India: Farmers protest against globalization

by Ranjit Devraj

New Delhi, 25 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- Burdened with a farm glut for which there are few takers, India’s small-scale tillers are in distress and accusing the government of neglecting them in their hour of need.

There have been reports of some potato farmers in southern Karnataka state even killing themselves after failing to find buyers for their bumper crop.

Indian farmers’ organisations, such as the All-India Kisan Sabha (farmer’s forum), backed by leading opposition parties, are planning to picket federal government offices in the capital city and other parts of the country from Feb. 7.

According to former Indian premier H.D. Deve Gowda, a native of Karnataka and a farmer himself, the problem is the result of India’s joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Gowda blames Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s coalition government of “mindlessly” pursuing globalization at the cost of small farmers in this majority rural nation.

“Unfortunately, the present...government is only interested in mindlessly furthering globalization at the cost of farmers who make 65% of the population,” Gowda was quoted as saying.

The former prime minister says the government is yet to work out how much of farm produce should be imported in keeping with its WTO obligations. This has created uncertainty and havoc among the small farmers.

“It is no use blaming the WTO regime because there are provisions to discourage dumping and others to give export subsidies for farmers - but what is the use if we do not use them wisely and intelligently?” he asks.

Three other former premiers - Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Inder Kumar Gujral, back Gowda’s views.

India’s opposition parties too have criticised the government for not protecting the country’s farmers from the effects of globalization.

The issue has figured prominently at conventions of political parties ranging from the left-wing Marxist Communist Party of India (CPI-M) to even Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A mid-January meeting of the CPI-M in Bhubaneshwar—capital of eastern coastal Orissa state—noted that prices of several key crops have crashed since the government lifted quantitative restrictions on a range of items, in keeping with its WTO obligations.

Cotton prices have dropped from $60 to $20 per 100 kg, while paddy prices have halved from $16 per 100 kg. Groundnut now fetches a third of the earlier $40 for a similar amount.

Prices of cash crops like coconut and rubber, which are the main produce of southern coastal Kerala state where the CPI-M is in power, have also crashed, the party added in a statement issued after the meeting.

The communist party will back the farmer’s protest next month. “Our demands will include an end to imports of agricultural commodities and minimum wages for agricultural workers,” says top CPI-M leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

According to anti-globalization activist K. Varadharajan, many farmers are aware that their produce is being priced out of the market by cheap imports.

Farmers were told that globalization was good for them since they could sell their produce internationally, but what has actually happened is far different, he says.

“Transnational corporations control most international trade and it is difficult for India’s long-protected, mostly marginal farmers to compete with them—this is a man-made crisis caused by a wrong understanding of export-oriented agricultural production,” he adds.

The CPI-M meeting noted that things have become worse for farmers after the state-owned Food Corporation of India stopped purchasing, for want of storage space.

According to CPI-M leader Surjeet, a plan announced by the BJP-led federal government to allow food grain purchase by private agencies, means disaster for millions of Indian farmers.

After each of the two main harvests, the government agency buys from farmers at prices that are not below the one announced by the government before the crop is sown. The bulk of procured grain is sold at subsidised rates to the poor through a countrywide network of ‘fair price’ shops run by the government.

The Indian government has also announced plans to export the surplus food grain this year, but many economists have questioned the move.

“It is unethical to export grain at a subsidy when you should be feeding your own people who are increasingly suffering from poverty,” says Utsa Patnaik, who teaches at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Indian farmers were also hit last year by an acute water scarcity stretching across a large part of India—from western Rajasthan and Gujarat states, through central Madhya Pradesh and into Orissa. – SUNS4823