The Chicken and the Egg: Bird Flu in Bengal by Janam Mukherjee

One of the many brutal and dangerous realities of hunger is that its sufferers, the poorest of the poor, remain consistently invisible, tightly segregated in urban slums or loosely pushed to the very fringes of subsistence on barren tracks of environmentally degraded land. Their hunger, concealed as it is in a marginality that erases them from societal concern is, often enough, only “discovered” when their grueling and dehumanizing historical trajectory of poverty and disempowerment “erupts” in the spectacle of mass starvation and famine. Such a spectacle, however, inevitably represents only an aggravation of long existing conditions, some circumstantial variable—a flood or disease, drought or inflation—that tips the balance of their protracted and bitter battle with malnutrition and want, in favor of death by starvation. The pictures hit the press and the world stands agape: how could this be happening in this modern world of plenty? From whence did these broken bodies come? And who or what is to blame? It is as if, one fine day, out of the clear blue sky, a whole segment of the population of this third world nation or that just began to up and starve without giving fair notice. Yet if one looks back closely, the warning signs of impending disaster are, in fact, everywhere to be found.

The roots of the hunger that necessarily proceeds famine are tenacious and readily identifiable, and famine—the most acute form of hunger—is, more often than not, the result of structural inequalities that were many years in the making. As such, the socio-economic trajectory of hunger is not quite a mystery to anyone concerned to discover its course. The dire poverty that blights the lives of several billions of the earth’s inhabitants, after all, is a readily available statistical fact, and it is on this reality, above all else, that famine feeds. The exact economic and political structures that leave so many vulnerable to starvation, however, are sometimes well disguised, and moreover, are specific to each particular context in which hunger is embedded. The specificity of the context of the world’s many hungers can create problems in terms of analysis and amelioration, but it is quite often the case that in times of relatively minor crisis—crises that seem to have little to do with hunger—the existing fissures in the prevailing structural order become clearly delineated. In the examination of these sometimes seemingly fleeting and “minor” crises, therefore, hunger too—complete with its complicated social and political implications—can be productively analyzed long before mass starvation makes it the central issue of concern. The way a society deals with crises—who is prioritized and who left to bear the brunt of dislocation, suffering and disease—is a telling indicator of the scale and severity of the vulnerability of any society’s most marginal populations. It is also a platform from which the prevailing socio-political order can be productively critiqued. The essay that follows is an attempt to take such an approach by examining a recent “bird flu” outbreak in West Bengal, in an effort to reveal the structural inequalities and power dynamics that leave the poorest of the poor vulnerable to malnutrition, hunger, and ultimately starvation.

In the context of any discussion of hunger in Bengal, there are certain phantoms that inevitably loom large out of the distant and not-so-distant past. After all Bengal has before witnessed the truly catastrophic effects that sudden disruptions in food prices and distribution can wreak. The Bengal Famine of 1943, an event that was first identified as a crisis in food production by the official Famine Commission Report of 1945, was convincingly revealed in later years to be a much deeper structural phenomenon, related not to crop failure—or a real lack of food per se—but rather to inequalities in what economist Amartya Sen has famously labeled the food entitlement system.1 Sharp inflation, due to a series of governmental schemes and failures related to the war effort against Japan, had driven the price of rice far beyond the means of those at the bottom rungs of the social ladder, who were, in any case, living on the extreme margin of malnutrition for many decades prior. It was, unsurprisingly, from these ranks that the bulk of the several million who died of hunger and disease were taken. Famine, in this light, only realized structural inequalities that had long stalked the Bengal landscape, illustrating, in grisly detail, the vulnerability of the (already) chronically destitute masses. Analysis of the 1943 famine. in this light, provides an important platform for understanding the long trajectory of structural inequalities that were many decades, if not centuries, in the making. The outbreak of bird flu in Bengal in 2008 was a comparatively minute crisis, but one that never-the-less—and again—illuminates many of the deeply embedded structural inequalities that Bengal continues to face. The analysis of this one “small” crisis also provides a sad reiteration of many of the historical lessons that have gone unheeded— and unhealed. This period of seemingly insignificant crisis, in this sense, can be understood as an extremely important socio-political hermeneutic that might be examined in any effort to prevent more devastating crises.

According to official reckoning the bird flu crisis in India’s state of West Bengal had come to a close by the end of February 2008. At this time the ruling communist party (the CPM) lifted its ban on the sale and transport of poultry livestock, declaring a final victory in the war against the spread of the H5N1 virus. Until then, by official count, the State had put to death some 3.8 million chickens and destroyed close to a million and a half eggs. 2 By the third week of February newspapers were running headline pictures of dhoti-clad State Ministers happily dining on a lavish buffet of grilled fowl at the West Bengal Poultry Association-sponsored “Chicken Festival.”3 The idea was to reassure the public that if these babus were eating chicken, the general public could jolly-well begin eating chicken again too. Many citizens of West Bengal, however, remained curiously unconvinced by governmental assurances, and chicken sales (as well as prices) remained depressed for many weeks to come.

This inclination on the part of the population to stay away from chicken cannot be seen as entirely surprising. From the earliest days of the outbreak, CPM officials had been at pains to pacify a skeptical public, issuing repeated assurances that they had the epidemic fully “under control.” Meanwhile, day by day, the number of effected districts across the state was on the rise, and targets for “culling” operations continued to increase accordingly. In such a context, efforts made by the government to reassure the public are a telling sign of the state’s insecurity in the face of a somewhat incidental crisis that had inevitably thrown the existing fissures in the prevailing order into sharp relief. That is: the repercussions of bird flu moved along predictable fault lines, bringing to the surface—once again—the many specters of inequality and disempowerment that have haunted the historical trajectory of Bengal for many long years.

Chicken is a staple food in Bengal and represents a major agricultural industry that has, in the not so distant past, operated almost exclusively on a local scale. In recent years, however, corporate producers have begun to emerge, driving down chicken prices and putting pressure on backyard farmers. These farmers, in turn, have seen their standard of living decrease as profits from small-scale farming have fallen off. The decrease in the price of chicken brought on by corporate farming has, on the other hand, benefited some consumers, who have increasingly opted for chicken in the face of ongoing inflationary pressures that have driven up the prices of other food staples such as fish, vegetables, and, most troublingly, rice. In Bengal, as elsewhere in post-colonial Asia, there is still a considerable percentage of the population that relies heavily on rice alone as its primary source of nourishment. For these people, living on the barest margin of rice-subsistence, the chronic inflation of recent years has caused the most critical hardship of all. When further shocks to the markets result from emerging crises such as bird flu, the sacrifices that the poorest of the poor are forced to make can lead directly to acute hunger—and, in some cases, starvation.

On January 15th, once it was confirmed by central government laboratory tests that poultry in several districts of West Bengal had died of the H5N1 virus, demand for chicken began to plummet. The corporate industry responded by cutting its national output by as much as 25 percent by the end of the month in order to control the slide in prices by means of narrowing supply. Meanwhile, within a very short time, chicken all but vanished from markets, and large-scale culling operations were undertaken ostensibly to deny the bird flu of potential host bodies in affected districts. Subsequently, the price of substitute staples began to rise sharply, as the demand for alternatives to chicken increased almost overnight. In Kolkata, by early February, the price of fish had risen by as much as 50% and “mutton,” or goat meat, had increased similarly. Rice and vegetable prices were also sharply impacted, and the poor (who even in the best of times eat no chicken) began to suffer. The “denial” of chicken from the market thus had quick and sharp ramifications for the general population of the state—both for small farmers who were confronted with imminent economic ruin as the result of the loss of their livestock and falling prices, and for consumers, who became victim to unstable (and perilously interconnected) market forces that continued to reverberate through the food supply for many months to come.

In the early weeks of February, still under attack from the internationally dreaded bird flu, the Government of West Bengal was forced to increasingly take drastic measures. Quickly organized culling teams were dispatched to more and more districts each week, and chickens, whether effected by the virus or not, were killed in startling numbers to prevent the spread of the disease to human subjects. In the first week of the outbreak, contagion had been detected in four districts of Bengal and the target of culling efforts was set at half a million. The ruling CPM assured the public that with these measures the situation was well in hand. By the 25th of the month, however, Bird Flu had been confirmed in five additional districts, and the target was now quadrupled to 2 million.4 Again (according to state officials) things were “under control,” but less than a week later the virus had been detected in yet four more districts and the government announced that it had already killed 2.4 million birds with an (again) revised target of 2.8 million. This rapid increase in culling targets created further panic in agrarian Bengal, driving up prices further, and fostering growing distrust of governmental proclamations of “order.”

More importantly to officials, however; the epidemic was now circling in on the capital city of Kolkata, and in the weeks to come all efforts would be directed towards preventing the contagion from storming the walls of Britain’s former “second city.”5 By the beginning of February, despite all efforts to limit the epidemic to the countryside, however, harried reports were filed of findings of the bird flu virus within as little as 8 kilometers of the city. The culling went on with renewed vigor, and on the 4th of February the sale or transport of chicken to Kolkata was banned. The desperation to limit the disease to the impoverished and agrarian countryside—it might be noted—was a stark irony for a political party that had built its reputation on land reform and concern for the welfare of the rural poor. The CPM, during this crisis, was being revealed as a party of elite, urban functionaries, whose concern for the agrarian poor had atrophied precipitously. By the time government had declared its final victory over the spread of the H5N1 virus in West Bengal, 3.8 million chickens were reported to have been killed, but the city of Kolkata had been saved from the encroaching administration’s policies during a single—and relatively minor—crisis that determines how economic inequalities map unto communal politics, rather it is a question of a historically pernicious structural order that continues to establish conditions of inequality conducive to perceptions of communal bias whenever the State intervenes to re-establish the desired, pre-existing “order.” Such perceptions alone, are, quite sufficient ground for conflict. Even a “small” crisis, then, can be instructive in identifying underlying factors that condition communal or ethnic disharmony before a more major crisis evolves that might bring these same tensions into sharper (and more violent) relief. (It might be mentioned in this context that the seeds for the violence that erupted in Kolkata on August 16th of 1946—which, in turn, set the stage for the holocaust of partition—were being sown with particular urgency during the famine of 1943, as relief efforts became increasingly tarred by communal politicking and perceptions of communal bias in the distribution on food.15)

That the Government of West Bengal was quick to dismiss all communal questions, however, is not surprising. In the midst of crisis, the government was forced to narrow its focus and resist fragmentation of its concern. Citing the conglomerate “poor” as its primary consideration can be understood as the most politically expedient tactic of the moment, given that it is this sector of population that is always at greatest risk (of both disease and accentuated economic hardship)—and it also this sector which, in turn poses the greatest risk of organized dissent—even to a putatively “communist” government. In the months of October and November of 2007 the CPM had been embarrassed by food riots that erupted in several districts of the state.16 Though the Bengal Famine of 1943 is largely understood to be a historical concern, food riots in an area of the world that has suffered such a monumental catastrophes in the modern era do necessarily evoke a historical memory that is far from academic. The root of the 2007 food riots was assumed to be the specific grievance of corruption in the ration system, but the violent measures taken by villagers across several district of the state would suggest an acute underlying anxiety in regards to the ongoing food entitlement situation for the poor in West Bengal—which is a much more historically complex issue than the immediate trigger of the riots. Then, close on the heels of these riots came the bird flu crisis, which sent commodity markets for a quick loop, and triggered a sharp, if impermanent, inflation that caused widespread distress and discontent. The government, as concerned as they were with sick poultry, failed to pass comment on the consequences of this related inflation. Yet it cannot be doubted that the rise in the price of food commodities hit the poor very hard, and one might expect that if there is another round of food riots in the state, the increased anxiety that bird flu has caused will be inflected in those future protests.

In such circumstances distrust of the government’s commitment to the welfare of marginal populations is necessarily heightened and new interpretations are put on the old demons of entrenched structural violence. Sheik Najes, a resident of Budge Budge, a township just south of Kolkata, summed up such doubts tersely, “We see this as a ploy to sell American poultry products in our country, which will cost much more than our own products. We can’t afford that. We will not let the government cull chickens in our village and we are ready to face the consequences.”17 Both on the streets and in the markets I personally heard variations on such suspicions expressed numerous times—sometimes quite heatedly. No doubt a counter-argument could be offered along empirical lines, citing the scientific data supporting the detection and spread of the H5N1 virus in West Bengal and the very real public health threat that it posed. But the perceptions expressed when the above-recorded suspicions are circulated, also speak very real truths about people’s feelings of disempowerment and the anxiety the poor feel about their food security at the present time. They also illustrate the more immediate relation between the then ruling party (CPM) and the rural poor. Such suspicions, in this context, demand analysis, rather than condescending dismissal.

It is, after all, a fact that most of the culling of chickens took place in small villages, and also that most of the chickens killed were those that belonged to small-scale farmers. Meanwhile the CPM government was taking applications from corporate interests in the chicken trade for the legal sale of poultry in and around Kolkata.18 These same corporate farms—where thousands of chicken are produced, genetically manipulated, pre-packaged, and dumped on the market in freezer bags, driving the retail price of chicken down month after month—were largely granted immunity from the scourge of culling operations. Anisur Rahmen, Animal Resource Development Minister, seeking to establish confidence in the supply of poultry to a post-bird flu state, admitted openly to those gathered at the “Chicken Festival” that “bird flu had hit the backyard poultry only and not the organized poultry sector.”19 Of this “success,” it seems, this particular communist minister was proud. The suspicious imaginings of the disadvantaged public, however, can be interpreted as a critical comment upon a structure of inequality that insures—particularly in times of crisis— that the greater benefits of production will accrue to larger capital interests, while the brunt of hardship will fall upon the poor—regardless of populist claims from members of the prevailing power structure. When the crisis impacts something as critical as the food supply, as history has shown, the consequences can be particularly threatening.

In fact, differential access to the food supply was very much borne out during the crisis. Even before the ban on the sale of chicken was imposed on February 4th, the price of chicken in the market had plummeted from Rs. 75 per kilo to Rs. 25 per kilo once the epidemic and culling process were underway. 20 After the ban was lifted on February 12th prices were slow to recover, and as a result small-scale producers remained reluctant to bring birds to market, waiting on prices to re-value so that they could hedge their losses. As a result in the “common” bazaars and markets chicken meat, as well as eggs, failed to re-appear. Yet in posh restaurants on Park Street in Kolkata, chicken had never left the menu—even during the government-imposed ban.21 Then, at the famous “Chicken Festival” of February 18th, attended by the city’s rich and famous, including Tollywood movie stars and State ministers, 2000 kilos of chicken were prepared by gourmet chefs and given away for free.22 This as reports were emerging that the state’s industry had suffered an estimated 500 crore loss during the crisis and ordinary consumers were still struggling to make ends meet with the price of fish and other substitute meats and protein sources grossly inflated.23 Meanwhile, at this same festival, Bengal Transportation Minister, Subhas Chakrabarty boasted that he had “never stopped eating chicken even for a single day.” 24

Overall the picture that emerges is an unsettling one. A recent study by the Economic Survey of India has revealed that West Bengal leads the nation with 9% of households in the state reportedly suffering from a chronic lack of food.25 That is: at least ten million people in the state are already living at the lowest margins of subsistence. When to this 9% one adds the percentage of those existing perilously above this grim threshold, the picture grows even bleaker. As mentioned earlier, rice remains the primary source of nutrition for a significant sector of the population in post-colonial West Bengal. In the same Economic Survey of India report it was furthermore revealed that since 2004 (until the time of the bird flu crisis) the price of rice had risen 32.4% across the nation.26 The pressure that these conjoined realities continue putting on the poorest of the poor in Bengal can only be imagined—or perhaps: can only be understood in historical terms.

Hunger in Bengal is not, as has been mentioned, a new phenomenon. Such stark differentials in food entitlements and the fragility of market systems, as revealed during the bird flu crisis, can have truly disastrous consequences. Both, in fact, were central to the catastrophe in Bengal known as the Famine of 1943.27 The recent Bird Flu crisis has delineated, in various ways, that certain historical lessons have not yet been learned. In this sense it also provides fertile ground for those concerned with food security in the state to assess current conditions. The problems that Bengal is facing are immense, and sadly familiar. They are lodged in a structural framework that has deep historical roots. These roots must be fully recognized and brought to bear in any assessment of the contemporary social situation if the goal is to deracinate hunger in Bengal.

In the wake of the Bengal Famine of 1943 (Bengali year 1350) people’s poet, singer and song writer Salil Chaudury, crooned:

We know you well
We see you clear
Aren’t you the dark-skinned mahout
who drives the white elephant?
We died in our millions in the year of fifty
When our mothers and sisters lost all honor
We’ll not take our rice to a false market again
We’ll no longer die of starvation here –
We refuse to die.

The responsibility of this pledge lies not with government alone; it is a promise that must be kept by all of society—the international community as well—if we want to stop playing chicken with the past.

Notes

1. Basically the differential access to the food supply experienced by varying sectors of the population
2. The Hindu, February 13, 2008 “West Bengal Ban on Sale of Chicken Goes”
3. Times of India, February 21, 2008 “No Chickening Out”
4. Reuters, January 25, 2008 “Low Compensation for Culling Hits Bird Flu Fight.”
5. Indian Express, January 31, 2008 “Bird Flu in Kolkata Suburbs, Poultry owners Up in Arms”
6. Reuters, January 25, 2008 “Low Compensation for Culling Hits Bird Flu Fight.”
7. CNN-IBN, January 30, 2008 “Bird Flu Becoming a Political Nightmare for Buddha”
8. BBC, January 9, 2008 “Bird Flu cull hit by ‘corruption'”
9. Indian Express, January 31, 2008 “Bird Flu in Kolkata Suburbs, Poultry owners Up in Arms”
10. See: Das, Tarakchandra Bengal Famine (1943): As Revealed in a Survey of Destitutes in Calcutta
11. CNN-IBN, January 30, 2008 “Bird Flu Becoming a Political Nightmare for Buddha”
12. The Telegraph, “Cry, Calcutta—Waves of Anarchy Bring Army Out”
13. CNN-IBN, January 30, 2008 “Bird Flu Becoming a Political Nightmare for Buddha”
14. Ibid.
15. See: Mukherjee, Janam. Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, Riots and the End of Empire, 1939–1946. Diss. University of Michigan, 2011. Print.
16. NPR’s Marketplace, November 19, 2007 “Food Riot’s Roil India’s West Bengal State”
17. CNN-IBN, January 30, 2008 “Bird Flu Becoming a Political Nightmare for Buddha”
18. Indian Express, January 31, 2008 “Bird Flu in Kolkata Suburbs, Poultry owners Up in Arms”
19. Express India, February 20, 2008 “Bring Chicken Back to the Dining Table”
20. IBN, February 16, 2008 “Chicken Runs out of Luck, Re-enters Bong Kitchen”
21. Times of India, February 8, 2008 “Bird Flu Ban No More than a Joke”
22. CNN-IBN, February 20, 2008 “After Bird Flu, a Chicken Feast in Kolkata”
23. Sify News, February 7, 2008 “Bird Flu: Bengal Incurs Loss of Rs. 500 Crore” (Rupees 500 Crore, at the time, was equivalent to approximately 131.5 million dollars U.S.)
24. Express India, February 20, 2008 “Bring Chicken Back to the Dining Table”
25. The Times of India, February 29, 2008 “Gap Between the Leader and Laggards Widening.”
26. The Times of India, February 29, 2008 “Field-bad Factor: Rising Foodgrain Prices a Worry”
27. See Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines