By Milinda Ghosh Roy
Kolkata, Oct 28 (IANS) It was meant to appeal to the citizens’ taste buds with a mindboggling display of local, Oriental and Western dishes under one roof. While the gourmands did have a ball, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s pet food festival also triggered a political slugfest in the volatile eastern state.
The five-day “Aahare Bangla” food festival — a brainchild of the Chief Minister, focused on presenting Bengali delicacies to the world and also provide the state’s farmers a platform for their agricultural products — saw huge footfall at the Milan Mela ground.
People from all walks of life were seen gorging on a wide array of items from the local favourite ‘ilish bhapa’ (baked hilsa fish) to the emu steak delicacy from October 21 to 25.
Organised by the state Animal Resource Development Department, the culinary extravaganza roped in 20 renowned restaurateurs, four state government organisations and 23 sweet shops.
The festival, now in its second year, had an international outreach with stalls from Bangladesh, China and Russia coming up at the premises.
A special zone, comprising seven stalls, showcased the theme food for each day of the festival. If October 22 highlighted traditional Bengali vegetarian recipes, the next day put the limelight on the colonial effect on Bengali cuisine. Lip-smacking platters of eggs (October 24) and fish (October 25) also received pride of place.
“There were serpentine queues of food lovers on all five days. The amount of enthusiasm shown by the people is overwhelming. ‘Aahare Bangla’ has been a grand success,” said an exuberant Animal Husbandry Minister Swapan Debnath.
“A total of 103 food counters served more than 550 items under one roof. It was a fantastic opportunity for the people to get a sumptuous taste of classic Bengali food as well as try out something new,” he said.
But the way to the heart is not always through the stomach, gauging by the reaction of the opposition parties to “Ahare Bangla”. They found the idea of a food festival by the government “unnecessary”, “squandering of tax payers’ money” and an “insult” to the large number of poor people who cannot afford two square meals a day.
Mocking the festival, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, organised a “Anahare Bangla” (Bengal Starving) protest programme. The Left Front cadres hit the streets protesting against the “wastage of government funds”.
A day before the inauguration of the food fest, Left leaders organised a protest rally that defaced the venue’s gate with posters highlighting starvation in the state and deaths due to malnutrition in the tea gardens.
“The West Bengal government should prioritise issues like unemployment, factory lockouts and the dengue outbreak throughout the state; instead, their focus is on organising a food festival. This is an insult to the majority of people living here,” Left Front legislature party leader Sujan Chakraborty told IANS.
He claimed their symbolic protests against the food fest throughout the state received “significant and spontaneous” support as the majority of people in the districts are fighting poverty.
Another prominent opposition party, the Congress, called the fest a “gimmick” and dubbed it “hypocritical and tyrannical” at a time the state was going through an acute financial crisis.
“It seems Banerjee is mocking the common people. In a state where farmers do not get paid for their crops and a lot of people cannot buy two square meals a day, what significance does a food festival hold,” state Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury asked while speaking to IANS.
Chowdhury also questioned the fruitfulness of the festival in terms of popularising Bengali cuisine on the world stage, saying the government never participates in international food festivals organised elsewhere.
“Bengal never participates in international food festivals and tourism fairs, like the one held in Delhi last month,” he said.
(Milinda Ghosh Roy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)