by Dr. Vandana Shiva – The Asian Age, 24 March 2015

Photo Source: (Becket films – screenshot)


“The cost of the destruction caused by chemical and industrial agriculture in India is more than $1.2 trillion annually. In comparison, India’s GDP in 2011 was $1.1 trillion.”

Does nature have value? As a civilisation that has lasted over a millennia, we would say “yes”. But this is not what some oligarchs and politicians are saying.

If nature has no value, we can cut forests, turn our rivers into drains, our cities into gas chambers and garbage dumps. If nature has no value, we can try and replace its ecological functions with toxic fertilisers, pesticides and chemicals, which lead to cancer and kidney ailments. We can substitute nature’s freely reproducing biodiversity with patented genetically engineered and patented seeds and push our farmers to debt and suicide.

Scientists are now assessing the value of nature, and they estimate that globally the ecological services and functions nature provides are worth more than $33 trillion, almost double the size of the market economy, which is $18 trillion.

We assessed the cost of the social and ecological destruction caused by chemical and industrial agriculture in India to be more than $1.2 trillion annually. Compare this with India’s GDP in 2011, which was $1.1 trillion.

Nature’s economy, even through the narrow view of “worth” that we have become accustomed to, is clearly the bigger economy. Yet, it is not seen to be valuable.

In the original meaning, nature clearly has value. And the highest value we give to nature is it being sacred and inviolable. This is why the sources of our rivers are sacred sites — Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath. That is why species that are vital to the ecology or to health have been declared sacred — tulsi, neem, peepal. And this is why forests rich in biodiversity are sacred groves, or sacred mountains like Niyamgiri — the mountain that upholds the sacred law in Orissa.

In recent times, “value” and “price” have been reduced to their monetary reflections and have been distorted. Thus, sacred rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna, the Mandakini and Alaknanda are no longer seen as the ecological, economic and spiritual lifeline of Indian civilisation. Their value is being reduced to kilowatts of energy, to be extracted by damming rivers, submerging valleys or blasting mountains. While the costs of the ecological and economic destruction are not counted, we have to pay a heavy price in the immediate and long term. Nature reminds us of these costs when it unleashes floods like the Uttarakhand disaster of 2013 which took thousands of lives, destroyed villages, schools, farms, roads and bridges. Yet we still count only the “market value” of electricity generation to justify building of dams and hydroelectric projects.

In 1982, some ecologists were asked by the ministry of environment to look at the impact of limestone mining in Mussoorie’s hills. The extraction of limestone was justified on grounds of providing raw material to the cement, steel and sugar industry. The study showed that the economy being destroyed was much bigger than the mining industry. We assessed the value of limestone in the mountains as an aquifer to provide water to be more than `200 crore. The value of limestone left in the mountains was clearly higher than its value when extracted as raw material for industry.

On the basis of our study, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the mines in Mussoorie — on grounds that there was a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which upholds the right to life of citizens. The court recognised the value of nature and said that when commerce undermines life, it must stop in order to allow life to carry on.

The case of mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills is similar. Niyamgiri is sacred to the tribals and they have resisted its mining by Anil Agarwal of Vedanta for his aluminium empire. Politicians influenced by Vedanta only see his empire, not the forests and biodiversity, not the streams and the prosperous agriculture that the 32 streams support around Niyamgiri. Bauxite mining was stopped by the tribals on the basis of their constitutional rights — the Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act and Recognition of Forest Rights Act.

I was a member of the expert group that drafted the Forest Rights Act, which was meant to undo the historic injustice of non-recognition of tribal forest rights. To clear the way for the exploitation of Niyamgiri, the government is planning to amend or do away with laws that protect nature and the rights of people as enshrined in the Constitution.

Undoing these acts would amount to perpetrating the historic injustice of colonial law, just as the land “grab” ordinance aims to undo the amendments of the Land Acquisition Act.

It blatantly ignores the contribution of nature through fertile soils, and of our farmers, the foundation of our nation’s economy that provide food security. The social impact assessment and food security assessment in the amended law were aimed at including the full economy in the calculus, not just the super profits of the land grabbers and land speculators. And the consent clause is aimed at ensuring the democratic participation of all stakeholders in land use and economic development of the country.

The dismantling of laws by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is being justified in the name of growth and development. But this growth and development is only for the oligarchs, not for Indian citizens.

Governments that serve the one per cent are no longer democracies, because a democracy is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people. “Growth” that fails to take ecological and social destruction into account is no longer a measure of the health of the economy, but a measure of its sickness. And “development” that threatens nature’s economy and people’s economy, leading to ecological crisis and poverty, is not development; it is mal-development.

We have a duty to protect nature and humanity from the short-term assault of uncontrollable greed, immeasurable irresponsibility and criminal blindness to the worth of nature and people.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust