Nero, a great Roman emperor from 54-68 AD, was known to people as mad and cruel. But he was also known for his grand and élite feasts which were attended by Rome’s Who’s Who. Now, one such feast is fondly remembered by the great Roman historian Tacitus who in his book, The Annals (XV, C.E. 62-65) notes:
“(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.”
What Tacitus refers to is a small problem that Nero faced whilst throwing lavish feasts to the intelligentsia, the gossip columnists, certainly the political correspondents, and anybody who mattered in Rome. When dusk fell and night arrived, there was no light around for the guests to continue to enjoy the festivities. Nero came up with an innovative solution and how! The prisoners and poor were brought and burnt on the stakes party all around the arena to illuminate the garden.
However, the issue is not Nero. The issue is Nero’s guests. Who are Nero’s guests?
P.Sainath, former Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu, looks at and reports on farmers’ suicide and the clear inequality in India’s agrarian crisis in a documentary titled Nero’s Guests directed by Deepa Bhatia.
According to statistics, in India 60% of people are still dependent on agriculture. 836 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day. Nearly 200, 000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, driven by debt and distress. A number of reasons have been cited by research scholars, journalists and activists ranging from monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops to government policies, public mental health, personal issues and family problems. Yet the mainstream media hardly reflects this reality. We have correspondents for every field including fashion, Page 3, Bollywood, but we don’t have a poverty correspondent. What does it say about our society?
The suicides have increased drastically over the years. In 1998, it was one suicide a week, by 2002 it was one a day. Then in every district one heard of 2-3 deaths. This has increased to 6-8 suicides each day. Now, the government’s policy to compensate the family who lost their breadwinner is also very tricky. The person who committed suicide might be the only working farmer in the household but may or may not own the land. In this case, the family of the suicide will not be compensated. Likewise, women farmers won’t be compensated. The society does not recognize women farmers and women in India rarely have land or property in their names.
The farmers feel that no one cares about them. This was clear during the protests on the streets of Nagpur, Maharashtra in 2011 which is also shown in the documentary above. The farmers feel isolated & duped and there is never enough to eat. In years of extreme hunger, i.e., 2002-2003 India exported 20 million tons of food grains when the farmers who harvest these very food grains were starving. The rate at which the food grains were exported was lower than the rate at which it was sold in India. Interestingly, these food grains were exported to Europe for the cattle. There is a small inside joke among the farmers that their dream is to be born an European cow. This is both sad and shocking and itself calls for action.
Although the poor and the farmers go hungry and starve to death in India, there is surprisingly a huge amount of food wastage. According to the 2013 Global Hunger Index (GHI), India ranks 63rd, out of the 78 hungriest countries, substantially worse than neighbors like Sri Lanka (43rd), Nepal (49th), Pakistan (57th), and Bangladesh (58th). Statistics have indicated that food spoilage in wholesale markets is hindering food availability. For example a fresh vegetable is sold at Rs.10 while a delay in arrival means a decrease in the price and a cut and a huge loss to the vegetable dealer and the farmer.
Likewise, food is also wasted by the Indian metropolis, the urban middle and high classes. A more variety and luxury in food availability has given the urbanized options to play with and discard to one’s taste buds. Grand parties, weddings and the day-to-day lifestyle just adds to it. One doesn’t need to read research and statistics, a mere look at your nearby garbage dump will give you a fair idea of the amount of food wasted.
In short, while one half of the population is starving and dying of hunger, the other part is busy in wasting food to extensive amounts. The loop that closes here is while Nero did burn prisoners, slaves and poor to illuminate his feast, there were a bunch of people who wined, dined and made merry in the glowing light of burning bodies.
I think, now we all know who are Nero’s guests.