Activists from across Asia explain how the EU’s free trade agenda affects them: (2) India

04 November 2010

At the Asia Europe People’s Forum in Brussels we interviewed civil society activists from across Asia, to find out more about the damaging impacts of free trade agreements on the everyday lives of people in their countries.

This is the second part in a series of interviews (see the first part, Indonesia and China >>) that looks at the work of activists from Asia who came to Brussels this October to participate in the Asia Europe People's Forum (AEPF 8). Dayamamani Barla talks about the struggles of indiginous people who are being forcibly removed from their land to make way for extractive industries and corporate developments, while Vijay Jawandhia tells us about his work to improve the lives of Indian farmers suffering under neoliberal trade conditions.

Indiginous communities forced off their land to make way for corporate, industrial developments

Dayamamani Barla, Indiginous Community Activist

Dayamamani Barla (India, population 1.1 billion) is a member of the Mund Tribe, from Gumla District, Ranch, Jharkhand. She is a full time activist and journalist, investigating and protesting land grabbing and oppression of indiginous communities.

What's the problem?

"The Indian Government, together with about 1000 multinational companies, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) saying that a huge piece of land was now their property, and that the tribal, indigenous people who had been living on the land for generations no longer had any right to it, since they had not formal legal papers."

"The land, the river and the forest provides our culture, our identity, our livelihoods and subsistence" says Dayamamani. "It is our heritage." How, she asked "can we sell this land, our soil? How can we sell the river that flows or the air that we breath? Can these things be sold?"

Since the MOU, the Government has begun to take the land by force. The police are usually involved with forcibly removing families, Dayamami says. When asked what has happened to the people who have already been removed, she replied "we do not know what has happened to them, they disappeared, maybe they live, maybe they are dead, or they go to be beggars in the cities."

The Government claimed the deal would be good for the local people because industry will bring jobs to the area - the people who live there will be "employed". This however, is not their idea of development. Dayamamani said their beliefs, cultural and social values cannot be compensated for with money or jobs.

The effort to seize land began ten years ago on the Jharkhand estate, where Dayamamani is from. There are 74, 714 km of land the government says it will distribute among the companies, who want it to build power plants, dams, coal mines, iron mines, highways, urban developments, water, and the coastal areas for ports.

Under these kind of deals - which have happened in many parts of India, one company can become the owner of 62-70,000 hectares. "They want to invest their capital here" Dayamamani says. "But this leaves nothing for the people who have been living there for generations." Appropriation of land by companies with the violent support of the state - has been happening in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, she said.

In Jharkhand, since Independence, around 2 million people have been displaced because of development projects, but no one knows how many have been displaced so far as a result of the recent attempts to take land for industry. 

What does your work involve?

Dayamamani has published articles in local media to publicise the crimes of the security forces, and raise awareness about what is being done to indiginous people. She also came to the Asia Europe People's Forum to help network with other activists from indiginous communities, civil society and people's movements, to build alliances and support for their struggle.

Unfortunately, as we saw in the last part of this series - talking to Elisha Kartini of the Indonesian Peasant's Union - the current trend of removing indiginous people forcibly from land to enable corporations access to natural resources is widespread in the global South. However, since much of the outputs of this industry are serving industrialised and emerging economies (including the EU) raising awareness globally, and strengthening transnational civil society is a necessary step to counter such neocolonial or imperial practices.

Dayamamani hopes to bring the suffering of indiginous communities to the attention of European policymakers as well, as it is directly affected by their trade policies. A European Free Trade Agreement with India would only exacerbate these struggles and further increase the competition among companies racing to access what natural resources are left. This will have serious implications both for the people who live off the land, and for the environment.

The impact of unfair trade rules on the livelihoods of small farmers in India

Vijay Jawandhia, Indian Cotton Farmer, Activist

Vijay Jawandhia (from India, population 1.11 billion) is a cotton farmer and grass roots activist fighting for trade justice and the rights of Indian farmers. Over the years Vijay has raised global awareness about the terrible impacts of unfair international trade rules, US and European farming subsidies, and speculation on Indian farmers. Vijay also appeared in a documentary Around the World with Joseph Stijglitz which follows the former US government/Harvard economist and World Bank president on a tour of the world looking at the destabilising and damaging effects of globalization.

What’s the problem?

In the US and Europe the domestic power of large-scale corporate agriculture and a politically entrenched system of subsidization for primary production has remained one of the great contradictions making a mockery of the dominant ideological narratives about “free trade” and “free markets.” Elephants in the room, blatently protectionist agricultural policies in the West have led over-production; with “food mountains” of key crops, which flood international markets at impossibly low prices, driving down small farmers in the global South.

For countries who have been (sometimes brutally) introduced to the neoliberal, global economic order - submitting out of desperation to unfair trading rules in order to secure conditional overseas aid or foreign direct investment – these trade imbalances have severly worsened inequality between the world’s poorest people and those tiny few at the top. Apart from preventing small Indian farmers from developing technologically, the livelihoods they had before have been further decimated, causing widespread hunger and dispair, and driving hundreds of thousands of farmers to commit suicide, while others join the “dispossessed” of urban slums, sure in the knowledge that the countryside offers them no future.

“A cotton shirt, for which 200 grams of cotton lind is required, may cost around 20 Euros in Europe” explains Vijay, “but in India, the farmer gets only 1/4 of a Euro.” So where does the other 19 Euro and 75 cents go?

“Five Euros goes to the cotton industries, in Mumbai for example. Even though the farmer has created the wealth, he sees almost nothing of it” says Vijay.

In India, he explains, there is a limit on the size of individual farms – not more than 54 arable acres. His own farm is around 40 acres – which is big by Indian standards, but it is tiny in comparison to the big farms in the West. This means farming enterprises in the US and Europe accumulate disproportionately, first because they have been allowed to form monopolies, but also because of protectionist subsidies which grossly distory international markets – producing quite the opposite from a system of “free trade.”

"When we import cheap subsidized commodities from the North, we are importing unemployment, and poverty."

Although things have become much worse in recent years, farmers in India have been suffering exploitation for longer. A similar system existed during the colonial era. But since the country’s independence, says Vijay, farmers have been subjected to the same kind of colonial policies. Neoliberalism justs makes the effects more extreme. As a result, small farms and family-run farms are disappearing – both in the global South and in Europe, says Vijay. This kind of economic system – which favours only the big corporate monopolies, has downgraded farming livelihoods, meaning younger generations are even less keen to learn agriculture.

“Because of the IMF and WTO policies, incomes in some sectors are going up enormously – for example, government employees and other tertiary services. These jobs, which are non-productive – are being subsidized, and the IMF and WTO support this” says Vijay. “But at the same time, they actively oppose subsidies for education, for agriculture, health and transportation. So the people live in ever-increasing poverty, and this is a result of the policy.”

These injustices have been responsible for a huge growth in the rural suicide rate, as farmers unable to feed their families or pay for healthcare are driven to despair.

Meanwhile, because of the commodities price boom in 2008 people have been suffering, putting pressure on politicians to secure "cheap" food. This means they have welcomed cheap (subsidized) foreign imports into the country, even though it put even more pressure on Indian farmers. Depedence on imports from the global market also brings huge vulnerability to fluctuations in the world market as a result of speculation and world events. For example, Vijay says, in 2002, wheat was imported at $90 per ton; in 2008 this shot up to $400 per ton! Prices are kept low, he says, to keep labour prices low - arranging a fight between poor and poor. "When we import cheap subsidized commodities from the North, we are importing unemployment, and poverty."

Meanwhile, as the Indian government continues to subsidize the urban economy and tertiary industries, it creates further disparity between the country's rich and poor, creating two Indias in one; the poverty-striken countryside, and the industrializing urban areas. We should remember what Gandhi said, says Vijay: "nature can satisfy your need but not your greed."

Part of the problem, he continues, is our definition of development. At the moment, governments define development as per capita consumption of energy. But this is not correct. "What would happen" he asks "if all the people in Asia and Africa consume as much as in the West? This cannot work."

What does your work involve?

"I try to educate Indian farmers about globalization and international trade, and organize them, so we can lobby local government, and nationally for just trade policies." Vijay tours villages in his district – Wardha, close to Mumbai, to talk at meetings, and also tries to raise awareness at the international level by traveling to international forums - like the Asia Europe People's Forum - to participate in debates with global civil society, with other farmers, trade unionists and activists from the global South, and to reach European policy makers and raise awareness about this problem.

The struggle, he says is really a two-pronged fight. "First, we must target the local government level, to educate, raise awareness and unify districts based on an alternative policy, which they can push for at the state level." Second, Vijay says, they must build support internationally, from similar farmer-based movements in other countries of the global South, with movements and civil society in the North, and with academics and public figures who are critical of neoliberal globalization.