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Food insecurity suspicions confirmed - riots follow

West Bengal, India

Radhamohanpur is a quiet village that has faced food insecurity for years. Why did these concerns suddenly erupt into violent unrest on 16 September 2007?

The state of West Bengal has for many years operated the national Public Distribution System (PDS) to supply essential commodities at a subsidised price through an extensive network of fair-priced shops to both rural and urban Below Poverty Level (BPL) households. However, concerns about food security in the region were apparent for years. In fact, food had become highly politicised, with those who distributed it becoming wealthy and powerful, at the expense of those most in need.

When it happened, the uprising in Radhamohanpur – part of Burdwan Division – quickly spilled over into neighbouring divisions.

The backdrop


The National Sample Survey (NSS), a central government investigation released in February 2007, found that most rural poor in northern and eastern India failed to receive regular rations of food. It was evidenced that rural West Bengal had the highest number of BPL households facing seasonal starvation with 23.3% of those household livelihoods rooted in agricultural labour. The NSS further revealed that food distributors were hoarding grain and selling it for premium prices on the open market. Rising wheat prices also prompted APL households to demand wheat rations from the PDS.


The elected Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM), had been in place since 1977. Under this regime, significant land reforms impacting agricultural communities had been rolled out to favour private companies (eg Tata Motors). Such land grabbing led to farmer protests and eventually the State returned the land, though not without suffering loss of party allegiance. The CPM is a cadre-based party with representation throughout villages in significant positions such as teacher’s unions and ration dealer’s associations. It was acknowledged that some of these roles owned the only two-storey homes in villages. Villagers had also reported to the local CPM that not only had regular food rations not been received, dealers had been seen transporting and selling food rations outside of the village.

The PDS in West Bengal has become increasingly burdensome for the government with the cost of procurement, storage and distribution outstripping the issue price. By 2007, West Bengal had a population of about 80 million, with about 24.7% being BPL and unable to afford market priced staples of rice, wheat, sugar and edible oil. Of the BPL households, the PDS was able to subsidise roughly 12%-15% total food. Starvation and undernourishment had become normalised in many villages, seemingly not benefitting from the PDS. A system that failed to deal with increasing incidence of poverty while facilitating a widening gap between rich and poor.


In Radhamhanpur, villagers had caught local food dealers on at least two occasions selling PDS grain outside of the village, and reported this to the ruling CPM. However, villagers felt that the CPM was not only protecting dealers over the years, as no action was taken, but financially benefitting from party donations from dealers’ growing wealth.

The escalation pathway

On 16 September 2007 in Radhamohanpur a perfect storm gathered.

  1. Local CPM earmarked a convention at the village high school grounds – villagers believed this convention was funded by the dealers who had profited financially by selling PDS grain.
  2. Villagers believed the village leader and the dealer were partners in ration theft and sought to formally present this to CPM leaders in order to create pressure to make new decisions.
  3. A rickshaw cycle, microphone and a variety of slogans were organised by the villagers.
  4. Villagers selected the most educated among them to communicate the slogans across four neighbouring villages where food dealers lived.
  5. The rickshaw gathered a public crowd of 20 to confront the dealer, however the CPM was sheltering the dealer to avoid confrontation.
  6. Ten to 12 villagers entered the convention to voice their grievances and were told by the Party that there was no time that day to hear from them, instead they would be heard later.
  7. A District Council member urged the villagers to do what they could as the dealer was inside the school.
  8. Pushing and shoving took over the crowd. Party members were standing behind a barricade and took out firewood waving this aggressively at the crowd.
  9. By this stage, accounts of between 1,000-5,000 mainly male villagers, gathered outside the school.
  10. Local police were called in and people became violent upon seeing the police.
  11. Stones and bricks were thrown at the Party convention and at the police.
  12. The Rapid Action Force (RAF) was called in, firing blank rounds into the crowd and creating fear as the crowd quickly dissipated. The RAF stayed in the village for a month to keep peace.
  13. Neighbouring divisions in Murshidabad, Bankura and Birbhum erupted in spill-over violence.

The event

Widespread public anger triggered by food ration shortages linked to corruption of the PDS sees villagers riot after feeling cheated for many years. Existing tension was evident, frustrations increased with a failure of the state to take action. The national survey confirmed the belief held by millions, of a corrupt system resulting in hunger and a widening gap between rich and poor. Angry villagers mobilised quickly in search of answers, compensation, punishment for the accused and assurances of a corrupt free PDS future.

During September to October 2007 protests in other divisions erupted into violence with dealer’s homes set on fire, homes looted for jewellery, eight arrests and bailed 90 days following, 300 injured and two shot dead by police. At least three food distributors were captured at this time and told to pay fines – unable to raise the cash or in combination with public shaming, they killed themselves.

Early intervention

Opportunities largely leverage decentralised, democratic, participatory and representative models.


CPM had a legacy of distrust based on land-grabbing, theft of PDS rations and lack of response to village concerns of not receiving PDS rations and also reporting dealers diverting and selling PDS rations. Rebuilding trust by the party was essential and requires accountability and transparency measures, eg:

  • ensuring a feedback mechanism exists in each village outside of the Village Leader and the Dealer
  • acknowledging and responding to villagers’ claims of theft
  • demonstrating action by trailing/applying penalties to corrupt dealers reported by villagers
  • anticipating potential uprising and organising a meeting with villagers to address concerns.

During event

Villagers had decided to take action in the form of insisting on change at a formal exclusive CPM party meeting. Villagers had mobilised quickly and strategically by organising a roving rickshaw and slogan campaign to build momentum with neighbouring villages. Villagers were simply seeking for their voices to be heard and to be represented in an official capacity. Measures could include:

  • ad hoc inclusion at time of request on agenda in the CPM meeting
  • outreach to respected village members/council members who act as a bridge between CPM, village leader and villagers so that dialogue can commence in a trusted and safe setting
  • commitment to create a standing agenda item of village voice at the annual party meeting or another forum
  • agreement to ensure households receive rations and to take action on reported corruption
  • avoid a large crowd gathering by inviting the roving rickshaw megaphone to share commitments and agreements, while acknowledging village concerns and the need for change. Also appeal to avoiding the inciting of violence and working together peacefully
  • engage local media to document the negotiation, dialogue and commitments – include testimonials from representative group.


The village may benefit from capacity building in some disaster risk management and peace-building measures, eg:

  • gender sensitisation training given that most of the escalation of events is based on the actions and aggression of males in the community
  • central government checks and balances on state government PDS performance.

Key themes

Government, corruption, poverty, subsidies, unrest, food shortages, suicide.


  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSSP318536
  2. https://www.telegraphindia.com/1071025/asp/opinion/story_8468453.asp: no longer available
  3. http://admin.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Food%20Riots%20and%20Food%20Rights%20-%20IndiaReport.pdf: no longer available
  4. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/955244/We_are_Hungry.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1526662624&Signature=DTJpXM8XuBuScB7gBW0thBs60LI%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DWe_are_Hungry_A_Summary_Report_of_Food.pdf


Food insecurity suspicions confirmed – riots follow