An Insider’s Guide To Uttarakhand
Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, has recognised this award-winning quantum physicist, author, global sustainability expert and anti-GMO activist as one of the seven most powerful feminists in the world. Born in the Land of Gods, and a giant among her peers, Dr Vandana Shiva is a revolutionary thinker and, as I am able to tell within the first five minutes of our conversation, an orator par excellence. Getting on a call from the Guwahati airport even as she prepares to board a flight to Tezpur — where she has been invited to give the Chandraprabha Saikiani centennial memorial lecture at the city’s eponymous university — she lets Verve in on the importance of reclaiming our Indian identity, the influence of her formative years in Dehradun on the work she does today, and why she does not need a break from her daily life….
Excerpts from the interview….
When you decided to settle down in Dehradun, how did you reconcile your various experiences — of living in a first-world country as a PhD student, graduating to a high-flying activist and being a local of Uttarakhand who grew up and did her schooling here — and what drew you towards this region?
Life was very easy in Canada where I was doing my PhD but Dehradun is where I am from. My father was a forestry official. The mountains and rivers and forests have shaped me; they are my consciousness, my ecological being. I did the Ganga yatra in 2011 (a pilgrimage to save the river; we protested against the pollution, dams and privatisation) because I grew up in its lap. Similarly, because I also grew up in the forests, I went on one last trek before I left to pursue the PhD in 1974, just so I could carry that memory with me. I found much of the forest gone and the stream to be a trickle, and it’s also when I heard about the women way up in the Alaknanda valley having started the Chipko movement. So, I made a commitment to come back and volunteer every summer and winter vacation, even while I was working towards my doctorate. You see, I had had a childhood where nature was exactly the same in the morning as it was when I went to bed. We didn’t have the capacity to wipe out forests, cut down trees, dam up rivers or blast the mountains. We call this ‘growth’ now, but it is only the illusion of growth. It disregards everything we are as an ecological civilisation.
Green spaces are so important, yet there are hardly any in the cities….
A lot has changed since I was commissioned by the Department of Environment to do a study of the master plan of Dehradun in ’82. We had formed a Green Doon Valley board and declared the area as an eco-sensitive zone. But today, unfortunately, it is so built up and concretised that you have to get out of the city to really enjoy a walk. In order to turn it into a smart city, the people in power were going to chop down and build over the last remaining tea garden here, which was the first one to be built in India. (The British established tea gardens in Dehradun before Assam and Darjeeling. But while doing this, they destroyed the forests and, in the process, the microclimate, so the quality of the tea was not good.) A citizen pressure group, Friends Of The Doon, which was started in 1983 during the fight to shut down the limestone quarrying in the Doon valley, reconnected with me and we collaborated again, this time to save the tea estate.
Like most Indian cities, Dehradun is also struggling for green spaces. Defending the lungs of our city has to be a part of every citizen’s survival mechanism, because we depend on our green spaces. You can create them even in your balconies or rooftops, for instance. And by doing this, you also give yourself the gift of healthy food.
Is it easy for a non-native to assimilate into Dehradun society and feel at home here?
Sadly, Dehradun and the whole of the Garhwal region have been overtaken by outsiders. Today, everyone wants to buy a vacation home in Garhwal, and they are coming in as consumers of the natural world that was once protected by local culture. My commitment to ecology is also my commitment towards getting rid of young people’s addiction to mindless consumerism — it’s more, more, more, without looking at the cost and what it means for nature or society. When I was six years old, a then-new material made from fossil fuels had entered India — nylon. All my friends in Nainital [located in the Kumaon division], where I spent a part of my childhood, were wearing it. My mother asked me, “What do you want for your birthday?” and I said, “A nylon frock”. She replied, “I can get it for you, but if you wear nylon, remember that you are helping the rich man buy a Mercedes. If you wear khadi, a woman is able to feed her child. You make the choice”. She used to weave khadi herself, and she had charkhas in the house that we used every morning. The question is, are we really thinking about what we need to do to create livelihoods in this land? Blind consumerism ends up stunting our ethnic and cultural identity. Which is why the hordes coming here to escape their big-city lives don’t end up adding or connecting to the local community. Twenty years ago, there used to be one flight from Delhi — a 10-seater Dornier. Today, there are 12 to 15 flights every day to Dehradun.
Where should one start if one wants to contribute to the community in Dehradun?
They should come to the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm, an organic farm spread across nearly 50 acres, where we’ve rejuvenated biodiversity. I built it to protect the valley, to practise agriculture the way it should be practised in order to produce healthy food and not ruin the earth. We have six times the pollinators than when we started, and our groundwater has come up by 70 feet. We grow 2,000 varieties of crops: 750 varieties of rice, 250 varieties of wheat, all kinds of dals, pulses — and millets, our forgotten food. They are the food of the future; apart from being more nutritious than the others, they also conserve water and rejuvenate the soil. I brought up my son on ragi or mandwa (finger millet), and it’s the healthiest food. Let people come not to escape, but to learn what life could be like if they made certain changes in their lifestyles.
You can enroll in a month-long course covering the A to Z of biodiversity, or even week-long ones, at Earth University or Bija Vidyapeeth, Navdanya’s learning centre. This country is one of rich biodiversity because we have multiple ecosystems here — deserts, rainforests, mountains, wetlands, arid zones. We also have the diversity of language and clothing. Aren’t we ashamed of giving the latter up to subscribe to the monoculture of mass fashion? And despite being from the land of Gandhi — who rejuvenated the fading crafts of this land and taught us to be self-sufficient — we have been so dumbed down as a society that we now spend money on fast fashion without knowing what it costs, say, a woman in Bangladesh or a farmer in Vidarbha in Maharashtra.
Where do you go when you yearn for solitude and calm?
Navdanya, for one. If you look at Dehradun on Google Maps, you will probably find that it is the greenest patch here right now. When the mango orchards were in danger of being destroyed, we immediately went to work and saved nine varieties of mango trees to keep the green cover intact.
The cantonment areas in Dehradun city are still beautiful, and this is where locals go for jogs and walks or to learn how to drive.
The sal forests are in patches everywhere, in the villages of Raipur, Rajpur, Garhi….
Then there is the Malsi Deer Farm, which is towards Rajpur, and another one would be Rajaji, a national park and tiger reserve covering parts of Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri.
Can you tell us about any lesser-known towns or villages that have been eye-opening in terms of their sustainable practices or in any other regard?
We work in practically every valley in Garhwal, Uttarakhand, including the Yamuna valley, where the soil allows you to grow red rice. If you grow this ‘basmati of Dehradun’ outside the hill station, the grain may look the same, but it won’t have the same aroma. In the mountains, we have managed to bring back the grains that were disappearing, like the amaranth and the buckwheat, as well as a system of farming called Barah Anaaj, where the farmer grows 12 different crops on a single piece of land. So, I would say to visitors, yes, there is the Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi River, where you can go on a boat ride and try a variety of water sports, but above the dam are the dispossessed villages that are truly worth a visit — and here you will come across strong women who are tenaciously engaging in community farming despite all their hardships.
There is a mountain shrine called the Kartik Swami temple — dedicated to the god Kartik — in the Rudraprayag district. The women here too are exceptional. They don’t look down on themselves or what they do. Many city folk wish to emulate others, but our women in Garhwal want to be Garhwalis.
Do tell us about the Earth Journeys.
It was mainly because of the deep cleavage between the rural and the urban, between nature and consumerism, that we started organising the Earth Journeys (an initiative that uses the Navdanya network of local communities spread across 18 states around the country to help travellers bond with regional culture and traditions). And because whenever I visited rural communities, I found myself rejuvenated. We can learn so much from the diversity of the land, nature and communities in our country. All our young people are earning fat amounts but everyone is walking around like a zombie, in a state of depression. That’s not how you’re supposed to live!
In Uttarakhand, we travel up to the remote villages. You can live as a part of the community and share in eating the food they grow. We don’t use styrofoam and plastic, so travellers are taught to make their own plates out of leaves from the forest. We also arrange trips to Kedar Ghati (where 20,000 people were washed away by the flooded Mandakini River in 2013) — here you can see that we have built dams and schools — and the tehsil of Pratapnagar, and in both places we have organised traditional homestays for visitors. The latter is a bit more difficult to get to but the women are very good hosts.
We are planning one to Vidarbha — which has the highest farmer suicide rate in the country — and next year, we are hoping to do a huge Himalayan Earth Journey, from Ladakh to the North-East, via Kinnaur, in the northern part of Himachal Pradesh, Dehradun and the Navdanya farm.
Three favourite spots in Uttarakhand?
Dehradun, because I reclaimed my childhood memories through Navdanya. I tried to turn the farm into a reflection of the Uttarakhand that I grew up in, by bringing back the trees, for example. My mother was a farmer, who also wrote poetry about the plants around her. I hope I will have the time to get her books published with a new introduction. You will find the Aurobindo ashram in Dehradun city — along the Rajpur Road here, there are many ashrams dedicated to Anandamayi Ma [an Indian Hindu spiritual leader].
Another of my favourites is Mandakini Ghati, I remember going up there as a young child. When you stay in the Tilwara guesthouse, of the Garhwal Vikas Mandal Nigam, you go to bed listening to the river. And this sound will stay with me for life.
Mussoorie is popular, but I personally prefer experiencing the Ganga, both in Haridwar and Rishikesh (where you can also visit the Swami Sivananda ashram). It’s very special. I would say I’m spiritual, not religious. Spirituality is nothing but realising that you’re not just a crass, materialistic consumer body; there are deep layers in our consciousness, and it is about awakening to our potential.
Our community up in Yamuna Ghati has built an ecotourism centre in a village called Sangri. Here, visitors can partake of the local fare in a local’s house. We’ve built toilets in the homes of the people here and helped them to conserve their crafts. This brand of sustainable tourism has been a big success, and the villagers are running with it on their own now.
One of the most important gurdwaras is on the banks of River Yamuna, in a place that is now called Paonta Sahib after the gurdwara. To see hundreds and thousands of people eating food that is not cooked by hired help but by members of the community doing seva is amazing.
Best place to enjoy local cuisine in Dehradun?
Frankly, most of the eateries serve chow mein and South Indian fare. Plenty of cafes have also popped up, but I haven’t seen any sign of a Garhwali eating place. We want so desperately to be what we’re not. And this is what happens — local food and culture disappear.
Best book you have read on Dehradun/Uttarakhand that helped you to understand the people and place better?
The Himalayan and Garhwal gazetteers. The various gazetteers of India are the best books to read to know a region and I go back to them even today.
Were you drawn towards eco-activism as a child growing up in these beautiful surrounds? How did the passion for conservation take seed in you?
The awareness of ecological loss came from my experience of childhood — I could see the flora and fauna disappearing. And when you have experienced the good, its loss is conspicuous. If you have a healthy diet and then move to junk food, you feel the loss. So, my passion comes from my childhood, from volunteering with the Chipko movement and from the very conscious redirection of my intellectual energy towards ecology — although in the early days, it was dedicated to figuring out the world, natural science and quantum theory.
Why did you choose to set up Navdanya in your hometown? Was it a practical or emotional decision?
I was based in Bengaluru and I had started a farm outside the city before I came back to Dehradun. But in 1982, it became clear that I was going to spend much more time in Dehradun [this was the year she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in the state capital and was commissioned by the Department of Environment to examine the aforementioned urban plan of Dehradun as well as the impacts of limestone mining here]. By 1987, I had started Navdanya in Dehradun. Before this, I would do a lot of the work myself. I would collect the seeds, go to villages and talk to the farmers, asking them to sow and grow them. And I used to say we have conserved 300 varieties of rice, and people wouldn’t believe it. At some point, I got tired of this response; I wanted people to see it for themselves, I wanted them to realise that desi varieties are not inferior, but it took me three years to find a small piece of farmland, and I added to it over time whenever a little bit more became available. It is now where I will spend the rest of my life. And yes, it was emotional; it’s my valley, my birthplace.
What are your favourite getaways around your hometown?
I don’t live the kind of life where I have to get away from myself or the place that I am in. And I have consciously created Navdanya in a way that it massages my soul. I don’t want to go to a place where there is a plastic sheet here or a stink there. I’ve created heaven!