I went to jail for the first time in June 2000, in protest against the Indian central government’s decision to curb subsidies for foodgrains under the public distribution system and replace them with targeted programmes. I had just started work as a community organiser in rural areas of Chandrapur district, in Maharashtra, and among the many new words I learnt was haadok (skeleton-like). The villagers would say: ‘Haadok suru ahe ji’ (The month of bones is upon us). This meant there were no opportunities for wage labour available in the vicinity, that there was no food in the houses, and people’s haade (bones) were beginning to show. Since then, things in Chandrapur, my home district, have changed on the surface – instead of starving in the villages, people migrate elsewhere in hordes, seeking work from unscrupulous contractors and toiling under inhuman conditions. ‘Haadok’ has since been replaced by the vocabulary of seasonal migration and exploited labour.
In 2013, India passed the National Food Security Act, a law conceived of, drafted and advocated by activists. It ensured a certain amount of foodgrain to poor families, mid-day meals to pre-school children and at anganwadi centres (mother and child care centres), as well as nourishment for the elderly, single women, dependents, and pregnant and nursing mothers. It was an important step forward, but has failed to achieve adequate and sustainable results. In 2010, Shramik Elgar, the organisation I was working with, did an extensive report on the public distribution system in Chandrapur. The study exposed massive inefficiencies and corruption – shopkeepers stealing from people and selling grain on the open market, and poor families struggling to get ration cards. There were also other problems, such as that mid-day meal cooks had not been paid for months and food coupons had not been distributed under the assured employment scheme to labourers on several work sites. Even the introduction of Aadhaar, India’s biometric identification system, often failed to ensure effective distribution of grains to ration card holders and other intended beneficiaries. As a country, India has not moved beyond guaranteeing families in need five kilos of grain, and a few kilos each of wheat and sugar (at subsidised rates) per month.
Last year, the National Family Health Survey reported that 36 percent of Indian children under the age of five are stunted and over 60 percent of children aged between 5 and 59 months suffer from anaemia. Nearly half of Chandrapur’s children under the age of five are severely underweight. Three-fourths of children aged 6 to 59 months are anaemic with a hemoglobin count of less than 11.0 grammes per decilitre, and more than half the women aged from 15 to 49 years are anaemic with a count of less than 12.0 grammes per decilitre. Overall in 2019-20, Chandrapur performed worse on these indicators than the state average, and worse than it did in the last NFHS survey, conducted in 2015-16.
Food and collective memory
Food culture is often a very local and intimate experience, but it is also shaped by a host of external laws, state policies and bureaucratic governance. People’s ability to grow, forage, sell, buy, eat and share food can hardly be divorced from state interventions. For instance, the government’s emphasis on subsidising paddy and wheat cultivation and the large-scale distribution of cereals through India’s ration system has impacted food consumption patterns. Ten years ago, whenever I visited Chandrapur’s villages on blazing summer days, I would invariably end up drinking jwarichi ambil, a tasty, salty gruel of sorghum fermented overnight and consumed from large bowls. “It will cool your stomach,” the women would say with a smile while pouring me yet another ladleful. Drinking lots of ambil and keeping a raw red onion in your pocket were considered time-tested ways to beat dehydration. Now, sorghum is hardly grown in the district, and so ambil is almost a rarity. It is a warning bell when people start ‘remembering’ a food or drink: it means they are no longer consuming it.
There are no easy answers to the food insecurity of the poor in rural districts such as Chandrapur.
I have seen certain foods slip away quietly from rural kitchens. Matka roti or laam poli used to be prepared almost exclusively by Dalit women in villages in Maharashtra. Wheat flour atta, kneaded for hours with large quantities of water, made a bubbly dough of a thin consistency. An earthenware pot would be placed upturned on a wood-burning stove, fired from underneath. Two women sat on either side of the pot. One woman took the thin rolled-out roti on her forearm and spread it expertly on the upturned pot; the other pried it loose after a few seconds of cooking, folded it and put it aside. Laam poli has largely disappeared from the countryside only to resurface in the city as a much sought-after roadside delicacy.
Changes in Chandrapur’s agricultural landscape
How can one begin to talk about food without talking about the forests and wildlife and coal mines that make up the landscape of this district? A few years ago, I was with a group of women in a meeting with the Chief Conservator of Forests for Chandrapur. There had been two incidents within ten days where farmers or farm labourers had been killed by tigers. And just before that, a child had been dragged away by a leopard right before her father’s eyes. The villagers were in mourning, terrified and angry.
In that meeting, Thakre, an older woman whose family owns five acres of land, said, “There was a time when I grew all kinds of lentils in my fields – urad, toor, lakhori – but now I leave the land bordering the forest fallow. I grow rice in the kharif season [June to October], barely enough to eat, hardly any to sell. It is nearly impossible to grow anything in the rabi season [November to April] because of these tigers, leopards and wild boars. I am afraid of entering my own field.”
“We have stopped growing turmeric, millets and chana because of the wild boars,” said another woman, close to tears.
“Can you imagine, we have to get wheat from the ration shop!” said another.
In village after village, I have seen hundreds of families facing the same predicament. In 2021, more than 40 villagers were killed in tiger and leopard attacks in Chandrapur district, mostly while working in their fields or herding cattle. Several were also killed foraging for mahua, an edible flower used in a range of products such as traditional liquor, cattle feed, jams, jellies and sherbets. The mahua collection season, between April and May, has become the season of fear in certain forested divisions. The government pays comparatively little compensation for crops destroyed by wildlife, and there is no proper assessment of the severe impact of this in terms of food security and nutrition.
It is a warning bell when people start ‘remembering’ a food or drink: it means they are no longer consuming it.
A situation that was already desperate worsened during the pandemic. A day or two after India’s COVID-19 national lockdown was announced, in March 2020, I happened to be in my colleague Amar’s house in a village called Mankapur. His father, a well-to-do farmer, took me on a tour of his fields, where several acres’ worth of brinjals and tomatoes remained unpicked. “This would have been a brisk season for us, the marriage season,” he said. “But now marriages are postponed, people are at home and the middle buyers for these vegetables have cancelled the orders. It would be a bigger financial loss to pay labourers for picking – easier to let it all rot in the sun.”
After that, I masked up and visited many other villages and fields. Farmers wept as they walked through acres of unpicked beans, okra, coriander, cauliflower, eggplants, and tomatoes. There was no response from the administration except for an order saying farmers carting agricultural produce were exempt from the lockdown. What good was this exemption when the market supply chains had gone awry? Farmers gave away their precious vegetables for free. Wherever I went, they gave me bags of their best produce. “Take it sister, it is all going to go to waste anyway,” they would say.
After months of unbearable heat, this year’s monsoon arrived late. In the cities, the prices of vegetables climbed high, but things were different in the villages. It was raining as I travelled to Moharli for work with my friend Shahnaz – a forest guide and community leader. Moharli used to be a small community of thatched-roof houses before it gained fame as the last village on the edge of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. It metamorphosed over the years into a busy tourist destination with resorts, souvenir shops and a variety of adventure activities.
I left behind the city of Chandrapur and crossed the Padmapur coal mines to enter the forest area. The jungle of teak, bamboo, ain, bor, mahua and other trees that I cannot name, thickened on either side of the road and then gave way to the backwaters of the Erai dam on the left. As I neared Moharli, I saw the familiar sight of women in the rain with colourful cloth bags, plucking intently at plants with both their hands. Minutes later I saw boys and men catching fish in waist-deep forest streams, their aluminum pots alive with squirming fishes.
Sensitivity towards and appreciation of the local, historical and cultural dimensions of how food is accessed and consumed is essential for ensuring food security in rural communities of India.
There was a small group of women in Shahnaz’s home eating her delicious fish curry with fish fry and rice. The fish, Shahnaz informed me, was a gift from the neighbours. During the monsoons, there is an abundance of fish, so families often keep the amount they require and distribute the rest, giving freely to whoever wants it. I was delighted to learn that people just give away fish. As a child I had seen my father sharing with his friends whatever he caught on his fishing expeditions at Kaylana Lake, in Rajasthan. Even today, coconuts and mangoes from his garden in Kolkata find their way to tables across the country.
The women in the forest, my friends explained, were collecting ran bhaji – leaves, flowers, stems and even whole plants. Ran bhaji includes a great variety of forest produce: kadu bhaji, dhan bhaji, tarota, patur, khaparkhuti, kudyachi fule – an endless list. Kadu bhaji has a slender, green, twig-like stem and is slightly bitter to taste. It is sun-dried and then stored. Dhan bhaji has light green leaves and grows near water, and tarota has rounded leaves. Kudyachi fule are delicate white flowers that look as beautiful as they taste. I have spent over twenty years roaming this district and yet this was the first time I was really looking closely at ran bhaji – fresh, green, organic and abundant.
“How do you cook these?” I asked.
“Well, kadu bhaji is sauteed with lots of onions and tempered with dry red chillies,” one woman answered.
“Three onions?” I asked, doubtfully.
“More like seven.”
I was told that dhan bhaji and tarota are slipped in after the daal grains are cooked. If you cook them along with the daal, they will turn into mush. The leaves have to be soft but retain their texture. The flowers are cooked with onions, tomatoes and lots of chillies. And patur is best cooked with a handful of pigeon peas soaked overnight.
Ramu Bhau, the village police patil, joined our conversation. He recounted in great detail how as children the villagers had easy access to the forest areas of the Tadoba National Park. “My brothers, my friends and I would walk through the forest right up to the shrine of Taru Dev, eighteen kilometres away, gorging on jamuns (jambolan) on the way. On Sundays of Poush month [overlapping December and January], people from nearby villages would gather at the temple and worship at the shrine. They would cook a large community meal of spicy rice and aloo vanga, a curry of potatoes and brinjals.”
“What about your children?” I asked, “Do they savour the wild jamuns too?”
“Are you mad?” he answered with a laugh, “You cannot enter the gate without first buying a ticket and a single safari ride costs INR 11,000! It is not for poor villagers like us. And the question of walking through the jungle – do you think the guards will be sleeping or what? Forget eating jamuns, you cannot even look at Tadoba forest without the forest department’s permission.”
“And we can’t go to the shrine anymore,” added Poonam. It is in the core zone of the national park, so no one’s allowed there. A couple of years ago, Adivasis from the nearby villages came together and demanded entry to the shrine, but the department did not open the gates. We waited for three days and returned home quietly.”
I returned from Moharli with a gift of kadu bhaji carefully wrapped in newspaper and a bag of small brinjals. The rains poured incessantly in the weeks that followed. The meteorological department issued a red alert, the district flood-control unit was ordered to operate round the clock and disaster-management teams were put on standby. Cryptic messages issued by the administration on social media captured the unfolding disaster in real-time.
July 13, 7:32 PM – 12,000 cusec water to be released from the Gosekhurd dam into the Wainganga river basin. Villages on the river bank are put on alert.
July 15, 11:55 AM – Nine gates of the Upper Wardha Dam opened 70 cms and four gates opened 60 cms. Total discharge 1392 cumecs. 17 gates of Lower Wardha Dam opened 90 cms. Discharge 1253.16 cumecs.
July 16, 11.14 AM – The 16 goats swept away into Wardha river at Mouze Rajura yesterday, were recovered today – all dead.
July 18, 11.02 AM – Erai dam level is 206.85 mtrs. All gates (1 to 7) are now open by 1.25 mtrs. Total discharge is 616.378 cumecs.
July 18 – 132 persons in village Soit rescued by the State Disaster Relief Force and shifted to a safe place. 25 persons of Warora shifted to Sai Mangal Karyalaya.
July 20, 9.19 AM – The public are informed to avoid the following roads which are flooded and therefore closed 1. Ballarpur – Rajura –Hyderabad 2) Ballarpur – Sasti – Rajura 3) Ballarpur – Visapur…
Harsh realities of hunger
The merciless monsoons of 2022 left more than twenty people dead in the districts of Gondia and Chandrapur. They also destroyed hundreds of homes and left many families displaced. Locals struggled to bury dead livestock and poultry amid constant rain and sludge. Political workers were busy distributing relief kits – rice, daal, sugar, spices, tea and toothpaste – bearing colourful pictures of smiling party leaders. The terrible impact on agriculture was evident in the numbers released by the Chandrapur District Information Officer – 221,900 hectares of paddy, soyabean, cotton and lentils had been destroyed, impacting a total of 230,362 farmers in 1,382 villages of Chandrapur.
The government pays comparatively little compensation for crops destroyed by wildlife, and there is no proper assessment of the severe impact of this in terms of food security and nutrition.
One day in early August, I received an unexpected call from the women of Majri. They were desperate and angry. Western Coalfields Limited, a government-owned coal company, had dumped waste material from nearby opencast mines on the banks of the Shirna River. “The dumping has obstructed the river and the waters entered our paddy fields and flooded the entire village,” one woman, Manda Nibrad, said. “How are we going to survive? Can you come with us to meet the collector?”
Another woman, Vanita, said, “We spent four days on the railway platform. Some people gave us food, but the children did not have milk for four days.”
I went to Majri three days after the phone call. The village reeked of waste water and there was debris everywhere. People were putting their wet belongings out to dry on the streets – clothes, beds, utensils. Sections of compound walls had been washed away, roofs had sunk, shacks had disappeared entirely. The local Gram Sevak was taking stock of the registers in the panchayat hall. A teacher was carefully spreading out wet books from the small village library. Bicycles, motorcycles, tractors lay around looking like scrap metal, caked in mud.
I saw an old mavshi in a thin cotton nauvari saree, her grey hair in disarray. In her hands she carried a ghamela, a large iron pan used by construction workers to carry loads on their heads. It was full of soaked grain crawling with insects. Stray dogs followed her as she hurried past me to throw away the precious grain that must have been stored in her kitchen.
There are no easy answers to the food insecurity of the poor in rural districts such as Chandrapur. While people depend on the government’s public distribution system and food support programmes, these have largely failed to meet their health and nutrition requirements. Handing out food kits or supplying staples through ration shops barely sustains the people of Chandrapur. Far more needs to be done to preserve and strengthen the diversity of local food resources as well as the sustainable practices of rural communities. Sensitivity towards and appreciation of the local, historical and cultural dimensions of how food is accessed and consumed is essential for ensuring food security in rural communities of India.