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Images: (top left) Karen Sandhu; (middle right) Kris Lally; (bottom left) Alexandria Walenciak, HSA and Lakhjit Saroya, HEU, two healthcare workers showing their solidarity with farmers in India.
Kris and Karen are both healthcare workers and members of the Health Sciences Association. They have been active raising awareness of the farmers protest currently happening in India - within their union and beyond. How are the farmers protests relevant to health, and why do BC residents care about this issue? BC Health Coalition co-chair and fellow HSA member Edith Machattie caught up with them to find out.
What is the context for the Indian Farmer Protests?
Kris: The largest protest in history is taking place in India right now. The Indian government unconstitutionally passed three agricultural laws in September 2020. These eliminate Minimum Support Prices for farmers and give control to big corporations buying the crops to regulate the prices on their own terms and exploit farmers. The sales will not be regulated by the government and farmers are not allowed to go to civil court if any disputes arise. Over half of India’s 1.3 billion population is reliant on farming. 80% of Indian farmers have less that 5 acres and do not have the bargaining power to go up against big corporations.
Why is it important to you to take action on this issue?
Karen: It has been recognized as the largest human protest with over 250 million protesters in Delhi at this time. I was surprised to hear that the government rushed to pass these laws in the middle of a pandemic by a verbal vote and without talking to the workers they impact, the farmers. I was most surprised by the treatment the protestors received while trying to peacefully protest. This includes being sprayed by water canyons, tear gas and facing police brutality. My family comes from a farming background - so this was something close to home for me. Kris and I started talking about what we could do to bring more awareness to what is happening. We reached out to our union because this is a worker issue. Not only do these workers need our support for their livelihoods, it has turned into a human rights issue with the tactics used by the Indian government that include internet blackouts at the protesting sites, restricting access to water, electricity and public toilets to name a few.
What connection is there between health and the farmer protests in India?
Kris: In the 1960s, the Indian government was influenced by private players from the US and pushed farmers to adopt industrial agriculture practices with the use of high yielding variety (HYV) seeds. These HYV seeds promised stronger crops that would be resistant to pests. However, they were associated with high costs technology, increased use of irrigation facilities, pesticides, and fertilizers. These costs led farmers to taking out high interest loans and trapped them into a cycle of debt. These debts have led to alarming suicide rates and the farmers suicide epidemic.
The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides has polluted the water, damaged the soil, and killed wildlife. The excessive chemicals in the food, water, and soil have had a devastating impact on public health- including high cancer rates. India has a two-tier healthcare system and many of the debt-ridden families cannot afford to pay for treatment. In Punjab, many cancer patients must travel 325 km on the “cancer train” to Bikaner, Rajasthan for treatment. As a healthcare worker who works with cancer patients, I see first hand how devastating this disease is. I can’t imagine having to travel hundreds of kilometers while suffering from symptoms or going without treatment because you cannot afford it.
We know privatization doesn’t work. Privatization of health care and education have already failed the common people in India. These laws are privatizing agriculture. Over half of the Indian population rely on small-farm agriculture to survive. These laws give priority to corporate profits over the working class.
Karen: I can't imagine how these protestors are feeling on the ground, seeing first hand the government's response and how that is impacting their mental health. There's the stress of seeing fellow protestors being beaten up and/or jailed just for standing up for their rights. Added to that stress, the government has censored social media, tried to change the narrative of the protest and put up barricades. It has been reported that a few of the farmers at various protest sites have committed suicide due to the lack of hope in the governments intentions to resolve this peacefully and in a timely manner. There is an ongoing epidemic of farmer suicide. Many farmers are under huge debt because of the costs associated with farming and the lack of available supports. Just this past year, there have been over 10,000 farmer suicides. Under these new laws, larger corporations have the ability to store crops and therefore, set demand for crops of their choosing and pricing which would be devastating for farmers and their families.
Why is it relevant for people in BC to know about and take action on what is happening to the farmers in India?
Kris: We have a massive Indian diaspora here in BC. A lot of our families left that country because of the oppression and injustices they faced there, but that doesn’t mean we come here and turn our back on our brothers and sisters who are still there. Living in BC is a privilege.
With that comes the responsibility to stand up for others in solidarity.
But it’s also relevant to Canadians without connections to India. We’re a global community- economically, socially, and politically we’re connected. In 2019, Canadian imports from India were worth over $5 Billion. The corporations that are going to gain from these laws in India are companies that are already active in Canada like Nestle, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft. Once their power increases and they can force down prices to Indian farmers, they’re going to demand similar power in other countries. Prioritizing corporate demands over working people making a living wage in one country will affect Canada- and should very much be a concern for Canadians.
What has it been like for you to see these protests and this situation unfold?
Karen: It has been tough to see and hear what is going on but at the same time I think 'Wow, the power and resilience of these workers who are uniting and putting their lives at risk, who are doing this for the next generation'. There are so many older farmers protesting who are our grandparents' age. They are doing this in the middle of a pandemic and in the midst of winter. They've seen the difficulty with the current state of farming and these bills would only add to that difficulty. They are staying in makeshift campsites with limited access to fresh water, electricity and public washrooms. On top of that, they have to stay there with the fear of not knowing what else the government will do. They have seen activists and media personnel kidnapped and thrown in jail all while peacefully protesting.
In Sikhism, there is an important principle called ‘Seva’ (selfless service). Despite the poor treatment they have received, the protesters are providing services for others in Delhi including the police and army. The protesters set up community kitchens to give free meals to locals and are teaching kids to read, write and draw.
Kris: It is heartbreaking to see both the young and old suffering on the roads through the harsh winter conditions during a pandemic. However, seeing the determination and strength shown by the elders is incredibly motivational. As Karen said, these 80, 90 year olds could be our grandparents. They are willing to sacrifice their lives, they are fighting for the future of the next generation.
The police violence protesters are facing is horrible. Delhi police are arresting protestors in the middle of the night, picking them up from their camps. They’ve been imprisoning and abusing activists and journalists for sharing information. The government is twisting the narrative and attacking people who are standing up for human rights. It is the farmers and everyday people who are providing basic services like meals, education, and medical services while the government has prioritized private profits over their own people.
What can we do to show our solidarity?
Send a letter: Please take 30 seconds and send a letter to your MP, calling on the federal government to take action in support of the Indian Farmers. HSA has an easy email-letter tool open to all Canadians (don’t have to be an HSA member). Please share this on social media and encourage your friends, family, and coworkers to take action. Click HERE.
Share information: It’s important to learn and educate ourselves about what is happening in India and make sure the voices and messages from the farmers are heard. We need to put international pressure on Indian Government and let them know the world is watching
Send donations to Khalsa Aid, an international aid organization who is on the ground organizing support for the farmers.