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Burning Crops & Mocking Leaders


January 27, 1999 / The Guardian

In India, peasants are burning crops, mocking their leaders – and dying. Here’s why…

Fifty-one years after India’’s struggle for independence ended in victory, another grassroots resistance struggle is being waged on the Subcontinent. Rural India is home to one of the largest, most dynamic and vocal environmental movements in the world.

Subsistence farmers, traditional fisherfolk, tribal peoples (Adivasi), and untouchables (Dalit), sweatshop workers, women’s groups, and villagers displaced by dams are all vociferously opposing what new coalitions of environmental and social movements are calling the “recolonisation” of India by global corporations and the economic policies of international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

In many major protests and actions these “coalitions of the dispossessed” have deeply embarrassed state and national governments, made it difficult for transnational corporations to operate in the country and have inspired Northern environmentalism. For all India’s rapid modernisation and growing middle classes, 60-70 per cent of the population, or more than 600 million people, are desperately poor and depend directly on the environment for survival. Environmentalism, they say, is not so much a luxury, as it is often portrayed in the West, but a necessity.

“It is the life resource for the two-thirds majority of our population whose subsistence directly depends on the water, the forests and the land. It is about justice,” says Thomas Kocherry, a leader of the National Fish-Workers’ Forum. The new coalitions have mostly emerged since 1992, when India launched its economic liberalisation regime in the name of “development” and “globalisation”. Indian activists argue that structural adjustment and neo-liberal reform have created wealth for a small élite, but deepening poverty for the vast majority, and led to a rapid increase in the rate of destruction of natural resources.

A 1997 Gallup poll suggested that two out of three Indians believe their standard of living has fallen or stagnated after five years of economic reform. Large corporations, welcomed into the country by a government keen for foreign investment, have faced extraordinary levels of community resistance and “Quit India” style campaigning.

From the peasant farmers who gathered in huge numbers outside the Karnataka state government offices and laughed all day at their policies, to villagers who swore to drown if their river was dammed, to the fishing unions’ strike that involved mass fasting and harbour blockades against industrial overfishing, the protest tactics are as diverse as the broad movement itself.

Among the largest of the coalitions are the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM), formed from 200 grassroots organisations in 1993, and the Joint Forum of Indian People Against Globalisation (Jafip), formed in May 1998 by 55 member groups of farm and labourers unions. Their constituencies number millions and come from a whole range of backgrounds. Mostly inspired by Gandhi, they are dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience and call for a development based on self-reliance and village-level democracy.

As a result of the movement, illiterate peasant farmers in some regions are more likely to have heard of the WTO than the average Briton. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, labourers, tribal people and industrial workers from all over India gathered last year at a Jafip conference in Hyderabad, demanding India’s withdrawal from the WTO. The protest was sparked partly by 450 suicides of peasant farmers in the states of Andra Pradesh and Karnataka, which Jafip says were the result of WTO policies such as the removal of tariffs on edible oils.

The state police have responded harshly to the protests. Two weeks ago, the charismatic “Alternative Nobel Prize” winner, Medha Patkar, and 300 other members of the NAPM were arrested at Multai in Madhya Pradesh.

They were calling for a peasant rights day to commemorate the 24 farmers killed by police at a peaceful protest in the city.

Medha Patkar says: “So-called modern technology has worked against the natural resource-based community, undermining self-reliance and creating vulnerability through dependency on pesticides and fertilisers, and on the market. They can’t stand up against the corporate sector. Protests by farmers make the politicians agitated because, if the farmers rise up, that is 70 per cent of India’s population.”

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva has led the intellectual barrage against the patenting of traditional Indian seeds and plants by foreign corporations. “Patents on seeds would destroy 75 per cent of Indian livelihoods linked to the land and the free availability of and access to biodiversity,” she says. “We see patents on seed as parallel to the Salt Laws of the British.

“Under the Salt Laws, Indians were forbidden from making salt, a move which transformed the industry into a British monopoly, generating revenues through exclusive rights to manufacture and distribution. Patents on seed are similar, with exclusive rights being claimed by multinationals.” Farmers from all over India are now forming collective seed banks as a form of non-cooperation with intellectual property rights regimes. Despite pressure on the Indian government from the WTO, protests against patents on seed and indigenous knowledge have twice prevented the Patent Amendment Act from being passed into law.

The introduction of biotechnology has also led to massive protests. The Karnataka State Farmers, among other groups, burned fields planted with genetically modified crops during last November’s “Cremate Monsanto” action.

Women have often been at the forefront of the direct action protests, especially against the Narmada Valley development project, which proposed to build 30 major, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada river and its tributaries. The latest dam protest is against the privately-financed Maheshwar dam, which would submerge some 2,500 acres of land, displacing 2,200 families. Construction has been interrupted several times after thousands of villagers, the majority of them women, invaded the site.

One village woman at the occupation said: “The government officials say we are backward people, uneducated people, but it is because of us, the backward and uneducated women, that this country works.” The women have faced beatings, arrests, and gang rape by police.

People’s movements in India have all documented serious cases of state repression. In a 1997 report, Amnesty International said the major restructuring of the global economy meant the role of the state was undergoing a fundamental transformation “in which rights of people are frequently given less weight in public policy than the interests of capital”.

The report was based on the suppression of Indian protests against the Enron corporation’s plan to build India’s largest power plant in the western state of Maharastra. The power it generates will cost three times as much as local electricity, and Enron is expected to have a profit margin of 37 per cent.

Indian activists realise that communities around the world are facing similar pressures and issues. Professor Nanjunda Swamy, leader of the KRRS, says: “Our message is that the North and the South are like Siamese twins. The people of both have to fight liberalisation and globalisation together to survive or both will perish together.”

International networking is leading to some unprecedented North-South activism. This summer Indian farmers are planning to tour Europe as part of the People’s Global Action network and meet with local campaigning groups to protest at the gates of global decision-makers and corporations.

The new environment movement may be increasing in numbers but it is by no means politically homogeneous. There is no single national structure to rival the main parties and there are serious divisions between activists — some of whom want to move into the mainstream politics, and others who want to stay outside.

Nevertheless, Medha Patkar speaks for many: “Our vision for life is based on equality, simple living, and self-reliance at every level. Through reconstruction and self- action, communities can assert the right to their own resources and development planning. This is our hope for the future.