The Hunger Banquet (or How to Fix the System for Good)

Imagine you get invited to a feast and when you arrive, at the door they hand you a ticket randomly drawn out of a hat. That ticket determines which of three different meals you will receive at this feast. You, like 15% of the invitees, could get a top-class ticket. You would have a lavish meal with meats, fruits, and desserts seated at a nice table and be served the food.

Or you could get a ticket, like 30% of the invitees, which entitles you to a middle-class meal: rice and beans sufficient to fill your stomach. If you are out of luck, however, you could end up with 55% of the rest of the invitees and get a low-class ticket which would get you a small plate of rice and water which you have to eat while squatting on the floor. And of course, you get to watch the 15% of the guests seated at a beautiful table stuffing themselves with good food.

That is what is called a Hunger Banquet. (See Oxfam America Hunger Banquet.)

I am sure attending a hunger banquet must be a edifying experience. At least some people learn a bit of empathy for the plight of those in the world who have little. We are all invited to the feast of life but only a small percentage of us get to enjoy the feast.

The Oxfam America hunger banquet script starts off with

Welcome to the Oxfam America Hunger Banquet. We are here today because 1.2 billion people — about one-fifth of the world population – live in poverty. 800 million of these people suffer from chronic hunger. Every 3.6 seconds, a person dies from hunger and other preventable causes. That’s 24,000 people a day. You may think hunger is about too many people and too little food. Not true. Our rich and bountiful planet produces enough to feed every woman, man, and child on earth. It’s about power. The roots of hunger lie in inequalities in access to education and resources. The results are illiteracy, poverty, war, and the inability of families to grow or buy food.

That is 24,000 people a day, every day of the year, year in and year out. That is more than 8 times the number every day that got killed on Sept 11, 2001 and for which the US exacted a price from the world which is yet to be fully added up and could extend to hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives! Every single day eight times more people die permaturely of hunger and preventable diseases than that died on that fateful day one September morning.

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Sympathy is all you need my friend, and sympathy is all you need
And sympathy is all you need my friend
For there is not enough love to go around.

Thus sang Cat Stevens. (That is before he converted to Islam and became known as Yusuf Islam, and in keeping with his adopted creed, decided that murdering people was the best way to effect change in the world.)

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Bertrand Russell once observed that the mark of a truly civilized human being was the ability to read a column of numbers, and then weep. Most of us are numerate and literate. Yet, some of us are unable to connect the dots, so to speak, and understand what the numbers imply. We aren’t fully civilized. That is why we have artificial events like the hunger banquet.

Sometimes I think that the hunger banquet idea needs to be replicated more intensively and more extensively. The hunger banquet is designed to drive home a point. The point is that there is inequity and injustice when it comes to a basic necessity such as food. Why one cannot understand that fundamental point without the aid of a hunger banquet makes me wonder. Perhaps we need to be hit on the head with a blunt instrument before we wake up to fundamental facts. Empathy should be sufficient but clearly we are not sufficiently empathetic.

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Today, as usual, I took the local train from Lower Parel to Kandivali. It was so incredibly crowded that I could barely breathe, squeezed between people from all sides. The congestion appears to get worse day by day. The people who have to live with the situation adjust gradually just like the frog in the folklore. If you throw a frog, so the folklore goes, in a pot of boiling water, then the frog will jump out and save itself from cooking. But if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature, then the frog will continually adjust and finally cook and never attempt to escape.

The people adjust because they cannot escape. And the people who have control over the systems that people have to exist in are blissfully unaware of the troubles of the average person. If those who are in charge of the system were to be subjected to the system, they would be more inclined to create a better system.

If whoever was in charge of the local train system in Mumbai had to ride the trains during the peak hours every day, he would be more sympathetic to the plight of the commuters. Suppose that the job requirements were that the chief of the transit system had to actually use the system to get to his workplace, he would have a clue about the system, wouldn’t he? But I don’t suppose that is the case. The people at the helm don’t have to use the system and therefore the system goes to the dogs.

Imagine if the guy in charge of the Mumbai traffic had to actually use the roads of Mumbai during peak traffic hours. I am sure that he would realize more viscerally what it is like for the average Joe Blow to travel in Mumbai. But in most likelihood, the commissioner of the Mumbai traffic police lives in the south of Mumbai and never had to take to the roads without a convoy of police cars that stop traffic all along his route so as to allow him to pass.

When the politicians visit any place in India, they are carefully shielded from the reality of the average citizen. They rush about in their carefully orchestrated convoys and never have to face the reality.

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A basic lesson of economics is that incentives matter. If you can somehow link the self-interest of those who control the system to the interests of the system, a better system would be obtained. I propose a simple incentive structure for the leaders of the economic system that is India. I present the mere outline right now and provide the details later.

For anyone to hold a position of any political power – from the post of a municipal commissioner of a small city to the exalted post of the Prime Minister of India – this should be the law. They have to live the life that is the equivalent of the Hunger Banquet. Allow me to explain.

If 50 percent of the population has to live without adequate nutrition and shelter, then for 50 percent of the year that they hold office, they will have to live with the sort of food that the average person gets and in a shelter that is the lot of the average person. To be more specific, the mayor of Mumbai should live for six months of the year in a frigging slum if 50 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. If the average commuter of Mumbai has to travel in overcrowded trains, then the chief of the local train system has to travel in local trains every day during peak hours irrespective of whether he has to go anywhere or not. If you want to be the Prime Minister of India, then you would have to live for about six months in a stinking hut and eat a monotonous meal of barely nutritious gains and have to do with two liters of water every day and have no medical care.

{To be continued.}

16 thoughts on “The Hunger Banquet (or How to Fix the System for Good)

  1. Venkat Ramanan Friday January 28, 2005 / 1:13 pm

    Atanu!
    Your comments are very true. It’s high time the rulers of this nation know the ground realities! But, do you think they don’t know? in fact they would have very well come from the stinking slums and they became politicians only to avoid the stink and move around in a convoy of cars. do you think any of our MPs, MLAs or the PMs will live even for a day in a slum? it may not be a viable solution for no one wants to live in the slums, not even the people who live there. at least, let us hope the rulers do “something” after knowing the ground realities. First, we need to dismantle all protocols that exist for security of the politicians. They need to be treated much like common citizens and maybe one or two cars are more than enough for them. why are they so afraid of their lives when millions of lives are lost everyday? who will enact laws which desensitise these protocols? will a politician himself bring down his luxuries? do we have such egalitarians? I dont think i can spot even a dozen among the thousand politicians. when will our country improve? Good that you write such articles which make people think of their basic rights and duties. and, am sorry for your travel in mumbai train! in chennai, things are better!!! (hope it doesn’t deteriorate!) 🙂
    Do write more!

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  2. Zenil Friday January 28, 2005 / 2:10 pm

    Hi Atanu,

    Couldn’t help taking a potshot at Islam right..?
    UR whole article was wrt some other topic,but u simply got to make a tangential reference to Cat Stevens and from Cat Stevens to Islam.. What gives boss?? What has Islam done to you??

    Rgds,
    Zenil

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  3. Atanu Dey Friday January 28, 2005 / 4:00 pm

    Zenil, the lines from an old Cat Stevens song are not tangential to the topic at hand — empathy towards others who are less fortunate. But I found it amazing that a person who could write a song like “Peace Train” suddenly start advocating murder. Does his conversion to Islam have anything to do with it? Perhaps. As one would say, if the cap fits …

    What has Islam done to me? You mean other than declaring that I belong to the forces of evil and that my extermination is a religious duty?

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  4. lakshmi Friday January 28, 2005 / 10:14 pm

    Atanu wrote about Cat Stevens:
    “That is before he converted to Islam and became known as Yusuf Islam, and in keeping with his adopted creed, decided that murdering people was the best way to effect change in the world…”

    and when confronted about this statement, replied:
    “Does his conversion to Islam have anything to do with it? Perhaps. As one would say, if the cap fits … What has Islam done to me? You mean other than declaring that I belong to the forces of evil and that my extermination is a religious duty?”

    Atanu, this is a funny/ disturbing stance to take… it is like condemning a person for his faith… If you hace something more than your seemingly biasedviews/perceptions to substantiate this, it will help to understant your comments.

    My understanding about Cat Stevens is only from this website:
    http://www.yusufislam.org.uk/

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  5. Zenil Friday January 28, 2005 / 10:34 pm

    Right from Cat steven’s mouth so to speak..
    http://catstevens.com/articles/00013/index.html
    http://catstevens.com/articles/00236/index.html

    Not that it makes any difference to you Antanu,u r such a smart cookie,u got it all figured out,right??. I ask u again,what gives antanu??Why are u so fucking prejuidiced(and probably phobic),anything I say is not going to change ur stance..

    BTW,rest assured ,nobodys coming to exterminate you…:)-.Take it from a guy who “wears a skull cap with an arabic-beard and arabic-named wives with 14 children living in a slum..”..whew!!!

    Rgds,
    Zenil

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  6. Banerjee Saturday January 29, 2005 / 1:50 am

    Zenil,

    Your comments suggest that you don’t know much about the history of India – particularly Bengal. There is more than a 50% chance that Atanu’s parents/grandparents were driven out of East Bengal by muslims. A bias against muslims is therefore not unusual in Hindu Bengalis.

    To learn more about what happened to Hindus in Bangladesh in 1971 and what continues to happen to Hindus and Buddists in Bangladesh and other muslim countries just go to your nearest public library. Do I have a bias against a religion that converts timid people into murderers? Yes!!!

    BB

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  7. Atanu Dey Saturday January 29, 2005 / 8:41 am

    Lakshmi, you write: “Atanu, this is a funny/ disturbing stance to take… it is like condemning a person for his faith… If you hace something more than your seemingly biasedviews/perceptions to substantiate this, it will help to understant your comments.”

    Lakshmi, please do re-read what I wrote. I did not condemn Cat Stevens because he is a Muslim. I wrote that he advocated murder after he converted. It was his attitude that I did not approve of, not his conversion. Then comes my explanation: that his conversion to Islam had something to do with his change. From a person who wrote beautiful songs, he became a person who was quite the opposite.

    I think you fundamentally misunderstand my argument. It has very little to do with Yusuf Islam; it has to do with Islam. So your reading of Yusuf Islam’s website will not help much. You have to read about Islam. Try http://www.faithfreedom.org, for instance. Read Anwar Sheikh and Ali Sina. You would really make a difference to those sites if you could refute their claims and their arguments.

    Finally, a followup to what BB wrote. He is remarkably accurate. My ancestors are originally from the Khulna District of what used to be East Bengal. In the 1930s, being Bengali Hindus, fearing for their lives they had to flee westwards. They left with what they were wearing. The extermination of Hindus goes on even now. See http://www.mayerdak.com for details.

    BB is right. One cannot but be biased against a creed that has personally affected one’s well-being. Will a Jew whose ancestors were killed in Germany have a soft-corner for Naziism?

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  8. Padraig Sunday January 30, 2005 / 1:53 am

    Sorry Atanu, but Zenil’s got a point. It’s one thing to be pissed at Yusuf Islam for being a bigot, it’s another to blame it on his religion. And you did blame it on his religion: “in keeping with his adopted creed“. Islam doesn’t turn people into murderers, anymore than Catholicism makes one into a Crusader, or Buddhism makes one into a Buddha. There’s been more than enough blood shed by both sides in India since the partition. Like any other ongoing tragedy, it’s about power and fear, not which God one prays to.

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  9. Zenil Sunday January 30, 2005 / 9:37 pm

    Banerjee,you write”Your comments suggest that you don’t know much about the history of India…. “My comments suggest no such thing.I simply pointed out that antanu was prejudiced againt Islam,and which u later justified as “A bias against muslims is therefore not unusual in Hindu Bengalis.”

    I have no problems with peope being biased in their views,u grow up in a community,ur parents,ur friends,teachers all influence ur thoughts. I am as biased as the next guy.I got my own prejudices no doubt.But my education,my readings and the ideas and thoughts that I get from my readings,are supposed to reason with my prejudices. Atanu is too educated and learned to make the kind of statements he make.What is prejudice? A feeling of hatred/dislike/assumptions/presumptions against something/someone without rhyme or reason.[Not the dictionary definition,but i am sure it will come pretty close] .Atanu is prejudiced ,not just against Bengali Muslims or Pakistanis or Arabs..,he’s prejudiced against ALL muslims and the very religion of Islam.He ridicules not just people who has (supposedly) wronged him,but everyone who believes in that Faith. I get from his statements(and I am pretty sure) that he make’s no distinction between Indian,Pakistani,Arab muslims.All belong to Islam and therefore all are part of the worlwide terrorist network.[that attitude is the one that gets my goat,i dont identify myself with the bearded,gun-wielding mullah as much as any other antanu or banerjee]

    contd..

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  10. Zenil Sunday January 30, 2005 / 9:38 pm

    Antanu, Islamic Fundamentalism is a reality.There’s no running away from it.Just like 2 sides of a coin ther are people for and against. I am against it and there are people who share my views. Muslims are not a homogenous community,differences b/w muslims exist ,dont see muslims as one huge bloc,we have a country,a region,a language just like others.I want to be free,educated,work and make a honest living,girls in my family should be able to study,work and be independent. Indian muslims are way behind their conterparts in all these aspects due to a variety of reasons.Lack of education,illiteracy,economic backwardness…Above all these a singular lack of leadership,there’s no leader or party that Muslims can identify with,nobody to guide or provide a direction.And the people protrayed as leaders in media really has no locus standi[the media loves to protray Imam of Delhi(supposedly the sole authority on Muslims) making outrageous statements, or personal of All India Muslim Personal Law Board(an entity consisting moslty of orthodox muslims trying to take muslims back to the stone age,trying to support laws like triple-talaq that has been banned even in Muslim countries..)]
    Things are hopefully changing,young educated muslims are starting social service groups(in Bangalore,Muslim IT professionals have come together to start a forum to do social work).What we need is a helping hand,not ridicule.We need people to see that muslims are a disadvantaged community(for whatever reasons) and given a chance they can rise and be part of the national mainstream. We all got to coexist antanu,u castigating me and me castigating you is not gonna make things move forward.As u said,”Empathy” is the key word…

    When u have time..http://www.freemuslims.org/issues/
    http://www.zackvision.com/weblog/archives/entry/001023.html
    http://india_resource.tripod.com/Muslims.html

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  11. Rick Monday January 31, 2005 / 12:43 am

    Atanu,

    Very nice blog and congrats on Indiblog!

    Cat Stevens and Islam is the more interesting topic – but enough has been written – so I’ll pass on that!

    I had travelled for a couple of years in Mumbai Locals around 8-9 years ago – and I had found them to be so overcrowded that I used to think, how they will handle any additional crowd! I do not know what changes have been done (they had introduced some Locals with 12 coaches at that time) since then but it is amazing that people can still travel in Mumbai Locals! Sometimes I think, it is more like ‘Swadesh’ story everywhere in India – everyone is ready to live without electricity (or overcrowded trains!) – notable exception I found is in Delhi Metro – amamzing stuff!! I wish there are more E.Sreedharans to make that happen.

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  12. Rick Monday January 31, 2005 / 1:14 am

    Couldn’t resist on Islam topic also -specially following from Zenil’s comments:

    “Muslims are not a homogenous community, differences b/w muslims exist ,dont see muslims as one huge bloc,we have a country,a region,a language just like others”

    I fully agree with Zenil on it – I have never had any problem with any Muslim that I have come to know in personal life – be it in my neighbourhood or college or work. But what happens at a macro level affects the thinking (not correctly) and we, as a country or society, need to find solutions to that. And I’m sure even Muslims, say living in India, need to understand that and work/act accordingly!

    “We need people to see that muslims are a disadvantaged community(for whatever reasons) and given a chance they can rise and be part of the national mainstream.”

    I agree with this part also – but a lot more needs to be done within the community before being able to use the ‘chance’ – specially in the field of education, population control and strngthen the moderate part of the religion!

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  13. Anurag Monday January 31, 2005 / 11:14 am

    Well, cud not help saying something on this issue. The problem with religion, any religion, in fact any faith which has a blind (to reason) following, is that it provides a moral sanction to carry out heinous acts. Islam has more than its share of blind followers who will follow whatever the good Ayatollah Khomeinis of this world decree. Intolerance, slavery and inequality is built into Islam as we know it. Was it always this way? Don’t know. Is it repugnant in its current form? Definitely yes. If one were to face reality as it exists, one cannot but brand it bad. Are all followers bad? Definitely not, neither has it been insinuated. But as long as people continue to defend something gone thoroughly wrong they will unwittingly continue to keep it potent. Salman Rushdie had a fatwa on him, for expressing an opinion that was not to the Ayatollah’s liking. And there were a lot of people willing to carry it out. Just an opinion!! Amazing!!! Freedom is primarily the freedom to think, and to act on that thinking. Islamic people have been repressed, by themselves, by the religion of their choosing. I leave the judgement on Islam to you, but in a free society most dictators from the Ayatollah to Saddam to Gaddafi are/ have been Islamic. Coincidence???? It might interest some of you to read an essay by Ayn Rand “Faith and Force: The destroyers of the modern world”.
    PS: The essay is not about any particular religion.

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  14. Eroteme Monday January 31, 2005 / 4:46 pm

    Let’s pack the discussion about a single statement and construct pros and cons for the main stream of thought: Should people accepting/demanding/claiming responsibility for an office be sent through the rigors of what is being managed by the office?
    I suppose this can be applied to all areas of work and management. Though I never applied this to politics (goes way over my head) I had earlier applied the same thing to different areas. Not many people liked me, and I take solace from noting that not many people seem to like Atanu too!! 😉 Since this post is not about my experiments, we shall avoid going there.
    I suppose it makes sense to enforce people to have the following qualifications rather than the stuff that is usually required from MPs:
    1. Literacy
    2. Clear data/information about history of the person (clear is usually a murky concept, but let’s assume its existence)
    3. Has spent at least 5-10 years in the system which they intend managing.
    4. The latest 2-3 years of their past must be spent in implementing an idea or a strategy of theirs or someone’s in an acceptably large/small scale.

    Pretty much like doing a thesis work before being called a doctor of something (surprisingly or not so, a PhD is a doctor of philosophy of/in the subject and to gain or create a philosophy about a subject requires time and experiencing it).

    I remember reading an article about IDEO (www.ideo.com) asking their clients AT&T to use their own product (I think it was Mmode) to find some common stuff, and they found it so difficult to do so. They remodelled the whole thing and it was a hit (or so I read).

    The same thing will work for the MPs/MLAs and the like.

    Any state run on the basis of intelligence, innovation and insight would succeed more than a state which has no clue where it is going or trying to make sure that you have no clue where you’re being taken.

    Why do we call it a democracy if we cannot establish these things and __demand__ that each and every individual who wishes to lead any group of human beings, must adhere to this?

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  15. Myke Wednesday February 2, 2005 / 9:10 pm

    Back in the 1970’s I watched Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show almost every night. The late Tony Randall was a frequent guest — he was always articulate and insightful.

    One night he said that he visits India once a year, which reminds him of how fortunate he is. He said “On my last trip to India I saw a dog puke in the street and beggars fought to eat it.”

    Hard to forget that image.

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  16. Atanu Dey Thursday February 3, 2005 / 1:51 pm

    I don’t think Tony Randall is correct. I have a very good idea of what India is and how poor it is and how poor people behave. Tony is unfairly exaggerating a stereotypical image that some people have of India. Some people get their kicks that way. As Tony admitted, comparing himself to the less fortunate makes him realize how fortunate he is.

    I know that India has lots of dirt poor people but believe you me that they are not animals as made out by Tony’s comment. Among the poor, there is a surprising amount of sharing and caring, often more than what one finds among the rich. It has to be otherwise they will not survive.

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