VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED
|Interview with Joan Mencher, an anthropologist who has worked in India for long on issues such as agriculture, ecology and caste.
K. MURALI KUMAR
Joan P. Mencher: “Indian scientists should focus on sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on reform from below.”
JOAN P. MENCHER is a Professor emerita of Anthropology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Centre and Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the chair of an embryonic not-for-profit organisation, The Second Chance Foundation, which works to support rural grass-roots organisations that work with poor and small farmers in India and the United States on issues of sustainable agriculture. She has worked primarily in South India, but also in West Bengal briefly, on issues relating to ecology, caste, land reform, agriculture, women, and so on over the past half a century. She has published widely both in the U.S. and in India on all of these subjects, primarily in academic journals. She has also, for several years, been a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank for their India operations. Excerpts from an interview:
Can you start off by discussing briefly your work in India? You are an anthropologist. So how did your engagement begin and what have been the academic areas that your work has extended to in this period?
After finishing my PhD research in anthropology, for which I researched on a slum in New York City, I got a Fulbright scholarship to come to Kerala to do research on child rearing and family life. That was the first time I came to India, in 1958, and even had a chance to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, who encouraged American students to visit India so that they would get a chance to observe India directly. I came from America when McCarthyism was at its peak, and as an American researching in Kerala, I also had to constantly prove my research credentials to the Marxists in Kerala.
I was in India for almost two years, until 1960, and then I went and came back in two years. This time I was looking at ecological issues and the differences between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and looked at how changes in ecology affected agriculture and social life. From then on I began to do other kinds of things. My most intensive work has been in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but in 1963 I first spent about four to five months in West Bengal, and then I have kept coming back and forth for 50 years and have researched on various aspects, including women and agriculture, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I also began to publish about caste this time. Caste was always there while I was working in Kerala, but I began to be acutely aware of the issues in Tamil Nadu. I have also written extensively on the problems with the Green Revolution and the efficacy of land reforms in India.
In your view, what were the main problems with the Green Revolution?
I think the main thing was the damage done to the soil because of the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. The crop patterns also changed significantly from diverse cropping to mono-cropping during the time of the Green Revolution. The agricultural methods led to a much more excessive use of water. It was really quite striking how this could happen. It also ended up favouring large farmers. I remember farmers telling me that they did not want to use artificial fertilizer, that they did not believe in it, but they did not have a choice because everybody around them was using it and they were using pesticide too and so all the bugs were coming to their lands. It took away choice from many of the farmers. In rain-fed areas, many of the farmers continued to grow [crops] in the old pattern, but in irrigated areas they could not.
Even the cropping pattern changed significantly. In one of my early studies in India, in a village in Tamil Nadu they were rotating ragi with rice and they were also growing other coarse grains. It certainly led to a switch to rice and away from coarse grains, which were so much more nutritious. It’s beginning to come back with its health values beginning to be recognised.
Certain changes in agricultural methods took place in the U.S. before the Second World War when the government adopted a corporate model of food governance. Why has this model been emulated in India?
A farmer sprays fertilizer in a paddyfield on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Indian agriculture should go back to an ecologically sound approach based on local food production, says Joan Mencher.
Well, to answer that complicated question, let me briefly start off by discussing how research in agricultural universities in America has been compromised, and its connection with India.
When agricultural universities were first established in the United States, the land was given to the universities and all the research at that time was financed by the State governments and not the federal government. When food corporations became more and more powerful, they began to pay for most of the research. Slowly, over time, most of the research done in America was supported by corporations rather than by the state, which means that any independent research was totally compromised. All the research began to serve an agenda of profit. The research was not supposed to benefit farmers but was supposed to help investors make more money.
The change in American agriculture started even before the Second World War. It was during that time that Dow Chemical, Dupont, and so on were making poison gases for the American government. When the War ended they shifted into making chemicals for agriculture. They started making fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for agriculture. There were more companies in the beginning but slowly they consolidated and consolidated to form fewer companies. So this is something that didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that took place over 50 years. And these ideas came to India through the Green Revolution.
In the 1960s, there was a bad time in India when the country went through a drought, and America offered aid, but India had to concede several things in order to get the aid. Several young scholars from India, the brightest in Indian agricultural studies, were sent to America to get educated and brainwashed at the same time. Even Indian agricultural universities were influenced by this model and began to teach a similar corporate syllabus. Two generations of agricultural scientists began to think in certain ways because of the brainwashing they got in America. There is a continuing alliance between agricultural universities in India and these American universities.
All these people began to be influenced by a certain ‘modern’ pedagogy. Well, modern means you don’t get dirty and you use machinery. Modern means you have many more machines and fewer people involved in agriculture. There is a certain belief in ‘growth’, ‘modernity’, or ‘progress’ in shaping policy, while the world faces economic collapse, unemployment, and [there is] a worldwide food deficit. The food deficit is being used as a rationale to deprive farmers of their autonomy and traditional assets and knowledge. People both in the West and in rural India are being manipulated to accept corporate approaches by myths like ‘individualism works best’, that all forms of ‘socialism’ in farming do not work, and the belief that private industry is the only mechanism that can solve today’s major food security problems.
What were the main processes that changed the face of Indian agriculture?
There were three processes that destroyed the traditional face of Indian agriculture. First, the Green Revolution; second, the 1991 liberalisation of the Indian economy; and third, the George Bush-Manmohan Singh summit in July 2005 [U.S.-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture], which really gave free entry to large American food corporations into India.
But there are people trying to revive ways of traditional forms of agriculture. One of the important things to be aware of is that large corporations are spreading the idea that anyone who tries to oppose all these scientific innovations is anti-science, anti-technology, [and] anti-modern, whereas I would argue that what they are calling modernity is not modernity and, furthermore, they ignore the much more complicated discipline of eco-science completely. Colleges have a big deal of knowledge about what works, but they do not support ecological sciences. Even eco-sciences are often pressured to do absolutely simple research. Eco-scientists are testing only one part of a thing when they do research on it without understanding the larger implications of such work. It’s the synergy between various parts that matters. Research in the ecological sciences needs to be improved.
What are your current concerns?
My current concerns are with issues of sustainable agriculture and alternative agriculture. Two things I have been concerned about are: one, the destruction of our environment, the total pollution of our environment through pesticides, herbicides, GMOs [genetically modified organisms]; and the other, corporate control, with companies getting more and more powerful.
I remember reading in a publication that one of the public relations men for Monsanto had the gall to say, “When we can control land, water and the sea, we can feed the world.” I was so shocked by this. The implications that one or a few companies could control the entire humanity’s food are just terrifying. I see it as really, really frightening.
It’s not that many large corporations control the food system in the world, I think it is four or five. What’s interesting about them is that they have interlocking directors so that people who sit on the board of one sit on the board of another. Even in India, after this treaty was signed by Bush and Manmohan Singh, between India and the United States, the way these companies have been allowed freedom in India is scary. One of the things I was impressed with earlier [before the liberalisation of the Indian economy since 1991] was that India had import substitution; India had kept out unbridled corporate power. I think that once liberalisation started, it broke the back of Indian industry in many ways. It broke the autonomy; once you are part of a large corporation you don’t have autonomy – maybe you make more money but you don’t have autonomy. India’s economy started growing at a much faster rate but who benefited from this? It still has not reached people who are poor; the agricultural labourers did not receive any of this benefit.
I want Indian agriculture to go back to an ecologically sound approach based on local food production, imitating nature instead of fighting natural processes, while increasing healthy food production by focussing on small family farms as well as medium-sized and cooperative farms. A recent study by IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development] noted the greater efficiency of production and the higher growth potential of small-holder farms, but there is an unstated belief among agricultural planners that getting rid of all family farms is good.
What should Indian agricultural scientists and economists focus on right now?
Indian agricultural scientists and economists need to pay more attention to poor farmers. They should not decide that a one-hectare farm is small. They should focus on small farms. I hope that agriculture departments will encourage small farms and give them money for alternative agriculture. Agriculture needs to be seen as tied to the human right to food, land, seeds and water. There must be support for NPM [Non-Pesticidal Management], water harvesting, SRI [System of Rice Intensification] rice, WSHGs [Women Self-Help Groups] and farmers with a range of holdings. There should be diversification of crops.
They should totally focus on sustainable agriculture with emphasis on reform from below. And they should combine it with poverty alleviation. Do not let traditional knowledge of agriculture disappear. Use it, don’t sell it to companies. Use it for the welfare of the community. Another is helping people to help themselves.