Report on Pre-Dissertation Explorations in India

By Elizabeth Louis
2006 J. Watumull Scholar
East-West Center Degree Fellow
Ph.D. Student, Geography


Thanks to the Watumull Scholarship for the Study of India, I was able to spend 2 ½ months in India, during the summer of 2006, on an exploratory, pre-dissertation trip to learn more about contemporary issues related to globalization, development, agriculture, environmental degradation and biodiversity. My goal for this trip was to understand how to focus my research on sustainable agriculture so that it would be beneficial and relevant to the current issues faced by small farmers.

I spent my first month in India with Navdanya, a program initiated by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) to conserve agricultural biodiversity. Navdanya places farmers at the center of agricultural biodiversity conservation and empowers them to take control over the political, ecological and economic aspects of agriculture. RFSTE, which was founded in 1982 by Dr. Vandana Shiva, works on agro-biodiversity conservation and protecting people's rights from threats to their livelihoods and the environment by centralized systems of monoculture in forestry, agriculture and fisheries[1].                                                                  

In my month with Navdanya, I learned a great deal more about the complex issues affecting farmers, from seed sovereignty and corporate control, to drought, pests and volatile agricultural markets. I spent a week in Delhi volunteering at Navdanya's organic store and three weeks at Bija Vidyapeeth, Navdanya's 'seed school' in Dehradun, which included an organic farm, a seed bank, and a soil research lab. Most of my learning occurred through working in the fields with the farmers, listening to their conversations, and talking to them about their lives and the issues that confront them. Bija Devi, one of Navdanya's oldest members and a repository of knowledge on traditional agriculture, shared with me her perspectives on agricultural biodiversity, gender and livelihood issues in rural areas.

While in Dehradun, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Vandana Shiva about how Navdanya was giving farmers a complete alternative to dependence on corporations – from acquiring the seed,  through production, processing and trade. She talked about the benefits and challenges of their sustainable agriculture model and said that their biggest challenge is figuring out ways of helping farmers to directly market their products on a large scale. Currently, most of the produce and grain are bought by Navdanya at 10% above market rates, transported at Navdanya's expense and delivered to their network members (individuals) in the cities or to their outlets. This is hardly a sustainable method as farmers are dependent mainly on Navdanya's infrastructure and as the number of farmers increases, their ability to accept all of farmers' surplus is becoming strained . I learned later that marketing produce locally is a major challenge for small organic farmers all over India. I also discovered that one group, the Deccan Development Society, is using an innovative alternative public distribution system (PDS) to sell their products.

When I applied for the Watumull scholarship, I had talked about visiting local communities that Navdanya worked with, to better understand their perspectives on sustainable farming. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit many communities because farmers were in the process of planting their new round of crops and Navdanya's staff had completed their community visits for that season. However, I did have the opportunity to talk with one of their key field coordinators for the Uttaranchal hill regions, who works very closely with farmers, and to meet other farmers who visited Navdanya.  

After Navdanya, I spent two weeks with Kalpavriksh, a national environmental NGO based in Pune. The environment at Kalpavriksh was very dynamic and I especially benefited from talking with Ashish Kothari, a founding member, who is very knowledgeable about India's environmental and socioeconomic issues and is also a very prolific writer on matters of biodiversity conservation. Under Ashish Kothari's leadership, Kalpavriksh has successfully carried out an ambitious project of designing the National Biodiversity Action Plan for the Ministry of Forests and the Environment in India, through widespread grassroots consultations and awareness involving public hearings, biodiversity festivals, workshops and seminars, foot marches and boat rallies, questionnaires, and outreach through mass and folk media.

From Pune, I traveled south into the Western Ghats in Karnataka State and spent a few days in Sirsi, where Sunita Rao, one of Kalpavriksh's  project managers is working with women to promote home garden diversity, protect forests, and encourage local seed exchange networks. They have a nursery of indigenous forest species and are involved in documenting the home garden diversity of the area, in order to eventually build up a case for policy change where local varieties of seeds  and organic, sustainable agriculture becomes the endorsed norm. I also had a chance to talk to Pandurang Hegde of the Appiko Andolan Movement in Sirsi, inspired by the Chipko movement in the Gharwal Himalayas.  The Movement works mostly as a watchdog group in the area to document timber smuggling activities and other issues related to conservation and agricultural biodiversity. After Sirsi, I spent a week in Kerala, visiting a coffee and spice estate and the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

Next, I visited Bangalore and interviewed Vanaja Ramprasad,  founder of the Green Foundation, an NGO that supports local organic farmers and has many similarities with Navdanya. From her, I learned that one of the biggest obstacles to the organic farming movement is the State Government of Karnataka, which was pushing floriculture (intensive cultivation of flowers for export) and contract farming, both of which were environmentally and socioeconomically unsustainable because of high pesticide use and redistribution of agricultural land for these unsustainable practices.

My visit to India coincided with the failure of the Doha Round of the Free Trade talks due to disagreements on agricultural subsidies in developed countries. In addition, many farming communities were experiencing high rates of suicides due to crop failures, the cause of which have been attributed not only  to drought, but also to farmer indebtedness from purchasing fertilizer and pesticides necessary for growing hybrid and GMO cotton varieties. In spite of the current desperate situation of many farmers, I learned that there is extreme reluctance on the part of the national and state governments to support organic farming ventures among small farmers. Some states, like Uttaranchal, were promoting organic agriculture on the one hand, and also pushing the use of pesticides and fertilizers on the other. At the national level policy-makers are still very closed about the long-term possibilities of sustainable agriculture and  are very focused on the issue of increasing food production through technological means will little regard to the long-term sustainability or suitability of the crops and technology for a given region.  Dr. Vandana Shiva, Ashish Kothari and others whom I interviewed all talked about the need for research on different sustainable and conventional agriculture models and encouraged me to do a comparative study to evaluate the tangible and non-tangible benefits of the different models.

Thanks to this experience, I am convinced more than ever of the potential of sustainable agriculture to address the many adverse impacts of the current global economic system on livelihoods, pollution and degradation, biodiversity, economics and food security, natural resource management,  and cultural and social practices. As a result, for my doctoral research, I have decided to examine the effectiveness of the sustainable farming movement in India in mitigating the impacts on small and subsistence farmers. The larger questions of how India should proceed on its development path, and, more specifically, my concern that the current neo-liberal development policies and accompanying emphasis on free-trade promotion are not conducive to an environmentally sustainable and socioeconomically just progress, are my main motivations for choosing this research topic.


[1]          Website Navdanya –  Accessed on 3/16/06

Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa
1890 East-West Road, Moore Hall 416, Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822
Phone: (808) 956-5652, Fax: (808) 956-6345, Email: