Food riots roil India's West Bengal state

Activists from the Communist Party of India shout antigovernment slogans during one of many protests in recent weeks over West Bengal's economic policies.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The stalled nuclear deal between the U.S. and India has new life today. Communist parties in New Delhi's coalition government have changed their minds and now say they'll support the agreement. Domestic Indian politics had a lot to do with it. There were food riots last month in the state of West Bengal. It's ruled by the communists, and for more than a year, shopkeepers were selling government-subsidized rice and wheat on the black market.

Sunita Thakur reports.


SUNITA THAKUR: Fed up with their rations being ripped off, villagers took matters into their own hands. Shopkeeper Hasan Kahn and his family watched in terror as dozens of these villagers, waving sticks and shouting angrily, marched up his driveway looking for him and his brother.

HASAN KHAN: We saw them coming and locked ourselves up in the house. We could hear them screaming for me to cut off my brother's head and hands. When we didn't respond, that's when they started looting the shop and smashing windows and shelves.

Villages have long suspected that ration shop owners were selling government-subsidized food on the open market. Over the last year their ration supplies have dwindled and prices in the open market have doubled. According to Segnoor Wakt, one of the village rioters, this situation was allowed to go on because many ration shop owners are members of the governing Left Party. Given their vulnerability shopkeepers have changed their attitude now.

SEGNOOR WAKT: Now they are frightened. All this time they had the Party behind them so they weren't afraid. Now they plead with us to take rations. "Wheat, rice, whatever you want" they say. This wasn't the case earlier.

The villagers, realizing they wouldn't eat if the shops remained closed, began to return the stolen goods. Ration dealers like Hasan Khan very cautiously opened shop again.

KHAN: The police saved us and the village people are telling us not to close shop. Where will we go for rations? The problem really is that our system has gone wrong.

The West Bengal's Food and Supplies Minister, Paresh Adhikari, has chalked out a long list of ways to remedy the problem. First order of business -- transparency.

PARESH ADHIKARI: Food prices will be posted in offices, newspapers, boards, everywhere -- so that people will know what they can and can't get at ration shops, and what they'll pay.

There'll be some relief for ration shop owners, too. They will be compensated for higher transport and transaction costs. It's a delicate fix to forestall another riot in pre-election season.

In West Bengal, this is Sunita Thakur for Marketplace.

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