The Interconnectedness of Violence

by Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook

Most people connect violence solely with a physical action against other human beings, but ancient Indian sages perceived it in a much wider sense. They considered all life sacred, and in their concern for self-perfection, the killing of any living being, human or non-human, was sinful. Further, causing harm to other creatures was also thought wrong; it had to be minimised because harm itself was considered a form of partial death. Harm was defined widely to include not only physical injury, but also all forms of pain, including depriving persons of their livelihood or intimidating them. Violence could be committed personally, it could he instigated or aided, or it could be condoned by observing it without protest. [1] However, it is not possible to survive in this world without at least some violence, for we depend on other living beings for our food. Avoiding all killing must result in our own death.

Our sages were deeply concerned that humans must necessarily be involved in violence and death and that absolute innocence was unattainable. They understood the concept of ahimsa to mean the minimum or least possible violence. While causing some harm is inevitable, we do not have a licence to kill other creatures ruthlessly, to act on the basis of the “survival of the fittest”, which in effect means survival of the most violent. Rather, we should have greater respect for those beings whose lives must be sacrificed in order that we may survive. The survival of the fittest means that the rest perish. Social justice is incompatible with this theory.

Gandhi extended the traditional concept of ahimsa further. He said that violence could also be committed by participating in, or benefiting from, a harmful practice. Ahimsa demanded compassion and love; it was not merely a negative virtue of avoiding injury to others, but a positive one of stopping harm being done to them and helping those who have been hurt. Identifying oneself with other living beings helps immensely in putting this into practice.

The difficulty in living up to these ideals was recognised by Gandhi; but this difficulty is no reason either to run away from the world, or to give up all hope of changing it.

Modern society is extremely violent to human as well as non-human life. There is the obvious violence that one sees daily: police brutality, caste, class, communal and minority conflicts, rape end dowry deaths, abuse of children. However, much more widespread and subtle is the violence embedded and inherent in the objects and services we ordinarily use. Because most of these originate far away from us in space and time, we remain in ignorance of their content of violence.

The success of the Western economic system is claimed by its defenders to be the least coercive means of creating wealth and allocating resources. Such extravagant claims could never have been made to credulous Western peoples, had it not been for the extreme brutality with which colonial empires were pressed into its service in the early industrial period. Patterns of subordination set up at that time, have been perpetuated in the ostensibly “post-colonial” era.

By its appeal to universal laws, whether economic or natural, this truly violent system has sought to exculpate itself from the barbarities it has inflicted upon the earth and its peoples. These barbarities were said to be the consequences of impersonal rules of supply and demand, market forces, the necessities of profit and loss. Those rich individuals and social groups who benefited from the impoverishment of others, have sought to absolve themselves from responsibility for the fate, both of the pauperised of the earth, and of the planet itself.

Sources of Violence: Resource Use

When jungles are destroyed billions of creatures – from elephants to tiny insects – are killed or driven away to find sustenance in other already overcrowded and degraded areas. Countless plants from huge teak trees to tiny herbs, fungi and bacteria, are being annihilated. Many species of plants and animals are wiped out completely, while still more are seriously endangered.

Harm is also done to the people living in the forests, like the Adivasis who depend on them for their basic necessities. Besides being directly impoverished, their ancestral and spiritual links with the land, which they have occupied for centuries are broken. The past and continuing history of colonialism is a story of cultural contamination and of whole peoples dying of grief for the destruction of their civilization.

All articles made from forest produce carry with them the harm inherent in forest destruction. Much wood goes for house construction and furniture. When there were plenty of trees around, sufficient firewood was obtained from dead branches and trimming. But now that so much forest has been destroyed for other reasons, the use of firewood is causing further devastation. Yet firewood is a basic necessity: it is other forms of consumption that must be curbed

Wood is used for the production of plywood and hardboards, for paper and for packing apples in Kashmir to be sent to other distant places for consumption. Some minor jungle products have also resulted in particular species of plants being wiped out over large areas. For instance, practically all kahandol trees in parts of Maharashtra have been killed because they were over-tapped for their gum, which is exported for confectionery. It is said that some companies, to expand the use of their dental products, are encouraging the felling of neem trees so that fewer twigs will be available for brushing teeth.

Dams and Other Big Projects

Jains have long believed that ploughing the soil is harmful since numerous living creatures are killed or disturbed in the process. How much more harmful, then, are such mega-projects as dams and other huge construction works which devastate the earth and the creatures in and on it, on a very much larger scale.

Over one million people are being displaced from just three such river projects: the Tehri, the Narmada Valley and the Bodhghat. Rehabilitation does not prevent harm from being done; it only mitigates it slightly. The banished are usually given inferior land – if they are given anything at all – and then are quickly forgotten.

Jungles are submerged in the reservoir areas while other wooded areas are destroyed for access roads and construction works. These projects also require vast amounts of funds, which deprive other sectors, such as education and health.

The supposed benefits of these projects are irrigation for food and cash crops, power generation for industry and agriculture, water for domestic and industrial use and increased employment. Much of this goes for non-essential purposes. Because so much water is already used for cash crops and is wasted by industry instead of being recycled, more dams are now required for food. Those who benefit from the dams for non-essential purposes become guilty of violence. But the benefits do not go only to the farmers whose land is irrigated, to the industrialists who set up factories and the people who get employment. They extend also to those who use the farm and industrial produce as well as the power generated. With each “benefit” there goes its complement of violence.

Large harmful projects can be easily avoided by obtaining irrigation from river dams only. These are also much more cost effective and socially preferable because of the control the local people have over them.

Power Generation and Use

All industrial products require generated power for their manufacture, transport and use. Individuals use energy for lighting, refrigeration, air-conditioning, heating, and other appliances.

Thermal power stations mainly consume coal, oil or gas, all of which produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is modifying the climate, as is now acknowledged. Other gases emitted produce acid rain which kills trees and crops up to hundreds of kilometres away, thereby impoverishing the people dependent on them. Coal miners labour under particularly dangerous conditions. The mines cause extensive surface destruction of jungles in their areas. The burning of coal also produces mountains of ash, which pollutes groundwater, poisoning people and crops. Thermal pollution, produced by the discharge of cooling water into rivers and seas, kills fish and other organisms because they cannot stand the high temperatures.

Nuclear power is by far the most violent source of energy. While it does not produce the type of air pollution that thermal stations do, the radioactivity created is much more harmful and dangerous. All nuclear stations release radioactive substances into the atmosphere in their normal operation. This is most damaging to people living close to the plant. The effects of radioactivity in small doses make their appearance one to three decades later as cancer, mutagenic diseases and birth defects. Studies carried out over many years around power plants show an increase in leukaemia in children living nearby.

Even more violent is the production of radioactive wastes in large quantities, for which no safe disposal method has been developed. Since the waste remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, violence is being done to numerous future generations. Still worse is the fact that the spent fuel from most reactors can be processed to produce plutonium for bombs which can result in the greatest instantaneous violence known to humanity. The production and the use of all weapons constitute the manufacture and sale of harm.

In the case of a nuclear accident the harm produced can be immense and extensive. Although, officially only 30 people are said to have died directly in and around Chernobyl, the future deaths are expected to run into thousands. Till today, the sale of some farm products is banned in the UK because of contamination from this accident. The radioactivity reached as far as the US, where, it has been claimed that thirty to fifty thousand extra deaths occurred in areas where the radioactive cloud deposited its violent material. [2]

All power generation, except some renewable types, pollutes, and nuclear power pollutes absolutely.

If the generation of power is harmful then the use of that power must also be harmful. It is often claimed that electricity is non-polluting, but while it may be so in the place of use, the pollution is invariably produced in the place of generation. The moment a light is switched on, its share of pollution is immediately generated in a power station. For every second that we leave a light on, the carbon dioxide level goes up, non-renewable resources are consumed, and/or radioactive waste is generated.

The use of renewable energy such as biogas, solar and wind is comparatively harmless, if generated carefully. However, here there are also risks. Large wind generators kill birds, which fly into them, so small-scale technology is preferable.

State Violence

The continuous encroachment by the state on people’s inherent rights produces a corresponding increase in the use of force. This is seen especially in the case of Adivasis and minorities who are driven to desperation because the environment on which they depend is being destroyed. Such people are the immediate victims of “developmental violence”. Their demands for more autonomy in order to preserve their habitat are repressed by force. New laws have been enacted to justify this, although the laws were contrary to constitutional and more fundamental rights and, hence, were themselves illegal.

Westernisation is another form of violence. It diminishes all who retain traditional practices and cultures. Violence is done by the formal educational system, which effectively denies certain groups of children the right to enter schools or allows them to enter and then forcibly drops them out. But more harm is done by the content of the curriculum, which subtly and thoroughly trains children to partake of and contribute to socially mediated violence. Harm is done when people are forced to flee rural areas because they have no food, water or employment there, and then are compelled to stay in slums from which they are frequently evicted. The use of dangerous pesticides that have been banned in other countries is poisoning everyone in India. The unconcern shown by the government towards the problems of industrial pollution and hazardous wastes is another instance of violence.

Quite often the State gives its citizens no choice in the things they can consume. People in India found that they were eating butter contaminated with Chernobyl radioactivity either directly or in the milk, biscuits and other products made from it. The public was not informed in which items this butter was used and when it was sold. There may be doubt about how much danger is involved with the low amount of radioactivity in the butter but that is not the point. People should know if they are exposed to any extra radioactivity in the environment or in their food, and alternative uncontaminated food should be provided. This would give people the choice whether to accept the risk or not. The system now forces risks upon the population by deliberately withholding knowledge.

Neither is the free market system’s claim to be giving people a wide freedom of choice valid. There is rarely an alternative to pesticide-contaminated food, water filthy with industrial wastes and air polluted by vehicle-exhaust fumes.

These are obvious examples of violence committed by the State but the structure of the State is itself unjust and inherently violent.

Gandhi showed how most people condemn the violence of the State but also benefit from it, and that makes them guilty too. The moral burden of violence cannot be transferred onto others simply by not participating directly in State action. Merely watching harm being committed without taking action to prevent it also makes us violent.

The Content of Violence in Some Commodities

Almost everything we use — whether it is a manufactured article or a service — involves causing harm to others and one can consider these as having an inherent harm content or volume of violence. It is not possible to quantify the harm content in an object, but studying the whole process, from origin and manufacture to its sale and use, will reveal many interconnections.


When the British first became addicted to tea they imported so much from China that it resulted in a foreign exchange crisis. They forced Indian farmers to cultivate the opium poppy instead of food crops, and exported opium to China, even though its sale was officially banned there. Millions of Chinese became addicted to opium merely for the sake of “the cup that cheers”. Later, the British cut down Indian jungles for tea plantations. At first, most of what was grown here was exported, but World War I made sea trade risky. The British then distributed free packets of tea at Calcutta’s railway stations and from that time on we have become addicted to it too.

The tea crop in India in 1989-90 was 760 million kilograms, of which 475 million kilograms was used locally, the rest being exported. The total area under tea plantations is about 400,000 hectares, which were previously luxuriant jungles before they were violated for tea. Our thirst for tea is increasing rapidly and so are the exports of tea, requiring further jungles to be destroyed.

Tea-pickers and other workers are miserably paid. But because their remuneration is low, tea is cheap and we can afford to drink several cups a day. The low price is achieved at the cost of harm to roughly one million tea-pickers and their dependents. Consider, for instance, how much a cup of tea would cost if the tea-pickers were paid the same salary as the average urban office or industrial worker, which is no more than justice demands. Each worker produces about 700 kilograms a year. Taking an average cost of Rupees 50 per kilogram, the annual production per worker is about Rs 35,000. Since the plantation workers are certainly not paid Rs 3,000 per month, and there cannot be more than a few thousand other workers in the processing and packaging factories, where does the difference go?

Tea is packed — for export particularly – in plywood tea chests, which require further deforestation. Tea purchased in packets requires paper, cloth and aluminium foil, while loose tea does not. It is small Indian companies that most sell loose tea, while packaged tea is sold by the big concerns and TNCs: Tata Tea, Liptons, Brooke Bond and others. With every cup of TNC tea, foreign exchange is lost. Most of the tea companies declare dividends of nearly 50 per cent on their shares and these profits must come from every tea drinker’s pocket, as well as from the plantation and processing workers.

Not all people can afford tea. For those who cannot, tea then becomes a symbol of luxury for which they must strive. Many, particularly in rural areas, drink tea only to show that they can do so, even though they cannot really afford it. Our example causes harm to them.

The impoverished use as little tea powder as possible and boil it a long time to make it strong, thereby getting more tannin and lead with it. Teashops often keep tea continuously on the boil, which makes the tea particularly bad in this respect. The tannin causes nutritional problems and the lead causes brain damage in children.

With tea goes sugar, much of it from sugarcane grown in the irrigated fields of Maharashtra. The profits from the sugar industry have given those involved in it the political clout to control irrigation policy. Water is diverted to sugar-cane cultivation instead of being used for food crops and village domestic use. People are forced to buy water and thereby become further impoverished in order that we may have more sugar. Then there are the migrant cane-cutters who are miserably paid by the factories. Every grain of sugar reduces food production, deprives people of drinking water and adds to corruption.

Neither is milk all that it seems. The milk from the Operation Flood pipeline comes partly from crossbred cows, which implies a foreign exchange expense. They require a lot of green fodder, so food cropland is diverted to their use, and their special feed requires grains, which could be eaten directly by people. The published figures of Operation Flood show that they are impoverishing many of their members.

An urban family of five uses more water for making tea twice a day than many rural families get for all their daily needs of washing, cooking and drinking. The lack of water in the villages is a direct consequence of the water, no well as other resources, being diverted to the cities. There is also the fuel used for making tea, which must add up to a sizable amount considering the billions of cups of water that need to be boiled.

Tea has the harm, the violence of all this dissolved in it.

The Food We Eat

Food grown using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has a higher content of harm than food grown organically. Such chemicals have a high content of violence. Synthetic pesticides are particularly violent because they kill not only the target pests but also millions of other helpful insect species. Some of these pesticides will persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The manufacture of these pesticides is also a dangerous operation, as the Bhopal disaster has shown.

It is big farmers who often grow the food we eat; they pay their landless labourers less than subsistence wages. Their use of tractors and other machinery deprives peasants of possible employment.

Processed and packaged foods are much more harmful than unprocessed ones because they contain numerous, possibly injurious, substances; they have a high content of violence. Buying food processed by TNCs, like Maggi noodles, results in a loss of foreign exchange. Consuming fast foods deprives sellers of traditional foods of their livelihood.

Eleven thousand animals are slaughtered every day in Bombay alone for meat. Meat, eggs and milk have a higher harm content than vegetables. Foods that are transported over long distances are more injurious than those grown and consumed locally because of the fuel and special packaging required for the former.

If all our food and other basic necessities are produced by unnecessarily harmful means, we are forced to commit additional violence in order to survive. In this way the system makes us hardened and callous to causing harm by other means.


Vast areas of forest are felled for the fibres of trees, shrubs and bamboo out of which paper is made. Grasses and straws, which could be consumed as fodder, are used to produce paper. When forest bamboo is used, little is left for artisans who make essential articles like baskets and they have to pay exorbitant prices for what they can get.

Paper production requires much water, so what could be used for food production or even drinking is diverted to mills. And this water doesn’t just evaporate; it is also highly polluted and then discharged into the rivers from which it is taken. Thousands of people have their drinking and irrigation water polluted and millions of fish and other creatures die because of this. More harm is done if the paper is burned after use as it adds to the carbon dioxide burden.

If we consider the harm content in the paper used in a novel, magazine and even the paper this book is printed on, we may wonder whether the harm exceeds the benefits received.

The weight of harm can be minimised by recycling as much paper as possible. Every scrap of household wastepaper should be kept separate from other garbage so that it will not be dirtied. This also makes it easier for those who recycle wastes, helping them earn more. Less harm would be done if householders were to collect all types of wastes separately, and invite the waste collectors to pick them up regularly.


Nearly all plastics are made from mineral oil, which is rapidly being depleted. Most of the plastics produced in the country are made with foreign technology, which means the considerable payment of foreign exchange in technical fees, imported machinery and royalties. Clothes made of synthetic fibres are displacing handloom workers in large numbers.

The production processes invariably pollute the environment. PVC is hazardous to the workers who manufacture it, causing cancer of the liver. Some types of plastic foams used in domestic furniture, insulation and packaging, require the use of CFCs. Some of these foams emit dangerous fumes that kill when they catch fire. Most of the plastics do not decay naturally when thrown away, which is why we see so much accumulating all over the cities and even in the countryside. If they are burnt they produce -among other hazardous substances- dioxin, which is one of the most toxic substances known. Thin plastic bags are floating on the oceans in such large numbers that they are killing fish and other marine life.


Millions of watches – or their parts – come from Taiwan or South Korea. There, young girls engaged to do this fine manufacturing work, are underpaid and mistreated. Their eyesight and health are ruined in a few years. The workers are then discarded as the human wastes of industry. The low price we pay for the watch is the result of violence done to them.

When the battery runs down it will be thrown out and cause mercury or other heavy metal pollution, so dangerous that Sweden has a law that all used batteries have to be returned to the dealer before a new one is purchased

Further, the rich who own watches demand perfect punctuality from the pauperised, who do not, a form of oppression by “good” manners. Finally, we come to the question of time itself: the appropriateness of linear time so closely connected with the linear “progressive development” of the West against the cyclical time of Nature and our heritage, which allows of sustainability.

If such small items contain so much harm, how much more must be inherent in large ones like videos and cars?

The Export Connection

Foreign exchange has to he earned by the export of our products. The current liberalised trade policy permits luxury items (or their components) to he freely imported. The annual imports of components for Maruti cars cost over Rs 1,500 million while that for videocassettes is about Rs 2,000 million. The luxuries that are being imported are rising rapidly and, therefore, exports of our products to pay for them have also to increase.

Vegetables, fish and meat, and fruits such as bananas, mangoes and many others are among the items being exported. But when the export of such items is allowed, their local prices shoot up because there is no real surplus available. When the government, in 1987, announced that the export of ordinary rice would be allowed (in spite of the drought), the retail price of all varieties immediately went up even before the export started. More than 15,000 tonnes of mangoes plus thousands of litres of mango juice were exported in 1988.

The export of fish has gone up by more than 130 times in the last 16 years. Over one million tonnes were exported in 1987-88, worth nearly Rs 5,000 million. The price of prawns in Calcutta has risen by more than three times in five years. The per capita fish consumption in India is only 3.1 kilograms compared to the 12.2 kilograms world average. Stopping exports would increase the local consumption by more than a third, but instead the government is giving added incentives for exporting more fish. Further, traditional fishermen are being impoverished by the government’s encouragement of the use of trawlers and other non-traditional fishing vessels in order to increase the catches. Over fishing is endangering many species.

Foods formerly cheap enough for the impoverished to buy are now priced out of their budgets. Food exports effectively make people more impoverished in the sense that they either have less to eat than they need, or that more of their income has to be spent on food. The pauperised do not use any of the imported raw materials or luxury commodities but they in effect pay for them. The earnings from fish exports are only a little more than what is spent on the imported content of Marutis and videocassettes.

Yet efforts are being made to export more than Rs 50,000 million worth of agricultural products by the year 2000. To reach that target, incentives are given, such as a subsidy of 20 per cent on the export of fruits and vegetables and profits from exports are not taxed. These, in effect, take money from the impoverished and hand it over to the exporters. There are also pressures to give exports of food priority over local needs: “A new series of initiatives has brought the export policy of India quite close to the principles of a market-led policy,” as A. S. Ganguly, the chairman of the Anglo-Dutch Hindustan Lever, advised the government in a confidential report: “agricultural exports should be freed from ‘local demand pulls’ so that India can establish itself abroad as a reliable supplier.”[3]

Loans are taken from the World Bank and IMF for urban housing, water and sewage, for big dams for irrigation and power, for forestry and for many other projects. These have necessarily to be repaid with interest by more exports later. The infamous “conditions” under which these are given are that imports be liberalised, that world tenders be called, that foreign “experts” be involved, and that the government reduces subsidies. While the subsidies on food, electricity, public transport and other items, which mainly benefit the marginalised are abolished, the subsidies on exports remain the same or are increased. India’s external debt is now rising rapidly, implying growing liabilities for future generations

The volume of violence in imported items is considerable, even though it may not register in existing economic accounting systems.


The doctrine of ahimsa, though first propounded by the Jains, is thought to have origins in Harappan civilisation. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that no weapons have been found in the Harappan excavations. We need to return to principles like these, which have survived for such a long time if justice is to prevail.

Most violence produced by ordinary people arises from the high consumption of commodities, nearly all of which contribute, more or less, to distributed death, remote death, incremental death, partial death, future death, of human as well as non-human beings.

Violence produces disharmony in Nature, and is a social sin that pollutes humanity. The social sins become pardonable provided we continuously try to reduce the harm we are doing. The reduction of violence becomes essential if we wish to achieve liberation in this world, whatever we may feel about the next one. Greed is perhaps as violent a pollutant as dioxin.

By solely blaming structural oppression for all the injustice today, we can conveniently continue using the benefits of the unjust state, while waiting for “the revolution”. But if we admit to a personal responsibility for the existence of oppression, we cannot wait for structures to be changed, since we ourselves are part of the oppressive structures. By reducing our consumption of violence we can make an immediate, positive, individually small but collectively powerful, contribution to the overthrow of an oppressive system. We can become agents of change by putting into practice that part of a just society for which we are personally responsible.

In our country and in other Two-Thirds World nations that have not already been completely violated by Western colonial or neo-colonial influence, there are still people who are minimally harmful. They are those who grow and live on organically grown food, make and use handmade cloth and other objects and use resources just enough for their sustenance. These groups, and our traditional wisdom, can provide us with inspiration and example.

The practice of ahimsa can only be spread by its conscious, willing acceptance by individuals, since any other method would be violent in itself.


1. B. Parekh, “Gandhi’s Concept of Ahimsa”, Alternatives, April 1988. Much of the ancient Indian material and that on Gandhi has been taken from this.

2. The Economist, quoted in “One Deadly Summer”, Anumukti, April 1988.

3. Business India, August 1986, quoted in G. K. Leiten, “The Dutch Multinational Corporation in India”, Manohar publications, New Delhi, 1987.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT (by Michael Sawyer): This essay first appeared in PEREIRA, Winin and Jeremy SEABROOK Asking the Earth: The Spread of Unsustainable Development, London: Earthscan Publications, 1990; as Chapter Six, “Interconnections of Violence”. We are here using the version from the Indian edition, Goa (India): The Other India Press, 1992. (pp. 165-181).  We are grateful to Jeremy Seabrook for permission.

EDITOR’S NOTE (MS): Perhaps best known as the founder of the Centre for Holistic Studies in Mumbai, a research center dedicated to providing resources to support a vision of society based on social justice and harmony with the natural world, Winin Pereira is also the author of numerous books and articles. His titles include: Tending the Earth: Traditional Sustainable Agriculture in India, Bombay: Earthcare Books, 1993; Inhuman Rights: The Western System and Global Human Rights Abuse, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997 and Global Parasites: 500 Years of Western Culture, Bombay: Earthcare Books, 1994, co-authored with Jeremy Seabrook.

Jeremy Seabrook is a prolific writer with a career dating back to the late 1960s. Besides having written novels, his numerous books on social justice and environmental issues include: Notes from Another India, London: Pluto Press, 1995; Children of Other Worlds, London: Pluto Press, 2001, a comparison of child labor in nineteenth Century London and present-day Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives, Oxford: New Internationalist TM Publications Ltd, 2004. His website offers more information, lists of publications, et al.

On a personal note, in 1995, during a year of traveling through India and Southeast Asia, I had the privilege of meeting both Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook in Winin’s Mumbai home. It was a brief encounter but I remember to this day the graciousness and warmth with which they welcomed me. Pereira spoke of the changes taking place in his native India, and more specifically of the rapid transformations occurring within Indian society. Our meeting lasted perhaps only an hour or two over a cup of tea, but even during this short time one had the sense of being in the presence of a person of great wisdom and vision. Sadly, Winin Pereira died in 1999.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi