Food for thought: What’s on your plate?
06 Nov 2017

by Ishani Sachdeva

Ishani CEDAR blogImage Credit: Ishani Sachdeva

During my visits to the rugged mountainous regions of the Upper Ganga Basin as an HI-AWARE researcher I would photograph the plates of food so generously offered to me by families I would interview. Food photography has evolved as a modern practice of showcasing urban cuisines to middle-class social circles through social media. However, my idea to photograph food, that too, in rural areas, was to complement my field observations with visual evidence that displayed the vibrancy and diversity of local, traditional meals.

In the context of food, colour implies varying degrees of nutrition. A wholesome meal is as colourful as it is nutritious and for farming households meals would be a reflection of their farm life, of course. This has been loosely termed as the ‘farm to plate’ concept. These days, however, just like their fields, the plates of Himalayan communities have become less colourful, more expensive, and low in nutrition. The food does not come from their fields anymore. The traditional farmer is now engaged in day-wage labour. He buys food from the market, either with his small means or through the Public Distribution System (PDS). But this system supplies low-quality staples like (refined) wheat and rice instead of highly nutritious millets – the traditional farmer staple. Sadly, such nutritious items have not been included in a system that feeds millions of people in India.  

As for nutrition, it is important to note the food composition of hill communities and the nourishment it is providing to their lives of hard labour. Traditionally, such communities, referred to as Pahadis, have been the strongest lot. Pahadis have extraordinary stamina and strength. They have earned global fame for their historical feats in the defence services and now as well. They have also been the most important building blocks of Himalayan development: till today, porters are the lifelines of trade and development in the Himalayas.

Women stand no less in comparison. One can easily find them perched atop tall banj (oak) trees, even the elderly, collecting fodder and firewood and carrying their heavy loads back home. The task of collecting water is also the responsibility of women (and children), who make multiple trips in hostile terrain each day to far-off water sources.

Life in the Himalayas is not easy and, therefore, the diet of mountain people should be highly nutritious. But now, inadequate nutrition is observed. According to research, this is a direct implication of not only migration but also the feminization of Himalayan agriculture. The uncertainty involved in farming due to changing climatic conditions, declining land holdings, lack of support from the government, and unscientific adaptation strategies are forcing able-bodied men to disengage themselves from agriculture, subsequently migrating to other parts of the country – mostly the plains (urban areas) for a livelihood. As a result, increasingly larger tracts of agricultural land remain unattended.

Ecological instability is an even bigger threat to these communities, who are dependent on natural systems for sustenance. The inability to adjust to a changed environment has had a dual impact on people. Not only has their productivity declined, but also their nutrition level.

What goes unnoticed is the nutritional requirement of women particularly. They have to bear the burden and added pressure of tasks left behind by their migrant, male members of the family along with their own customary duties and responsibilities. In the midst of all this, their nutrition takes the brunt – as also that of children.

Similar are the situations of the men living away from their homes, investing every bit of their energy to ensure the survival of their families.

Traditional practices, which were highly scientific and climate-resilient such as crop rotation and mixed cropping, are no more followed due to declining traditional, ecological knowledge and lack of labour for execution. Field observations from HI-AWARE research show the decline in diversity of crops and loss of traditional delicacies. Millets are now consumed by the elderly and livestock only. The reasons given for the transition to wheat and rice were low millet production in farms, change in taste, and easy availability of those items at nearby ration shops.

Change in the consumption pattern is directly related to farm growth. This has implications for the health of the household. Currently, Himalayan communities are at a critical point of development due to a lack of knowledge on building resilience to climate change. Fortunately, a plethora of developmental activities are undertaken, advocating other agricultural methods such as shifting to vegetable cropping as also promoting off-farm activities and climate-resilient seeds that flourish even at high temperatures.

Modern developments rapidly changing the agricultural landscape are currently incapable of dealing with climate change. A 2017 study by Indian researchers showed that only 6 out of 22 river-basins in the country have the potential to cope with climate change. Particularly the Ganga river-basin was found to be non-resilient. As India continues to slip down the Global Hunger Index, a serious thought needs to be put into considering nutrition security a prime agenda item and into developing reward-based mechanisms for people who engage in farming activities.