Monday, July 21, 2008

Politics and Manure

Thursday, July 16. We were introduced to Navdanya on our first day as both an experiment in organic farming and a political movement, and true to that introduction, our second and third days here have been organized around lectures and discussion about the politics of Gandhism and a hands-on introduction to methods of organic farming. Our speaker over the past two days has been Banwari Lal Sharma, a mathematics professor by training and a life-long political and social activist devoted to using Gandhian principles in the struggle to free India from what he sees as the grip of corporate colonialism under globalization. In his lectures Prof. Sharma distinguished between three facets of Gandhi, the rebel, the inventor, and the liberator. Together these three versions of Gandhi represent for Prof. Lal a model for social and political action in the 21st century. Like most of the contemporary Gandhians we’ve met, Prof. Sharma doesn’t see Gandhi as a static historical figure to be revered, the “father” of Indian independence, but rather, as a deeply moral and inventive thinker whose philosophical outlook and political strategies can be used today to fight against a new form of colonialism related to globalization. As he argued in his provocative final lecture today, India, like other so-called developing countries, is being run on economic polices formulated by organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and GATT, groups dominated by huge American run multinationals who have, together, developed policies designed to ensure new markets for themselves, markets that too often undermine local forms of productivity wherever they become dominant. He made a compelling (if, at least to me, not a wholly convincing) case that economic globalization is being designed and run by western multinationals in ways that flatten local economies and cultures of scale into markets for the consumption of mass produced western commodities, commodities produced in ways that pollute the environment and which are uniformly inferior to those produced locally. Prof. Sharma believes nothing short of a revolution against these multinationals and the industries they support is required, a revolution that will liberate India and other developing nations from corporate colonialism. On the one hand, his vision of social change was breathtaking in its scope and a testament to how Gandhi’s thought can help us to confront contemporary problems. On the other, it seemed to me to be unrealistically ambitious in the scope of change it envisioned, and failed to consider the massive level of economic and political upheaval, and, I believe, mass violence the changes he envisions would probably unleash. The other approach to fighting the destructive effects of corporate colonialism would of course be through regulation, sanctions, restructuring, etc., a more piece meal approach to change but one that perhaps has a more realistic prospect of success with a minimum amount of violent upheaval.

The American literary and social critic, Kenneth Burke, once told me that the cure for a few good ideas was digging in the dirt, and the cure for digging in the dirt was a few good ideas. He had a piece of property in rural New Jersey and, when he got tired of theorizing and writing, he would work in his vegetable garden. But sooner or later, while working in his garden, he’d start getting some new ideas and would rush back to his study. The rhythm here at Navdanya reminds me of Burke’s story, because for every every hour we’ve spent discussing Gandhi’s thought and its impact on political activism we’ve been getting our hands or feet dirty becoming familiar with the whole cycle of organic farming, from the production of manure to the cooking of vegetables. Over the course of the past two days I’ve shelled peanuts in the hot sun with my friends, sat outside sifting rice for stones and bugs, trudged through rice paddies and corn fields to listen to the staff discuss experiments in planting and soil preservation, and attended an on-site seminar on how cow dung and water are used, in conjunction with twigs and leaves, to produce manure. I can also explain to you how cooking gas gets produced from cow dung and fuels the stove in the kitchen. And last night I spent an hour with the cooks in the kitchen helping to prepare dinner, chopping vegetables, cooking a few pieces of chapati bread in a frying pan, and helping with the dal (I did a video clip while cooking and will try to post it at some point).

There’s a link, of course, between these two sides of our experience here, for organic farming, is, in a very real sense, a political act, especially when done within the framework of Gandhi’s wider vision of “swaraj,” or self-rule, and “ahimsa,” or avoiding doing harm. Organic farming, as it’s taught here, can be the basis for the decentralized, small-scale production of foods that are healthy, environmentally friendly, and free of pesticides, and thus in a small but important way can be integral to the resistance to what Prof. Sharma characterized as corporate colonialism. This focus on organic farming in a village setting was central to Gandhi’s vision of a liberated India, an India free not only of British colonization but of the grip of modernity itself. Gandhi’s critique of modernity and western civilization was, of course, extremely controversial (Nehru, for example, was quick to reject it), and it remains so, even within our group. What role can villages and small scale farming play in saving a country like India, which is rapidly urbanizing and whose economy is being driven increasingly by industry and technology? Can its economic problems be solved by shifting most people back to the villages where they must be content to farm and to spin their own cotton? What role does the city and urban culture play in a Gandhian vision society? If it does have a role, what kind of balance can be created between rural and urban India in the 21st century? These are questions we all look forward to exploring as we continue with our trip, but there is no doubt that as a a model for small scale, organic, sustainable agriculture Navdanya is a very impressive, even revolutionary place.

In the late afternoon we took a short walk to the nearby village of organic farmers, who are predominantly Muslim (each afternoon the prayer calls from their mosque faintly echo through Navdanaya, along with the “hut, “hut” shouts of the men employed to scare the birds out of the mango trees). There we met with two different families. The men discussed with us their experiences as organic farmers while their children scampered about and there wives stood nearby. If I am able to post pictures from this walk you’ll find them here (I’ve also included a couple of shots from the main road from which we could see the Himalayas in the distance).

No comments: