Politics of Hunger, Right to Food

The Peoples’ Film Collective event Politics of Hunger: Right to Food involved a panel discussion followed by an open conversation. Amrit Paira, a political worker, Nilanjan Bhattacharya, a filmmaker and Manabi Majumdar, an academic were part of the panel. It was followed by the screening of Bhattacharya’s film  Johar: Welcome to Our World  which was again followed by an open conversation with the filmmaker.

The event was held in the context of the recent starvation deaths in Jhargram of seven members of the indigenous Shabar community. We felt the need for a public conversation on the issue itself and wanted to put it in the context of the politics of food. After all, people dying in the forest is not something that happens ‘out there’ but it is directly connected to the consumer society that forms a part of our lives.

The first speaker Amrit Paira succinctly outlined the increasingly precarious nature of the food supply chain of the Lodha community of Jhargram. Taking a long term view, Paira said that the increasing destruction of the forests has not only deprived the Lodhas of their traditional food base but also affected the chances of better earnings through selling forest products. While they could earn upto rupees 500/- to 600/- per day by selling mushroom, they earn a meagre Rs. 100/- to 150/- by working at the recently set up local iron foundry. This implies that they neither have enough money to buy enough (and better) rice to compensate for the often inadequate and poor quality rice supplied through the Public Distribution System (PDS) nor do they have the forest resources to fall back upon.

Squeezed from both sides, they are increasingly pushed to the brink of starvation as well as frustration, the latter leading to an increase in alcohol intake over time. Hunger is not the sole source of frustrations. Scarcely adjusted to either agriculture or industrial work, not at home with the procedures of democracy, the Lodhas feel increasingly alienated from modern life. Remixed Jhumur songs playing on cheap mobile phones is poor compensation for the loss of cultural traditions. The increasing alcoholism is a symptom but is conveniently converted to the cause behind the starvation deaths in official discourse.

Nilanjan Bhattacharya took a cue from Amrit and connected the destruction of tribal food chains and the consequent starvation to the existing development model. Nilanjan sharply argued that it is the existing development model itself rather than the lack of adequate development that was responsible for the situation. ‘It is we urban people who have a lot to learn from the way the tribals use the forest without harming it. Who are we to teach them about resource use?’ asked Nilanjan.

Reserve Forests, Biosphere Reserves, extractive mining all seem to occur on tribal land, Nilanjan pointed out. Development is taking the form of massive loot of the traditional resources on which the tribals depend, with which they are connected through a carefully preserved ecosystem. Destruction of the ecosystem is also leading to a loss of the rich stores of traditional knowledge, lamented Nilanjan. Nilanjan suggested that we do not need more of the same ‘development’, rather a different approach to the economy, one that is sensitive to the traditional food practices of the tribals and their relationship with the forest.

Manabi Majumdar spoke about the macro-politics of hunger and nutrition. She emphasized on the need to see the question of food as a political issue in times of intense consumerism. For instance, why does the PDS have to be targeted, she asked? If it was universal, all classes would have a stake in its functioning and it would not be easy for its operators to get away with structural flaws. Why does the fact that the government keeps giving tax sops to industries but fails to invest in the improvement of the PDS not become an issue in mainstream politics, Majumdar asked. In addition, the targeting itself produces a social fracture by making a section of people feel ‘poor’, she suggested. Thus, according to Majumdar, hunger is not the problem of tribal people as such, it is connected to the politics of food practices in society. She also emphasized the need to be in solidarity with groups that are actually suffering as well as the need to think of an alternative to the present food politics.

After the panel discussion, we went on to screen Johar: Welcome to Our World which explores the intricate relationship the tribals of Jharkhand have with their forests. The film explores traditional recipes, the medicinal qualities of various herbs, weeds and fruits and the traditional knowledge of their sustainable management by the adivasis. The film shows how mindless, aggressive development and the government’s misguided conservation policies have damaged the tribals’ relationship with their land and pushed them ever deeper into food insecurity. The film also spoke of the challenges in the implementation of the Forest Rights and the significance of Gram Sabha organising in making sure that the tribal people are not deprived of their rightful share of forest produce.

The programme ended with a few questions from the audience. The filmmaker was asked what the solution was. He replied that there was perhaps no clear cut answer; and it would be wrong to say that industrialization was not needed. He further responded that destruction of land and livelihood needed to feature as key political issues and industrial policies would have to be more balanced and take the former into account.

Report: Akash Bhattacharya | Photographs: Aniruddha Dey

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