IPS press release, 24 May

Indian Farmers Take The War To Europe

By Ranjit Dev Raj

NEW DELHI, May 24 (IPS) - Out of place in the departure terminalof the international airport, a group of rustic Indian farmers wait toboard a cheap Aeroflot flight to begin a month long sojourn in Europe starting Monday.

''We are going to visit the offices of Monsanto and other big seedcompanies and ask them why they are destroying us,'' explainsOmkar Singh, a mustard farmer from the neighbouring state ofHaryana and a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), amajor northern Indian peasant's union.

Omkar is illiterate but he readily understands the dangers oftransnationals elbowing their way into Indian agriculture which for all its supposed inefficiency feeds a billion people cheaply and is the mainstay of the economy.

Last year, Omkar was among thousands of mustard farmers whowere ruined after the government banned the sale of mustard oil,northern India's staple cooking oil and ordered a million tonnes ofthe U.S-based Monsanto's genetically engineered soyabean.

The government was forced to ban mustard oil because stockswere unaccountably adulterated to a point where hundreds ofpeople fell seriously ill with dropsy and at least 50 of them died inthe capital alone.

So when Omkar heard about Inter-Continental Caravan-99 (ICC- 99)which is organising the month-long farmers' tour in the EU hereadily clambered aboard. ''This is the first time I am going to beaway for so long from my farm, family and village.'' Omkar said he was looking forward to join 400 Indian farmers whoare to participate in demonstrations in Cologne, Germany, whenthe next G-8 summit takes place in June.

''ICC-99 will also demonstrate in front of the World TradeOrganisation (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, the EuropeanCommission in Brussels and the Organisation of EconomicallyDeveloped Countries (OECD) in Paris,'' said chief organiser Prof.Nanjundaswamy before departing for Europe. Last November, Nanjundaswamy spearheaded a movement inKarnataka to ''weed out'' Monsanto after the Indian governmentclandestinely allowed the transnational to conduct trials ofgenetically engineered cotton at 40 locations across India. Nanjundaswamy who leads the KRRS, the largest peasantmovement in southern India, justified the 'weeding' after accusingMonsanto of being behind the spectacular failure of cotton crops insouthern Indian leading to mass suicides by ruined farmers. Apart from large farmers organisations like the KRRS and the BKU,participants in ICC-99 include the powerful National Forum ofFishworkers which opposes shrimp aquaculture, and mechanisedtrawling which are robbing them of their livelihoods.

Also represented are well-known people's movements such as theNarmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) whichrepresents farmers and tribals displaced by the massive Narmadavalley project in western India and women's groups such as the All- India Women Farmers Association (AIFWA). Said Swaraj Lamba, AIFWA president, ''the new century willwitness spectacular progress in genetic engineering and bio-technology but it is also certain that millions will continue to sufferfrom hunger and shortages of drinking water.''

Lamba said the fight was not just against transnationals but thenew culture of the ''so-called knowledge-driven society'' which seesno immorality in making nuclear weapons and to which India isdesperately seeking entry.

''What this nation (India) needs desperately is investments ineducation, health and agriculture and not in weapons of massdestruction,'' she said.

But Lamba blames the West and its transnationals for setting thepace of an inhuman agenda, the logic of which, according to her,led to India going nuclear.

''We denounce the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistanbut also oppose the hypocrisy of western governments whichencourage the monopoly of which, if shared, could benefit all ofhumanity,'' she said.

Nanjundaswamy said the aims of ICC-99 will certainly not berealised in the short term and therefore it will not waste too muchtime with politicians and transnationals but concentrate on ''people- to-people contacts.''

In fact, the farmers are going to be supported in Europe by like- minded people's organisations and will live frugally, staying inchurches, farms, sports stadia and auditoria. ''We are used tohardship,'' said Onkar, drawing his thin blanket around his body. Welcoming committees have been set up in several EU countriesby peasant organisations such as the French PeasantConfederation, the Dutch Agricultural Association, EuroDusnie inLeiden, Leoncavallo in Milan, the Reithalle in Berne and women'sorganisations like Espace Femmes International. But ICC-99 is choosy about who it accepts help from. ''We will notplay into the hands of institutions that are eager to claim to havedemocratic consultations with civil society to pursue their ownagenda,'' Nanjundaswamy said.

Nanjundaswamy termed as ''outrageous'' the social clauseproposed to be incorporated into the WTO system which, he saidwould never protect fundamental labour rights but allow countries inthe North to practice selective protectionism. ''One reason we are going to Europe is because we wish to exposeorganisations in the North that claim to speak on behalf of the poorof the South just because we are not around to make our viewsfelt.''

''We do not want western money or, technology or developmentmodels and we refuse to be used as political tools to ask the elitesfor reforms that we never demanded,'' he said.