A FIVE-DAY food festival, the brainchild of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, meant to celebrate Bengali cuisine globally and provide farmers a platform for their produce, has come in for criticism from the Opposition, which has termed it “hypocritical” and an “insult” for a state where poverty and financial crisis have often resulted in many not having enough to eat.
The ‘Ahare Bangla’ food festival, held at the Milan Mela grounds in Kolkata from October 21 to October 25, saw hundreds turning up.
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Organised by the state animal resource development department, the event saw four state organisations, 23 sweet shops and 20 restaurateurs participating. The festival is now in its second year and has an international outreach with stalls from Bangladesh, China and Russia participating. “The queues stretched on endlessly. A total 103 food counters served more than 550 items. It was an incredible opportunity for the people to get a taste of classic Bengali dishes alongside new items that they had never tried before,” said Animal Husbandry Minister Swapan Debnath.
The festival saw a variety of items — from traditional bhapa ilish to emu steaks. While traditional vegetarian dishes were highlighted on October 22, eggs were the delicacy on October 24 and fish on October 25.
While the government has been ecstatic at the reception of the event, the Opposition less so. It has alleged that the festival was an “unnecessary squandering of tax payers’ money” and an “insult” to the poor, who cannot even get enough to eat.
Ahead of the Assembly elections earlier this year, the ruling Trinamool Congress was confident of its ‘“rice politics” — extending the scope of the National Food Security Act to reach out to 6.5 crore people instead of 3.5 crore (over 70 per cent of the state’s population). The Bengal famine of 1943, consequent cases of what the government euphemistically refers to as “hunger deaths” or death due to “chronic ailments neglected in the past” have entrenched hunger as a vital issue during elections.
A myriad representation of hunger by artists ranging from Chittaprosad to Somnath Hore have formed the iconography for hunger in the post-colonial Bengal, which continues today. Mamata herself is not unaware of this. At rallies, she is often introduced as the ‘anna data’ — goddess of food — by her party members. It was no accident that the new state secretariat was named Nabanna, after Bijon Bhattacharya’s play on famine.
For the Left and Congress, the ‘Ahare Bangla’ festival has proven an ideal platform to hit out at Mamata. Left cadres had hit the street, protesting the “wastage of government funds” through its ‘Anahare Bangla’ (Bengal starving) programme. A day before the inauguration of the food fest, Left leaders had organised a protest that defaced the venue’s gate with posters highlighting starvation in Bengal and deaths due to malnutrition in the tea gardens.
“The government should give priority to issues like unemployment, factory lockouts, dengue outbreaks and not organise a food festival. It is an insult to those who don’t get enough to eat,” said Left leader Sujan Chakraborty.
The Congress, on the other hand, has alleged that the fest was a “gimmick”. Party president Adhir Ranjan Chowudhury said: “It seems Banerjee is mocking the common people. In a state where farmers do not get paid for their crops and a lot of people cannot buy two square meals a day, what significance does a food festival hold?”