Safety as freedom

The duty of a state that claims to be democratic is to guarantee safety and freedom to its “weakest citizens”.

Demonstrators gather near a nuclear power project during a protest in Kudankulam
As 2012 came to a close and 2013 dawned, hundreds of people protesting the nuclear power plant at Koodankulam and demanding nuclear safety sang and danced together at the Idinthakarai coast, adjacent to the nuclear plant [Reuters]

The Delhi gang-rape of Dece­m­ber 2012 bro­u­ght to the streets the deep and growing concern about violence ag­ainst women and the demand for women’s sa­fety. The movement is the voice of women re­claiming their right to safety and freedom, through resistance to all forms of patriarchal power and celebration of women’s peaceful power and energy.

Commodification, ap­pro­priation and control over women’s bodies and the resources of the earth are one aspect of the threat to safety. Im­po­sition of hazardous te­c­­hnologies that we do not need is another aspect.

Safety has emerged as an overpowering conce­rn – safety of women and children, tribals, farmers and rural communities, safety from nuclear hazard, and en­vironmental as well as health hazards of GMOs. Across India, protests and movements are also growing about the safety of people’s resources and wealth – their land, their forests, their rivers, their property – in the context of the violent resource grab that is the basis of the new “growth” economy.

There is a pattern in this continuum of violence and threats to life and safety, just as there is a pattern in the continuum of the struggles for the defence of life, safety and freedom. The exponential rise in concern for safety – reflected in the explosion of people’s protests to stop violence against women, tribals, fishermen, peasants, the urban and rural poor and the violence against environment and life on earth – is a direct consequence of the dominant culture of greed and commodification.

Sadly, this culture is shrouded in the garb of neo-liberal paradigms of economics in which there is no life, no values, no ethics, no community, no society, no people, no justice, no place for equality, dignity and people’s rights, no place for freedom and democracy, just money and markets.

These values do not st­ay insulated in a silo ca­lled “the economy”. Thr­ou­gh osmosis they bec­ome the dominant values of a society, shaping the culture (or, should we say, anti-culture?).

Nuclear safety

As 2012 came to a close and 2013 dawned, hund­r­eds of people protesting the nuclear power plant at Koodankulam and de­manding nuclear safety sang and danced together at the Idin­tha­karai co­ast, adjacent to the  nucl­ear plant. The New Year celebrations breathed new life into the anti-nuclear struggle. The beach re­ve­rberated with the spi­rit of resistance, assertion, freedom and de­mocracy. 

 Anti-rape protests spread across India

The movement for nuclear safety is a movement for freedom – we do not need nuclear energy when the sun and wind are so generous; we do not need GMOs when biodiversity and ecological agriculture produces more, safer and better food.

For two years in a row, at his address to the In­dian Science Cong­re­ss, Prime Minister Manm­o­han Singh has tried to criminalise the citizen’s movements for nuclear safety and biosafety. But his is not a lone voice. He is an echo of the stru­c­tu­red money-making sy­s­tem that wants no bre­­a­ks in its money-making, including the break that is necessary for ensuring safety. That is why he called for a “structured” debate on nuclear energy and GMOs, not a democratic debate.

A nuclear industry des­perate to make profits at any cost must cri­mi­nalise communities and citizens insisting on their democratic right to safety and freedom from hazards. A GMO industry desperate to make pro­fits at any cost will extract royalties from poor farmers even tho­ugh the royalty extracti­on pushes farmers to commit suicide.

It will try to dismantle biosafety laws and replace th­em with a deregulation framework of the Bio­tec­h­nology Re­gu­latory Au­th­ority of India (Brai). It will criminalise real scientists and put PR spinners in the position of pretend scientists, using all the power of money to control the media for its false, unscientific claim that without GMOs we will all starve, and that GMOs are safe.

At a meeting on the new biotechnologies cal­led “Laws of Life” in 1987, when I asked the representatives of in­du­s­try what safety tests they had done on the GMOs they were planning to release in the environment, I was told that safety issues could not be addressed be­ca­use that would slow do­wn the commercialisation of GMOs and lead to lo­sses of markets and pr­ofits. For 25 years, the in­du­stry has tried to ignore and suppress iss­u­es of biosafety.

For 25 years, we have kept the is­sue of safety alive as an issue of science, freedom and democracy. One aspect of that safety as freedom is the right to say no to hazards im­po­s­ed in the name on pro­g­r­e­ss. The other aspect is to create sustainable, sa­fe and just alternatives.

Safety is freedom beca­use everyone – women, children, indigenous cu­l­tures, ordinary citize­ns, life-forms that weave the tapestry of biodiversity – has a natural ri­g­ht to safety. And the du­ty of a state that claims to be democratic is to first and foremost guarantee safety and freedom to its weakest citizens.


Tragically, the neo-liberal corporate state is unleashing new levels and scales of violence by removing the social and regulatory processes of equality and justice, of de­mocratic participati­on and defence of freed­om in the name of “re­fo­rms”. 

“A GMO industry desperate to make profits at any cost will extract royalties from poor farmers even though the royalty extraction pushes farmers to commit suicide.”

I have called these so-called reforms “anti-reforms”, because in the name of “growth” they are eroding, blocking and undoing the real reforms – social re­fo­rms for gender justice, land reforms, economic reforms to secure food, work and livelihoods for all, environmental refo­r­ms to protect the re­sou­r­ce base that provides life and livelihood, and the political reforms that deepen and widen democratic participation.

The threat to safety is increasing because of the spread of hazardous tec­h­nologies, and because the social and political systems that could deal with these hazards in a democratically robust way are being delibera­tely weakened by a misguided reform process.

The concern for safety is concern for the fallout of a myopic obsession with a myopic vision of the economy and technology that privileges the powerful in the emerging capitalist patriar­chy. When an ancient so­ciety like the Indian civilisation is called an “emergent economy”, th­is myopia is blatant.

Economies of women, farmers, retailers, na­tu­re are made invisible. This act of erasure by a distorted paradigm lea­ds to erasure in the wor­ld – the displacement, des­truction, violence we witness every day, ever­y­where. Society, cultu­re, politics are excluded in this paradigm.

They don’t go away; they mu­tate and hybridise with the culture of greed, co­mmodification, unacco­untability, into a su­per­virus of brutal violence to which there is no antidote in the system. The antidote will come from a change in values and worldview, from people’s movements for ch­ange from capitalist pa­triarchy to earth democracy based on the rights of all people.

The politics of safety is the politics of freedom in times of unfreedom.

Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, eco-feminist, philosopher, activist, and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights – winning the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993. 

Follow her on Twitter: @drvandanashiva