THE SEED AND THE SPINNING WHEEL:
THE UNDP AS BIOTECH SALESMAN
(Reflections on the Human Development Report
by Dr. Vandana Shiva
25 Jul 01
The Human Development Reports were pathbreaking because they broke
ruling orthodoxies and dominant paradigms of development and growth. They
challenged the indicators of human progress and well being and evolved
deeper more reliable measures. They literally turned development on its
The Human Development Report 2001 focussing on "Making New Technologies
for Human Development" is however a regression. It reverses the search
new perspectives and paradigms, especially for assessing technologies.
slips into promoting the most outmoded development paradigms and crude
of technology myths and technological determinism, sacrificing the rich
insights and experiences gained over the past two centuries of technology
change in agriculture and health care. These experiences have five decades
of maldevelopment and forced us to assess the impact of technologies in
larger social, ecological and ethical context, from the perspectives of
those it robs of poor, resources and relevance - not just from the
privileged perspective of the powerful who gain.
In the dominant paradigm, technology is seen as being above society both
its structure and its evolution, in its offering technological fixes,
its technological determinism. It is seen as a source of solution to
problems that lie in society, and is rarely perceived as a source of new
social problems. Its course is viewed as being self-determined. In periods
of rapid technological transformation, it is assumed that society and
must adjust to that change, instead of technological change adjusting
social values of equity, sustainability and participation.
There is, however, another perspective which treats technological change
a process that is shaped by and serves the priorities of whomever controls
it. In this perspective, a narrow social base of technological choice
excludes human concerns and public participation. The interests of that
are protected in the name of sustaining an inherently progressive and
socially neutral technology. On the other hand, a broader social base
protects human rights and the environment by widening the circle of control
beyond the current small group.
The UNDP report reinforces the myth of technology as politically
neutral. It reinforces the old development paradigm based on technological
which perceives development as based primarily on technological development,
in spite of the earlier human development reports having shown that
industrialised societies can often be low in the human development indices.
It also reinforces the technology myth that the Third World is a "technology
follower", and the west is a source of all technology, even though
organic agriculture was transferred to the west from Indian peasants by
Albert Howard, even though one in three US citizens use Indian or Chinese
medicine today and in spite of the blaring bio piracy of indigenous
knowledge as in the case of neem, turmeric, basmati, tamarind etc. The
Report has totally blocked out the existence and spread of technologies
innovations of the South, and the technology transfer from South to
well documented in Dharampal's historical work "Indian Science and
Technology in the Eighteenth Century".1
Worse, it even justifies richness and poverty of the North and South
has been created by political and economic processes transforms as based
an "ecological divide" between ecologically rich temperate and
poor tropical regions, even though in terms of biodiversity biological
richness, and biological productivity, the tropical rainforests and tropical
farming systems are much richer than the monoculture forests and farms
the temperate zones. Processes that create and aggravate political and
economic inequality are thus being turned into facts of nature.
The interesting question to have raised and answered was why in spite
being ecologically rich the South has become economically poor, why in
of being the source of agrobiodiversity and medicinal plant biodiversity,
the agricultural and health systems of Third World countries are in crisis,
why hunger and disease is growing. The relationships between technology
trade would then have thrown up interesting new perspectives for human
A central tenet of technological determinism is that technology shapes
society and technological change is always positive and progressive. The
UNDP report repeats the assumption that "New technologies improve
ones they replace". Large dams were supposed to improve on indigenous
harvesting structures but they have displaced millions of people and
destroyed millions of acres of fertile land. Chemical pesticides were
supposed to have been an improvement on natural pesticides, but they have
led to increase in pests through build up of resistance. Plastics were
supposed to be an improvement on cloth bags. Today getting rid of plastic
bags is a big campaign everywhere. The "new" is not always better,
need not always disappear. In fact, ecological concern is bringing back
technologies which were considered obsolete.
Climate change and sustainable energy concerns has made the bicycle a
technology than the car, health concerns have made natural foods a preferred
alternative to industrially processed food and concern for quality has
"slow food" preferable to fast food and sustainability has put
farming as superior to chemical agriculture which was introduced to the
Third World as the Green Revolution. The debate about technology today
about ecology, ethics, culture, livelihoods and justice. It is about
cultural diversity and cross cultural fertilization of innovation. It
longer about the west as the only source of technology, and North to South
as the only direction of technology flows. It is about bringing ecology
culture to the heart of technology. It is about reevaluating illusions
the efficiency of mega scale technologies which externalise social and
ecological costs. It is about recognising the innovative capacity of
peasants and crafts people. It is not about the management of "trust
technology" as the Human Development Report assumes. It is not about
a "human face" to technologies people are rejecting, because
livelihoods and our collective ecological survival. The debate is about
political and ecological content of technology. It is a debate about
substance, not form. Technology needs an ethical and the ecological core,
not a mere face lift. The technology report misses the core of contemporary
technology debates. It is triply outmoded. It promotes outmoded technology
myths and technology paradigms, it ignores social and cultural trends
current society - technology debates and it is out of date on current
For example, it talks of 100,000 Indian software professionals from India
going to U.S. annually when 50,000 jobless Indian professionals from the
U.S. IT sector are returning to India because of the collapse of IT firms
and the economic slow down.
It talks of "trust in technology" and adoption to risks in
the age of the
Mad Cow and Food and Mouth epidemics
It talks of reduction in undernutrition in South Asia and end of chronic
famine at a time when starvation deaths and famines are making a come
due to a decade of trade liberalisation policies and unregulated
introduction of inappreciative capital intensive technologies in
It talks of industrialisation of the textile sector allowing employment
incomes to increase at a time when thousands of Indian weavers are being
pushed to starvation and suicides because of unemployment caused by
dismantling the policies that protected the handloom sector and handloom
The Spinning Wheel: A Symbol of Inertia or Liberation ?
For us in India, breaking free of mills of Manchester and Lancashire
necessary for one freedom and survival. Ignoring the entire experience
India's freedom struggle through the spinning wheel (charkha), the UNDP
report states in a section on "costs of inertia versus costs of change"
If the Luddites had succeeded in prohibiting the adoption of spinning
jennies, Britain would have foregone the productivity growth that allowed
employment and incomes to increase so dramatically.
The policies to promote hand spinning and hand weaving of cloth (khadi)
boycotting mill made cloth were at the heart of India's independence
movement. The crisis of unemployment and fall in incomes faced by weavers
today was a crisis also generated a century and half ago by the
mechanisation of the textile industry in Britain.
There was also a devastating impact of the new textile mills opened in
on the handloom weavers.
The growth of the industry began to impinge on the handloom industryS.This
incursion of mills into areas hitherto considered the special reserves
the handloom industry had a many sided effectSand led to unprecedented
worsening of the conditions of the handlooms weaversS..Actual unemployment
was seen as in the statistics of idle handlooms; this was estimated at
in 1940 by the fact finding committee (of Handlooms and mills).2
Gandhi's critique of the industrialisation of India on the western model
based on his perception of the poverty, dispossession and destruction
livelihoods which resulted from it.
`Why must India become industrial in the western sense?', Gandhi has
`what is good for one nation situated in one condition is not necessarily
good for another differently situated. One man's food is often another
poisonS.Mechanisation is good when hands are too few for the work intended
to be accomplished. It is an evil where there are more hands than required
for the work as is the case in India.'3
It was to regenerate livelihoods in India that Gandhi thought of the
spinning wheel as a symbol of liberation and a tool for development. Power
driven mills were the model of development in that period of early
industrialisation. However, the hunger of mills for raw-material and markets
was the reason for a new poverty, created by the destruction of livelihoods
either by diverting land and biomass from local subsistence to the factory,
or by displacing local production through the market.
Gandhi had said that `anything that millions can do together, becomes
charged with unique power'. The spinning wheel had become a symbol of
power. `The wheel as such is lifeless, but when I invest it with symbolism,
it becomes a living thing for me.'
India got her freedom through the symbol of the spinning wheel and policies
that recognised that technology is political and social-cultural construct.
It must adopt to people and diverse socio-economic and environmental
contexts if it has to serve human development. People cannot be forced
coerced to adopt to technology as an end. With a totally one sided view
the history of technology, the UNDP Technology report refers only to
Britain's experience of machanisation of textiles and describes defense
alternatives as "inertia".
Had Gandhi not resurrected the spinning wheel and handlooms, India would
have been trapped in colonised inertia. We would have destroyed our rich
diverse textiles. We would have failed to protect the livelihoods and
welfare our weavers which is once again threatened by globalisation.
The Seed and Genetic Engineering
While the technology report is written from a totally colonial Eurocentric
bias, it claims, instead to be correcting a European and U.S. bias in
debate on technology and genetic engineering. As it states,
Debates on emerging technologies tend to mirror the concerns of the rich
countries and the current debate in Europe and the Unites States over
genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the
developing world. Western consumers who do not face food shortages or
nutritional deficiencies or work in fields are more likely to focus on
safety and the potential loss of biodiversity, while farming communities
developing countries are more likely to focus on potentially higher yields
and greater nutritional value, and on the reduced need to spray pesticides
that can damage soil and sicken farmers.
This is a very distorted and misleading caricature of the history of
debates, negotiations and controversies on genetic engineering.
Firstly, western consumers rejected GM foods long after Third World farmers
in India have burnt the trial crops of Monsanto's genetically engineered
Cotton. Half a million farmers in India marched against corporate control
over seeds through genetic engineering as early as 1993. The courts and
regulatory agencies have not yet allowed the commercialisation of Bt.
Secondly, the movement for Biosafety, has not been led by western consumers
but by Third World governments. Ever since the Earth Summit, it is the
governments of the South who have been fighting to put in place the
Biosafety Protocol to implement Article 19.3 of the Convention on Biological
Diversity. To erase the concerns of the South for safety and ecological
risks of genetic engineering and reduce these to luxury concerns of western
consumers alone is a distortion of the history of the Biosafety debate.
UNDP should be playing a lead role in erasing the leadership of the
shaping the Biosafety debate is indeed tragic.
Much of the false promise of genetic engineering upheld by the Biotech
industry and the UNDP report is based on earlier myths about the Green
As the report states in the Section on Food production and Nutrition,
Technological Progress has played a similar role in accelerating food
production. Starting in 1960 a green revolution of plant breeding fertiliser
use, better seeds and water control transformed land and labour productivity
around the world. This had dynamic effects on human development. Increased
food production and reduced food prices eliminated much of the
under-nutrition and chronic famine in Asia, Latin America and the Arab
States. Because, the poorest families rely on agriculture for their
livelihood and spend half their incomes on food, this also contributed
huge declines in income poverty.4
Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Firstly, the Green Revolution focussed only on labour productivity, not
resource productivity. In terms of ecological efficiency and
soil, water, biodiversity and energy and the Green Revolution led to a
six fold productivity decline from 20 to 0.33.5 This has led to a severe
ecological crisis in agriculture threatening the future of food production
and creating resource poverty even in resource rich regions like Punjab.
Secondly, repeated reference to doubling of cereal yields ignores the
that this gain in yields of rice and wheat was at the cost of decline
pulses, oilseeds, millets and greens. In Punjab alone, the area under
went down from 13.38% to 3.48%, a four fold decline and the area under
oilseeds went down from 6.24% to 2.95% during 1966 - 1986. Malnutrition
deficiencies of protein, iron and vit. A have been a direct result of
rice and wheat monocultures. Genetic engineering of "golden rice"
being offered as a new miracle in the same reductionist, one dimensional
paradigm of technology. While 100 gms of greens give upto 14,000 Mg of
vit.A, golden rice will produce only 30Mg of vit.A per 100 gm of rice.
"Golden rice" is being offered as increasing vit.A availability
preventing blindness in the Third World. This is the jugglery of figures
through which ecologically, economically and socially inappropriate
technologies have repeatedly been sold to the Third World as "miracles".
In terms of nutrition per acre, both the Green Revolution and genetic
engineering are inefficient and wasteful technologies and create nutritional
Both Green Revolution and genetic engineering technologies are also creating
income poverty as more and more of the scare incomes of farmers are drained
to buy costly seeds and chemicals. The shift from open pollinated to hybrid
seeds has led to such an escalation of costs that farmers are getting
deep debt. In India new seed technologies have forced farmers into selling
kidneys and even committing suicide. 20,000 farmers have committed suicide
over 3 years in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh.6
The violence unleashed by the Green Revolution and new agricultural
technologies is also evident in the emergence and growth of female foeticide
in the Green Revolution state of Punjab.7 Gender equality and discrimination
was an important human development indicator used by the human development
report. It has evaporated in this technology report.
Genetic engineering and seed patents go hand in hand. Patents and technology
fees will further escalate the drain of farmers income. In the U.S., new
technologies and new intellectual property rights on seed are already
transforming agriculture into a police state as illustrated by Percy
Schmeiser case in Canada and 400 other cases in the U.S.
That is why in India, we have started Navdanya, a movement for saving
farmers seeds, sharing seeds freely and promoting low cost organic farming
which protects biodiversity, increases farmers incomes threefold and farm
productivity many fold compared to the industrial agricultural technologies.
Diversity as a pattern of production, not merely of conservation, ensures
pluralism and decentralisation. It prevents the dichotomising of biological
systems into `primitive' and `advanced'. Like Gandhi challenged the false
concepts of obsolescence and productivity in the production of textiles
his search for the spinning wheel, groups across the Third World are
challenging the false concepts of obsolescence in agricultural
searching for seeds used by farmers over centuries and making them the
of a futuristic self-reliant and sustainable agriculture.
Biodiversity based, resource efficient non-violent farming technologies
rather than capital intensive, external input based violent industrial
monocultures are the best way forward for the poor and fragile ecosystems.
The UNDP report exposes its blind faith in genetic engineering by totally
negating experiences with sustainable ecological agriculture. It states
"Biotechnology offers the only or best `tool of choice' for marginal
This rejection of technological diversity and alternatives is the most
fundamental flaw of the UNDP Technology Report. It ends up promoting
technological totalitarianism. It is more of a sermon than an analysis.
is more about technology as an end of human development than a means to
human development. As a means, technologies will always be pluralistic,
since they must adopt to diverse social, economic and ecological contexts.
As an end, technology is a coercive monolith to which people and ecosystems
must adopt no matter what the costs, no matter what the alternatives.
UNDP seems to have forgotten that human development must put human
the centre of concern instead of picking the latest technological tools
fads that some humans have shaped for their political purposes and putting
them at the centre of the human enterprise.
In the final analysis, all that the report has done is offer a desperate
sales pitch for genetic engineering. That is how it is being used. It
failed to move the debate on technology forward. And it has failed miserably
as a Human Development Report.
1. Dharampal, "Collected Writings", Vol. 1, Other India Press,
2. DR Gadgil, "Industrial Revolution of India in Recent Times 1860-1939,
Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1971, p329
3. Quoted in Pyarelal, "Towards New Horizons", Ahmedabad: Navjivan
4. UNDP HDR 2001, p29
5. a) V Shiva, "Yoked to Death: Globalisation and Corporate Control
Agriculture", RFSTE, Jan 2001
V Shiva, "The Violence of Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture,
and Politics, The Other India Press, Goa, 1992
6. a) Bija Panchayat, Bangalore 2000
V. Shiva et.al "Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs
Globalisation of Agriculture", RFSTE, 1998
7. Personal Communication with Dr. Mira Shiva.
Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology,
A-60, Hauz Khas,
New Delhi - 110 016, INDIA.
Phone: 91-11-6968077 / 6853772
Fax : 91-11-6856795 / 6562093