Where Have all the Protests Gone?

16 03 2010

How do we understand the inexplicable lack of popular anger over high food inflation in India?

Food prices in India have risen at an unprecedented rate in the last few months. For the data available when this was being written, food inflation rate was 17.87%. This is actually a fall from the high of 19.95% just two months ago. These are unprecedented figures and have led to much agitation in the Parliament, in different state legislative assemblies and within political circles.

The price rise has been across all varieties of food products – mass consumption food grains, basic vegetables like onion and potato, dairy products, sugar – with some items, like pulses, having breached the Rs. 100 per kilogram rate. Items like milk and vegetables have fluctuated widely, while cereals have seen steady unrelenting rise. Over all the variance, the secular trend over the past many months has been for food prices to rise significantly.

Initially, the central government explained away these very high rates of price rise on the bad monsoon which had led to low farm production. Later, the government argued that demand pressure from rising rural incomes, due to the success of the rural employment guarantee programme (which guarantees a minimum of 100 days of work in the rural areas to anyone asking for it at a wage rate of Rs. 100/day) and other schemes, were responsible for high food prices. Some senior government representatives argued that high support prices for agricultural products were responsible for food inflation (thus implying that rising food prices were caused by the demands of the landed peasantry for higher rates for their farm produce), and that those who were demanding lower food prices were merely pushing the demands of the pampered urban middle class who wanted to deprive the farmers from getting their due prices. Depending on the audience, the government juggled between supply side arguments and demand side reasons.

There may be elements of truth in these claims, but it was obvious that these were clearly lame excuses from a government which was blatantly incapable, or perhaps even disinterested as its opponents claimed, in tackling rising food prices. There is clear evidence of hoarding and speculation by middlemen as there is of negligence and ineptitude with regard to export, import, storage and distribution of food stock with the government. Further, what is important to remember is that not only does rising food prices hit the urban poor (who are entirely dependent on food purchases to feed themselves), more than half the 600 million Indians who have agriculture as their primary occupation are actually net food purchasers. This means that these are small and marginal peasants and landless agricultural labourers whose farms do not produce enough to feed their families and they have to buy their food for survival.

The initial inability of the opposition parties in raising this issue with sufficient force could be adduced to their electoral debacle in elections less than a year ago, but soon enough they did succeed in making much noise over price rise, specially food inflation. The left, not only the parties in Parliament, but all forms of left forces, of all hues, have taken up this issue in all earnestness. Just a few days back the left parties organised a large rally in New Delhi over this issue which was attended by as many as one lakh people. Even the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party foregrounded this issue in the last two sessions of parliament while many of the allies of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, specially Trinamul Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, also raised this issue.

Enough noise and pressure was created on the government for it to accept the severity of food inflation, with prime minister Manmohan Singh finally conceding that the situation was “grave” and that the government needed to do more. Ironically, in a meeting of chief ministers called in early February, the prime minister not only tried to shift blame to the state administrations but also proposed further liberalisation of the agriculture market as a solution to price rise. While he was thus reassuring his countrymen that the worst of food inflation was over, his government’s data, released that week, showed food inflation rising to 18%. It increasingly becomes clear that the government is not only incapable and disinterested in containing food inflation, they are also cynical about its political fallout.

This has been made possible by the singular and inexplicable lack of popular anger against this massive hike in food prices. All the protests seem laboured and are organised by political parties with much planning and effort. There has been something of the formal and perfunctory about these cadre driven events. Clearly there is a lack of public anger and spontaneous protest against food inflation which has ranged very high for more than six last months.  Food prices have always been politically incendiary for the ruling parties. Exactly 44 years ago in March 1966, the food riots in West Bengal are still remembered as a political landmark while the food crisis led to significant changes in national politics and the onset of the “green revolution”. Even smaller events like the rise in onion prices to above Rs. 100 / kg in 1998 led to palpable anger on the streets and contributed, in large measure, to the collapse of the 13 month Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Where is that anger now when tur/ahrar dal crossed the Rs. 100 / kg mark?

It would be incorrect to state that food availability and prices have lost their political import but it is also clear that there is no large-scale public support for agitations against food inflation. This lack of visible public anger at rising food prices has taken the wind out of the sails of the opposition and allowed the government political space to escape real censure. It is not enough to merely note this lack of visible public anger and opposition to food inflation. Social scientists and activists need to understand and explain why there have been no large-scale public protests against food inflation.

One answer to this predicament has been that neo-liberalism, depoliticises people and what we are observing is the result of successful neoliberalism in action. While it is true that neoliberalism does try to depoliticise people and insulate the “economy” from politics, it is hardly ever successful. The entire Latin America is proof of the ability of people to overcome such neoliberalism and India has had a long history, stretching back to colonial times, of mass agitations and revolts over food and livelihoods. It could also be argued that political parties, including of the left, have lost some of their credibility by becoming part of the neoliberal compact and pursuing similar politics when in power. While this may disillusion people about parties, when have people ever needed the guidance of political parties to express their anger and come out in resistance to government acts of omission and commission. Just two years ago Left ruled West Bengal’s Burdwan district witnessed riots over corruption in its public distribution system while in January this year there were violent protests in JD(U) - BJP ruled Bihar over rising food prices. What explains the fact that even after six months and more of unprecedented food inflation, the government of India is sitting unscathed, except for minor bruises, soon forgotten.

There are two contradictory processes on in India today. At one level there is a growing inequality as the number of our millionaires and billionaires grow unabated while poverty indicators remain high. Yet how does one explain the deepening of democracy in this context of rising inequality and deprivation? All studies of elections and democratic processes indicate that electoral participation and support for democracy increase with decreasing income, education, social marginalisation and exclusion of respondents.

There is a growing knowledge deficit about how to explain these two phenomena. No one seems to explain why the poor and deprived are happy with our democracy and remain committed to a system which supposedly has failed them. Would it be correct to view this inexplicable lack of public anger over food inflation as a part of this growing knowledge deficit. It is obvious that our academic theories are not being able to explain this, while our political tools are proving increasingly ineffectual. Are we at that point where our paradigms need a radical restructuring to make sense of our world? Is India today incapable of understanding and explaining itself?

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2 responses

12 04 2010
Manjima

Do you think some part of this lack of popular concern for increasing livelihood-related issues relates to the increase in the consumption of entertainment? Even the poorest of the poor have access to mobile phones and televisions (the latter at least at the community level). As a dumping ground for goods that fail to meet the West’s standards of production, in India it is ridiculously easy to ‘be fashionable’ and sport the right brands, even if they’re imitations of the originals. As someone who has worked in urban slums for over half a decade, I am increasingly alarmed at how far these things are allowed to compensate for the lack of affordability of basic amenities, and at how far bribes of such things will go to make poor people willing aides to the corruption of officials and politicians. It’s as though Huxley’s After Ford era was reaching its peak already.

12 04 2010
Aniket Alam

Manjima,

You do make some very relevant points and the seductions of “entertainment consumption” are surely one part of the story. I do not think that can explain everything. If that were so then most of our theories which explain, not only political activism and social movements, but the very basis of human agency would stand in need of radical overhaul. I do not think we have reached that dead-end in our social / political theory (as yet!).

In my estimation, apart from the seductions you mention, there is the real aspect of welfare measures being taken by the government too. Have a look at this editorial in Business Standard for the scale of measures being taken and this is just a partial list. Being a spokesperson of the business class, this paper laments this, but this is also a reality which many of the poor have directly experienced and seen. I do not agree that NREGA payments are responsible for rise in food prices but I think they are responsible for softening the anger and the lack of protests; not just NREGA but also the various other measures (including RTI). The point being that we should not feel embarrassed at admitting the positive role of state policies on the poor.

This is not to deny the other side of state policies — privatising common resources, driving people from their land and homes for private sector enclosures, unleashing state repression on popular protests, delegitimising popular politics of various sorts, etc — apart from the continued hold of dominant castes and classes on social and political power and the corrosive continuation of corruption (pardon the alliteration). These are as much a part of the reality of a “non-elite” citizen’s life as are the various welfare measures. What I am asking for is a dialectical understanding and explanation of India’s reality and a recognition that we need to upgrade, change, reject, innovate, etc the theories of Indian state and society we have inherited from the past decades.

The power of seduction and the importance of entertainment consumers is something which is very new and needs to be understood for all its ramifications and integrated into our analysis but it also needs to be remembered that if people are really hungry and desperate, they surely will riot, if not rebel…

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