India Interior

Back to the roots, literally

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on February 08, 2020 Published on February 07, 2020

Going back to traditional foods could reduce malnutrition and promote livelihood options

When an initiative for sea buckthorn cultivation in the high-altitude, cold desert ecosystems of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh was launched, the first to benefit were women. Handicapped by the heavy snowfall that cut them off from the rest of the country for six months in a year, the lack of sustainable livelihood options meant no regular income for the women living here. But sea buckthorn, a shrub that grew wild on the banks of the Spiti river, opened new windows to their world.

Promoted by the Centre’s environment ministry and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the project that has transformed the lives of women is based on a technology developed by the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), a wing of DRDO. It turns sea buckthorn, the bright orange wild berries available in the region, into a popular beverage.

Although Himalayan faith healers have been using the vitamin and mineral-rich sea buckthorn for its medicinal properties for decades, DIHAR’s scientific innovations and global research proving its healing powers for diabetes and high blood pressure has helped make this fruit a sustainable source of economic empowerment.

In the last 10 years, berry collections have more than doubled and incomes have quadrupled. In fact, even the dried leaves of these berries are now sold for ₹300 a kg.

Just as the locally grown sea buckthorn transformed lives in Spiti, it is the yongchak tree that has boosted fortunes in Manipur. Also known as bitter beans, just four to five of the yongchak pods sell for ₹100. With a tree producing more than 15,000 pods in a season, it can provide income of over ₹1.5 lakh. Planting yongchak trees gained currency not just for its nutritional value, but also for its anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic medicinal properties.

Interestingly, yongchak saplings are gifted to daughters when they marry, although dowry does not exist in Manipur. Considered an investment to help their daughters tide over any economic misfortune, the trees provide an assured regular income once they bloom in about five years.


Business of Taste, the recent publication by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) under its First Food series of books, documents such interesting facts and includes over 100 recipes sourced from local biodiversity. It also underlines how the use of local resource in creating opportunities for livelihood promotion is not just good for the communities but also for conservation of natural resources. It has been seen that when livelihoods of local communities are directly linked to conservation, both prosper. “But communities will stop caring for this resource if they fail to earn from it. With this, we will lose the taste of biodiversity from our plates. To prevent this, we need to put a value to it,” says Sunita Narain, director general, CSE.

Millet magic

Not putting enough value on local plants is one of the reasons why malnourishment and anaemia continue, especially among rural women. In Karnataka, the Soliga tribes known for their traditional knowledge and food culture still suffer from malnutrition and other health problems. Research shows that the Soligas suffer from sickle cell anaemia.

According to 75-year-old Puttamma, a Soliga elder, much of this is due to a significant change in the lifestyle and food system of the younger generation. Even her daughter-in-law doesn’t follow their traditional food habits.

“She’s seven months pregnant and has to take iron supplements every day because she is severely anaemic. I advise her to eat anagone soppu, a leafy vegetable, which is an antidote for anaemia but she doesn’t listen. This was a regular part of our diet and we never faced such problems,” she points out.

Puttamma is right. The medicinal properties of this water spinach have been scientifically proven. It fights anaemia, night blindness and jaundice. It is also advised for lactating mothers.

According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4), about 68 per cent of tribal women are anaemic. Plants like anagone soppu, also known as kalmi saag, are a good, low-cost way to tackle anaemia, particularly as the plant can be found growing wild like a weed along river banks and in paddy fields in South India and West Bengal.

Anaemia arising from malnutrition can also be brought down by millet. Known for its properties to combat malnutrition, millet can be grown in most parts of the country.

Considering India is home to 194.8 million malnourished people and nearly every third child in India is undernourished (NFHS 4), there is a need to promote traditional food customs and practices, says Vibha Varshney, who has researched and conceptualised the book.

For example, the consumption of Sikiya, a variety of wild millet, if encouraged by the government, could address malnutrition in a sustainable manner. Its ability to do so has been seen among the Baiga tribe.

In Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, Sikiya was an essential part of their traditional food habits for generations.

They faced less food insecurity as long as Sikiya, used to prepare kheer (millet pudding), was a part of their diet. But the changing agricultural practices of Baigas are leading to the disappearance of millet.

As more families abandon multi-cropping and grow arhar (pigeon pea), Sikiya has dropped out of their kitchens. Not only have the younger tribal generations not heard of Sikiya, they have never eaten it. But, as the book recommends, if Sikiya can be added to the list of millets being promoted by the Central government as “nutri cereals”, this will soon be back on the plate and help reduce malnutrition.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on February 07, 2020

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