Monday, January 22, 2018

The street as a potato

The street is an eternal shapeshifter. It transforms quickly, urgently, and then collapses back into its grey, rough stillness at nightfall.

It turns into a theatre when a group of people start performing an act. It turns into an art gallery when people paint or draw rangoli designs around the time of festivals. Sometimes pictures of gods are drawn and it even turns into a sacred site.

Very often, it also turns into a site of contested power. Indeed, nowhere is power contested and victory rammed home as forcefully as it is on the street. Look around and find in plain sight several clues as to who can seize control over the street and pays the least price financially and emotionally. However, people who are not powerful also use the streets in creative ways, whether or not they're allowed to.

Recently, some people expressed their dissatisfaction with the state government by dumping great sackfuls of potatoes on the streets of Lucknow. One of the dumping spots was on a road leading to the chief minister Yogi Adityanath's residence.

This dumping of potatoes was a pointer to the plight of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest potato producers in the country. The cost of production and storage is higher than the price at which the state offers to buy the crop from farmers.

This isn't the first time farmers have dumped crops in sheer frustration and as a means of protest. Potato farmers in Punjab had dumped their produce on the highway last year, and earlier, in 2011 too. But this may be the first time a state government has responded with aggression rather than solicititude.

The Yogi government seemed to view the potatoes on the road as a personal insult and a consiparacy. The state police swung into action to find the 'miscreants'. Police officials reportedly tapped 10,000 phones, viewed hours of CCTV footage and finally arrested two men, accusing them of trying to 'defame' the state and of being linked to the opposition party.

It is funny that a government should be so shaken by a pile of potatoes lying about forlorn on the road. If indeed it was just a case of two men playing political pranks, and if potato farmers are not facing any sort of crisis, then where was the harm in letting the piles be? The poor and hungry (and there are millions of them) may have taken some away. Stray cattle (of which there are also a great many) might have eaten some. At best, the state could simply have sent out a team to clear the defamatory pile. It would have been a lot cheaper than taking police personnel away from their actual job – crime investigations, filing and following up on FIRs, ensuring faster justice through the lawcourts, patrolling and so on. Those defamatory potatoes in Lucknow have cost the taxpayer very dear.

At any rate, the state responded to potatoes on Lucknow roads with alacrity but pointedly ignored the potatoes dumped along on village roads. Other newspaper report suggests that in villages too, farmers have been dumping the crop, letting potatoes rot where they lay. Cold storage and transport Are too expensive and the state government had done precious little to help them avoid huge losses. None of those farmers are being especially evasive about who they are. In fact, I'm guessing they wouldn't mind coming to the capital city to dump a few more sackfuls. The only thing stopping them is the cost of a ride into town.

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