Feeding off the land

Anuradha Sengupta | Updated on January 16, 2018
The grain and the chaff: Admai Kumruka of Dhepagudi village sifts ragi (a variety of millet). Tribals grow a huge variety of millets in the wild which are rich in nutrition

The grain and the chaff: Admai Kumruka of Dhepagudi village sifts ragi (a variety of millet). Tribals grow a huge variety of millets in the wild which are rich in nutrition

Homegrown: Indigenous varieties of pineapples grown on foothills of Niyamgiri by the Dongria Konds are bought in bulk at the town market. Photo: Anuradha Sengupta

Homegrown: Indigenous varieties of pineapples grown on foothills of Niyamgiri by the Dongria Konds are bought in bulk at the town market. Photo: Anuradha Sengupta

Urban legends: Indigenous cultures—festivals, food traditions and so on—are facing an onslaught from nearby towns

Urban legends: Indigenous cultures—festivals, food traditions and so on—are facing an onslaught from nearby towns

An Odisha organisation is working hard to preserve traditional foods and prevent the mainstream from swallowing up local knowledge systems

Inside a candy pink-and-yellow shamiana, a group of children in blue uniforms line up in front of stalls heaving with different kinds of foods. Tubers in shades of brown, beige and cream; pink and red berries; tiny yellow, orange and red tomatoes; leaves of many sizes and shapes; a variety of millets and rice; yellow and purple corn — the individual kernels gleaming like jewels. The children mill around, pointing to various foods, asking questions of the people manning the stalls.

“Kolia konda, kulu konda… I am writing down the names of the foods I don’t know anything about,” says Mahendra Kumruka, looking at a row of tubers. Further down the row, Chintu Saralka is scribbling with a frown. “In the future, I need the names to identify these foods. Otherwise how will I know what to eat, or how to cook it?”

The children are at an adivasi food festival organised by Living Farms, an organisation in Odisha working towards regenerating forests, food and nutrition security. The festival is one of several that have been held in the past four years or so, as an effort to build a knowledge base about their food ethos among tribal children in Rayagada district, Odisha. “Their food has become influenced by the mainstream — textbooks, television, and what they get in school,” says Ashita Abraham, a teacher. “You heard what they said in the game earlier — the first thing that came to their minds was ‘bhaato’ — rice!” Abraham is talking about the ice-breaker that was organised earlier in the day which had the kids naming different foods they ate. Their answer — rice — made some of the tribal mothers present wince and hide their faces in mock horror. Horrified because theirs is a community that has for generations existed on a wide variety of millets. “Agar mandua nahin khayega, toh hamarey jaat se nikal jayega (if they do not eat millets, how can they be a part of our community),” they would say.

Knowledge systems

This highlights a problem being faced by many tribal communities in India — the disruption of intergenerational transmission of indigenous food-related knowledge which has been severely disrupted due to several factors. One of which is the assimilation of tribal children into a residential school system — most tribal children are sent away to boarding schools at an early age to get an education. “Many children in this area study in boarding schools. While it gets them necessary education, it removes them from their own milieu,” says Abraham. The food on their plates — PDS (Public Distribution System) rice, wheat, market-bought vegetables, an egg sometimes, and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) powder sachets — is a far cry from what they would get at home.

Back at home, they would have a wholesome porridge made of maka (corn; several varieties). Or ‘lia’ — corn popped in clay vessels as evening snacks. Or mandya (a variety of millet) made into upma with vegetables and herbs. Or kosla (another variety of millet), with roots and tubers or gondri saag (a variety of greens) foraged from the jungles. In the main meals, they would have rice, with tubers, vegetables, legumes, wild mushrooms, and choose from several different kinds of meats. Some of this would be cultivated through rain-fed irrigation, some would be foraged from forests.

“Traditionally adivasis have a very rich cultivated, and uncultivated, food biodiversity,” says Salome Yesudas, a nutrition researcher who has been documenting the food systems of various indigenous tribes in southern India since 1995. However, diverse indigenous food systems and ways of life are getting eroded due to several factors — such as appropriation and destruction of their land, forests, water. There is a serious concern in the community over what will happen to their cultures and ways of life if their relationship to the land, plants, animals, and one another continues to be degraded.

Yesudas continues: “It’s funny that the textbooks teach them to identify fruits like apple, litchi and so on. We asked them to name some local fruits. They said, ‘But we don’t know the English names!’” She talks about the meals provided by ICDS which mostly come as powder sachets. “There is a law saying all ICDS meals should be cooked, served hot and made from locally sourced foods. But it is tough to keep a check to see that this is being implemented.”

Living Farms has introduced a project in some schools that will teach children about the rich diversity of local foods. They will interact with farmers, learn to identify, grow and cook foods. “We are looking at reviving local food systems,” says Debjeet Sarangi, founder and director of Living Farms. There’s a huge list of foods to choose from. When compiling field data, the adivasis they talked to could name more than 60 different varieties of fruit (mango, wild cashew, black berry, jackfruit, kendu, date palm and mahua, among others), 40 kinds of leafy vegetables (barada saag, gandiri saag, chakunda saag, curry leaves, colocasia leaves and drumstick leaves, to name a few), 10 kinds of oil seeds, 30 kinds of mushrooms, roots and tubers, and 20 varieties of fish, crab, insects and birds that they could collect directly from the forest.

Living Farms is also working on introducing holidays that are based around local festivals and rituals. For instance, the mahua harvest, which is important for adivasis. Right now, the kids get holidays for mostly mainstream Hindu festivals that have gained importance in their minds. Their parents say the children celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi but look down on their own festivals which are tied to the nature that surrounds them.


“Our relationship with our hills and jungles forms a core part of our identity and spirituality and is deeply rooted in our culture, language and history,” says Jagannath Majhi, a member of the Khond community who works with Living Farms to spread awareness among youth about the need to hold on to traditional food ethos. “Our health and well-being is directly related to our ability to eat traditional foods and continue traditional food practices. These are deeply intertwined with our cultures and value systems, and play an important role in ceremonies, in our songs, dances and myths.” We are in Khalpadar village. A group of women are sitting in a clearing in the forest: talking, singing, exchanging stories. The song is a courtship song sung by women to woo their men. It’s a song attached to a particular time of the year when the flowers of a particular gourd bloom in the forest; the mahua fills it with fragrance and there’s a full moon. “The hills, the moonlight all combine to create a magical atmosphere. No one can resist it, you just have to dance,” says Landi Shikoka with a twinkle. She is the bejuni of the village — the village priestess. Many traditional songs are linked to the trees, plants and flowering seasons, to the hills and forests, and the creatures that reside within. Before the start of the agriculture process for the year, the Kondh tribals worship their deity Dharani Penu or earth goddess, offering the seeds they are about to sow to the goddess first. The entire cycle of sowing and harvest is controlled by Dharani Penu. All the festivals are tailored around rituals associated with food.

Their balanced food system was threatened recently when the land was taken over for plantations by the forest department. The villagers had a series of meetings with officials and with other villages to figure out how to stop the destruction of their food ethos. When officials repeatedly refused to listen to them, they decided to cut down cash plantations and plant traditional crops once again. “We planted dates, mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, jaamkoli (a berry),” says Timoli Kurunjelika. “The forest officials heard about it and informed the police. They came to arrest us. We said fine, we will go to prison for our jungle. But you will have to take women, children, elders — everyone. We won’t eat your city food. You will have to give us our mandya. The officials left,” laughs Timoli.

It took some time to regenerate the soil — damaged by plantations — and bring back diversity. The traditional trees take five years to grow, at least. The women became catalysts for change, going around telling other villagers to replant and re-grow their forests. “This year — from June to July alone — we have re-grown jungles in 35 villages in Muniguda block,” says Sukhomoti Shikoka. “About 6,000 families from Muniguda to Bissam Cuttack have got involved — each planting 10 to 15 trees. Now the nutrition needs of our children will be well met — even when rains are gone.”

Soon, their efforts had improved the diversity of food on their plates. Living Farms conducts assessments of dietary diversity every six months. They had found that the number of families with low scores reduced from 58 per cent in 2014 to 18 per cent in 2016.

If it isn’t broken

The songs sung by the Khalpadar women articulate their interdependence with the hills and forests, their code of life that would never allow unsustainable exploitation of the forest and the land. “The forest is our ancestor,” says Landi Shikoka. “All the elements — water, stones, rocks, animals — they all have a soul, which is to be revered. When people talk about their ancestors — they point to the jungles and hills and say ‘my ancestor is there’. They do not refer to them as dead and gone. They speak of them as if they are still alive, because they are all buried in the forest. How can we destroy the forest?”

“We don’t erode our local food systems,” says Timoli. “The variety and diversity of foods we have on our plates, the government will never be able to provide that. The more we eat the crap they provide, the more we need doctors.” The women point out that the forest doesn’t just provide them with food, but also helps them heal. “My daughter knows what to do for toothaches,” says Sukhomoti Shikoka. “She knows she needs to extract the juice of a kind of shekor (root). She has treated many people suffering from teeth ailments in this and other villages. Her jejema (grandmother) taught her.” They talk about an outsider coming to their village for treating a toothache. “We gave the concoction,” says Sukhomoti. “He said are you sure this will heal my toothache? I said, daat na theek kortey parley, pahaar niye niyo (if your teeth don’t get better, you can have the hill).”

Driving back, an acrid stench assails you about 20 minutes away from Rayagada town. As the small town looms into view, the skyline is overhung with thick grey smoke coming from the JK Mills factory. Along the roads, motorbikes are parked with youth in tight t-shirts and jeans or trousers, oblivious to the smoke and stench. Many are displaced tribal youth. “Many of them may have attended the skill-building institutes,” says Sarangi. “They are taking people out of agriculture and into cities, for industries. The youth join the institutes dreaming of a good future, only to end up with paltry work, many become guards outside city buildings, malls. These people have deep knowledge of ecosystems and how they work. By cutting down their forests you are displacing them. Also, the knowledge disappears as their way of life vanishes. Urban people do not understand the importance and depth of this knowledge. So they label them as ‘unskilled’. And after bringing them to cities, what are you giving them to eat? Subsidised food — poor quality PDS rice and wheat grown with pesticides, procured from thousands of miles away, transported by burning fossil fuels. Does this make sense?”

Anuradha Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist

Published on October 28, 2016

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