further irony is that whilst it was a woman who, with the courage of a lioness, forced her country to accept the western science which would enable it to feed its people, it is another woman – champion of a neo-Brahmanism that is inherently hostile to western science – who is now greeted in the West as the prophet of a new relationship between humankind and the land which provides our food. But what such hosannas fail to note is that this “new relationship” is predicated on the tradition which was set aside by Indira Gandhi herself – a relationship which for a thousand years forced hundreds of millions of Indian rayat to live under the perpetual threat of famine.
When assessing the political ideals of these two women one cannot ignore the fact that, though millennia of human history have seen the emergence of a number of philosophies and “sciences”, none of these has resulted in technological applications comparable to those generated by the “experimental method” championed more than four centuries ago by the likes of Bacon and Galileo. And if there is no denying that it is technology and science which for three centuries have allowed the West to impose its, often arrogant, will upon the rest of the world, it is also true that this same science generated agricultural methods that resulted in a threefold increase in food production over the period 1950-2000, thus making it possible to feed a population that had doubled in just 45 years (as well as provide the medicines that have prolonged life expectancy, even amongst the poorest).
Egyptian, Indian or Chinese science never achieved anything comparable; indeed, for millennia, the relation between population numbers and agricultural resources in both India and China was subject to intermittent “readjustment” through famine after long periods of plenty. This was the truth which was grasped by Indira Gandhi, but which India’s new ambassador for famine is now trying to conceal, with arguments unbefitting someone who professes a training in the science she critics (however, see footnote).
One might conclude this brief history of Indian famine – recalled in response to the Bolognese triumph of the champion of Neo-Brahmanism – by mentioning two unfortunate “firsts” for India. One regards the complete subjection of the rayat to zimandar. A system with deep historical roots that was then consolidated by Moghul emperors and finally set in stone (or, at least, legislation) by British vice-regents, this leads to tens of thousands of suicides every year, when usurers exert their rights and seize the property of peasant farmers, who are thus turned out into the streets as beggars.
The other “first” which is no boast for India is the pervasive presence of tuberculosis in its rural areas, with no health campaigns being launched to contain the disease. Even Mussolini, when informed that malnourishment meant that an entire household inevitably caught TB when just one family member became infected, quickly instituted a system of isolation for patients. True, his concern was inspired by the desire to protect the warrior blood of Italy, but it did restrict the spread of a disease for which there were no viable antidotes.
There is, therefore, something disturbing about the fact that Vandana Shiva enjoyed such a triumph in Bologna. Political sensibilities might have resulted in rayat becoming known by a different name, but the truth is that peasant subjection to usury is still a huge problem in India and still results in enormous numbers of suicides (the one remedy for the shame of being reduced to beggary). What is more, India is also a country whose governing classes do not see fit to protect the nation’s “pariahs” from an endemic disease which is now well-controlled in countries that are far from wealthy (personal communication by professor Cesare Saltini, after visits to India’s TB hospital departments).
If Vandana Shiva does not feel she can use her position to attack the adoption of western science that has made India into an atomic power, she could at least turn her attention to such social injustices within her own country, or champion the creation of the sort of TB sanatoriums set up by Mussolini. Instead, she chooses to argue for the reintroduction of the sort of famine agriculture that a great Indian politician had relegated to the past. Why this should be so, I cannot say. However, given it is, the applause and ovations that greeted her in Bologna are, at the very least, ill-informed. Some might even describe them as an expression of wilfully blind fanaticism.
NOTE: The “Ambassador for Famine” has long proclaimed to one and all that she had a doctorate in Quantum Physics, a qualification which seemed to add credence to her statements regarding western science. Articles by the GLP’s Jon Entine and Michael Specter of The New Yorker have definitively proven that she has in fact been lying–her degree is in philosophy. But the story gets worse; her thesis was an attack on conventional science. As Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen have noted, her much-mentioned doctorate – now filed away in the archive of the University of Western Ontario in Canada – was an attack upon a theory which has received full experimental confirmation (Wealthy Activist Vandana Shiva Is A Poor Advocate For The Poor). It would appear that Vandana Shiva’s grasp of quantum physics is no more secure than her understanding of agronomy.
Antonio Saltini, Adjunct Professor of History at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Milan, is author of the four-volume work Storico delle scienze agrarie (History of agrarian sciences in Western civilization).