Report on riots and food rights presented in UK House of Commons

DFID-funded research analyses whether riots and public movements helped people secure right to affordable food in four countries—India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Mozambique

By Jemima Rohekar
Published: Thursday 30 October 2014


A report studying the struggle for food rights in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique was presented in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament on Wednesday. The meeting was jointly hosted by all-party parliamentary groups on Agriculture and Food for Development and Debt, Aid and Trade and Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

The report, titled “Food Riots and Food Rights: The Moral and Political Economy of Accountability for Hunger”, is funded by the UK Department for International Development-Economic and Social Research Council (DFID-ESRC).

It analyses if riots and public movements had helped people secure the right to affordable food in the four countries, especially in the context of the 2008 global food crisis and its aftermath. In 2007-08, food prices had risen dramatically, causing political and social unrest in many countries. The report tries to examine whether this unrest, which manifested itself in the form of riots, may have pushed governments to take swift or structured remedial action.

Why this report is important
Presenting the findings of the “Food Riots and Food Rights” report in the UK House of Commons is significant as there is a growing clamour within the UK over the amount spent on foreign aid. According to a report in the Mirror, international aid constituted 1.4 per cent of government spending till February this year. India and Bangladesh were among the top 10 recipients of UK foreign aid in 2012-13.

The report also assumes importance as countries and development organisations engage in discussions over the new UN Millennium Development Goals. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest report on food insecurity states that though global hunger level has fallen more than 800 million people worldwide are still chronically undernourished. Similar evidence is piling in support of establishing “food security” as one of the key development goals post-2015.

It is to protect this right to food security that India is fighting a lone battle at the World Trade Organization (WTO). While addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on October 22, Indian Counsellor Amit Narang reiterated the country’s stand in his statement.

“It is indeed paradoxical that just as we assign a high priority to food security as part of the post-2015 Development Agenda and even as it has been included as a prominent sustainable development goal, there seems reluctance in addressing this important issue as part of global trade rules. A permanent solution on food security with necessary changes in WTO rules, if required, is a must and cannot be kicked down the road,” he said.

Read more about India’s position on WTO-proposed trade facilitation rules:

India shakes up WTO 

Following are key observations from the report about the food struggles in these countries:

Kenya’s maize revolution
  • In 2008, Kenya suffered from post-election violence, rising international food prices and poor domestic harvests. Annual food price inflation rate rose to as high as 27 per cent. Prices spiked again in 2011.
  • Resentment was already mounting in the capital Nairobi and other cities over the rising cost of living following the country’s shift to free market economy in 2002.
  • Government policies didn’t help either. While world food prices returned to 2007 levels by the end of 2008, prices in Kenya continued to rise all through 2009.
  • Protests began in May 2008 and the movement came to be known as the “Unga Revolution” (where Unga means maize, the staple food of Kenyans). Activists and protestors were arrested in many such protests.
  • The government initiated several short-term measures such as maize marketing interventions and production subsidies. These benefitted only the producers of surplus crop. Policy makers admitted that they were driven by political anxiety rather than evolving a sustained response to hunger.
  • The government also failed to curtail corruption and check unfair trade practices.
  • Despite the new Kenyan Constitution of 2010 guaranteeing citizens the right “to be free of hunger”, FAO estimates that more than a quarter of the country was undernourished in 2012.


Mozambique: riots served as warning to state
  • Despite an average annual growth rate of 8 per cent from 2003-08, the number of Mozambicans living in poverty rose by almost a million.
  • Large volumes of foreign aid from donor countries crippled its once-robust industrial and agro-processing infrastructure. The country once again became dependent on primary commodity exports.
  • Matters were made worse by the authoritarian-style functioning of the Frelimo government and its elite supporters. The government announced rise in prices of bread, urban transport and other state-regulated goods and services in 2008.
  • Capital Maputo and many other towns saw massive protests in the streets. Text messages united the common people in demonstrations. The government first denounced these protests as vandalism and then, was forced to roll back the price hike announce policies to ensure food security.
  • When these remedial measures didn’t materialise into concrete results, another popular mobilisation rose in 2012. This time, however, the government appeared to have learnt its lesson.
  • It introduced an “anti-riot exchange rate” to moderate the impact of global price rise and engaged the common public through radio phone-ins to test their response to mitigation measures before their official introduction. Interestingly, it also restricted SMS services to stop popular mobilisation on the day of the price hike.
  • While food riots haven’t succeeded in securing the right to food, it has warned the government against its cavalier attitude towards the impact of price rise and poverty.


Bangladesh: factory employees’ protests
  • In April 2008, workers from Bangladesh’s garment factories erupted in protests against low wages at the time of rising food prices. This strike was widely recognised as a food riot in the context of the global food crisis of 2008.
  • Around the same time, the government introduced measures to stabilise prices and allocate responsibility with public institutions.
  • Research revealed that the protests did not lead to measures by the government but that the government had already started formulating policies to deal with the impending crisis. The report quotes an FAO observation that the country has achieved a degree of institutionalised responsiveness to prevent people from descending into mass hunger.
  • The report also notes that a moderate response to acute food shortage does not necessarily mean that Bangladesh has resolved problems of hunger and under-nutrition.
  • Finally, the garment workers’ protest was understood to have emerged from expectations that the government’s responsive and effective policies should also be established for them.


India’s experiments with food rights campaign
  • The case of India is peculiar. While the country did not experience the volatility of price hikes of 2008, there was a steady increase in domestic prices from 2007-12, irrespective of a subsequent fall in prices post-crisis. By 2013, food price inflation was the highest the country has seen in three decades.
  • West Bengal was the only state to experience a “riot” against food prices. When popular opinion was already turning against Left rule in the state, the difference in prices of subsidised and market wheat fuelled violent protests among villagers. As prices rose, the difference between the two rates grew wider and angered economically better off village residents. With elections approaching, the issue descended into political one-upmanship between the Centre and state government.
  • In other states, however, social movements like the “Right to Food” campaign had begun gaining ground mainly in rural areas. Citizens had begun placing accountability for hunger with the government. Debates around the setting of the poverty line and the Supreme Court’s intervention, often termed as “judicial activism”, also raised opinion in favour of the right to food. The clamour for right to food also emerged in the aftermath of movements for other rights such as right to education, right to livelihood and right to information.
  • All these events culminated in the passage of the National Food Security Act in 2013. Hence, popular mobilisation is recognised as one of the factors that led to securing this right for people.
  • The report, however, says passing of the Act does not ensure security against hunger. It is a step forward on the road to food security.


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