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Food riots, a distinct reality

I had never heard of 'food riots'. Neither had my politician friends. When I mentioned the phenomenon to them on my return from the former Soviet Union, they dismissed it peremptorily. "Food riots will never happen in India. We are well stocked. No one goes hungry."

columns Updated: Sep 03, 2015 21:40 IST
Sujata Anandan

I had never heard of 'food riots'. Neither had my politician friends. When I mentioned the phenomenon to them on my return from the former Soviet Union, they dismissed it peremptorily. "Food riots will never happen in India. We are well stocked. No one goes hungry."

In the early 1990s, all the countries of the former Soviet Union had been witnessing violence - and all for food. I was based in Paris at the time and when I called my Russian interpreter to ask what he wanted from Paris - I expected he would name what most people from the former Soviet bloc wanted at the time - western material goods or some fine French wine/champagne - he said: "Food. Loads of it. Tinned and canned so that we can stock up for several weeks."

It was only when I reached the rural areas of Russia that I saw why. The country had become an oligarchy - as India is in danger of being now - and there was little food for the poor though the tables of the rich were overflowing with exotic foods. This disparity led to snatching, looting and killing for food. "Don't carry any food, not even chocolates on your person," my interpreter warned me. "They will kill you for even just a chocolate bar." I was reminded of that time this week when I heard that a farmer had been kidnapped by a hungry man in Marathwada, in a seemingly prosperous state like Maharashtra. The ransom: Food.

Clearly, the urban folk have not been able to understand the scale of rural distress across the country, and when I see the rich pontificate about how we do not owe the poor anything, how food subsidies will make them lazy and how we need to grab their fertile lands for infrastructure projects, my mind harks back to the Russia of the early 1990s when oligarchs were lynched for having more than the others and not willing to share their bounty.

No wonder then that the Centre's land bill has been allowed to lapse. I think they have finally realised that though the farmers may be at the bottom of the food chain, they are key to our survival.

But a more serious concern is the water situation in Marathwada: Dams are running dry and only a few days' supply remains. Humans may ration their water supply and needs but, I wonder, if the largely urban-centric government knows that animals cannot be put on rations and could die of thirst if provisions are not made in time.

I don't remember the last time this happened but I am told that only a week's water supply was left in the city's lakes in 1965, when the country was in the throes of a severe drought that lasted until the early 1970s.

That is when Maharashtra's MLAs contemplated stopping trains coming to Bombay because they brought with them thousands of migrants who added to the overload. Fortuitously, it rained two days before the lakes would have completely dried up and a calamity was averted. I wonder if something similar will happen this year but so far it seems doubtful.

If we set aside the politics of drought, however, there are lessons to be drawn from how previous governments managed - the past one in particular. For much as the Congress might wish to pin the BJP-led government down for its failure to address the rural distress, the signs have been apparent for long. In fact, former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan had considered his management of the drought in his last year in office as one of his stellar achievements. His water management had been exemplary, saving the lives of both humans and animals and effectively stopping mass migration to the cities. And, of course, that was accomplished without then deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar having to urinate in the dams. That would surely have caused a riot!