It’s not uncommon these days for people in North America to follow Ayurvedic diets, add spices to their chai, or use herbs like ashwagandha as adaptogens to stay energized. With a global market value of $4.15 trillion, wellness has never been more popular, but what is the purpose of “being well” if the farmers who grow these “trendy” herbs and spices are being harmed?
For over three months, tens of thousands of farmers in India have been protesting against three new farm laws that they say are unfair and detrimental to smaller growers. The reforms will loosen rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce—rules that have protected India’s farmers from the risks and fluctuations of the free market for decades. The reforms would create a national framework allowing farmers the option of selling to private buyers outside of the long-standing mandi system—government-controlled wholesale markets with assured floor prices. The aim of the farm bills is to give farmers more choice, but as BBC reports, “farmers are mainly concerned that this will eventually lead to the end of wholesale markets and assured prices, leaving them with no back-up option. That is, if they are not satisfied with the price offered by a private buyer, they cannot return to the mandi or use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations.”
The largest of these protests, led by farmers from Haryana and Punjab, has been taking place since November, with thousands of farmers camping out on the highways outside of New Delhi. Since then, police have reportedly hit protestors with tear gas and water cannons, blocked access to water and portable toilets, and erected metal and wire barricades around the protest site. Journalists and activists have also been arrested, threatening the right to free press and peaceful protest. One of these activists, Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit Punjabi woman who already faces hardship due to caste discrimination, was allegedly sexually assaulted and tortured while in jail.
For those of us in the Punjabi diaspora in North America, like myself, we’ve been watching the news with immense sadness and anger as we witness these farmers, many of whom are elderly, spending the cold winter sleeping outside and peacefully protesting while enduring human rights crimes. Farming is the crux of our identity as Punjabi people and to be a farmer is revered in our culture. Although we don’t live in Punjab anymore, our connection to our homeland has been embedded in us through the knowledge and teachings of our parents and grandparents and strengthened through our community, food, stories, and traditions, including continuing the work of farming in the diaspora. It’s been hard to watch these historic, crucial protests unfold from afar with very little “mainstream” recognition from our adopted home.
How does this tie in with the wellness industry? Our worlds are more connected than you think. In 2019 (the most recent year data is available), the United States imported $271 million worth of spices from India. This means that many herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger, commonly sold in the wellness space in the form of lattes, elixirs, and healing remedies, were grown by Indian farmers. The demand for spice exports increased during the pandemic, which the Indian government boasted was due to these ingredients’ famous immune-supporting powers. It’s not just spices; rice, cotton, and essential oils are also top American imports of Indian goods. Forty-one percent of India’s workforce is employed in agriculture and even before the protests, the country’s farmers have been facing more insidious fights like a suicide crisis and the largely invisible work of women farmers and laborers. Ultimately, what Indian farmers go through directly impacts the wellness industry—and as such, their struggles should matter to those who have benefitted from their labor.
“We are at a point where we absolutely cannot continue to spiritually bypass and ignore the impact of our consumption of sacred practices, wisdom, herbs, or food from Indigenous communities.” —Navdeep Kaur Gill, Ayurvedic practitioner
“The people that provide these things for us also deserve to have wellness,” says Navdeep Kaur Gill, an Ayurvedic practitioner from Canada. Her Instagram post from December brought attention to the fact that, without Indian farmers, people wouldn’t have such easy access to turmeric for their lattes.
Additionally, Indian culture and traditions have long benefitted (and enriched) the global wellness community. People around the world have sought out wellness practices rooted in Indian tradition, like Ayurvedic medicine, meditation, and yoga, for their reputation for supporting their pursuit of a holistic, balanced, and spiritual life. In the pursuit of our own wellness, there needs to be a concerted effort and social responsibility of using our privilege to ensure the wellness of others.
For South Asian practitioners like Harjit Kaur*, a student and teacher of yoga in California for 20 years, their work has always intersected with activism. They’ve had to reclaim their space in the Western wellness industry from which they’ve largely been erased. The farmer’s protests, they say, is an opportunity for the wellness industry and people who use these practices to show solidarity, like Justice for Migrant Women and 75 other organizations did in an open letter in the New York Times.
“I think Western yogis should challenge their teachers all the way up the line as far as they can and ask them where they stand on this issue, and on casteism, and fascism, and authoritarianism,” Kaur says. “Why do these elderly farmers see this fight as their last stand against tyranny?” Conversations like these with your yoga teachers are an opportunity to put your practice into action—and depending on the conversation, can tell you if it’s time to find a new teacher.
Wellness does not occur in a vacuum; all of our practices should include activism. “We are at a point where we absolutely cannot continue to spiritually bypass and ignore the impact of our consumption of sacred practices, wisdom, herbs, or food from Indigenous communities,” says Gill, including those of India. “Equitable wellness has to intersect with our collective activism.”
To start, learn about where your spices and other goods are coming from and if they’re being sourced ethically. Seek out teachers (ideally those who are of the same cultural background as the practice itself) who are committed to equity and teaching in a decolonized way. Urge wellness companies and publications to put aside power and comfort in order for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) practitioners to have opportunities to be leaders and experts in teaching practices of their lineage. In those actions, we can better align our individual wellness with the wellness of others for the betterment of us all.
To learn more about how you can support India’s Farmers visit: https://farmerprotests.carrd.co
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons
If you love free workouts, discounts for wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content, sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders.