(IPS), 30 May

South Asian Farmers Take Protest to London

By Neena Bhandari, London

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 Republic.

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 Samaj.

''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 movement.

'' 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).