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Julie Banerjee Mehta speaks with activist and author Vandana Shiva about social justice and more

Vandana Shiva drank the deep delicious draft of life straight from Mother Nature since she roamed the forests hugging the Himalayas as a little girl

Julie Banerjee Mehta | Published 23.04.24, 11:41 AM
Vandana Shiva, activist, author, feminist

Vandana Shiva, activist, author, feminist

Picture: Courtesy the author

Vandana Shiva drank the deep delicious draft of life straight from Mother Nature since she roamed the forests hugging the Himalayas as a little girl. The world-renowned activist, scientist, author and feminist’s scientific bent of mind and deep understanding of life on earth punctuated all her activism — from the support of the Chipko movement and the Bija Vidyapeeth, the School of the Seed (she founded it in 2001) to the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Centre built in the Doon Valley which has become a centre of excellence that inspires such learning centres the world over.

Little wonder that governments of as far-flung places as Bhutan, and leaders of countries such as Spain have sought Shiva’s expertise to go the green way and live in peace and harmony so we have a symbiotic relationship with all species and all races of our species on the planet.


Shiva is well-known for claiming that the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds in India had led to mass suicide by poor farmers seduced by false promises. Her ability to help ordinary farmers believe that they can make a change and transform their lives and the lives of their progeny makes her a Mother Courage kind of figure. Actually, a far stronger force, closer to our Indic form of the feminine as Shakti. Excerpts from an interview.

When you look back on the path you have taken, do you think your childhood and the environment you grew up in have something to do with it?

I grew up in the Himalayan forests and that did shape my understanding and love for nature. But my passion for understanding how nature works and the urge to study physics came from reading a book by Einstein that I found in a forest resthouse. My schools did not offer physics, but I followed my dream to be a physicist and got the science talent scholarship. Our parents gave us the freedom to follow our dreams.

What did the University of Western Ontario do to broaden your understanding of why the world is in the midst of a huge crisis?

I went to Canada to address a particular problem in quantum theory — the issue of non-locality and what is called action at a distance. I had joined a very famous physicist for my PhD on particle physics at Delhi University, Samar Biswas. He was invited to set up the physics department at Santiniketan, so I followed him there. In six months, he was asked to start the Environmental Sciences School at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Just as I was settling down in JNU, he decided to return to the physics department in Delhi University. With all the changes, I had time to deepen my studies of quantum theory. That is when I decided to go to Canada where every expert working on the foundations of quantum theory had been attracted.

The day I defended my thesis, I caught the flight back home and then went to Bangalore, where I spent some time at the Indian Institute of Science and then moved to the Indian Institute of Management to understand the complex relationship between science, technology and society.

What made you shift gears from your doctoral work to being an ecological scientist?

I had trained at BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) before going to Canada and before my PhD. I had visited a favourite forest for a trek before taking my flight to Canada. The forest was gone. The stream that started from it had been reduced to a trickle. I felt part of me had been cut. With sadness, I was talking to the chaiwala while waiting to catch a bus back to Delhi. He said: “Now there is hope, there is Chipko.” Chipko was the movement women of the Garhwal Himalayas had started when they witnessed the Alaknanda disaster due to logging.

I could not go to meet the women then but made a decision that every vacation I would return to India to volunteer with the Chipko movement. I call Chipko my ‘University of Ecology’, with the forests and women as my teachers.

In 1981, while I was in Bangalore, the ministry of environment asked us to study the impact of limestone mining in the Mussoorie hills. Our study became the basis of a Supreme Court case. The Supreme Court ordered the closure of the mines on the basis of our study. That is when I decided to return home to Dehradun permanently, and started the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology.

What was the first big breakthrough you made in the way your work was being recognised in the field of food production activism?

In 1982, I was invited to lead a programme at the United Nations University in Tokyo on conflicts over natural resources. In 1984, two disasters took place in India. One was the Punjab violence. The other was the Bhopal disaster. I asked the UNU to study the roots of the violence.

The study led to my book The Violence of the Green Revolution. That led (to my work in) genetically modified organisms and patenting of seeds. That led me to start Navdanya, the movement for seed saving. We have created 150 community seed banks, trained more than a million farmers in organic.

I have also contributed to the laws for seed sovereignty in our country, especially the Patents Act — which says the plants, animals and seeds are not human inventions, therefore not patentable — and the (Protection of Plant Varieties and) Farmers’ Rights Act.

Internationally, I was invited by the United Nations to help write the framework for biosafety. Over the years, I have met and worked with the best scientists, including the Mexican scientists who are defending the seed sovereignty and food sovereignty of Mexico.

What is a typical day in the life of Vandana Shiva? What part of the day do you like most and why?

Each day is different. One day will be at the Navdanya biodiversity conservation farm, another day will be with communities in Garhwal or Bengal. Another day will involve travelling to give a talk. For me, the best time of the day is when I sleep.

When you wear the writer’s hat, what is the most challenging part of that activity and the most enjoyable one?

I write when I find the dominant perceptions are totally out of tune with reality. I write to communicate the truth that I have learnt through my experience, study, reflection. For me, writing is an inseparable part of knowing and acting. It is one continuum of my search for truth and justice.

In our Indian system of a highly stratified society with a still flourishing caste system, how do we break the power paradigms?

Justice is the solution. Earth justice. Earth democracy. We are one humanity on one planet. As earth beings, each of us has a right to live, to sustenance, to food and water.

Structures of power have created artificial hierarchies on the basis of gender, religion, caste, class. Colonialism and globalisation added the construct of the corporation, beginning with the East India Company, enclosed the commons, created private property, extracted wealth.

The right to food and water is a fundamental right. The fight to reclaim the commons is vital. That is why we have created community seed banks and defended our biodiversity and knowledge heritage for the good of all.

How can women effectively implement solutions and provide a better world for the next generation?

Women have had to care for the earth which provides sustenance to their families and communities. They are experts in the economy of care, the ecology of growing more food with fewer resources, growing food with climate resilience.

Is the battle against genetically-modified foods lost or are we going to be able to stem the flood?

The battle will not be lost as long as the last person stays committed to grow and eat food without poisons and GMOs.

Of the many accolades and awards that you have received, which one means the most to you?

My best reward is the satisfaction of doing the right thing, the meaning that comes from defending the earth and people’s rights, irrespective of the powers of destruction and domination.

If you were looking at yourself from the outside and looking in, how would you see yourself as a significant catalyst for change?

The way I see myself looking in, I see the power and potential of being a catalyst of change because of my deep interconnectedness with the earth. That is what guides my actions.

Do you make the time for the more normal things in life? Who would you say is your family?

I love cooking and used to cook a lot when I had time. I hope to turn to it again as I slow down. My favourite spot is the Navdanya farm (

My larger family is the Earth Family. My biological family is a brother, a sister, a wonderful son. We all love each other, care deeply for each other, and are grateful we have each other.

Julie Banerjee Mehta is the author of Dance of Life, and co-author of Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen. She teaches Masters English at
Loreto College

Last updated on 23.04.24, 11:42 AM

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