For weeks now, hundreds of thousands of farmers in tractors and trolleys have gathered on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi, protesting the government’s controversial new agricultural laws. Supporters from across Canada have also joined the cause, with demonstrations happening in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and beyond — even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has voiced his support for the peaceful protests.
The protestors are fighting back on new “reforms” that will push India’s some 180 million farmers further into poverty by removing government safeguards protecting them from exploitation by large corporations — exploitation that many Canadians don’t stop to consider when we order $6 turmeric lattes with spices from Andhra Pradesh or try out that buzzy new pandemic recipe with cardamom from Karnataka.
The truth is North American wellness routines are deeply tied to what’s happening in India right now — so if we want to practise ayurveda or eat detox khichdi ethically, we need to understand what these protests mean for the farmers responsible for getting these important products and practices into our hands.
Here’s what you need to know about the India farmers' protests and how it impacts our collective wellness routines.
Why are farmers in India protesting?
Most farmers in India are small scale, with 85% owning less than five acres of land. In a country where 70% of the population works in agriculture, farmers have long suffered in an industry plagued with poverty and underdevelopment. Women farmers have it especially hard. Though 80% of women who work in India are in agriculture, only 13% of them own land, reports Didihood, stripping them from ownership rights and control over their economic freedom.
Additionally, as prices for fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds continue to rise, the fixed minimum price for crops has not. The annual income of farming households in 2017 was 36,938 rupees, around $642 CAD, and most of these households were producing just enough crops to pay for their food and shelter. This has led to farmers borrowing from money lenders, getting further into debt, and having no resources or government aid to help them recover.
Even before the new laws, the situation had gotten so bad that India has become one of the world leaders in farmer suicides. In states where spices are the main export, the statistics are especially grim. Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka are three out five states that lead the production of spice exports in India, but also reported the most farmer suicides in the country in 2019.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi says deregulating agriculture will give farmers more control over their crop prices, farmers and international critics argue that eliminating price controls and mandis (government-controlled markets) will allow large corporations to buy crops at much cheaper prices than they can offer, thus putting their already tenuous livelihoods at grave risk.
How does my daily organic ginger shot fit into this?
Spices are one of India’s top exports; Canada imports close to $71 million of spices every year, with a large portion of them coming from Indian farms. You can credit Ayurveda-hashtagging influencers and celebrities for the growing market. Thanks to the wellness industry, North Americans have been turning to these “trendy” ingredients (which have literally been around forever) for health benefits. As more people begin to look into natural remedies, turmeric-infused beverages, ginger shots, cumin, and more have flown off our local grocery shelves. The sale of Indian spices and herbs in Canada climbed 13% from 2018 to 2019.
But as demand continues to rise in tandem with the new laws, further exploitation of farmers will only increase. “Spice farmers will be tremendously impacted by these laws, especially ones with highly regulated crops like pepper and cardamom,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, founder and CEO of Diaspora Co, an Oakland, CA-based company that sells organic Indian spices while empowering small-scale farmers and paying them equitable wages. “Corporations can now come in and say we’ll buy all your stock and in the first year, they’ll probably pay close to commodity prices. But once the farmer is dependent on them, they can easily change the prices and say, ‘Oh we can’t buy it for this much.’”
“If we’re going to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year based on practices that come from this land and then buy these spices in bulk in our local grocery stores, we also have to think about the farmers who are breaking their backs to get these spices to us,” adds Navdeep Kaur Gill, an Ayurveda practitioner and wellness educator based in Surrey, B.C. By the time many of us get our supermarket spices, they’ve likely changed hands 15 to 20 times. “Yes, we want people to be well, and we want to share the message that these herbs are effective, but when the farmers that we’re buying these herbs from aren’t getting fair wages and proper working conditions, then what are we doing? The wellness industry is not exempt from creating harm just because we have good intentions.”
Has the wellness industry spoken out?
Good question. A quick search of some wellness influencers and you’ll find pictures of ghee, healthy dal recipes, and Ayurvedic tips… but complete silence when it comes to the farmers’ protests.
This isn’t anything new. The Canadian wellness industry, which is projected to grow to $20 USD billion by 2022, has long appropriated and profited off of practices that have been used for centuries in other parts of the world, co-opting traditional medicines and recipes and selling them as new discoveries to the masses without acknowledging the people and cultures behind them.
But the plight of farmers in India is no longer a hidden human cost to self-care rituals. Millions are raising their voices and telling you exactly what they need to live a dignified life: a living wage and additional government support so they can gain independence. “If you have a voice, whether that’s followers or communities, regardless of where you come from, if you’re not using it for things beyond yourself, then how well are you, how spiritual are you, how conscious are you,” says Gill.
So, what can I do to help?
Well for one, learn about where your spices and herbs come from and try to make informed decisions when purchasing. Buy from fair trade, direct-to-consumer spice companies; Kadri’s company or New York-based Burlap & Barrel, for example, support farmers and not the middlemen. “When you are choosing to buy the $2 a pound turmeric from your local grocery store, you are turning down a very easy opportunity to have an impact,” says Kadri.
Secondly, stand up and help the cause. We finally have a chance to demand better conditions and fair pay for farmers, so speak out. Our collective voices can have a massive impact — on Wednesday, India's Supreme Court announced that it will be holding a mediation panel to hear out farmers' grievances.
Gill (and many other South Asian activists) have resource pages on ways to help. We can donate to non-profits on the ground (like the NGO Khalsa Aid, which is providing farmers with essential goods like food, water, and warm clothes), write to our local MPs to request intervention, and help spread awareness about what’s happening on our social platforms.
And the next time you're about to post a yoga pose or your fire tandoori paneer recipe, maybe think twice: “Really think about where this came from, what does it take for it to come to you, and what is your responsibility as a practitioner,” says Gill. “If you’re not able to use your voice in a time of need, to uplift people and contribute to their liberation, do you really feel that you should be using these practices?”