Food as weapon & the man-made famine: The Hunger Games that people in power play

The man-made famine, like the Bengal famine allowed by Churchill, is a war tactic that has been used in the past and is currently being executed in two countries where the situation is desperate

Food as weapon & the man-made famine: The Hunger Games that people in power play

Abhijit Shanker

The world awaits the outcome of the ongoing spat between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian imbroglio with bated breath. The two powers are engaged in a bitter back and forth over the Russian army’s deployment on the borders of Ukraine. Nobody can predict whether there will be a war, or if the Russian troops will walk the streets of Kyiv.

The President of Ukraine and NATO’s Secretary-General have both urged the Russian Premier, Vladimir Putin, to exercise restraint, though he seems inclined towards ‘Making Russia Great Again’, a trend common to many dictatorial regimes, who promise to take their countries back to their golden pasts.

Speaking of the past, in 1932-33, over four million Ukrainian citizens had starved to death, due to the secret policies passed by the Russian Politburo. It was Stalin’s time, and his decree ran amok among the Eastern European nations. The famine, which caused the deaths due to starvation, was created by Russia, which forced Ukraine to export almost all its crop produce.

The man-made famine is a war tactic that has been used several times over in the past and is currently being executed in at least two countries where the situation is drastic: Yemen and Ethiopia. Very few global news outlets have chosen to report from these two war zones.

Yemen, a country with a population of 27 million, has at least 5 million people on the brink of a famine and another 15 million on the verge of starvation. The war with Saudi Arabia, which started in 2015, has pushed 80 per cent of the citizens below the poverty line, and most of them out of work.

The economy has tanked, and the United Nations has dubbed it the biggest humanitarian crisis in the country in almost a century. The bombings by Saudi Arabia have pushed this food deficient country towards starvation, which has in turn increased internal violence and crime by 63 per cent in the past few years.

The civil war has its roots in the Arab Spring of 2011, when the long time authoritarian, Ali Abdullah Saleh,handed over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had to flee the capital soon thereafter.

The rebels, the Houthis, took control of the power in Sanaa, the capital, which prompted a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, to act against them. This coalition of eight largely Sunni-led states have consistently acted against what they believe is Iranbacked Shiite power based in Yemen. While this may be a simplistic way to explain what has happened in the past seven years, with millions fleeing the country, the fact is it is not supported by western powers, or its immediate neighbors.

Tigray, in Ethiopia’s northern region, has a population of 6 million. The World Food Programme (WFP) claims that 83 per cent of the population is facing acute food shortages. The Prime Minister and the de-facto ruler of the Republic since 2018, Abiy Ahmed, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” Ahmed, however, has not lived up to the expectations of the Norwegian committee. More recently, he has stopped the United Nations agencies in their efforts to provide food assistance and shelter to the population ravaged by the Ethiopian army.

Ahmed blames the disaster on liabilities. This is a civil war which has now gone on for over fourteen months between the Tigray’s People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Army. TPLF was the broker of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea for several decades. In their recent attacks on Tigray, the federal forces have been ruthless, killing hundreds of civilians through bombings and drone attacks.

Food is being used as a weapon of war, and a forced famine is looming on Tigray’s population. Does that make the world bodies like the United Nations and the Nobel Peace Committee accountable? Will this experience feed into who they felicitate in the future? Will a John Kerry fly to Addis Ababa to soothe the nerves?

The ‘food-as-a-weapon’ tactic revives memories of the 1943 Bengal famine. A largely unreported misery, in which three million Indians were starved to death by a colonial master. Acclaimed journalist Madhushree Mukerjee and economist, Amartya Sen have presented evidence to prove that Winston Churchill and his cabinet were instrumental in stopping food supply to the region in the year immediately preceding the famine.

That Churchill knew about the impending famine, and yet chose to export rice produced in India to other parts of the empire, needs to be highlighted whenever we talk about him. Upon being questioned about the famine in India, he had famously quipped that if the situation was so bad, how was Mahatma Gandhi still alive?

Churchill then went on to blame the Indians who were “breeding like rabbits”. May these quotes be included when we talk of the man. I also hope the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is aware of these war crimes, when he compares himself to Winston Churchill, who was directly responsible for killing at least the same number of people that Stalin killed in Ukraine in 1932-33: three million.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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