food – farmer – seeds – protest against Monsanto: Why should Chennai care?

August 12, 2011

The SAGE and Tamilnadu Women’s Collective are organizing  a protest in front of the Memorial Hall (opp. the Government General Hospital) 9th Aug 2011 between 4 and  5 p.m. as part of the national campaign against Monsato – Quit India Monsanto campaign.

— By Ram
I have lived in Chennai most of my life. I am 40+ today. I have seen the changes in the habits of eating, food, availability of food, eateries and choices of food in this city in the last three decades of active memory about food.

When we were kids, milk was available from the man who used to bring cows, tie them in front of our house and then milk them in front of us. That gave way to bottles with aluminium foil on top and later to the plastic sheets in which milk is supplied till date. Most of the next generations born and brought up in the city haven’t seen the way a cow is prepared before the milking or the milking process itself. Now cows in Chennai are relegated to some distant corner of the city. They were considered a nuisance, repeated pictures of western travelers (and back from west Indians) finding cows in the middle of the roads (Octopussy, Hyderabad blues opening shot) as a driving nuisance made us believe that speed in the roads is more important than fresh milk for people. We could have decided many options including each area and neighbhourhood having its own cattle  shed or demarcated area for them. But, we made a choice – we (as in our governments) chose easy to drive roads rather than space for cows and fresh milk in our lives.

I used to see water pandals every summer spring up on the road side, even on the smallest of roads and streets.  Drinking water was so free, you went up to one of the pandals and drank from the mud pot full of water. Our own drinking water was the water we pumped from the hand pump in the house and filtered through a white cotton cloth into the large pot at home. The public water was potable direct from the hand pump. Many times after a cricket match on the road side, we have done the ritual of pumping water from the hand pump and drinking direct from it. Water was free everywhere and safe too. Then slowly things changed, the first water bottles that appeared were only with westerners, whose travel guides told them that they will get sick if they drank public water in India. So, they bought water in bottles (it was hard to find them, it was never sold in every shop) and carried it with them. Indian returning from the west (and wanting to go west soon) started to mimic this tamasha too. It was not until we saw the Pepsi’s and Coke’s coming into the Indian market in a big way that we also noticed alongside, water bottles have become a major sales thing too. Soon, offering bottled water to you became a sing of ‘respect’ and drinking from it, ’eminence’. We always mistake whatever is western as respectable and eminent, even their illnesses and weaknesses.  As a people we made a choice – we decided not to patronize free water any longer, so, the water pandals no longer exist (except in a few pockets) and the most educated and eminent parts of chennai, instead of protesting against the non-potability of their tap water, buy water from ignorant farmers’ lands for a pittance, sucking much needed agricultural water in the process.

As kids, we walked around the ‘gangana-mandapam’ market in triplicane, saw vegetable vendors give fresh vegetables every morning to the customers. There was the usual greetings, haggle, enquiry about health, forecast weather, share stories, jokes…we walked around the entire market, picking something from different vendors, each vegetable had a different vendor from whom we picked things up. some sold an assortment of vegetables that are in tune with the way they are cooked locally, so you always had the man selling manga-inji also selling pacha-kuru-melagu along side, you had the lady selling keerai not selling anything else most times. value added sales at the market was vaazha-thandu being cut in front of you and bound in a vazha-ilai, during festivals you had vazha-ilai along with maavilai available in these markets, the vendor knew what a community bought on a new moon day as much as what others bought during the fasting season…selling the air and the spirit of the market was a familiarity and freshness. With times, such markets and market spaces that enshrined the deeper human fabric of mutual trust and co-existence have shrunk literally. Today, the Reliance Freshs’ and More and its local look alikes offer veggies under bright light, big banner and air-condition. No one is familiar and there is no warmth in the air. The poor son of a farmer who is often in a stop over job before moving to better things in life, hates the customer, he hates the lifestyle of the customer and is neither friendly nor cares for what you and I eat. So, we have apples from washington, oranges from malta, peach from china (wrapped in junk styrene, chinese have ingenious ways of exporting their junk along with food),  rubbing shoulders with probably genetically modified corn from USA and other vegetables that have spent anything between 2 days to 2 months in a vegetable mortuary (cold storage). We made a choice – a choice to patronize such shops because, air conditioned comfort to our bodies and not having to walk around too much so that we can become obese and swap our diabetes counts as we wait for the clerk to struggle to make bills in the counter. We chose easy way of shopping rather than freshness and familiarity.

Being predominant rice eaters, we had the ‘andhra’ trader bring rice samples home, and twice or more times a year, large sacks of rice was delivered in the house after the sample has been approved by the collective of women in the house (and many times in the neighbourhood), similarly, several produce that were used in the house extensively, such as tamarind, chilli, etc. and were seasonal, were purchased in bulk. other ‘andhra’ trader brought home ghee that was made in their homes here in Chennai (their son studied with me in school and i have many times visited their house that smelt of ghee everywhere!) and there were ‘enna mandi’s where you went to buy oil of different needs, again in bulk with your own vessels. (there was also the Chettiar who bought amazing cotton clothes from karur or somewhere once in every two months, he was the only one who used sniff powder and I still remember one conversation in which he taught me the aathi-choodi of avvayaar) I don’t exactly remember when this particular culture changed and how…over a period of time, we have stopped identifying different communities and their specialization of different commodities that we consume. There are no ‘specialists’ and specialist knowledge of food or other goods. Everything is supplied by the same super market and it is managed by people who don’t know what is in the shelf and where it comes from, nor do we care any longer. We made a choice again – we chose to do away with the culture of specialized produce directly from the producer, because, they came at their own odd times, at their own seasons, but, we wanted to have them through the year…we can’t stock up anylonger, we have smaller houses for food stocks that become larger with television and other electronic gadgets. We made a choice to not care for the source of food and lesser purchase and maintenance.

We as consumers, city planners, citizens, heads of families, career oriented young professionals…and in some may other identities seem to have made certain choices with regards to our food and its place in our lives. These choices have rendered us to become a society full of illnesses, diabetes medicine as part of the breakfast is a culture today as much as cancer and heart diseases becoming dominant part of a social catching up. Many of these modern day diseases are termed as ‘degenerative diseases’, that we allow our bodies to degenerate while we are busy doing other things. Other things we are doing in a gusto and how – religious activities in plenty we have time to participate even eating ready-to-consume packaged putrified food in the process, listening to spiritual gurus in air-conditioned halls talk of Bhagavat Gita while we sip water out of packaged drinking water, participating in as many rituals as possible and even donating food as a great act of philanthropy, annadana, and shamelessly and thoughtlessly giving water in plastic sachets along with the food in unhealthy styrene plates (to cut costs you see!), visiting the remotest Gods in small towns in our Innovas and Sumos (guzzling fossil fuel aplenty to keep us air-conditioned inside) to gain some unknown commodity called moksha while we are sure that the stock of ready to eat snack is adequately stocked in the vehicle, we are busy planning large family outings and of course, visit the nearest super-market to buy the much abhorred junk-food, saying, ‘this one time’, truthfully knowing that this is not the first, nor the last time, we gift the men and women of Gods with ready to dispense sweets (and chocolates) that they in turn dispense to those who visit them as ‘neivedhyam’, neither them nor us thinking and protesting….choice we make that has all lead to ‘degeneration’ of the physical. But, degeneration of the mind is not far behind, so, we have new forms of diseases that has made counsellors a necessity in every office, that has made psychiatric service important for schools…of course, Gods and God-men in plenty are required to attend to the degenerated spirit!

A choice to degenerate can be made in ignorance, but, a choice to correct it has to be made consciously. We can either bemoan about the wrong choices of yester-years or choose to make a difference to our lifestyles today. The choice today is the state of bodies and minds tomorrow. We choose either to degenerate further or become part of a healing force to the much injured planet. We have a choice.

“Quit India Monsanto” is a campaign that has been launched not against a corporate called Monsanto, but, what it has come to represent to us in our lives. Monsanto has grown and become strong because of our wrong choices, we were ignorant, but, not now. We today know what others who have chosen to make such decisions have become, America is a standing example (if it can stand beyond another S&P downgrade) of what degeneration can do to a strong nation, the Jimmy Conners and Marie Louir Retten of my younger days and Madonna of youth that has given way to obese, low credibility, global bully, arrogant, insensitive image of a nation of today unfortunately lead by a smart looking black President for the first time in their history. We know that is not the way to go.

Yet, the government in Delhi seems to be thinking that is the way to go – from Nuclear energy, Genetically Modified Food, Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, UID, direct cash transfer instead of PDS, ‘development’ at the cost of ‘environment’…the long list of policies in the pipeline seems to come from the mindset that made the wrong choices in the past. The kind of choices that has lead us astray.  It is as though, Delhi went to sleep twenty years back and continues to sleep and make decisions out of habit in its sleep.

Quit India Monsanto is a call to awaken our food habits, just like Indian Against Corruption is a call to awaken  the ethics in our social engagement, it is a call to dis-engage with the Western thought pattern and life style (or way of life as they call it), to re-engage with our people, our health and nutrition, our knowledge systems and priorities, our communities and their welfare…it is a call from a farmer – activist network, but, it is a call not just for farmer or activist alone. It is for everyone of us who consume and who care. Let’s not perpetuate our wrong decisions and choices beyond our generation, let the children of today not go through the same ‘degenerative’ environment and life style that we went through, let’s start making some changes in our lifestyles, to show we care…maybe Quit India Monsanto is a beginning, to start to make those life style changes….join the movement, join the rally today if you can, make time to say you care.

(reproduced with permission from http://chennai-times.blogspot.com/2011/08/food-farmer-seeds-protest-against.html)

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