A team of artists, writers, and researchers collaborate to create a graphic series that demystifies the laws and policies around food, and the food systems that we are part of.
In 2018, two years before COVID-19, hunger claimed 8.82 lakh lives in the country. So Lucky’s question, “So why isn’t hunger being treated as an epidemic?” seems almost too obvious a one to ask. Yet, it is this that haunts you through all 15 chapters of the graphic series on food, food systems, and policies that leave barely anything for the consumption of those who grow it for us.
Lucky is one of the key characters in the series—the questioner—through whom we discover the complex ways in which the Indian food system works. The other is Soni, from a farming family in Punjab. The two undertake a quest of sorts to better understand issues surrounding food in India.
The series tackles real questions weighed down by complex histories with nuance, even as the numbers tell a shocking tale. How the public distribution system works—tracing the journey of grains from farms to ‘ration’ shops, before they reach the luckier beneficiaries; or how midday meals have been increasingly privatised, made at centralised kitchens that do not necessarily prioritise nutrition.
Through it all runs the thread of livelihood and food struggles of the landless people during the pandemic. Not surprising, since some of the co-creators—celebrated graphic artist Orijit Sen, writer-editor-illustrator Vidyun Sabhaney, and researcher Ranjini Basu who specialises in peasant movements and agricultural policy—have been involved in the farmer struggles at the borders of Delhi, and relief efforts during two nation-wide lockdowns.
This series forms Part 1 of their collaboration. Part 2, with a special focus on farming in India, is in the works. For now, however, we are thankful for Part 1, and share the creators’ hopes that it will see multiple translations.
Meanwhile, The Locavore enjoys an email interaction with three of five of the creators of the series, Orijit, Vidyun, and Ranjini. Edited excerpts:
Some of the topics you have chosen to explain through your graphic series, like the Right to Food and the Green Revolution, have complicated histories, which means that there’s a lot to cover. When it came to telling these stories, what mattered most to you?
The series as a whole was imagined as a public education project. Our aim in Part 1 is to put out a holistic understanding of the history of the right to food, the role of the state, the public distribution system, and where it connects to farming, and its recent history. Part 2 will focus dedicatedly on farming in India. These topics are indeed very broad, and involve various streams of debates. However, our attempt was to bring out a balanced, grounded perspective, with as much nuance as possible.
We started with listing out the issues that we wanted to cover, then came the research, and narrowing down the focus of each module. Story angles emerged from campaign material of the Right to Food movement, and the concerns that activists and farmer unions have often raised regarding India’s agricultural development. Given the recent movement against the Farm Bills and its success in making the issues related to farming known to a wider audience, we felt it was important to give our readers a sense of the history of what gave rise to these issues. How did they come to be? And, what role did policy have in making it worse, or better?
Efforts were made to fact-check, and we were conscious of not putting out something that was unsubstantiated. Within the team, too, we often had debates and discussions on our line of arguments. However, we shared core principles that guided us. We took what might be termed an ‘activist approach’ to the subject. To us, an activist approach is a people-centric approach.
India’s food systems are so vast and complex that there’s so much that we aren’t even aware of, and so much to learn. What were some of the things you discovered along the way while working on this?
We went through huge learning curves, both collectively and individually, throughout this project. We already knew some things at the beginning because of the advocacy and awareness work of the Right to Food Campaign—for example, basic information about the Public Distribution System. However, we didn’t know very much about its history, what shaped it, how it operated in different parts of the country, or its shortcomings.
One of our most important learnings was about how policy on food and farming has been created, and shaped over the years. Policy affects the lives of people at a mass level. Yet, very rarely do stakeholders actually have a say in it. Instead, policy-makers, corporates, trade organisations and other actors mould policies to suit themselves. Knowing this history and context offers insight into what can be done differently to achieve food justice and secure the rights of farmers and farm workers.
We are convinced that such insight is powerful and helpful in mobilising people around these issues, and that is what we have tried to pass on to our readers.
Soni and Lucky are central to each of these stories, and it is through them that we are introduced to various topics, from how widespread stunting is in India, to our public distribution system. What went into developing these characters?
Most people living in India would know something about farming and the public distribution system, but likely quite superficially. Soni and Lucky are not unlike that—their characters were developed such that they would have a certain level of knowledge that arises from their context, but are curious enough to want to reach out to others with their questions. Soni, for example, comes from a family engaged in farming in Punjab. Her knowledge of the mandi system, as well as the agrarian crisis, comes from there, but perhaps not the PDS.
We designed our characters to be identifiable, likeable, and come across naturally. We wanted to avoid the ‘talking head’ variety of cardboard characters who keep spewing out information. Soni and Lucky engage in conversation with people they meet, and ask relevant questions. We did consider having the series guided by characters who were starting from ‘tabula rasa’ or even college students who were researching a paper, but instead went with characters who had some stake in the issues being discussed. This allowed for more complex conversations in the story in a natural way.
In many of the stories, you take a clear stance. For instance, in the one about the mid-day meals, you speak about how privatisation has negatively impacted children’s nutrition. What goes into arriving at a certain point of view, and are there people within the system that you rely on for insights? We’d love to hear more about your process and approach to this.
As we mentioned earlier, this graphic series reflects our people-centric activist approach to these critical questions. It is produced in close partnership with Focus on the Global South—a South- and SE Asia-based think tank that has been doing on-ground research and running awareness campaigns around agriculture, food and policies in the region.
Some of our thinking was also shaped by our independent experiences of interacting with farmers at the protests against the three Farm Bills, and from being part of the relief efforts during the pandemic. Food is a politically charged subject at its core, and there is no shying away from the politics that underlie our food systems. One cannot always take a distanced, neutral position on such matters. For instance, the time when we were finalising the modules on Mid-Day meals and Anganwadis was also the moment when hundreds of women Anganwadi and Mid-Day meal workers were protesting for recognition of their work, and striking for higher wages.
Despite the crucial role played by these women in India’s long-term war against malnutrition, they are not recognised as ‘workers’ even now. They are mere ‘volunteers’ on the governments’ payroll. Through their struggles, the Anganwadi workers have also been raising very pertinent questions about public spending, the welfare role of the State, and the impacts of privatisation. We attempted to capture these aspects rather than ignore or gloss over them.
Is there a certain audience you had in mind while creating this series? And at the heart of it, what do you hope this series will do?
To begin with, this series was something of an experiment in communication. The inception of the idea took place at a time when the farmers’ struggle was ongoing at the borders of Delhi. The idea was to communicate these dense topics in a way that reaches a wider audience, beyond the usual activist and academic circles. We envisioned that the series would be freely available, accessible, and visually exciting for lay readers. We hope that it will be eventually translated into many languages, and reproduced in various forms.
Most people know something about farming and the PDS, and we imagined the same of our audience. The response we got revealed that this assessment was correct, as many readers came back with questions, suggestions, and comments. We hope that the series will lead to a deeper understanding of what food justice is among our readers, and continue the conversation to how the farmer’s movement began, and how important the rights of farmers and farm workers are. Both of these are critical in the age of climate change, in which the food crisis is expected to become worse.
What were the joys and challenges of making a graphic series on food centred around food?
One of the joys was certainly digging into the food culture of the country. Though the modules are short and we can’t include everything we have read, I had a great time reading about the history of how some crops came to be grown in India, as well as the various food cultures across the country. The challenges were, of course, how to bring these complex and, at times, dense histories into a comic form. The visualisation was not just cartoon-based or graphic based, but each of the stories was embedded in the context that we were speaking about.
Soni and Lucky travel the landscape of India, talking to people. There was a lot of thinking about appropriate story setting, as well as a lot of visual research—as it had to look natural and, at times, even realistic. For example, the module on agricultural mandis had to accurately reflect how a mandi operated. So there was also a lot of interesting research involved in getting the visual representation correct. For instance, we unearthed an old documentary Our Regulated Mandis produced by the Films Division to get a sense of the mandi system. We also referred to aerial photographs of Punjab mandis taken by well known drone-photographer George Steinmetz.
And yet, drawing, designing and creating the characters and backgrounds was great fun. Since it was all very solidly researched, we decided to take liberties with the colour palette. Working with heightened or unrealistic colours is very much part of cartoon and comics tradition, and we explored that to the hilt. We wanted to capture attention online with an immediate pop of colour.
We’d love to hear your suggestions of other graphic narratives that have explored food imaginatively. Anything you’d recommend?
The Corporate Capture Of Food Systems, The Comic Book Guide To Growing Food, and Raindrop In The Drought.
The graphic series has been created by a team of five, with art and design by Orijit Sen and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, research and editing by Ranjini Basu and Shalmali Guttal, writing and additional research by Vidyun Sabhaney. This has been produced in partnership with Focus on the Global South—a South- and SE Asia-based think tank doing on-ground research and running awareness campaigns around agriculture, food and policies in the region.