Hundreds in B.C. rally in solidarity with farmers strike in India

Some supporters rode in a parade of pickup trucks

HUMAN SOLIDARITY KNOWS NO BORDERS. The proof was out in the streets in British Columbia Dec 2 and 5 when hundreds rallied to support farmers on strike 11,000 km away in India.

Farmers in India mounted protests of 200 to 300 million people in November—the “largest protests in human history” according to news media

The country’s trade unions joined the farmers in a massive national general strike in India on December 8.

India’s farmers driven to suicide

Three pieces of farm-related legislation passed in India’s Parliament nearly three months ago are the cause of the protests, but the battle by small farmers in India to protect themselves has been smoldering for decades. Even driving thousands of farmers to commit mass suicide.

Prime Minister Modi says the laws he imposed are intended to “modernize” India’s agricultural economy and liberate farmers from middlemen who take a cut.

Opponents counter the bills are part of a rigid neoliberal agenda to help multinational corporations increase their access and control over agriculture.
The farmers say the bills will destroy all they have left to cling to—namely, the longstanding minimum price for their crops that has been guaranteed by Indian law for decades.

‘Predatory and violent practices’

Mo Dhaliwal is a key organizer of B.C. support for the Indian farmers. He says the Indian laws are “couched in the language of empowerment and free markets”, but actually allow for “a lot of predatory and violent practices.”

“They’ll be able to essentially kill crop prices to a point where farming becomes untenable for small farmers… and corporations are poised and ready to swoop and buy up their land.”

At every stage of the protests in India, Canadians have mounted loud and proud solidarity rallies outside various Indian government offices in Surrey, Vancouver and other towns. Organizers say they plan more for Dec. 20, 24 and 31.

Dhaliwal said for Canadians who emigrated from Punjab over decades, most of them Sikh, the plight of farmers and farmworkers here and in India is “intimate.”

Punjab was once the “breadbasket” of India. But years and years of favouring industrial, mass-scale farming forced many small farmers off the land and out of India. Many came to British Columbia. Statistics Canada reports nearly one-in-ten British Columbians have South Asian ancestry; over half live in Surrey.

Farmworkers form union

For Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association the fact that many who left Punjab turned to farming in B.C. is no accident.

“They are largely farmworkers and farmers, especially from the 1980s onward,” she said. “They were farmers who faced down the counterinsurgency of the Indian state. And many continued to farm here.”

The Indian farmers did more than continue to farm once in Canada. They also continued to organize and fight for fairness. In 1980 they founded the now 40-year-old Canadian Farmworker’s Union. The first leader of that union, Raj Chouhan, is now an MLA and the first South Asian Speaker of the B.C. legislature.

South Asian farmworkers were the backbone of the The Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU). Their courage and perseverance brought the CFU a series of certification victories and legislative reforms, as well as broad popular support for farmer and farmworker rights. The recent public rallies in B.C., in support of the farmers in India, are a visible and concrete expression of that solidarity.

Building new solidarity

Now many South Asian farmers own their own land in B.C. and employ others to harvest it. Walia hopes that solidarity with their counterparts in India will translate into solidarity with all farmworkers struggling for their rights here.

“One slogan of the protests is ‘Kisaan majdoor ekta zindabad!’ — ‘farmers and farmworkers united!’” she said. She hopes that goal will be extended to farmworkers here in Canada—even among those who may not be Punjabi.

Canada’s National Farmers Union supports the Indian farmers and endorsed the demonstrations on Dec. 6.

“We in Canada recognize the Indian farmers’ struggle as similar to our own struggle,” said NFU president Katie Ward. “We support them in their right to protest, and in their call for agriculture policy that supports the millions of smallholder farmers growing food in India.”

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