Popular actions, State Reactions:The moral and political economy of food in India

Can popular mobilisation activate accountability for hunger? In 2012, a group of researchers set out to explore this question through field research in four countries: Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. The research was framed in ideas about a contemporary ‘moral economy’ – which when breached, would lead people to mobilise – either in the form of riots, or as movements for the right to food, thus activating state responses.

In recent years, sharp rises in world food prices resulted in price ‘spikes’ in 2008 and 2011. Yet the impacts of such spikes have not been interpreted unanimously. Higher food prices are assumed to be positive for farmers, yet richer farmers tend to benefit more than poorer ones. Policies to hold the price of basic commodities are assumed to help the urban consumers at the cost of the rural producers.
Research confirms that these price rises have been sources of social unrest. Increasingly, weak democracies are vulnerable to riots, and the links between global price spikes and social unrest is getting stronger as market integration and globalisation arguably limit the policy levers for governments. However, we cannot assume that social unrest is directly rooted in hunger – protests and popular mobilisation often feature other grievances including low wages, rising fuel prices and corruption. One might suggest that motivations for popular mobilisation lie in a contemporary ‘moral economy’; a consensus that people have a right to basic needs, and the state has a responsibility to protect such rights.

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