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Forging solidarities via food: Notes from COVID-19 lockdown in India

in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)

Published onOct 17, 2021
Forging solidarities via food: Notes from COVID-19 lockdown in India
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A nationwide lockdown was implemented to tackle the first wave of COVID-19 on March 25, 2020, in India. This was one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, seeing a complete shutdown of all forms of livelihood generation. Many of those could never come back to life. By the end of March 2020, a food crisis was seen developing across India. Stories of hunger and thirst flooded print and social media. While it took a month for the state to tackle the food crisis at an institutional level, various measures at the community level were undertaken to help people survive the crisis. These ranged from community foraging to deeds of helpful neighbours and the internet community. People came together quickly to help each other to fulfil their need for food. The food crisis, and food in general, became a way to bring communities together both on the ground and virtually. Leslie Dawson (2020) rightly argued food is more than nutrition. Food is a social phenomenon that is both reflective and informed by social relationships and identities. In this piece, I try to understand how food becomes a means to bring people together in a pandemic. Taking from scholar Barabara Krishenblatt-Gimblett (1999), here food will be seen as a performance This is because, in the acts of solidarity that emerged around food, food has come to signify performance– particularly as a performance of solidarity. Firstly, because we see that food was used to undertake some doing (here, food was done to satisfy hunger), as well as used as a means to behave (here, as a means to show we-feeling). Taking these into account, I will underline the nature of solidarity – that happened on the ground and in the virtual world.

Data for this paper is drawn from the field survey we conducted in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam in April and May 2020. The survey was led by Assam based feminist organisation – the Women’s Leadership and Training Centre (WLTC)1. I was co-ordinating the survey on behalf of WLTC. We surveyed over 200 women working in a range of informal sectors – like poultry, animal husbandry, weaving, a domestic worker. The survey aimed to document how COVID-19 lockdown affected women working within the informal sector, keeping in mind the existing structural, social and economic vulnerabilities. Food security was one of the focus areas. Going beyond the problems, we also archived coping mechanisms used to survive the hunger and thirst induced by the lockdown, focusing on women across age groups, marital status and geographies.

Food as performance

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1999) notes food as performance, underlining three reasons. First, performances require some form of doing. That food is collected or brought, cooked, and served are different ways of doing. Second, performances require some type of behaviour. There were ways in which food needs to be procured, prepared, and consumed highlight the requirement of certain food behaviour. Finally, food moves from backstage to the front stage from procurement to consumption.

Our data suggested that food was creating solidarity – a performance. Those vulnerable were relying on wealthier neighbours for food as well as community foraging trips. Those behind the screens in social media were using the fundraiser to contribute to food packages. Food was being performed in the manner it involved doing and behaviour of its actants.

 The solidarity context

 I argue that solidarity on the ground and in the virtual world is different. Solidarity on the ground are bonding in nature and those in the virtual world are bridging. Bonding solidarity are seen in close relationships in small groups built on trust and may stress obligation at times. Bridging solidarity, on the other hand, emerges in wider networks. A wider network also implies lesser obligation and trust.

Forging bonding solidarity – on ground

 The lockdown to combat the COVID-19 first wave started on 25th March 2020 and continued till 18 May 2020. This period saw episodes of acute hunger. Like many other states, the north-eastern Indian state of Assam in April had announced 5 kg of rice per month per member under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), to those families who do not have ration cards2. Our interlocutors complained that as adults they can adjust with just rice but one cannot expect the children to eat plain rice more than one meal a day. The state has failed to provide enough food. The state has dehumanized them – reducing them to what political scientist James Scott (1998) terms as “abstract citizens” by giving only bare minimum.

They have emphasised how without the support of other women, within the family and otherwise, it would have been impossible for them to provide food to their children. Those who had a surplus was sharing food with others. In these performances of solidarity, sharing food was important. While most of the sharing happened within the in-group, newer forms of solidarity emerged at times. Like, an owner helping a tenant with food – which usually was marked as an unlikely phenomenon. Community foraging also became central means to feed their hungry children. Wild food, here ferns which otherwise is seen as unpalatable, developed as an alternate local food system which in turn helped developed solidarity and resilience in times of uncertainty. This new food system also opened the exchange of traditional recipes of cooking difficult or wild herbs, which had previously taken a back seat. Newer meanings of the community had thus emerged around food that was otherwise not eaten or given by those usually considered as mere acquaintances. This is because the act of sharing food is a private act and when someone is asked to join in it sends out a signal of we-feeling.

Bali Khatun, a daily wage worker, was panicking, seeing Ayesha (property owner). But even before Bali could say something Ayesha cleared the air saying that she was there to share the jackfruits and not to ask for rent. The rent was deferred to Bali’s relief.

 

Maya Terangpi is a daily wage worker and weaver by night. As a single mother, she is completely responsible for her child. Unable to manage the paltry 5 kg rice given by the government, Maya and others like her started foraging. They went to a nearby forest and foraged taro leaves. For Maya and her neighbours, these wild ferns had been her refuge since the lockdown.

 

Manju works in a local FMCG industry. Out of work since lockdown, she is feeding her ailing mother drumsticks from others’ kitchen yards and wild greens from the roadside.

These performances of solidarity enable women to feel agentic. Emerging from the common experience of vulnerability, solidarity is necessary for workers to defend themselves against exploitative and numbing work conditions. Their ways are marked with resourcefulness, openness, and responsiveness to healing modes that stem from friendships and familial relationships. As historian Peter Baldwin(1990), argues solidarity allows individuals to learn (a) the power of collectivism to challenge the anomie of the current times (b) that they are working for the greater good of their communities, thereby their definition of “self”. Healing and learning is the basis of these bonding performances of solidarity.

Forging bridging solidarity – a virtual world

 To share the experiences of women in our survey, a Facebook community page3 was created titled “Covid-19 and Women: Experiences from Assam”. This was the page description – “5 kg rice. Maybe 1/2 kg dal, 1/2 lit oil, 1 kg salt. How are women living lives, feeding families, staying healthy, staying safe, staying home? We document women's experience as providers, caregivers, and individuals with dreams on this page. Join in”. Along with members of WLTC, I was involved in posting and managing stories of selected interlocutors on this page. While it started as a documenting platform, it eventually developed as a tool of involvement: most of our well-wishers (those who have been helping WLTC with donations on several other projects) who provided funds connected with us through social media. Social media also emerged as an organisational tool as fundraiser calls, reports, news coverage of our work were available online.

 

A screengrab of our Facebook community page documenting experiences of women during the COVID-19 lockdown

Following sociologist Manuel Castells (2015), we see that social media can help highlight acts of solidarity and political action. These ground-level gendered narratives of solidarity, as seen in our survey, are often muted informal political communication. The rapid development in networking and communication technology has resulted in forging solidarity through the internet. More so in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, where physical restrictions are in place. These virtual spaces act as centres of belonging and solidarity. The online presence often bridges an individual to new contacts and networks, particularly through posting, sharing, and liking. There are critics of building solidarity via social media, who term such acts as ‘clicktivism’ or ‘faux solidarity’, but time and again solidarity funnelled in social media have real-world impacts of alleviating distress - more so when staying indoors is the norm.

 

 

A screengrab of our Facebook community page calling for a fundraiser for women during the COVID-19 lockdown

Fundraisers for food packages allowed performances of solidarity, by bringing people together for a common cause. These bridging performances of solidarity were successful because they were about belonging. Like sociologist Melinda Milligan’s (1998) work, these online performances of solidarity were often based on the “interactional potential” or the future community to be built by participants.

To some conclusions

 This piece was based on my association with both the ground survey and the online fundraiser for the informal female workers. I identified the common thread as the performance of solidarity. These performances matter because there is a sense of solidarity that within this convergence of food and performance. There was resilience to manage hunger when the state had failed to provide adequate food to the needy. These performances involving food can bridge demographic and cultural differences. It shows the coming together of privileged classes who can mobilize through internet networks and those who mobilize through the traditional network. It pushes us to look closely at the nature of solidarity arising during COVID-19, which I have termed here as ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ solidarity. This is not to say that these two natures of solidarity are mutually exclusive. They are not two distinct forms of solidarity with different strengths and functions but are rather best seen as different stages along a spectrum.

Lastly, writing this piece was methodologically stimulating. Trained in an ethnographic mode of research, I am used to working with data collected through long-term intensive association with my interlocutors. But as a coordinator for the project, I was not the one collecting data. It came to be as completed questionnaires minus the entire reflective thought process I am used to generating while I undertake data collection. There was a certain sense of disassociation with the data which made it difficult for me to work at a conceptual level. Perhaps the reader will sense this shortcoming. Nonetheless, I worked around it to conceptually make sense two kinds of solidarity at work in our dataset.

……

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Banamallika Choudhury of WLTC for asking me to coordinate the “Impact of Covid-19 on Women in Assam” project, from which this paper is drawn. Our project is grateful to all our partner organisations for resources and funding for the project – Women in Governance (WinG), North-East Network (NEN), Action for Inclusion and Empowerment Trust (AIET), Kokrajhar-Chirang Jila Sanimilita Mahila Samiti, and Zubaan (Delhi). Importantly, we thank our field researchers without whom the project and this piece would not have been possible.

Bio-note: Sampurna is a Doctoral candidate with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. Her doctoral research is around issues of water and land governance, and agrarian relations in the floodplains of Assam. Sampurna has also been part of research activities beyond her doctoral work. This piece is a part of one such collaborative research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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