194 million people in India starved for food in 2014-15, while the country increased its GDP by 4.5 times and food grain production almost doubled in the last two decades. India ranks 55th out of 76 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Despite economic growth, India is home to the highest number of hungry and undernourished people in the world. Economic growth hasn’t translated into higher food consumption and nutritional status for India’s poor and hasn’t really benefited the poor in any significant way. Harvest of Hunger is a poignant portrayal of conditions of extreme poverty, deprivation and hunger faced by some of the most vulnerable tribal populations in India, along with the allied problems of distress migration and subsequently, bonded labour. It throws light on the acute agrarian crisis that has gripped rural India, exacerbated by climatic conditions such as droughts and their extreme human consequences. It also examines administrative inaction and lack of support that transforms ordinary village folk into footloose casual labourers and distress migrants, ultimately trapping them in a vicious cycle of debt and bondage.
The Film’s appeal for a contemporary young audience in terms of aesthetics and format
The film is a little slow and content-heavy and will require some level of concentration from the audience in the beginning. Over time the film will grow on the audience and some parts may have a deep impact on a young audience.
Background Knowledge: Issues of history, culture or specific mores which need to be explained to a young audience
There are no major background issues that need to be explained to the audience. The facilitator may however engage in sensitization exercises with the audience prior to the screening so that the audience can reflectively engage with some of their own understanding of the poor and critically examine any biases that they may have. A discussion on unequal distribution of the fruits of development and particular vulnerabilities of Scheduled Tribes may also be useful.
This documentary traces the aftermath of the drought that gravely impacted the district of Bolangir in Odisha, resulting in large-scale hunger, poverty, and hence, distress migration of farmers and agricultural workers. The film, shot and released in the early 2000s, deals with issues of hunger and food security, coincidentally at a time when activists of The Right to Food Campaign began a movement demanding the constitutional Right to Food. The campaign was a result of some of the problems discussed in the film such as situations of chronic hunger and undernourishment amongst large sections of the Indian poor, the wastage of millions of tonnes of food grains vis-a-vis storage and transportation as well as State apathy and inaction in areas affected by drought. The film looks at the impact of hunger, poverty and loss of livelihoods on the lives of those most deeply affected by the droughts, the labourers and agriculturalists. Not only do most of them end up depending on money-lenders for loans, but they are also forced to migrate to far-off places such as Andhra Pradesh to work in brick kilns to pay off the debt. Entire families migrate, are exploited by contractors, paid much below minimum wage rates and forced to live in situations of neo-bondage, initiating a vicious and unrelenting cycle of debt, migration, bonded labour, child labour, blatant exploitation and rampant corruption. Lacking formal education, support and financial assistance, the average labourer accepts the situation and is helpless in the face of larger and more interconnected networks that keep this cycle ongoing. The most glaring irony lies in the fact that those who bear the biggest responsibility for providing food for the nation are the ones who have nothing to fill their stomachs with each day.
Themes for Classroom Discussion
- The issue of hunger and under-nutrition amongst the poor can be one of the themes for discussion. How can hunger be eliminated, and what should be the role of the state for inclusive development? This may be located in larger debates about how the gains of economic development have been distributed, who has benefited from growth and how marginalized communities such as adivasis have faced neglect and exclusion, leaving them vulnerable.
- The documentary also brings to the forefront the issue of large-scale distress migration and exploitative systems of bonded labour which could be used to engage students. Students are often not aware of the harsh realities beyond their cities and urban spaces and have misconceptions about the work opportunities for the poor in sites such as brick kilns and construction sites. The documentary could be used to provoke more thought and empathy (not sympathy) towards the suffering and injustices faced by fellow human beings.
- The audience may be urged to think about deep-rooted corruption that exists in administrative systems and also to interrogate individual complicity in perpetuating corrupt practices. This may be juxtaposed with ideas of equality, ethics, transparency and justice.
Additional Pre-Viewing Information (social, ethical, cultural) and Resources
Facilitators should acquaint themselves with debates around hunger, food security and the Right to Food. It would also be helpful to understand the larger picture with respect to models of economic development; the debates between economists Amartya Sen/Jean Dreze and Jagdish Bhagwati/Arvind Panagariya on issues such as the path to economic growth will be particularly interesting. For more information on processes of agrarian distress and distress migration, the work of P. Sainath and Jan Breman will be illuminating.
Mander, Harsh. 2012 Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger. Penguin India. New Delhi
Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya. 2014. Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Penguin. London
Breman Jan. 2012. Outcast Labour in Asia: Circulation and Informalization of the Workforce at the Bottom of the Economy. Oxford University Press.
Sainath, P. 2000. Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Penguin. New Delhi.
Suggestions for Deepening Understanding – Materials for use post the viewing
A large corpus of literature exists on food issues in India, especially after the year 2000. Students could be encouraged to engage with the Right to Food Campaign and read academic articles in leading journals like the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). They can also watch other documentaries and films dealing with similar issues such as Republic of Hunger by Al Jazeera and Nero’s Guests by Deepa Bhatia.
Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. 2015. State Food Provisioning as Social Protection: Debating India’s National Food Security Law by Harsh Mander.
Key Learnings and Follow up Activities
- The documentary throws light on situations of extreme poverty, hunger, deprivation and the exploitative systems of distress migration and bonded labour. Students may be encouraged to visit places within their cities where large populations of migrants live such as slums and construction sites, and to understand their lives and their access to food and other basic services like education, health care, sanitation etc. They could do a resource map of the region that they visit.
- Students can make photo essays of the people they speak to and the areas they visit. This photo story by P.Sainath on Visible Work, Invisible Women – Bricks Coal and Stone may be inspirational for students.
- Students may also engage with homeless populations in the city and do a project on writing life histories of people on the other side of the socio-economic divide. An assignment to write the story of one individual who has migrated to the city to flee poverty and deprivation would greatly increase students’ understanding of the issue. Discussions of the stories in class would lead to collective reflection and much deeper understanding of the complex of issues around Hunger in India.