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South Asian Farmers Take Protest to London

RIGHTS-GLOBALISATION: South Asian Farmers Take Protest to London

By Neena Bhandari

LONDON, 30 May (IPS) - About 500 farmers from south Asia are currently on
a one-month tour of Europe as part of the Inter- Continental Caravan'99 ,
organised by grassroots activists from northern and southern countries
against globalisation, free trade and corporate rule.

The 36 farmers who reached British soil and local civil society activists
marched Friday and Saturday through the streets of London singing aloud
the appeal not to forget the people and planet at the turn of the century.
On Friday, they held a public hearing on 'People v/s Corporations.'

For many women, like Kumud Chowdhary of Gujarat, India, joining the
caravan meant leaving their homes, family and village for the first time.
They promptly packed pancakes, spices and pickles for their maiden voyage
on an aeroplane.

'' My husband is taking care of our eight hectare farm and children, while
I am here to `Kill Monsanto' before it kills families like mine,'' quips
Kumud, draped in her turquoise saree. She grows mustard and wheat and had
not heard about genetically modified foods or the US corporation Monsanto
until she became interested in the caravan.

Today instilled with new confidence on meeting European women farmers she
says, '' We share common problems in the fields and in tending our
livestock. Here they have plenty of water whereas water is really scarce
back home and girls at an early age are deprived of education because they
are expected to help in the house and fields''.

'' We are here to put an end to the repressive economic policies of the
North, which are raping our culture, destroying our resources and
subjecting us to be their slaves,'', says Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, President
of the Bharatiya Kissan Union (BKU).

Many farmers like Lakhowal have shelled out an entire life's savings to
buy the cheapest air tickets available. For some the money was pooled in
by their respective farmers' unions, kith and kin or villagers, while
others took loans.

'' At this juncture it is a make or mar situation. We have been treated as
mere statistics and all the policies have only benefited the rich,
unmindful of the welfare of the poor, labourers and farmers. We are here
to rewrite history for posterity,'' he says.

Comprising 11 coaches, the caravan is touring the United Kingdom, France,
Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech

During the tour, participants plan to conduct demonstrations in front of
the World Trade Organisation (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, the European
Commission in Brussels and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) in Paris, before finally converging at the G-8 summit
in Cologne, Germany in mid June.

'' On meeting the farmers of the North we have discovered that though the
European Union (EU) or G-8 Governments (the world's seven most
industrialised countries and Russia) favour WTO, their farmers are being
squeezed,'' says Lal Shankar Upadhyaya, Vice- President of Gujarat Khedut

''It is a fight of indigenous agriculture and traditional system against
the North-dominated gene technology and free market,'' he adds.

Lakhowal also assailed attempts to include genetically-modified genes
among WTO's intellectual property regulations.

''The gene campaign is threatening all genes from tropical countries. They
are stealing and creating hybrid and then selling them back to us. They
claim that they can create a 6-month wheat crop in 10 days. This is
against nature and can go to any extent. It is ever more dangerous because
under the WTO, economic exploitation is being legalised'', he warned.

While visiting Germany, the farmers lived in Dumbeck village, where time
seems to have stood still. Lying on haystacks as they would back in their
own villages in India, they aired their common woes.

The German farmers raised concerns about how transnational corporations
were breaking their country. Everything from land to seeds was being
usurped by banks, financial institutions or corporations, they protested.

At the hearing, complaints were also heard about trade regulations that
prevent developing countries from subsidising their farmers, while
subsidies are key to agricultural policies in Europe. It was stressed that
European farmers get on average subsidies equivalent to 60 per cent of
their income, while an Indian farmer receives only 3 per cent.

''They (international agencies and corporations) have taken away ownership
of seeds and resources and made us dependent. Water, which was always
community owned, has been privatised in Nepal,'' remarked Neeru Shrestha
and Gopal Siwakoti Chintan of INHURED (International Institute for Human
Rights, Environment and Development).

Staying at Kingsley Hall, a community centre for national and
international guests, in east London was a homecoming for these farmers.
It was here that Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's independence
movement, had spent 12 weeks in 1931 at the height of the Indian freedom

'' Today we are here to share his vision and see Gandhi's dream fulfilled.
As we face the onslaught of privatisation, we must strive to revive
Gandhi's cooperative movement,'' says Karuna Ben Bharuch.

The agitation of the Indian farmers dates back to 1982 when they were
protesting against discriminatory clauses in the then General Tariffs
(GATT), which preceded the World Trade Organisation. 

In 1990s when patents were being introduced, 60 countries led by India,
restrained the inclusion of patents in WTO, but political and financial
pressures put the resistance down. 

''In 1994 when the WTO resolution told the Third World `take it or leave
it'. India bowed to the pressure and accepted it...Thus under the garb of
loans we were `legitimately' being enslaved for a lifetime, putting our
independence at stake, '' opines professor Manjit Singh Kadian, General
Secretary of the BKU (Punjab).

The idea for the European tour was conceived by India's Karnataka State
Farmers' Association (KRRS) which launched ''Operation Cremate Monsanto''
last year . Its chief organiser professor. Nanjundaswamy was, however,
denied visa to enter the UK.

Due to alleged consular harassment and visa requirements -such as bank,
high-income and property-ownership certificates many farmers had to stay
at home. But those who have made it, are determined to claim this planet
for ourselves. (END/IPS/nb/ak/99).

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