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Despite No Family Links With Farming For Generations, She Is Fighting To Save Indian Agriculture

Arunima Bhattacharya

June 30th, 2017

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“ Modernity is qualitative, not a chronological category.” – Theodor Adorno

Concerns about the environment have become almost commonsensical to us in this modern day and age. Summits are being held, protests are being organised, panel discussions are taking place but very often, the cause of the problem is not taken care of. One wonders if now is the time to rethink and revisit ideas like those of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ in a new light.

The Logical Indian had the opportunity to talk with Kavitha Kuruganti, the convener of the Alliance For Sustainable And Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and a pioneering figure in the sector of sustainable and holistic agriculture. In an exclusive interview, she speaks of her early days, her inspirations, how she was steered into this direction, the various obstacles that were encountered and how she coped with all of that.


Her inspiration for sustainable agriculture

Alliance For Sustainable And Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) is responsible for bringing about significant changes in the agricultural scenario of India. However, when asked if she had any familial connections with agriculture, Kavitha amusedly says, “Oh no! None at all. In fact, both my paternal and maternal sides of the family are not associated with agriculture for almost the last three generations, unfortunately.”

So the inevitable question that followed was how she got interested in this field. Kavitha had a fascinating story to share in this context.

She fondly remembers her college days, when she was studying communication at the Central University of Hyderabad. In her third semester, Kavitha was part of a research project which was carried out in collaboration with the Deccan Development Society. Her area of field work was the Medak district in the state of Telangana.

Kavitha’s perspective was largely shaped by the works of PV Satish, her professor and one of the founding members of the Deccan Development Society.

She said, “It was here that I had the opportunity to meet a group of ‘apparently’ poor, rural Dalit women; interactions with them were eye-opening for me, and it was then that I decided to take up this work seriously.”

Kavitha tells how she had come across a group of women in Medak who were poor financially but were rich in traditional (read alternative) knowledge system and worldview. “They had enormous knowledge in both local healthcare and agricultural practices, especially millet centred farming systems,” she recalls. “Their in-depth knowledge about seasonal cropping and their reasons for cultivating a particular crop in a given time was impressive.”

The women served as a great source of inspiration for her, so much, so that young Kavitha packed her bags right after she finished her post graduation exams to go live in Pastapur village. The Deccan Development Society has its headquarters in that village and Kavitha had now started working full-time with this organisation. “That is how I began my journey in the agricultural sector,” said she.

She has no qualms in accepting that her knowledge of the alternative agricultural systems, a whole new worldview was shaped because of her ground-level work that she had carried out in her early days in Medak. She was initially involved in grassroot-level work that work was targeted at 75 villages.



Kavitha differs with mainstream notions about agriculture-related issues

Drawing from her experience at the Deccan Development Society, Kavitha said, “Both the outsiders and the Dalit women in the villages had come to a conclusion through various analysis that the notion of food security as seen by the policy-makers is not a feasible one.”

She points out how the Green Revolution had completely miscalculated the repercussions it would have in the entire country. “The celebrated move of Green Revolution was supposed to solve the problems of food shortage, but it had long-term devastating impacts on India which were overlooked at that point of time. States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Thanjavur, West Godavari were the pockets which were supposed to intensify their rice and wheat production and supply it to the rest of the country. However, after decades of Green Revolution, it is common knowledge that those ideas of food security had not been successful,” she added.

Kavitha has been a part of an alternative Public Distribution System which was funded by the Indian government. “This public distribution system was completely millet-based in nature and benefitted local areas. In the early 1990s, jowar and bajra were being distributed, and through this measure, fallow lands in that place could be reclaimed. Millet consumption increased through this alternative distribution system,” she said.  

Kavitha aims at showcasing the changes that need to be taken into account while making public policies. “It was prominently showcased in the 1996 Rome Summit that talked about crop diversity, alternative public distribution system and related issues by keeping women at the centre of discussion,” she continued.

“One needs to take into account that environmental justice issue can never survive unless it is in tandem with economic and social justice issue. I feel that is the best perspective one can have in mind when policies are formed. From my personal experience, I know that only when policies take into account the various facets, they can attain their objectives,” she said.

Kavitha has been working for the GM-free India campaign for almost 14-15 years, and she has played a significant role in the indefinite moratorium that has been placed on the BT Brinjal. “We know that this GMO is a Trojan Horse for many toxic products to come into our food and farming. We need to resist this,” she said determinedly.


Her tryst with gender discrimination and patriarchal mindsets

“I have never faced any incidence of gender discrimination at a personal or professional level. But it would wrong on my part if I say that I have not seen patriarchal mindsets at play in areas I work,” Kavitha said candidly.

“What is the predominant image that comes to our mind when we hear the word ‘farmer’? It is that of a man,” she said. Kavitha points out how it is a sorry sight in Indian villages where women are not considered ‘farmers’ in their legitimate right, in spite of them having landholdings in their name.

More than 70% of the actual human labour involved in the cultivation of any crop, anywhere in the country is provided by women. This was something that had perturbed Kavitha for a long time, and currently, she is a key member of a large national alliance called the MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch). “One of the main things that MAKAAM focusses on is the recognition and identity of women farmers who remain almost invisible in the entire agricultural scene,” she revealed.  

Kavitha talked of the internal socialisation of women farmers in villages who are unable to speak for themselves and voice their opinion, in spite of possessing lands. She intends to work in this area to boost up their confidence and make them self-sufficient by giving them their due shares.

“It is essential that we recognise the knowledge that these women are privy to, in the case of many instances. They know how to keep seeds and nurture them for two-three years which is very helpful in times of rain, after stretches of drought. One can say, the optimism in agriculture is borne by women,” Kavitha observes.

Organic farming and (or) ecological agriculture fulfils the strategic needs of the women in a far more inclusive manner than the market-based agricultural model. The tribal communities and their agricultural patterns enable a woman to have greater autonomy, Kavitha opines. “In the market-based economic households, the decision-making power rests with the male members who also have better mobility. However, if the farming is not dependent on market input, then the woman gets to make important decisions, thus giving her more freedom. A lot of emphases is also laid on shared resources in this era of rampant privatisation,” she adds.  



Hurdles that Kavitha overcame

Kavitha talks of her experiences with the government and the industry where she has faced backlashes for her opinionated views on various public policies and resisted against the stance of those in power in many issues.

She said, “The nexus between the vested interests of the government and the industry can be cited as one of the reasons. But, I feel it is a strange schooling that exists which undermines the knowledge of the locals and believes in imposing policies framed by bureaucrats.”

The tussle between the expert and the novice is very much prevalent in agriculture where anything primordial is relegated to the sphere of unimportance. Western notions of ‘modernity’, ‘development’ have proved to be not so helpful in various situations – Kavitha urges that the contextuality of an issue is very important and needs to be kept in mind.

“The agricultural department has an objective of having a ‘seed replacement rate’ (SRR) which is all about ensuring yield and production and thereby not allowing the farmers to make use of their own seeds,” said Kavitha, adding that such parochial notions about farming techniques would worsen the conditions of the peasants.

She is in favour of agro-economy which is nothing but a healthy mix of scientific and traditional knowledge available to us – such a system would also be able to do away with the existing hierarchy.


Her recent engagements

Kavitha aims at creating synergies across the various networks that exist for the welfare of the farmers and to bring about a positive impact on both national and international levels. Popularising the consumption of millets among the urban people has been one of the most significant changes that have been brought about by groups of which Kavitha has been an active member. “We had started talking about organic farming a long time back, our research was also substantiated with extensive ground level work; but it is now that the concerned authorities are sitting up and taking an interest,” she said.

Positive changes have been noted in the lives of individual farmers and also in the arena of policy because of the efforts of zealous and endeavouring individuals like that of Kavitha.

Currently, she is deeply engaged with fighting against the GM Mustard. “GM mustard is about to be approved in India, from what can be gathered from the recent developments. It received regulatory clearance in May 2017. This will be the first GM food crop to be allowed for cultivation in India if approved. It has been seen that Bt cotton has only increased agrochemical usage and not brought it down, in cotton. Also, seed monopolies have built up with very little choice left for farmers. GM mustard is herbicide tolerant GM crop, which will increase use of a toxic weedicide – this has serious health, environmental and socio-economic implications.”

A petition campaign has been started by ASHA urging citizens to assert their right to safe food and environment by writing to the Environment Minister here.


The Logical Indian community salutes the work of a warrior like Kavitha who has taken up the herculean task of taking India on the paths of chemical-free farming. In spite of facing several constraints from corporates because of her resistance to GMOs and market-based agriculture, Kavitha has never strayed from her mission. It is people like Kavitha who are the harbingers of the sustainable future of Indian agriculture.


You can sign the petition here.

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