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Unique native diet under wane

Nov 04, 2008

Wild greens, rich in nutritional and medicinal properties, have long been the staple food in tribal areas in central India. Modern agriculture with its emphasis on grains and pulses is now badly affecting the health and economies of tribal populations.

Tribal elder Nabbu Supari Tekam in tiny Kolam village of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra loves to tell this story:

Prodded by an NGO, the people of the village in Nimni once applied for BPL (below poverty line) cards, but did not receive any for three years. The NGO then got the district collector to come and see how the villagers lived.


On the day of the visit, the villagers had caught crabs, considered a delicacy by tribals and city-dwellers alike. But the collector, a staunch vegetarian belonging to the Jain community, was appalled that the village was “surviving on distress food”. She concluded that the people were on the verge of starvation and issued the cards in three days flat.

“She does not know how good crabs are,” said Tekam, laughing. “They are also good for health. If you regularly eat crabs you will never suffer from heart problems.”

For the villagers this is just an amusing anecdote, but it is instructive of how differently tribal populations and city-dwelling administrators see food practices.

Greens for better lives

All over the tribal parts of central India, indigenous food and nutrition practices are fast losing out to the market-dependent practices of urban areas. The subject has hardly received attention from researchers, but information collected by ngos indicates that this trend is adversely affecting the health and economies of tribal populations.

“There is nothing to eat in the forests any more. Our children do not even know that forests can give food”

Tribal elders agree but feel helpless in stemming the change.

The information collected in these areas shows that contrary to the official viewpoint, tribal populations have had well-developed traditions of nutrition and health based on the knowledge of the properties of forest herbs and meats.

But these practices are on the wane due to pressures of modernity.

In Yavatmal, NGO Dilasa has mobilised tribal elders, mostly women, in 12 villages to collect information on wild plants that were traditionally consumed as vegetables. Till date the women have documented 76 such plant varieties, along with their nutritional and medicinal properties. They have also resurrected old recipes for cooking these vegetables, and created new ones.

This yet-to-be-published study has thrown up a surprise: staple food among tribals of this region was not grain, as popularly believed, but wild greens.

Tribal greens

Bahinabai Narnavre, a very knowledgeable septuagenarian from village Mandwa in Ghatanji tehsil, said, “The typical dal-rice-roti meal of today was a four-month luxury for us three-four decades ago. For the rest of the year, our food mainly consisted of large quantities of bhaji (greens).”

Switchover to the grain staple, she thinks, is an important cause of rising health problems in her community. “You will find more cases of joint pains, anaemia and fatigue among the women of my daughter-in-law’s generation than in mine,” she said, adding, “grain does not have as much strength as bhaji, so people age fast.” Bahinabai’s own erect bearing and good health add weight to her words.

In the past three decades, said Madhukar Dhas of Dilasa, anaemia has become common among people in these areas because of a drop in vegetable consumption.

In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh in Baigachak region of Dindori district, where Baiga tribals still live in near-primitive conditions, green vegetables are the staple for several months in a year.

Says Balwant Rahangdale of the Nagpur-based National Institute for Women, Child and Youth Development: “The Baigas grow a variety of grains to suit the changing rainfall pattern. But the grain is sufficient to sustain them for only six to eight months. For the rest of the year, especially the four monsoon months, they eat huge quantities of forest greens, supplemented by pej, a local soup made of broken grain or flour boiled in water."

In Manchar area of Pune, NGO Shashwat, which has been working with Mahadeo Koli tribals in the area since 1980, has also collected a database of 40 varieties of wild vegetables.

Green to grain, and the cash lure

Why is the trend of consuming wild vegetables on the wane? One reason appears to be modern agriculture with its emphasis on grains and pulses—commodities that can be stored.

Increased urbanisation and cash dependency also forces tribal farmers to grow cash crops

Kusum Karnik, veteran forest rights activist and head of Shashwat, is quite forthright on this one, “In our area, initially it was we who encouraged the expansion of agriculture and increased grain production. We were working for what we called food self-sufficiency. It was 20 years later we realised that we had only helped destroy the tribals’ unique nutrition system which was far more self-sufficient and sustainable than ours. Now the new generation is so used to the new food that it is unwilling to change.”

Expansion of agriculture, said Karnik, has also increased the workload on women, who no longer have time to go into the forest to collect vegetables and fruits.

Increased urbanisation and cash dependency also forces tribal farmers to grow cash crops. Says Anusuyabai Meshram of Vasari village in Yavatmal, one of the rare people who still protect and consume wild vegetables: “Earlier, farmers used to protect these vegetables, but now they either uproot them even before seeds are formed or kill them with seed killers.”

Some uncultivated species have been hit especially hard by the cash lure. Villagers in Ghatanji tehsil of Yavatmal, said a popular leaf vegetable called masala paan has nearly disappeared as a result of the rise in milk trade because its root is believed to enhance milk production in cattle (tribals traditionally do not sell milk). The fruit of the tendu tree, called tembhra, another favourite, has become rare because the leaves of the tree are harvested for sale to bidi-makers.

Deforestation and replacement of natural forests by commercial teak—sal, in case of Baigachak—plantations, have in many areas reduced the availability of forest produce, including vegetables, fruits and meat. In Melghat vast tracts of forests have been reduced to teak monocultures.

Says Khanu Godu, elderly resident of Chichati village: “There is nothing to eat in the forests any more. Our children do not even know that forests can give food.”

Government schemes related to nutrition and health, including the public distribution system (PDS) and midday meal, which reinforce market-based food habits by providing, and sometimes glorifying food items foreign to tribal diet, have also contributed to the shift in food habits.

In Nimni, residents inform that since the BPL cards incident, nearly three-quarters of the residents have stopped growing jowar millets, their food staple, and switched to cash crops like soya. “Why should we?” asks Daulatrao Dhadanje, “we get 35 kg of wheat and rice every month, which is more than enough to meet the family’s needs.”

According to Madhukar Dhas, jowar production dropped to 25 per cent in Ghatanji tehsil since BPL ration began to be supplied effectively.

Tribal elders in Yavatmal report increased conflict between school-going children and families on the issue of food. Says Lalita Dethe of Rajurwadi village: “My grandchildren do not want to eat food cooked in mahua and jawas (linseed) oil, which we have used for generations, since khichari in their school is cooked in refine (refined groundnut or soya oil).” Many families in the village have reluctantly switched to the expensive refined oil, she said.

In Manchar, children who have spent a few years in ashram shalas, residential schools for tribals, have developed a complex about certain non-vegetarian foods popular among tribals, such as crabs and small fish, said Karnik. Some have turned vegetarian.

Sanjay Gawari, a tribal youth working with Shashwat, is an example. He said, “Our teacher used to say it was a sin to kill and eat living creatures.” It is also not uncommon, said he, for teachers to dismiss wild vegetables as weeds or grass.

In Melghat region of Maharashtra’s Amravati district, home of the Korku tribals, similar conflicts arise in anganwadis and health camps. Rama Maraskole, sarpanch, Khamda, said, “After delivery our women used to drink soup made from sawarya (a local grain that tribals say is very nutritious) and wild greens. But the anganwadi women say this is wrong. They say the women must have ‘tomato water’. We give the kadha (decoction) of the meeri plant to children with diarrhoea, but they say we must give ORS.”

Of the many organisations that have noted such trends, very few have raised the demand that food and nutrition schemes integrate themselves with local nutrition practices. Rationing Kruti Samiti, Mumbai, an organisation working for effective PDS, is one of them.

Suresh Sawant of the organisation said, “Ration shops should lay emphasis on locally produced grains. Local grains will cost less than wheat and rice from other states, save on transport, benefit farmers and also help sustain regional nutrition traditions.”

“The only way wild species can be protected is by reviving people’s nutritional relationship with them,” says Madhukar Dhas. “When people consume wild greens they value them and protect them.”

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