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«Dr. K.N. Shoba Assistant Professor Department of English Velammal Engineering College Surapet, Chennai Abstract The term ecofeminism in India is not ...»

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Volume I Issue III Oct 2013 ISSN 2321 - 7065

Ecofeminist Discourse in Postcolonial India: A Critique of Capitalism,

Modernity and Patriarchy

Dr. K.N. Shoba

Assistant Professor Department of English

Velammal Engineering College

Surapet, Chennai


The term ecofeminism in India is not popular in the common parlance. But the kind of

connections it has made between the lives of women and nature, between ideas of being a woman

and being natural, the responsibilities of women towards their immediate environment (includes family), nature are very much present in discourses of media, NGO projects, corporate welfare schemes, academics, common perceptions, in environmental movements/activism and in writings/literature that deal not only with environment /nature but of all kinds. Therefore, the relevance of ecofeminism is not ecofeminism per se, but how the connections it makes have spread across various discourses in contemporary times in the Indian context. This paper investigates how ecofeminist influence lies in the problem that arises out of the kind of connections ecofeminism makes, the identities it talks about, its emphasis on certain kinds of connections and certain kinds of identities. The paper also intends to problematise the connections and identities that ecofeminism has produced and still produces--and therefore the relevance. And thus, instead of claiming ecofeminism to be passé, it would be more appropriate to say that it continues to enjoy various degrees and kinds of presence in discourses both academic and non-academic.

The origin of ecofeminist theory in India undisputedly remains the Chipko Tree hugging movement of the 1970s. Vandana Shiva in her much acclaimed book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, claims that women’s environmental action in India precedes the UN’s women’s decade and the 1972 Stockholm Environment Conference (Staying 67). She notes an event in the recorded history of Rajasthan where some 300 years ago, around 300 members of the Bishnoi community led by a woman called Amrita Devi sacrificed their lives to save their sacred Volume I Issue III Oct 2013 ISSN 2321 - 7065 khejri tress by clinging to them. Though Shiva traces the history of Chipko movement to this event in Rajasthan, the context of how and why this recorded event occurred goes unmentioned.

There are no particular dates that can be fixed for the Chipko movement. The movement is spread across many villages in the Garhwal region of what is now the State of Uttaranchal in Northern India. Shiva traces the history of how several women and some men since India’s independence had dedicated themselves to subsistence living, afforestation (not merely planting trees, but planting ecologically appropriate ones) and to cherishing, sharing, producing and maintaining life. This served as the organizational base for the movement that slowly spread in the 1970s. The Chipko initially began as protests to protect land and forest rights for the local people, especially to utilize local forest produce. Later, the Garhwal witnessed organized protests against commercial exploitation of forests by outside contractors. Shiva records how in 1973, 75 year old Shyamala Devi mobilized local women of Kedar Ghati against the contractor who was ready to fell the trees. They threatened to embrace the trees if the trees were being cut and the contractor had to finally withdraw. There are several such incidents which led to tree-hugging by local women and subsequent withdrawal by the contractors. In 1975, women of the hill regions of Uttaranchal organized a 75 day trek and another 30 day trek to mobilize opinion on women’s increasing workload due to deforestation, the scarcity of food and water that was a resultant of deforestation.

Through songs and narratives of the time, Shiva weaves the history of Chipko with lives of local women being at its centre stage. The movement inspired Shiva to write about the lives of people who live “close to nature” and at the same time reverentially sustain it. Since the publication of Ecofeminism with Maria Mies and Staying Alive, Shiva has been the most vocal proponent of “third world” ecofeminism. Moreover as mentioned before, her strong involvement in the debates at the Rio Earth conference in 1992 helped launch “Indian”/“third world” ecofeminism in a big way.

Since then, Shiva has remained influential in debates and policies concerning women and environment both at the government and at the non-government levels (NGOs) that operate in various places and various levels all across the country. Her discussions and ideas that featured prominently in the newspapers, TV, national and international media, and on the internet have been used to mobilize public opinion and action on a range of issues from women and environmental degradation, the essence of “Indian value system” with regard to nature and to the ill-effects of the corporate capital culture. It is therefore quite important and necessary to look into how Vandana Shiva theorizes the connections between women and nature in the Indian context and its implications in the present context, whether literature or elsewhere.

Volume I Issue III Oct 2013 ISSN 2321 - 7065 The most important point that runs through the work of Shiva, Maria Mies and a few others who have written about ecology and gender in the Indian context is the rediscovery of interdependence and interconnectedness of everything. This rediscovery is simultaneously attributed to the ancient wisdom of women and to women’s involvement in peace, ecology, feminist and health movements in the contemporary world. The discovery and realization of this interconnectedness Shiva and Mies argue has led to the rediscovery of the spiritual dimension of life. This spirituality inhabits and permeates all things and is understood by Shiva as not idealistic. It is constantly stressed that this kind of spirituality is not other-worldly, not the “luxury spirituality” that is being marketed in the western capitalist societies in the form of Yoga, Tai-chi etc. but a spirit that connects everything and which is the life-force of everything and every being and is seen as female, very much a part of the material world. And as said before, this spirituality cannot be separated from the materiality of the daily lives: “We ourselves with our bodies can’t separate material from the spiritual in any spiritual/material experience” (Shiva, Staying 219). Shiva categorizes this as the “female principle” which is also termed as shakti or prakriti.

–  –  –

Therefore the task for ecofeminists and others is to recover the lost, subjugated feminine principle as respect for life in nature and society appears to be the only way forward for everyone on earth (Staying 223).

Elaborating on the shakti/prakriti–the female principle in sections of hindu thought, which she categorizes as Indian, Shiva speaks of women in India as an intimate part of nature, both in imagination and in practice. According to her, “nature is symbolized as the embodiment of the feminine principle and also is nurtured by the feminine to produce life and to provide sustenance” (Staying 40). Dwelling into the origin of the female principle within the “Indian” i thought, Shiva speaks of all existence arising out of a primordial energy that is created in the tension/play between creation and destruction, cohesion and disintegration.

–  –  –

Shiva further notes that prakriti is worshipped in various forms, “as the primordial vastness, the source of abundance, as adishakti, the primordial power” (39). Unlike the “western” concept of passive/objectified nature, nature in the “Indian” philosophy is active and diverse. “The nature of Nature as prakriti is activity and diversity. Prakriti is everywhere–in the form of stone, tree, pool, fruit or animal” (Shiva, Staying 39). Again, as opposed to the notion of man as separate from nature, which has been discussed by many ecofeminists of the west, Shiva believes that in India, there

exists a living, nurturing relationship between the human and nature:

–  –  –

Shiva’s emphasis here is how this Indian view is conceptually different from the Cartesian view that sees nature as a resource to be used. And because of the dualist nature that characterizes western Volume I Issue III Oct 2013 ISSN 2321 - 7065 society, man is separated from nature and this has allowed the subjugation of women and nature (by implication–Indian women are not “as subjugated as” western women). The western world view according to Shiva and a few others is that nature is (a) inert and passive (b) uniform and mechanistic (c) separated and fragmented within itself (d) separate from man (e) inferior to be dominated and exploited by man.ii So what is it that has gone wrong with women and nature of the east which according to the female principle should have worked out well? Why does the need to reclaim and rediscover the feminine principle arise? Ecofeminist analyses worldwide attribute the disappearance of female principle from societies like Indian to the dominant and destructive power of the western culture and thought, its knowledge and economy. Though the age of feminine principle is not located in any point in history by any analysis, most ecofeminists and especially Shiva and Mies point out to colonization and subsequent subjugation of the “third world” people as the reason for change in values regarding nature and women. Colonization, it is argued, undermined the ecological ways of knowing, participatory ways in which nature was understood and revered, the plural and diverse ways of life, beliefs, knowledge and much more. Colonization is also considered a turning point where commercial and industrial forest management principles were transferred to Indian culture and society which unconditionally undermined women’s roles in reproductive and subsistence roles (Leach and Green 347). With colonization also came “western rationality” and “western science”, which scorned human dependence on mother earth. Shiva argues that

–  –  –

Colonization is therefore held responsible not only for subjugating “third world” people but also for destroying and looting the natural resources which was until then held sacred and preserved by the “third world” society.

Capitalist patriarchy is another system that Shiva and Mies attack for changing the course of lives of the “third world” people and nature towards destruction. Capitalist patriarchy which they also term as modern civilization is said to be based on

–  –  –

Capitalist patriarchy of the first world is seen as a gift of colonization--to the “third world”, which brought with it new ideas of development and progress that always benefited the first world. As mentioned earlier, capitalism is rightfully criticized for its skewed development that Shiva and Mies term as maldevelopment. The way the economy is structured so as to procure maximum profit from the “third world”, the use of labour and natural resources from the “third world”, the biased role of the world bank, IMF and other financial giants play in the world economy controlled by the corporate world and a few powerful countries, the irregularities and the unjust practices of the “free trade” market, corporitisation of agriculture and the role of the chemical and fertilizer industry, intrusion of huge corporates into the health sector--all these come under the scrutiny of ecofeminists of the “third world”. For Shiva, the economic growth that the west propagates is an indication of the masculinist model of progress. This model of progress is actually the growth of money and capital based on the destruction of other kinds of wealth such as the wealth produced by women and nature.

Capitalist patriarchy is therefore nothing but the domination of women and nature by western industrial culture.

–  –  –

Speaking against the expansion of the fast food chains and the food culture of the west into India, she argues that McDonalds and others are harmful not only to public health but also to the Indian farming at large, since they gradually kill the local economies and food markets. The critique of capitalism that emerges from ecofeminism and from other environmental movements against the foreign food giants and capitalism in general is quite strong. But, this is accompanied by rather generalized comments like how these food chains are actually intruding and spoiling the Indian food system which according to Shiva is basically vegetarian. According to her, not only are Indians a non-meat eating culture, but they also worship cows. However, these arguments can very well be disproved statistically, for a large majority of Indians are not vegetariansiii. Moreover, these ideas other than being generalized also propagate concepts of eating related to “pure” and “impure” that are in turn related to the non-meat eating upper-castes and meat eating lower-castes respectively.

Volume I Issue III Oct 2013 ISSN 2321 - 7065 Though there are exceptions, the popular conception of meat eating as impure, (that invariably strengthens the caste structures), are still strong and this creates an image of “India” as the uppercaste wants to create it.

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