Politics is the price of rice…


Rahnuma Ahmed

Bhat dey haramjada (Give rice, you bastard) — screamed the graffiti on a wall. It had stunned pedestrians in Dhaka. This was 1974.
In early March, six months before the famine had reached its peak, news of starvation deaths could be heard. Two to three months later, they had become common enough. Occassionally, dead bodies could be seen lying on the street. What had caused the famine of 1974? Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate, says that it was a reduction in the ability of people to command food through legal means available in society — in their entitlements to food — that led to the famine. Food crisis, says Sen, is caused not by food shortage but by the shortage of income and purchasing power. On a person’s ability to command commodities, particularly food, under entitlement relations. Starvation and famine are not only economic, says Sen. These are multi-dimensional subjects, they include social, political and legal issues. If groups of people lack purchasing power they can starve, even though markets are well stocked. Even though food prices are low.
What had caused the famine of 1974? For Devinder Sharma, it was the US government’s decision to withhold 2.2 million tons of food aid that was at fault. The US government had wanted to ensure that the Mujib regime `abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals’. When the Bangladesh Finance Minister had called upon the US Secretary of State, in August 1973, to appeal for food aid, the latter had advised the speedy settlement of disputes with Pakistan. Referring to Bangladesh government’s proposal of “war crimes” trials of the Pakistan army, he had said, it was ?not good to have such trials.? “Humanity” had never learned from war crimes trials, he said. Of course, the Americans had good reasons for saying so. The US ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s name had repeatedly come up. War objectors had demanded that he be tried for US massacres in Vietnam, for America’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation war. That humanity never learns is best exemplified by the US and its allies. Pakistan. Israel. Humanity never learns unless, of course, the criminals are Nazis or Serbians.
But that is not the end of `famine is a political weapon’ for the US story. Pressure on the Mujib government returned. In 1974, the US Ambassador said, no food aid would be given to Bangladesh if it exported jute to Cuba. The Mujib government gave in to US pressure. Jute exports to Cuba were stopped, but by the time food shipments reached, it was too late. Most famine victims had succumbed.
Were there other causes? Some researchers say, successive natural disasters, floods and droughts, had prefaced the food crisis. Others mention the Awami League government’s lack of foresight in importing foods. In directing subsidised food to the politically vocal urban population, at horrific costs to far-poorer, rural people. Others stress political and administrative corruption which had encouraged massive hoarding, and the smuggling of foodgrains. Many others say it was the gross mismanagement of the economy.
Why do I rehearse these instances from history? Because there are lessons to be learnt. Because it is not enough for either the Chief Adviser, his advisers, or the Army Chief to repeatedly say, there is no shortage of rice, the markets are well-stocked, more rice is being imported, it will reach soon. Simplistic reasoning, simplistic assertions are not enough. There have been too many famines, too many deaths. Each death was one too many. We must learn from history. That lessons are not being learnt is obvious from what is being said. From the little that is being done. The rice queues keep getting longer.
In 1974 too, world food prices had risen. But the situation is far more grave now. Hard-hit consumers across the globe are protesting. Mexicans rioted in December 2007. Tortilla prices had jumped up; in some parts of Mexico, it was four times higher. In Indonesia, people have protested against the rise in soybean prices. In Burkina Faso, protestors attacked government offices and shops. Demonstrations have also taken place in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen. Severe weather, rising population, rapid increases in demand for foodgrain (China, India), speculation in commodity markets, are listed as reasons. Also, a growing trend to turn food into fuel. Four hundred and fifty pounds of maize can be converted into enough ethanol to fill the 25 gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol at one time. Or it can be used to provide enough calories to feed one person for a year. The competition between food and fuel is encouraged by governmental subsidies given to biofuel in western countries. In non-western nations, that those hardest hit, should be provided with income support to help them purchase food is something all concerned agree upon. Simultaneously, it is agreed that governments should increase their investments in agriculture in order to improve agricultural productivity.
The situation in Bangladesh is made peculiar because of its rule by a caretaker government. Because of the fifteen month-long state of emergency. Recently, the Chief Adviser, in the light of accusations of poor food distribution said, shortages occur even in countries which have elected governments. Of course they do. That is not the point. The new system of corruption is individualistic, sector-oriented, and technocrat-elitist. It is not tied to constituencies and vote banks which have a nationwide spread, albeit with party lines of exclusion and inclusion. The new system is an introverted one. When it comes to food and other resources, the distribution is random. It is queue-oriented, linear. It does not encompass. Its reach is limited. Most are left out.

The army chief’s versatile kitchen

The army chief General Moeen U Ahmed had said on a visit to Chelopara in Bogra, Bangladeshis should increase the intake of potato in their daily diet. `We should not depend only on rice. Of course, we will eat rice but we must increase the intake of potato.’ That will reduce the food crisis, specially the pressure on rice. Potato yields this year have been very high.
A few days later, General Moeen invited the country’s leading editors to the army headquarters. The meeting was followed by a lunch where nine potato dishes were served with plain rice, fresh salad, fried ruhi fish. The potato-based dishes were: potato country curry, potato malai curry, potato noborotno curry, potato pudina curry, potato roller gravy, potato kofta curry, potato pulse curry, potato shak (spinach) curry. (Jaijaidin, 9 April 2008).
The list only proves that the Army Chief has versatile cooks, a versatile kitchen. But that was never in doubt. Just as his promotion, or his extension was never in doubt.

Street humour

The language of the streets is different from the language of those who rule the land. Emergency restrictions, and the intolerable food crisis has generated jokes that comprise a secret language of sorts between common people. Food jokes, queue jokes have been common elsewhere too. Such as this one. A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”
A more recent one, overheard by a friend in Muktagaccha, between two rickshawallas:
So, shorkar says, we have to eat more potatos. What do you say?
Well, get those high-talking advisors over, have rice, chaff, flour, and potatos in charis (cattle troughs), let’s see what they eat. I’ll eat what they eat.
Nine types of any food would fill a rickshawalla’s stomach.
First published in New Age on 14th April 2008

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

10 thoughts on “Politics is the price of rice…”

  1. Wonderful article by Rahuma Ahmed. Love the humor in it. Love the way she brought it up.
    But I fear, are we going towards that age ? Would there be flies on our bodies and grafitis on the wall ?

  2. As Rahnuma Ahmed reminds us, the spectre of hunger and starvation is too close for comfort. The militaries of the world have held monopoly on versatile kitchens. If the army stays in power, massive deaths from starvation are inevitable. Speedy resource mobilisation, transparently just distribution of rice among the poor millions, elimination of prifiteering middlemen,and excising politics and red tape from distribution are some of the urgent steps that, taken with alacrity, can avert the tragedy looming on the land. There are numerous native Kissingers on prowl. Put them in the stockade.

  3. The number and desperation of the beggars on the streets, mostly in the urban areas, are rising and rising fast. Sometimes you have to excuse yourself more than once from them to go away or to leave you alone. It may not be a famine like that of 1974 but it should be worse and chaotic as the classes of people have differentiated further since then. Then again, it’s useless to differentiate the classes when the majority are affected by the spiraling prices. Too much uncertainty in the horizon, even if the election takes place according to the road map.

  4. The urge for an election, from the desparate but lazy analysts, is merely a passive act. I don’t think that any form of ‘power transfer’ is going to make things any better. The question is about if the differentiation is an unmindful consequences of some other adjustments. There are the indicators that it is not. In that sense, like what India had experienced during the last decade, this is an implanted project to sharpen the social classes — not only in what are called “informal sectors” but also in the formal sectors. The difference between India and Bangladesh, one may like to mention, lies in the army involvement in this economic polarization and mass accumulation [by a group of people]. Then one may also argue that Indian state is fairly comfortable with the neighborhood army if they fit in with Indian commerce ambition.
    In solidarity with the writer.

  5. To convert irate remarks to public demonstrations and the same to overthrowing the the power that is, is imperative. For that a political party is needed, where there is none in any of the countries facing the worst and the most widespread food crisis in the living memory.
    Protest without a revolutionary party is easily silenced.
    Those in the establishment holding power and those in the opposition spearheading the protest serve the interest of the aspiring higher middle class and those above.
    The Indian staple food situation at the moment is comfortable but may break down any moment in the event of a bad monsoon.The same govt had bungled a surplus wheat market into a defciti at the cost of the people and in the interest of the US and the national hoarders. In a false plea to save the already-collapsed public distiribution system the rice export trade has been closed, except for superfine scented rice.
    The Maitree Express ambiance is to keep the same class in good humour is the policy at the central government.
    The Kolkata news media, either in print and and AV are suppressing the hunger situatuion in the world. Only one English daily has put up a leader highlighting the political unrest including food riots in Haiti. A recent Conference of the FMs at the behest of the UN concluded with the same note on the economic and political stability, instead of the food support it needed. The FAO has called a meeting in June: Which would end in sweet words and by that time what happens lwet’s see!

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    The Pakistani Spectator

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