Monday, July 21, 2008

Navdanya I

NEW: Selection of pictures from Navdanya are here.Some of these pictures are of the grounds, a few of us shelling peanuts, and others of people who work at Navdanya, including women working in the rice fields. The interior shots with paintings are of the seed bank.

It’s early evening on Tuesday, July 14th, and I’m sitting on the stone veranda outside my modest room at Navdanya, the biodiversity farm founded by Vandana Shiva, just outside of Dera Dun, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. From this spot I look across unmown grass, a footpath, a few rows of wide, flat tumeric plants, fruit trees further in the distance, and beyond, in the grey mist skies a faint outline of the Himalays shimmers above the trees. There is a light rain, and thunder in the distance, punctuated by the shouts and laughter of a group of Navdanya staff members sitting under a huge thatched roof meeting room playing a card game called “Uno” with Wendy Brown, a member of our group.

We arrived at Navdanya late last night after a 6 _ hour train ride from Delhi. We had gotten up at the Jambughoda Palace Resort at 4:00 a.m. and driven for an hour to the airport at Baroda, where we caught a plane to Delhi. We had another driver committed to showing off his reckless driving to the Americans. We started off behind the other two cars in our convoys but our driver passed the other two cars and sprinted into the lead as if we were in a race to the airport. Contemporary Hindi Hip Hop blared from the stereo, and we careened through the dark swerving to avoid the dim images of children, adults, cows, goats, and the occasional autorickshaw or truck. At one point I heard the back door to the jeep slam shut and turned to see the driver’s companion crawling up onto the roof. He made his way to the front of the car and swung himself around so that he could wipe the windshield clean, then crawled back over the roof and into the car again. This was all done while we were driving at a good 45 mph. I guess the windshield wipers don’t work and, like I said, these guys like to show off.

We had a nice lunch break in Delhi at a very fancy restaurant in a large hotel. We could have been in Chicago. Most of the patrons of the hotel seemed to be very well off westernized Indians or, perhaps, NRIs (non-resident Indians) visiting from somewhere else. I decided I needed a break from Indian food and had, of all things, pasta carbonara. It would have been a disappointment at home but under the circumstances I loved it. From the hotel we took our private coach to the raucous New Delhi train station, a place I’ve described before that is absolutely teeming with people from all over India, some seemingly carting their whole lives around with them (others seems to have next to nothing, or perhaps live in the station, for there are people with no possessions sleeping on the floor everywhere, and here and there you see the occasional sadu or holy man). A group of men who make their living as porters at the station contracted to carry our bags to the train and store them in the small overhead bins. More than one man carried two full suitcases on his shoulders through the crowded station in the hot, humid heat of the day, up and down stairs and across platform after platform until we got to our gate at the far end of the station. It was quite a scene. The ride itself was quite relaxing. Everyone napped or read or played card games, which attracted quite a crowd of kids. Barbara has now run out of balloons but the kids loved to watch a group play scrabble and hung around long after to chat with us.

The scene at the Dera Dun train station, much smaller than Delhi’s, was quite a contrast. The floors were clean and the place well lit, and where in other stations people were sleeping everywhere and whole families dined on blankets spread with food, pots, and utensils, here people were simply making their way out of the station or onto cars. As we drove from Dera Dun to Navdanya we could see the town was much cleaner and relatively more prosperous than anywhere we’d been before. As we left the town itself we drove through what looked like a very nice, middle class neighborhood of stucco homes with courtyards, parked cars, and verandas. Eventually the neighborhood turned predominantly Muslim and we drove by a large mosque. By the time we settled into our rooms at Navdanya it was nearly 11:30. A long, long day and I slept like a baby under my mosquito net with the fan whirring as fast as it could go. No airconditioning out here.

It wasn’t until morning that we could see what a beautiful place we’d arrived at the night before. We’re in lush foothills, with green and tropical plants everywhere and the sound of birds, many of them, singing nearby and in the distances. The low, redbrick buildings, all single story, are spread around the property so there is plenty of open space. All of the sleeping quarters are small and modest, but each has a large stone veranda that opens out to views of the countryside. We were offered elephant grass tea in the morning before breakfast. For a guy who takes two espressos every morning to wake up it was a shock, and at first I could barely taste anything, but the more a drank the more I appreciated the subtle flavors, and later we were served classic masala chai, which got my system kick started. Breakfast was a delicious mix of hot, whole grain cereals, fruit (local bananas and, of course, mangos) and a potato patty crusted with amaranth seeds. Delicious. At Navdanya everyone wipes off their plates with newspaper sheets into a bin for composting, and then washes his or her dishes.

During the morning we had an introduction to Navdanya from one of its senior staff members, who gave us an overview of the on-the-ground experiments they are doing here with organic farming. He also discussed the social and political advocacy Vandana Shiva and her program are involved in as they urge farmers and villagers around the country, and the Indian government, to modify their reliance on mass produced hybrid seeds and return to the use of indigenous seeds for the production of crops so that the diversity of crops historically grown in the country can be rejuvenated. Where Ganesh Devy is hard at work at the Adivasi Academy preserving, cataloguing, and reviving the indigenous languages of India, Dr. Shiva and her organization are working to preserve, catalog, and revive indigenous seeds in India. Both see their projects in metaphorical as well as practical terms, for in their view the reviving of languages and traditional methods of farming can form the seeds for the rejuvenation of villages and peoples all over India.

Navdanya was described to us as both a “seed college” and a movement. Dr. Shiva told us she thinks of seeds as “the spinning wheel of now,” a vehicle both practical and symbolic for rejuvenating village life and providing swaraj or self rule for Indians. Taking control of seeds away from multinationals driving the hybrid, pesticide driven business of agriculture under globalization by returning to basic organic farming methods is, for Dr. Shiva, like Gandhi’s earlier move to counter the British textile industry’s decimation of Indian cloth production by encouraging the spinning and weaving of local cotton. At Navdanya they keep a seed bank and offer the seeds free to farmers, asking only that at harvest they return a portion to replenish the bank. Most of the planting areas are devoted to various forms of experimentation with soils and planting techniques, all of which are monitored in their laboratory by the staff scientist. Navdanya encourages mixing crops on a single property, part of their commitment to diversity. The educational component of the institution is a mix of lecture and hands-on work. Dr. Shiva’s lecture today was exemplary. She provided a condensed overview of the effects of globalized farming techniques on Indian farmers (who have a high suicide rate—they drink the pesticide when smothered in debt), the positive effects of organic farming, and the success she has had both in getting Indian farmers to adopt Navdanya’s practices and in rolling back at the international level some of the more insidious practices of the multinationals, like Monsanto and Coca-Cola. Be sure to visit their website to find out more about the inspiring work she and her organization are doing.

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