Right to safety

Safety is freedom. And the duty of a state that claims to be democratic is to guarantee safety and freedom to its weakest citizens.

The Delhi gangrape of December 2012 brought to the streets the deep and growing concern about growing 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?).
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. 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, lifeforms 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”. 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 escalating 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 or antibody in the dominant 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 principles of the rights of all people and all beings.
The politics of safety is the politics of freedom in times of unfreedom.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

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