South Indian farmers to intensify the struggle against free trade

22nd September, Ernakulam: Member organizations and allies group associated under the banner of South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements (SICCFM) met at Ernakulam, Kerala to brainstorm and strategize collective action to address deepening agrarian crisis and evaluate the current policies adopted by the Indian government with respect to the free trade issues. The meeting was hosted by the Kerala Coconut Farmers’ Association.

The two days round table meeting was attended by men, women, and youth representatives of farmers, indigenous and landless Dalit groups from the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala. Researchers, academics and trade unionists who are also allies of the farmers’ movements also took part in the two-day event.

It was evident from the meeting that all the south Indian states are undergoing similar struggles, the rise in farmers suicides, increasing costs of agricultural inputs, land grabbing by the Government and companies in the name of development, loss of traditional crop varieties, corporate take over of food and milk and effects of climate change in the form of prolonged drought and erratic rainfall patterns which caused devastating floods in Kerala and Karnataka in recent years.

During the two day meeting, a lot of emphasis was placed on understanding the impact of global free trade agreements on Indian agriculture and the participants scrutinized several ongoing negotiations and developments taking place inside and outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in this regard. In particular, the movement representatives analyzed the ongoing negotiations around RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, comprising India and 15 other nations.

Discussing on the trade-related issues, representatives raised concerns against the unjust trade regimes dominated by a few big countries like the US, Australia and the EU.

“Indian government cannot trade away the lives of our farmers through getting into free trade agreements. For Indian farmers, agriculture is not just their profession. It is their culture, their life. Free trade has caused many market failures and has taken away the lives of many thousand farmers since the time India adopted the neoliberal trade reforms.”, said Ravindranath of the Kerala Coconut Farmers’ Association, while introducing the issue in the plenary.

The movements also took a decision to unanimously reject the RCEP free trade agreement.

“India is the world’s biggest milk producer and it’s dairy sector provides critical revenue to farmers especially during poor crop years. Indian farmers earn more money from the sale of milk than from wheat and rice combined. About 80 million Indian rural households are engaged in milk production which provides a livelihood to poor and small farmers”, reminded Yudhvir Singh of Bhartiya Kisan Union.

“Our farmers have already faced the negative effects under WTO and if India signs the RCEP pact, our farmers livelihoods will be under grave threat, said Sellamuthu of TVS, while raising concerns about the lack of transparency and consultation with farmers’ movements in the country when a trade agreement of such a massive scale is being negotiated.

Chukki Nanjundaswamy expressed concerns saying, ‘apart from the dairy sector, RCEP poses threat to dilute our national legislations related to seeds and land acquisition, the RCEP will give an upper hand to seed corporations to steal our seeds and grab our natural resources. The most important point here is that the government has not consulted farmers while making decisions regarding agriculture in RCEP. We need support for agroecology at the policy level and we don’t need these mega FTAs in agriculture, we will intensify our fight against RCEP in the coming days.

Farmers in India have already borne the brunt of existing FTAs such as the ASEAN-India FTA and India Sri-Lanka FTA. Cheap imports of palm oil, pepper and tea have devastated the lives of peasants across South India. The RCEP will further aggravate this crisis. We reject the RCEP outright,” said Badagalapura Nagendra, President KRRS (Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha)

Kavita Kuruganti of ASHA said, RCEP is a large, looming, dangerously-real threat hanging on Indian farmers’ lives. It is close to being signed and we need to stop it and save our Indian agriculture.

“RCEP will be detrimental to the plantation and fisheries sectors of Kerala, the state government of Kerala has already written to the central government opposing RCEP and asking the government to consult the state government before it inks final pact.”, reminded Ravindranath

Referring to the proposed amendments to the Seed Bill, Rakesh Tikait, national spokesperson of BKU, expressed his concerns that it will give more powers to the multinationals to introduce GM and patent our farmers’ seeds.  At a time when farmers in India are on the verge of destruction due to the failure of this government, by bringing a Bill that is against the farmers, the government is forcing us to commit suicide.

Referring to the unjust clauses under WTO, Kannaiyan Subramaniam said that ‘Rich countries wrote the Agreement on Agriculture in the WTO to favor themselves. Agribusiness corporations in rich countries receive huge subsidies that distort international prices. They want to dump their agriculture products in our countries and want us, farmers, to go out of business and depend on them for food. We have been fighting against WTO and now we will also intensify our fight against RCEP and we demand that Agriculture must be taken out of the WTO and RCEP.

Dairy provides subsistence income to many rural households especially the marginal farmers, opening domestic markets to dairy will wipe out small scale livestock keepers, especially women, said Murugamma of Food Sovereignty Alliance.

In the matter of Fair and Remunerative price for the resource-poor Indian sugarcane farmers, the Government of India has been sued by Guatemala, Brazil, and Australia in the Dispute settlement mechanism in the World Trade Organisation(WTO) and the investigation is pending in WTO. If Government of India allows cheaper sugar Imports, it will wipe out Indian sugar cane farmers from farming. RCEP will further cause damages to the sugarcane farmers and domestic sugar industries.

KV Rajkumar of South Indian Sugar cane farmers association said that, India has over 50 million sugar cane farmers and 2 million mill workers. Sugar mills owe more than 24000 crores to farmers who have supplied sugar cane. Sugar factories in Tamil Nadu have the dues to the tune of 1854 crores.

Selvaraj and Sobha, representatives of Adivasi groups from Neelagiris opposed the attack on the Rights of Tribals and Forest Dwellers and demanded that all the indigenous people and forest dwellers who are the original owners and depend on the forests and hilly areas for their life culture and livelihood should be protected and no eviction should take place under any guise, including the rejection of claims under the Forest Rights Act.

The representatives present in the meeting also made a decision to intensify the struggle against the RCEP through coordinated national action and protest against the RCEP and FTAs, a delegation of farmers will also try to meet the Prime Minister and Commerce Minister. Also, the farmers’ groups planned to seek the interventions of the respective state governments to send a letter opposing the RCEP.